Q&A with guitarist JIJI

Applauded by the Calgary Herald as “…talented, sensitive…brilliant,” JIJI is an adventurous artist on both acoustic and electric guitar, playing an extensive range of music from traditional and contemporary classical music to free improvisation.

On Wednesday, November 13, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, JIJI joins ACO for the world premiere of Hilary Purrington’s guitar concerto Harp of NervesClick here for tickets and more information.

We spoke to JIJI about the new piece, her relationship with Hilary, and more.

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Guitarist JIJI. Photo by Franci Virgili

American Composers Orchestra: In addition to Hilary Purrington’s Harp of Nerves, you have premiered numerous works by living composers, including Nina C. Young, Gabriella Smith, Riho Maimets, Krists Auznieks, and many others. Can you talk about the challenges of premiering a brand new work?

JIJI: I think one of the potential challenges comes from the fact that for many composers writing for the classical guitar is not easy, which I totally understand. The fret board can be daunting — it’s not straightforward or intuitive. There are so many possibilities, but there are also a lot of limitations. As the guitarist, you have to consider that you want to do your best with what the composer has given you, but you also can’t push your technical abilities so far that you get an injury.

That said, in my experience with composers, so far so good! [laughs] All of the works I have premiered have been very playable.

This is definitely the case with Hilary’s piece. Hilary is amazing. For this concerto she worked with guitarists Oren Fader and Neil Beckmann, she’s also written guitar works before, and she actually bought a guitar for this piece. I definitely recommend composers get a guitar. It can make it so much easier to understand the instrument and its mechanics.

ACO: What do you enjoy most about the process of premiering a new work?

JIJI: Everyone is so different and I love that I have no idea what kind of piece I am going to get. It’s so exciting to get a piece of music that’s written for you. And I think one of my favorite moments is when I get to put my left and right hand fingering onto a brand new sheet of music that hasn’t been played before. Making it into my own, making my own interpretation, and getting to decide “I think it would great to do this” is all really exciting.

I can call up the composers and say, “Hey this section has this. What do you think about this dynamic? Or this moment? Or this expression?” It’s a really nice thing that you can call up living composers. You can’t do that with dead composers! [laughs]

ACO: Hilary’s program note says that in Harp of Nerves, “the entire ensemble becomes a kind of nervous system with the soloist acting as its control center.” Can you talk about this from your perspective as the soloist? Is this something you will keep in mind during the performance?

JIJI: This definitely gave me a new perspective on the piece. Of course, I have the complete score, as well as a MIDI recording of the piece, but I’m always looking for ways to make better sense of the music.

The traditional idea for concertos is that the soloist and the orchestra are more separate. So for me this is a different way to approach a concerto and knowing this has definitely helped me understand the piece better. It’s something I’m going to keep in mind during the performance.

Also, I used this idea to inspire my outfit for the performance! I don’t want to give it away but I have a really exciting outfit that I think will match really well with the concerto. I’m always really interested in the visual aspect of performances. I’ll just say … it incorporates 2000s K-pop and sci-fi, and Hillary approves. I’ve already worn it for her and she was into it. [laughs]

ACO: You have a close relationship with Hilary as colleagues and friends, and you were even roommates when you were both studying at Yale. Can you talk about how, if at all, this has affected your approach to Hilary’s piece?

JIJI: Yes, it’s almost like, “I don’t want to let my friend down!” [laughs] Actually, with almost all of my premieres the composers I’ve worked with are all friends. It’s somehow worked out that way. I think it’s so special to have that relationship because you can be more open and discuss more together.

When Hilary wrote this piece for me, I think we had this unspoken pact, because we were friends and we were roommates, that, “We’re going to do this really well. We’re in this together.” Sometimes when you’re performing a lot of pieces it can become like just another day at work, but for this I think it’s like taking the friendship to the next level.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the premiere?

JIJI: I am super excited for the premiere. I think it will be a nice “Hilary and Jiji” moment. I also think Jamie Barton is so cool, and I’m just looking forward to enjoying the concert and being with everyone. I’m excited to make my debut at Zankel. I’ve played at Weill and Stern Auditorium so now I get my “Carnegie bingo.” [laughs]

ACO: Do you have any day-of-concert rituals?

Do you know Anchorman? So in the movie Anchorman, when Veronica Corningstone is replacing Ron as the news anchor for the first time, and she’s about to go on, in the movie she psychs herself up and she goes, “Power, power, power.” So after seeing that scene I started to do the same thing. [laughs] So now right before going onstage I go “Power, power, power.” It’s such a funny scene.

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ACO: What are you listening to on your playlist these days?

JIJI: I am totally into this pop artist Charli XCX. She has a new album that just came out which is brilliant. I’ve been really into it. And lately I’ve also been listening to a lot of Brian Eno and Pauline Oliveros. It’s been all over the place. It really depends on what I’m in the mood for.

ACO: If you weren’t a classical guitarist, what other kind of artist might you have been?

JIJI: I’ve definitely always been interested in visual art and I think would have been really into digital media. Like 3D mapping or some sort of projection art. I’m still open to doing this later in life! [laughs] But yeah I think if I weren’t a classical guitarist, maybe I’d been some kind of visual artist.

JIJI performs the world premiere of Hilary Purrington’s guitar concerto Harp of Nerves on Wednesday, November 13, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

Learn more about JIJI at www.jijiguitar.com

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