Peter Katona Interview for Classical Guitar magazine

Steve Marsh with Peter Katona

TH February 2016)

On the day it was announced that the ‘fifth Beatle’, George Martin had died I happened to be travelling to the birthplace of the Fab Four to interview one half of the Katona Twins, Peter Katona at his home in the heart of the city of Liverpool. I began by asking him about their early years.

Steve Marsh: I read that at the school you and your brother Zoltan went to, it was compulsory to learn a musical instrument. Is that correct?

Peter Katona: Yes. When we were ten years old our music teacher noticed that we had a talent for clapping back complicated rhythms and our mother decided that we should change to a special musical school where besides the general subjects we also had musical instruction every day. It may be choir or learning to read music and everybody in our class had to learn to play an instrument. It was in the Communistic times and luckily for us Zoltan Kodaly was not just a great composer and a brilliant pedagogue but also a rather influential person. He persuaded the Hungarian politicians that learning music was important and also beneficial for the general development and education of youngsters. His idea was that learning to play a musical instrument teaches you discipline and concentration which would then spill over into the other subjects and students who had regular music lessons would do better in the general subjects as well. A nationwide experiment with special musical classes and free instrumental education was started.

SM: So this was the renowned Kodaly method?

PK: It was certainly part of it although the central element of his method was singing. Being the most natural way of music making singing should always precede instrumental performance because the fingers should follow the music rather than the other way around. In any case Kodaly’s method was a great success and his argument was proven correct as our class was by far the best in the school. Unfortunately these days many governments think that it is not that important to learn music even though it has been proven to be very beneficial. We were very lucky to have been involved in that project. We had two guitar lessons each week completely free. That meant more practice as you always had the next guitar lesson coming up within a few days.

SM: Were there peripatetic teachers or was the music taught by the school staff?

PK: Independently from the general schools every district had several special music schools with their own staff of instrumental teachers. Instrumental education happened in the afternoon after the general classes were finished. The problem over here with the British system is that music lessons happen during the day and you can be pulled out say of your maths lesson to attend your instrumental class and possibly miss something very important.

SM: Were either of your parents involved in any musical activity?

PK: Not professionally, although our grandmother used to be a good singer and a talented actress but in those days it was not seen as a serious profession and thus was not encouraged. A very famous Hungarian actress tried to persuade her to take up acting but her parents would have none of it. In our family we are the first generation of musicians. Our older brother is also a musician. He is the lead singer of a rather famous Hungarian rock band, called “Akela”.

SM: You never fancied that then?

PK: We did have a band when we were younger, around the age of ten I think, so our older brother would have been fifteen and we even played in a few small venues. We liked the music of the Beatles and because of them and football we heard of Liverpool already back then – we even used to play a table football game where Liverpool was one of the teams … what do you call it?

SM: May have been Subbuteo.

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PK: Actually it is the Hungarian version of Subbuteo called “button football” and I understand that children play it only in Brazil and in Hungary. The idea is that you flick the players around the pitch with your fingernail.

SM: Early Rasgueado practice then!

PK: Yes! And Zoltan’s team was Liverpool! But we never thought that we would both end up living in this city.

SM: Going back to those early instrumental lessons, did you both choose the guitar simultaneously?

PK: We were very keen to play the guitar but as most teenagers we were first attracted to the electric guitar and to popular music. However, in those days that was not taught in the music schools of Hungary. Being the next best thing we started playing the classical guitar meaning to change to the electric guitar at a later date. However, that never happened because we learned to love the warm sound of the classical guitar and realised that it was the instrument we really wanted to play.

SM: Did you hear anyone at that stage who was a big influence on you? Did you get to hear recordings of such as Segovia, Bream, Williams?

PK: At the beginning not at all but on one day about three years after we started playing the guitar our teacher turned up with just a tape recorder showing us recordings of Bream, Williams, Romero and Paco de Lucia. He copied us the tapes and we were fascinated by them and would listen to them all the time. It was much different from today. Nowadays you can simply go on the internet and listen and even see amazing guitarists perform in your living room. In those days that was virtually impossible, especially in communistic Hungary. Often we couldn’t even guess how some guitarists such as one of our heroes, Paco de Lucia produced some of those amazing sounds.

SM: Did you ever get to see him perform in concert?

PK: Yes, but only about ten years later when he came to play in a large arena in Budapest. I never forget how surprised we were to see him playing with his legs crossed which was supposed to be all wrong.

SM: Well some people play standing up you know!

