Benjamin Verdery inhabits his own exclusive territory in the classical guitar world. Among the virtuosi of the baby boomer generation, it’s not hard to make a case that Verdery has explored the most diverse musical terrain. The repertoire on the 15 albums in his catalog ranges from works by masters such as Bach, Strauss, Mozart, and others, to the most adventurous composers of contemporary classical landscape. He has also made five albums featuring his own works and his arrangements of songs by Prince, Jimi Hendrix, traditional folk tunes and hymns, musical settings for Buddhist texts, and more. His concerts and recordings reveal his polyamorous relationships with all manner of guitars. Classical, steel-, 12-string and baritone acoustics, and electric guitars are fellow travelers on his expeditions.
Verdery has played in venues ranging from New York’s Carnegie Hall to theaters and festivals throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia. In addition to his prodigious work as a solo recitalist, a partial list of his collaborators includes guitar titan John Williams and classical flutist Rie Schmidt (Verdery’s wife), 12-string expert Leo Kottke, former Police guitarist Andy Summers, Celtic guitarist William Coulter, new age composer/keyboardist Craig Peyton, mixed vocal artist Mark Martin, and hip-hop singer Billy Dean Thomas. Classical guitarists such as Williams, David Russell, the Assad Brothers, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet have performed and recorded his compositions.
For the past three and a half decades, Verdery has chaired the guitar department at Yale University and nurtured many stellar performers and educators, including Jiji Kim (Arizona State University), Rene Izquierdo (Wisconsin State University), Kim Perlak (Berklee College of Music), Michael Nicolella (Cornish College of the Arts), Matthew Rohde (Kithara Project), Scott Borg (Montgomery College), and more.
The week before the COVID-19-mandated social distancing, the ever upbeat and gregarious Verdery couldn’t mask his enthusiasm for Scenes from Ellis Island, his latest album of original music, during a wide-ranging conversation in his teaching studio at Yale’s Leigh Hall.
Rain, Ellis Island, and Aristotle
Scenes from Ellis Island showcases Verdery’s skills as a solo and collaborative composer and multifaceted performer. The opener, “What He Said,” is a two-guitar shootout with Verdery’s former student Simon Powis, charged with dueling bass melodies and rapid-fire antiphonal chord volleys. It’s a virtuosic tribute to the excitement and soul of gospel music, with nods to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and even Lyle Lovett.
Verdery’s liner notes characterize the four-movement “From Aristotle” as “one of the more unique and exhilarating collaborations of my career.” Vocal wunderkind Mark Martin co-composed the suite with Verdery, with texts drawn from Aristotle’s book on linguistics. The result is a panorama of lyrical melodies, percussive beatbox grooves, and multi-pitched Tuvan throat singing complementing Verdery’s thoughtful chording, imitative melodic lines, and percussion effects on the guitar’s strings and body. “I can’t write what Mark does; he can make any sound with his voice,” Verdery says. “He would decide where to sing and where to do vocal effects. He changed a lot of things and gave me some great ideas. Mark has been a really great teacher—even though he’s 30 years younger than me.” Their video of the work created for Verdery’s YouTube channel is a full-spectrum arts experience replete with a dancer.
Throughout his career, Verdery has worked with alternate tunings and he utilizes them on the new album’s solo selections. “Three pieces on this record are in scordatura,” he says. “Joni Mitchell [celebrated for her use of nonstandard tunings] is a person who—from a distance—influenced me. I was playing Bach and concert repertoire, but I was always amazed by her voicings.”
Among the pieces in scordatura are the two movements of “Now and Ever,” a work penned for David Russell. “The tuning D G D A A# E [lowest note to highest] inspired the melodies and harmonies. The first movement is introspective, with ringing campanella passages mixing fretted notes with harmonics on the upper strings and rumbling bass lines. The eight-minute second movement alternates between brash low-end chords, mercurial arpeggios, tremolos, and probing melodic jabs in all registers. The work represents Verdery’s musical statement “against slavery of any kind.”
In another solo piece, “The Rain Falls Equally on All Things,” Verdery used the tuning D A D G A E. “I needed the interval of a second in there,” he says, referring to the distance between strings 3 and 2. “There are passages where I wanted the sound of water dripping and used a lot of glissandi. That tuning really worked.”
