In Conversation with Classical Guitarist Laura Oltman

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Laura Oltman is a classical flamenco-style guitarist with over forty years in the business. She enjoys an enriching solo career and can also be seen performing with her husband and musical partner Michael Newman in their guitar duet Newman & Oltman.

We recently got a chance to catch up with Oltman about her newest Newman & Oltman release, El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings), her years as a performer, and her upcoming appearances. Here’s what she had to say.

Being in the business for many years, I’m sure you’ve seen your share of how attitudes towards women in the music industry have changed. What’s your take on that?

This is, of course, a major issue and one that could turn into an entire book. There are so many ways in which attitudes and opportunities have changed that it is hard to know where to start.

First off, women now routinely have careers in addition to having families, and this was not common when I was younger. If women did have careers, they were not paid on an equal scale, and there were only a few things that were considered appropriate types of work for women. For example, it was always OK for a woman to be a nurse but not OK to be a doctor. A woman could be a teacher but not the principal. We now have a woman who is Vice President of the United States and one who played on a collegiate football team, so there really isn’t much a woman can’t do anymore.

In classical music, now you see women conductors of orchestras and many women playing in orchestras, but it wasn’t that long ago that some orchestras had a policy of only hiring men.

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For literally hundreds of years, women have played guitars, and it is an instrument that is historically associated with women because it is so suitable for playing at home. The same is true of piano and chamber ensembles. But music careers of any kind were historically off-limits to women regardless of their qualifications.

During college, I was the only female in the guitar program for some time. At other events like master classes and summer music programs, there were only a small number of women playing guitar. It was seen as an advantage in being selected as a student of a male teacher.

For the guitar in popular music, it also still seems to be largely a man’s instrument, especially in rock and probably also in country music. But the singer is always the main attraction in those genres, and plenty of singers have been and are women. This magazine, devoted to women in the music industry, goes a long way toward normalizing the idea of women having careers as guitarists and musicians.

My first guitar was one I bought from the old Sears mail-order catalog when I was about eight years old.

What inspired you to pick up the guitar, and what made you decide to pursue this sort of flamenco/classical style of playing?

My first guitar was one I bought from the old Sears mail-order catalog when I was about eight years old. It was a kiddy electric guitar that I acquired with my allowance as a prop for the rock band that my brother and I formed with our neighbors across the street—all boys, of course, except for me. We lip-synced to records, and I was the girl singer, not the guitarist. We didn’t have credible instruments, so I got the guitar to improve our appearance.

My mother read the pamphlet that came with the guitar and figured out how to tune it and play two chords for the song “Down in the Valley.” I was surprised that you could actually play the thing. I did like that about it and started playing and singing songs with chords. Sadly, I am a terrible singer, so I ran into a dead-end that is common for self-taught guitarists. I heard some fingerpicking instrumentals on the radio and was very interested but had no way to figure out how to play them and expressed this frustration to my mother. She knew I liked the song “Classical Gas” and found a classical guitar teacher for me. It was once I started learning classical technique that I recognized it was what I had been wanting to do on guitar. You could play multiple voices at the same time, and the music was soloistic, so no singing required.

I loved that I could play the guitar by myself and didn’t need to sing along or play with anyone else in a group. I didn’t need any gear; I could play whenever I wanted, and no one was bothered by the noise, and it is easily portable, all very appealing characteristics when you are a kid without a car.

Changing gears a bit, one thing that is hard to appreciate these days is how common it was to hear classical music in popular culture when I was a child. I really liked it then, as I do now, and loved playing it. I certainly listened to pop music, but that music does not have the same impact on me like classical music does. NBC, the well-known television broadcasting company, had an in-house symphony orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. I recall being about four or five years old and going nuts over the theme to the Huntley—Brinkley 6:00 PM network news report, which I later learned was the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. I am sure I was not the only little kid who was crazy about that piece because millions of people heard it every night.

Being that your work is instrumental only, I’m curious to learn about your inspiration. The Book of Imaginary Beings, for instance, sounds like a fascinating source. Can you tell me how you choose your topic matters and turn them into pieces?

In the classical music business in modern times, it has become typical for instrumentalists to commission pieces for themselves and/or their ensembles to perform, rather than compose the music themselves. This is decidedly a break with the past but is common now. El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings) is a compendium of articles about mythological beings from around the world written by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, who is one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language. My guitar duo partner/husband Michael Newman and I commissioned a piece for two guitars from the renowned Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, and he got the inspiration for this piece from the Borges book, which I think is great and something I would not have known about before commissioning this work.

What I really like about the concept is that both of these artists are from Latin America, yet neither the book nor the music is about something Latin American. I like this because so often, artists from colonial cultures end up either copying the art of the colonizers or producing art that is recognizably folkloric. I find the musical depiction of the mythological beings chosen by Brouwer to be entirely original and without reference to any particular culture. The only thing that ties it to the Americas is the guitar itself.

To more fully answer your question, it is certainly the case that some classical instrumentalists write their own music, something that is more common with guitarists than with other classical instrumentalists, but we do not. We did once commission a piece from the New York-based composer Arnold Black where we asked that the work be based on specific music. It is called Laments & Dances, and it is a piece for two guitars and string quartet that we requested incorporate melodies of the 17th-century itinerant Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan. It is a recognizably folkloric piece and very appealing if you like Irish music.

Mythological beings are a way to imagine possessing these powers.

Can you talk a little bit about your latest work, El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios? How was it inspired, and what does it mean to you? What story would you like it to tell the audience?

