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Questions of Practice: Guitarist Nels Cline on Virtuosity

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I think virtuosity is, for me, kind of a combination of a challenge, like issuing a challenge, like, can you do this kind of challenge. And also, a huge obstacle to not just my own, I guess, self-image or confidence level. But also, it's kind of an obstacle aesthetically for me at times in music.

I think sometimes virtuosity in music is extremely cold in spite of how much effort it may have taken to create and manifest whatever this virtuosic passage or virtuosic piece or whatever. And it can be breathtaking and exciting too. But there is a point at which I, at least, may become numb to excessive virtuosity.

But that said when it's lucid, and it's like your being spoken to. You're being told a story. You're on a ride, whatever, it can be the most exhilarating thing in the world. And I still strive for that and get inspired to try to be more virtuosic after I hear somebody do something so incredibly exciting and amazing.

And I'm surrounded by people who are able to do this at this point in my life. And some of them are, like Julian Lage, 30 years old. And virtuosity in his hands– excuse me– makes perfect sense. It's beautiful and inspiring. It's what we want from music, whether it's virtuosic or not.

The other thing that affected my idea of virtuosity besides the fact that I guess that I'm self-taught and have no self-image problems is that I really like a lot of music that isn't well-played, which I guess you would say, technically not well-played, which would be, say, punk rock.

And my obsession with certain punk rock so-called music– it's another meaningless term, of course, but especially, now. And music related to that changed the way I think about sound. So particularly, the group, Sonic Youth, are very important to me. And they're not going to be playing hotlines over difficult chord changes in odd time meters anytime soon.

In fact, it'll never happen. Their music is instinctual, and it's innovative in a subtle way, because of their open tunings. It still sounds like mostly like songs. And it's incredibly beautiful to me. It also kind of made me doubt or question virtuosity for its own sake, which is something I generally am not interested in.


Though technical skill is often one of the qualities by which art is assessed, the value that virtuosity imbues in a work is rarely linear. Nels Cline says he is not interested in “virtuosity for its own sake,” but he is inspired by music that is instinctual and innovative in a subtle way—like punk rock. “I think sometimes virtuosity in music is extremely cold, in spite of how much effort it might have taken to create and manifest a virtuosic piece,” Cline says. “That said, when it’s lucid, when you’re being spoken to, when you’re on a ride, it can be the most exhilarating thing in the world. I still strive for that.”

Watch Nels Cline talk about creating the 2018 Ars Nova Workshop commission Lovers (for Philadelphia).>>

Nels Cline is a composer and guitarist whose 40-year recording and performing career spans jazz, rock, punk, and experimental. Supported by a Center grant, Cline’s June 2, 2018, concert featured a 17-piece ensemble performing new interpretations of material composed or performed by Philadelphia-based musical pioneers. Best known as the lead guitarist in the band Wilco, Cline has received many accolades, including four Grammy Award nominations.