The title track and album closer is a 13-minute, single-movement work premiered in 1992 by Staten Island’s Curtis High School Guitar Ensemble and later recorded by the LAGQ on their Air & Ground album (2000). Verdery’s atmospheric 2020 take features overdubbed classical, baritone, and steel-string guitars, plus Guilherme Monegatto’s silvery cello lines and Malian singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté’s vocal improvisations in her native tongue. With deep-in-the-mix multilingual singing and conversations, coins scraping strings, and bottleneck-slide seagull impressions, Verdery ponders the sounds and sights possibly experienced aboard immigrant ships that arrived in New York Harbor in past centuries. As for his choice to program it on this album, Verdery replies, “It’s not unlike a sculptor or painter who will do a show of his or her new work, but often exhibit older pieces too. Musicians generally want to have a manifestation of that.”
The music coursing around Verdery’s vivid imagination springs from his childhood in Danbury, Connecticut, hearing the records his older brother played around the house and sacred strains absorbed in the Episcopal church where his father was the pastor.
“My father’s church had an influence on my Bach playing,” he says. “I’d hear the Anglican hymns and a great organist playing Bach. I loved singing in church. At the same time, my brother was feeding me music by the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band, Jethro Tull, Pentangle, Bert Jansch, and others. When you are young and get bitten by the music bug, you know there is no turning back. I didn’t care about anything but guitar.”
He started taking guitar lessons at a local music store. “My teacher, Russ Mumma, was a jazzer and there were some pretty incredible musicians coming through there,” Verdery recalls. “Russ wanted me to learn jazz standards and I started learning to read music with him.”
The summer before his senior year of high school, Verdery heard a classical guitarist for the first time. “By then, I was playing the prelude from Bach’s first cello suite with a pick, and I played it for him,” he remembers. “He encouraged me, and after that I went out and bought a cheap classical guitar.”
Verdery pursued classical technique studies with Phillip de Fremery and interpretation with Frederic Hand. Subsequently, a guitar festival in France where he heard Leo Brouwer, John Williams, Abel Carlevaro, and Alirio Díaz made a lasting impression. Verdery ultimately earned his degree in classical guitar from the State University of New York Purchase. He had long been taken with Leo Kottke’s original guitar instrumentals, and soon took his composing further with Brouwer, Hand, and others as models.
An encounter with flamenco guitarist Paco Penã in Spain in the 1980s resulted in Verdery’s introduction to John Williams. The two became fast friends and have since performed and recorded together. “In music, you just don’t know what can happen,” he says.
During those years, Verdery was among the rising guitar stars that routinely congregated at the shop of groundbreaking luthier Thomas Humphrey on Manhattan’s 72nd Street to share their discoveries. The coterie included Eliot Fisk, Sharon Isbin, Sérgio and Odair Assad, David Starobin, Lily Afshar, David Tannenbaum, and more, who became leaders of their generation. Verdery’s influence on the classical guitar world is documented in the 2018 book Benjamin Verdery: A Montage of a Classical Guitarist, edited by Thomas Donahue. It includes chapters by compatriots Sérgio Assad, Bryce Dessner, Eliot Fisk, Frederic Hand, David Leisner, Martha Masters, Andy Summers, and David Russell.
Verdery remains at the vortex in New York as the artistic director of the guitar series at the 92nd Street Y. For the past nine years, he has curated a robust concert series and tributes to Brouwer, Julian Bream, and Andrés Segovia at the venerable Upper East Side cultural and community center.
He is also a staunch supporter of new music, and began commissioning American composers for Yale School of Music guitar audition pieces. The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound album compiles the diverse entries—some are solo electric guitar works and others omit tempo and expression markings—to reveal the imagination of the player. Verdery’s other activities include an upcoming recording of a work for classical guitar in Nashville tuning, and a string quartet composed by his former student and ascendant composer Bryce Dessner, who is also a member of the popular New York band the National.
Verdery fosters in his students the excitement he has maintained since he was their age. “Their curiosity is up, and they are enthusiastic about the wide range of music they’re playing. They do everything from metal to chamber music and are learning a lot from each other.
“As a teacher, you are setting an example, and I think my students are happy about the different things I do,” he continues. “With my students, the difference in age falls out the window. I have more experience than them, but we talk together as if we are the same age because we’re all so passionate about music. It is endlessly interesting.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.