PK: (laughs) Yes I know! Truly shocking! We were always told that you had to play the guitar in the ‘classical’ sitting position using a footstool. Then to see someone who we thought was the best guitarist in the world not playing like that was a real shock.

SM: I bet you thought that he was tuning up before he started to play in the ‘proper’ position.

PK: (laughs). It is funny how many classical guitarists still believe that using the footstool with the raised left leg is the only and true traditional way. Historical drawings prove that at least two of the very best guitarists of the classical period did not play like that at all. Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado both held the instrument on the right leg and supported it either by a chair or a table or a special guitar stand invented for that very purpose. I still think though that the so called classical position has many advantages and I still do play in that position fairly often especially when sight reading. However, there are obvious problems with it. The slightly left turned torso and the raised leg often cause back problems and even the position’s obvious advantages can easily turn into disadvantages. For example the classical position is the most secure way of holding the guitar. That is achieved by the four contact points between instrument and body. But exactly that security also makes it look rather stiff. But even the stretching of the left hand fingers, which is most easily done in the classical position, can become a handicap as changing the angle of the wrist too often results in an insecure left hand technique. The invention and wide spread use of new devices to support the guitar instead of using the footstool takes pressure off the player’s spine which is a great development.

SM: When you and your brother were learning together at school, did you both progress at the same rate?

PK: Yes. Part of the reason was that for a while we had just the one guitar between us and we shared a room together. It is very obvious and extremely annoying when your brother is doing something slightly better than you if you live in the same room. It makes you want to keep up with him and hopefully get even better. Also, if Zoltan practised and I didn’t, it reminded me that I had to play too which was quite beneficial and the exchange of ideas helped us to develop both technically and musically. In those days we mostly played the solo guitar repertoire and only very rarely the odd piece together. That changed dramatically after hearing the Assad brothers in a concert in Germany when we were about 22 years old. We were so much taken by their brilliant ensemble and the fullness of the sound that playing solo all of a sudden seemed utterly pointless to us. That was our ‘Eureka!’ moment.

SM: Could we talk about your composing and arrangements. Do you always do your own arrangements?

PK: These days always. When we first started playing as a duo we used to perform other people’s arrangements. We even made a demo recording of somebody’s two guitars version of a harpsichord piece. However, after hearing the original we realised that the arrangement was not very well done at all and decided not to make that mistake again. Now even when playing original duets by say, Fernando Sor or Guiliani, we would change between the parts so that each of us has a fair share of solos and accompaniment. Those duets were originally often conceived with a master and a student in mind. For a duo that has two equal players it would be silly and extremely boring not to take turns when playing the melody.

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SM: Do you ever quarrel about who plays what?

PK: Not really, since we generally produce two equally challenging parts. Although it has happened that I liked a particular part of an arrangement, its’ technical or musical challenge and ended up giving myself the voice that played it. At the same time when something seems too difficult and I don’t feel like practicing it occasionally I think to myself: That seems like too much sweat and hard work…. let Zoltan have it! (laughs). Since the audience doesn’t necessarily notice who played the more difficult part I still end up looking just as clever as him (more laughter).

SM: Do you usually agree on a style of programme together or do you both just turn up with arrangements already prepared? How does it work?

PK: If no special programme request is made by the organiser we generally agree on a programme that seems suitable for a particular venue and audience. At times it may be that we are requested to play certain works, or a programme with a special theme. For example we’ve been asked to play a Hungarian programme in a few weeks’ time. But since there are not too many original pieces for two guitars written by Hungarian composers we decided to arrange a couple of works we always wanted to play. I am just finalising an arrangement of one of Zoltan Kodaly’s orchestra piece called, Dances of Galanta. When recording a CD we like to focus on a particular composer or musical style. We did a CD of music by Joaquin Rodrigo. But since he only wrote two pieces for guitar duets we arranged some of his piano works to fill the 60 min CD.

SM: You have also done CDs devoted entirely to the likes of Vivaldi, de Falla, Bach, Albeniz and Piazzolla too haven’t you?

PK: Yes. With the Piazzolla CD it was the same. Besides the “Tango Suite” - his only original piece for two guitars, we had to choose and arrange many of his other pieces such as his Concerto Liege originally written for Guitar, Bandoneon and strings.

SM: I actually reviewed that CD and I remember writing a glowing review not only concerning the technical and musical side of things but also the vibrancy and energy of the recording quality.

PK: Oh! Thank you for that.

SM: You didn’t read it then!