The story of El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios is the story of the beings and their fantastical nature. But, as with all mythology, the fantastical part yields to reality in some way that gives the myths relevance through all of human history. One thing that I believe Brouwer wanted to capture and I want to convey is the magic in these creatures and how some are magically wonderful and others terrifying. Also, all the beings have some danger, even the ones that are very beautiful, like fairies or unicorns. That is perhaps their great appeal to people through the ages and explains how they are often part human. People have always coveted the apparently magical powers of real animals; powers like flight, speed, strength, and lethality. Mythological beings are a way to imagine possessing these powers.

Brouwer is uniquely expert at orchestrating with an acoustic guitar, and this piece displays that skill like no other. Brouwer is also a great storyteller as a composer. He says that he did not want to make a sound painting of these creatures as much as imagine a reaction to them, like wonder or fear.

You performed a virtual recital on January 30th at marloweguitar.org. Can you tell us a little bit about the recital?

The concert featured our performance of most of the music from our new MusicMasters Classics recording of the music of Leo Brouwer. We were excited to share the new duet Brouwer composed for us, as well as a set of Cuban country dances he wrote in the 1970s, plus his setting of tunes by The Beatles from his piece called “Beatlerianas.” We also played our own transcriptions of Romantic Spanish duets by Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, and Isaac Albéniz. The Albéniz music is from our recording and published book of fifteen of his selections that we arranged for guitar duo. All this music is clearly inspired by the sound of the guitar, with its Flamenco heritage in Spain, even though those composers never wrote for the guitar, except for one beautiful, short guitar solo by Falla. We presented the concert as if it were in front of a live audience in a concert hall, but it was from a studio near Washington, DC. The audience was completely online!

Taking the virtual recital one step further, can you tell me how you’ve been dealing with the pandemic in terms of how it affected the music industry and your career specifically?

It has been a disaster for most of the music industry. An exception would be recorded music and streaming because people are stuck at home, so listening to music is something they have more time for. There are countless peripheral jobs and businesses associated with live event production that are lost in addition to the performing jobs. Like most musicians, we had a lot of gig cancelations. Some arts organizations like the Marlowe Series have namely gone to video concert production and livestreaming, including chats with performers, which is much harder than it sounds.

Lots of college students took the year off because they did not want to pay big tuition bills for remote learning, so we also had fewer students. It is unclear how and when students will be able to return to campuses that were closed to in-person education. There will certainly be some kind of financial reckoning in higher education from this pandemic. For those music students who did stick with online instruction, they were introduced, along with their teachers, to a new world of audio and video production, and that is a kind of silver lining. The production software programs have been out there for a long time, but most students of classical music do not end up learning much or anything about audio or video production. The overwhelming emphasis of their education is on live performance. It is a great thing for emerging artists to control the means of recorded production, more so now that the internet is a major vehicle for reaching audiences and presenters.

We have a lot of what you might call “irons in the fire,” so we are surviving. The government support for arts organizations and gig workers has been most welcome, as has private support for non-profit organizations that present concerts and do community outreach in the arts.

Tell me about your professional relationship with Michael Newman. How did the two of you meet, and what made you decide to form a guitar duo?

Michael and I met at the Aspen Music Festival during college. I eventually moved to New York City for grad school, and we started performing together more frequently. At first, we were not sure about playing exclusively as a duo, but it became more practical over time and more appealing since there is a lot of repertoire that is not overexposed. We have commissioned and performed many new works as well, which is enormously gratifying. Also, we can travel and perform together instead of separately, and that is a huge benefit.

What can we expect from Laura Oltman and/or Newman & Oltman in the coming year?

We will definitely be producing more video concerts in the coming year. It is impossible to figure out when it will be safe for people to congregate indoors again, so the best strategy seems to be to plan for video concerts, or a hybrid of live and livestream. We have received so many messages from people around the world who never would have been able to hear our concerts, except they could now see them online. That is an upside, but I still think there is nothing like live music.

For teaching, I am really looking forward to getting back to working with the students in person, especially for ensembles. Schools and teachers have had to hustle to learn all the tools for teaching remotely and have spent tons of extra hours on this. Some of it seems likely to continue because of the convenience of teaching or learning from wherever you happen to be and improvements in the quality of connections of audio and video. Now that schools and teachers have learned these teaching technologies it is likely they will find new ways to incorporate them, as we are trying to do.

Do you have any projects in the works?

We are looking into the possibilities of developing online professional certificate or degree programs that would benefit guitar students from around the world who are not able to come to the New York City area to study.

All three of the festivals we direct—the 32nd Raritan River Music Festival (New Jersey), the 21st New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes (New York City), and the 9th Lanciano International Guitar Seminar (Italy)—will take place either entirely online or a hybrid of virtual and in person. Everything now requires more work, but the results can be incredibly rewarding.

Are you planning any major appearances post COVID?

We still don’t know when we will actually arrive at “post COVID,” so we’re planning for all possibilities. In July, we will work with Americas Society and the New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes to take part in the celebration of Nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla’s centenary, and the 75th birthday of Daniel Binelli, who is Piazzolla’s protégé. We had the opportunity to play for Piazzolla the day before he moved from New York City back to South America in the late 1980s, and we’ve performed in concert with Binelli a number of times, so we will focus on presenting their music in concert. We hope to make a new recording featuring the two-guitar concerto that Binelli wrote for us, as well as other music by those tango masters.

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