Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, August 10, 2001

Benjamin Verdery, head of the guitar program at
Yale, will be performing along with William Coulter.

Plying strings of old

Guitarists meld sounds
of steel and nylon

By John Berger

Guitarist Benjamin Verdery has found inspiration and musical ideas in unusual places. He was visiting Maui when someone told him he should check out an album recorded by Thomas Mapfumo from Zimbabwe. Verdery was so taken by what he heard that he used a "loosely translated version" of one of those traditional African melodies off Mapfumo's album as the leadoff track on his new album with fellow guitarist William Coulter.

Of their album "Song for Our Ancestors," Verdery said during a Monday afternoon phone interview that "it's a collection of melodies from around the world--Ireland, Africa, Tibet, Germany, a Shaker tune--that we arranged, and also some pieces that we ourselves wrote."

A melodic interplay

>> In concert: Guitarists William Coulter and Benjamin Verdery
>>Where: Central Courtyard Stage, Honolulu Academy of Arts
>> When: 7:30 p.m. today
>> Admission: $15
>> Call: 532-8700

The duo, dubbed Bill and Ben for short, will play under the stars at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Central Courtyard Stage tonight.

Verdery says the concert should have an all-around appeal. "On one level, it's a lot of fun for 'guitar freaks' because of the musical exchange between Bill's steel-stringed and my classical nylon-string guitar. But the melodies we're playing are tried and true and beautiful--some of them hundreds of years old--so it's a concert for people who love music as well.

"The combination of the two guitars gives a sound that we really enjoy. It often blends together as one instrument, and that is a real joy.

"Bill plays the steel-string guitar in a tuning called DAD-GAD, which is an open tuning that is very beautiful and, I think, is very similar to some of the slack-key tunings."

Verdery said he and Coulter each do an original or two from their individual solo albums, adding some Bach to the program as well.

"Song for Our Ancestors" is their first full-length album as a duo, although they've worked together on other projects. The album came about when Santa Cruz, Calif., guitar craftsman Jeff Traugott offered to produce an album of what he hoped would be imaginative guitar music.

Verdery said that finding the material for the album became an opportunity to examine his own inner feeling about what music is and what it means.

"One of the joys of making the record was finding these melodies from all over the world and then seeing how they fit together, where these melodies come from and seeing how places inspire us. We have our own oral traditions (with these melodies) because we write them down but allow for change in performance."

Friends since 1984, Verdery and Coulter grew up in the same general area of the metropolitan northeast but didn't meet until after Coulter had moved from New Jersey to California. Verdery, who is still a New Yorker, was performing at UC-Santa Clara at the time. Coulter liked what he heard and the two started talking music.

Six years later, Coulter was working on an album of Celtic music and invited Verdery to sit in on one of the songs. The two guitarists collaborated again several years later and found they often agreed on how best to capture the full capabilities of their instruments. With "Song for Our Ancestors," they've taken the concept to a higher level.

Verdery is now in his 17th year as head of the guitar program at Yale, and he enjoys a schedule that includes teaching in Manhattan, touring and recording. This is his fourth year conducting a one-week master class in classical guitar on Maui (the class is next week; space is available for auditors). Verdery will play concerts in Singapore, Korea and Japan before returning home.

Coulter teaches guitar and ethnomusicology at UC-Santa Cruz, with Irish music being a particular passion of his. "An Daindean," the song he composed for the album with Verdery, was inspired by the Irish seacoast town where his brother got married. Coulter is active as a concert and recording artist and also as a studio musician and record producer.

Although Coulter plays with steel strings, he has a master's degree in classical guitar from the San Francisco Conservatory. Verdery says that's another reason their musical partnership works so well.

"He's fabulous with a (guitar) pick, but his touch and his approach to steel-string guitar is highly slanted to the classical technique. I think it brings the sound closer together, and we have a lot of fun working together."

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