You never know when you’re going to see somebody for the last time, and I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Michael Chapdelaine and his wife, Suzanne Dove, in September, just two months before the guitarist-composer died unexpectedly on November 16. They were in Atlanta for a conference Suzanne was attending, and we met at a wonderful vegan Caribbean-fusion restaurant in Midtown where we were able to sit outside.
I’d known Michael for about ten years. He’d been my teacher, musical mentor, and, most importantly, a beloved friend. I don’t remember how or when I discovered his videos on YouTube, but I recall being absolutely floored by them.
If you’ve never heard Michael’s rendition of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” for instance, I think it’s safe to say that you don’t know what a guitar can do. From his note-perfect rendition of the opening harp figure to his recreation of Lennon and McCartney’s overlapping vocals to his simulacrum, in miniature, of the piece’s orchestration, the song is at once familiar and completely stunningly new.
Enthralled by the videos, I looked up Michael’s website and saw that he offered lessons, so I booked a week of them for the summer of 2014. These lessons actually mark the beginning of my semi-permanent return, after decades away, to New Mexico, a state Michael and I shared a love for, and as I write this, I realize my being here is one more precious thing I owe to Michael’s presence in my life.
In any case, when I last saw him, to be honest, he didn’t look well, and I felt concerned. Still, it was a lively evening, flowing with wonderful conversation, warm affection among the three of us, and excellent food, which was always something important to Michael. Texting from our mutual airport terminals the next day, he celebrated the “oh so good Cuban café” from the previous night, while decrying “the pig excrement restaurants” he’d found in the airport.
Michael was a complicated fellow, a man of extremes. An intellectual and a sensualist, a deliberative artist, and a reckless sensation junkie, he was the yin to his own yang.
I remember calling him in Albuquerque, where he was living at the time, after I’d arrived in New Mexico for those first lessons and mentioning that I was at a friend’s house in Santa Fe. “Oh, I grieve for Santa Fe!” he told me, his voice dropping into a growl over the telephone line. I remember thinking that if anybody ever asked me how I felt about Santa Fe, I’d probably say, “Well, yeah, I guess I do kind of miss being there.”
And the thought occurred to me that it was Michael’s passion and his ability to express his emotions so openly and without apology that made him the great artist and the expressive musician that he was.
I imagine it’s no secret among those who knew him that Michael had a complicated relationship with his own career. His accomplishments were by any measure extraordinary.
He is and probably will always be the only guitarist to win First Prize at both the Guitar Foundation of America International Classical Guitar Competition and the National Fingerstyle Championship at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival. He twice won the National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Grant, and First Prize in both the Guitar Foundation of America’s and the Music Teachers National Association’s Guitar Competition, as well as the Silver Medal in Venezuela’s VIII Concurso International de Guitarra “Alirio Diaz.”
Michael gave hundreds of performances over four continents and recorded a dozen or so albums of both classical and pop music, including two versions of Land of Enchantment, an album filled with his own radiant compositions. That night at the Cuban-fusion restaurant, I told him that I’d been listening to the album again and again in my car, and he told me that he had at least 40 unrecorded compositions of his own.
A professor of music and head of the guitar program at the University of New Mexico, Michael gave master classes throughout the world—in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Peru, Venezuela, Taiwan, Indonesia—and at universities and conservatories all over the continent.
He performed his own Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra as the soloist in 2012 with the Grand Forks Symphony and was the soloist for Kip Winger’s Guitar and Orchestra Piece performed with Denver’s Colorado Symphony in Denver.
And then, of course, there were, as he put it, the “zillions” of videos he produced of his own compositions and arrangements. He must have played, filmed, recorded, edited, and posted at least two a week. He never stopped working. The last one he sent me was of his rendition of Carlo Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba.”
The music is rich, sonorous, and turbulent, and visually, the video is a stunningly beautiful portrait of a passionate, years-weathered man who has ridden that guitar for decades across glorious artistic expanses to the ends of the earth, until he and the guitar and the music are all one.
“Aren’t we lucky?” Michael once said to me early on in our friendship, as he poured beans into his espresso maker. “We’ve gotten to be artists for the last 30 years.” I’ve carried these words with me, as though they were a sutta from Buddha, ever since.
At the same time, Michael was plagued by a terrible sense of dissatisfaction. It was as though his daimon, his genius, his gift, was so extraordinary that he could never feel he was truly living up to it.
Half humorously, half not, he blamed Andrés Segovia’s kicking him offstage during a masterclass broadcast on PBS with destroying his classical concertizing career. “Segovia,” he told me, “kicked a lot of people out of masterclasses, but none of them were on national TV.”
Though his Guitar by Moonlight (Time-Life Music) collection sold 250,000 copies in its first two years in the stores—an impressive figure for a solo guitar album—Michael had been led by its producers to believe that it would sell three million. According to Michael, the album came out on the very day O.J. Simpson drove his white Bronco up the 91 freeway. American television viewers all switched to cable news, and so no one was up watching the album’s late-night commercials on the broadcast stations.
I don’t quite remember what in our conversation at the Cuban-fusion restaurant lead up to it, but towards the end of the evening, that side of Michael, the dissatisfied side, came out.
“I’ve accomplished nothing,” he said.
I was on the point of protesting when Suzanne said, “Michael, you were a professor!”
That sort of stopped me in my tracks because that’s what my wife, Barbara, tells me whenever I grumble about my career and my accomplishments. Suzanne’s an engineer, and to her, being a professor is the coolest job, but I know what it sounds like to the ears of a writer or a musician. It’s as though someone were saying, “Hey, look at all you’ve done! You got to sell peanuts by the side of the road!”
The whole thing made me laugh ruefully to myself, and so, although I understood that Michael needed some encouragement that night, and though in our text exchange the next day, I wrote to him about how much I longed to hear those 40 compositions and his Concerto, I had no idea that it would be the last time I ever saw him. I’m not that good at speaking from the heart anyway, but what I wished I had said to him was this: “What are you talking about? You got to be Michael Chapdelaine! This crazy-mad desert saint of the guitar who got to write all those beautiful pieces and perform all those mind-bending arrangements, and who, for a fraction of the glory Segovia received, did as much if not more with and for music, pushing the guitar way beyond what most people imagine it can do, while making it look easy, and who, like some crazy holy man, gave most of his life’s work away for free!”
Michael, I’ll miss running into you and Suzanne at the Shed, another indispensable Santa Fe institution you turned Barbara and me onto. I’ll miss our long talks about Jackson Browne’s lyrics, especially on the subject of “My Redneck Friend.” I’ll miss the bottles of red wine late into the night, and the sound of your morning practice under our portal. But I won’t miss your music, because it’s playing now and will forever play in both my head and in my heart.
Godspeed, my friend, my brother, my teacher. If there’s another world, I’ll see you there.
Gifts in Michael’s memory will support the Guitar Program at his alma mater Florida State University College of Music: https://give.fsu.edu/michaelchapdelaine