PK Oh, I must have, since the recording companies always send us the reviews! We have been generally lucky since most of our CDs have been given a fairly good write up. The one which impressed us most was written by John Duarte. He used to be one of the most feared reviewers, very outspoken who could take recordings and performances completely apart sometimes seriously damaging young guitarists’ careers. Luckily, he found our musical and technical abilities comparable not only with our heroes, the Assad brothers but even the legendary Presti/Lagoya duo, which really pleased us.

SM: That’s good then because he wasn’t known for mincing his words. What about solo repertoire? Do you ever work on that side of things these days?

PK: Not really. We went through plenty of solo repertoire in our many years of studies but most of the solo works I learn these days are the ones my students play. Simply because by the time I have worked out the fingering I can nearly play them by heart. I always try to find the best fingering for a piece to make the life of my students easier. I often realise that sometimes generations of guitarists end up playing a piece with a certain fingering just because somebody famous such as Segovia used to play it with that fingering 50 years ago.

SM: You play 99 per cent of your repertoire together from memory. Do you have a specific method of learning the score?

PK: Yes we do. Both of us have really bad memories which strangely sometimes work in our favour, for example, if you want to change a fingering. Unfortunately, it does not work with pieces we played for a very long time. Some old fingerings are so solidly etched into your memory that it is nearly impossible to erase them. It is especially annoying when after working on a new and much better fingering for several months you find yourself playing your old fingering again at a concert. It can be a really scary thing!

Memorising a duo piece is more complex than learning a solo piece. If you are a soloist and have a memory lapse you can simply jump to any place in the piece and continue. In a duo piece you can’t do that. Besides your own part you have to know what the other guitar plays so that you can join in at the right place. There are certain techniques to do that. We divide a piece into sections and learn to recognise when the other player gets to a certain part in the piece where you can join in. We actually practise that in rehearsals by pretending to have a complete memory black out. One of us plays through the piece and tells the other player randomly when to stop playing. He then has to wait and listen until the he recognises the next agreed joining point before he can continue playing only to be stopped a few seconds later again.

SM: Has it happened much, where you’ve lost your place on stage?

PK: I know I should not say this but unfortunately it happens all the time! (laughs). It is very unlikely though for both of us to lose our place at the same time. Even if that happened, we would both just jump to the next agreed part and continue from there. If you do it well most of the audience would never notice since one guitar keeps playing and you can get away with it as long as you don’t play too many wrong notes.

SM: Or pull a face!

PK: Very true! Most often the giveaway for an audience is not that they hear but that they see that you made a mistake by your facial expression. The trick is try to pretend not to be annoyed about a mistake, even if you are.

SM: Do you never use music in concerts?

PK: We tend not to, except in some contemporary pieces which are too difficult to memorise or if we have to learn something very quickly. Nothing is wrong about playing with music but I think that you can play more freely without the music stand in front of you.

SM: So how do go about memorising the music?

PK: Besides the special techniques already mentioned for memorising duo pieces there are lots of different methods. When we were learning in Germany, we had a teacher Michael Teuchert who was very good in that subject. He taught us to divide a piece into small sections, let’s say, every four or eight bars, and you should be able to start the piece from any of these sections. It is also important to memorise very small passages at a time by playing them very slowly, completely in control, even to the point where you can say the name of each note before playing it. That is to cut out muscle memory. It is a very reliable method but unfortunately it takes ages. Some methods build on the opposite idea and teach you to play using muscle memory only. You can do that for example by reading a book out loud while playing a piece.

These days however, I prefer to learn a piece through analysing its chord progressions and key changes. Memorising entire scale patterns and the names of the chords rather than individual notes does not only speed up the process of learning but it also helps with the musical interpretation and understanding of the piece. Plus the same scale patterns and chord progressions reoccur in many pieces so that you learn something that you can use again and again. At the end you know the piece as intimately as if you had written it yourself.

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SM: Do you ever compose your own music?

PK: Yes, we do although it is a fairly recent development and we haven’t composed a large volume of works yet. Audiences always seem to appreciate listening to a piece composed by the performer. A few days ago we played one of my compositions in Spain and I felt that it made the concert a much more personal experience for the audience as they could not hear that piece performed by anybody else.

SM: Well it’s not published, that’s why!

PK: Yes, well, it may be one day. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t start composing earlier. When you perform a piece written by somebody else you are just replicating something which has been done before and will be done in the future – and most likely it will be done better than your own version! It’s a bit like being an actor with a mask on. However, when playing your own works you show the audience your real face.

SM: When did you begin writing your own music?

PK It all began in 2009 when we were asked to take part in a concert tour in 42 arenas across Europe where there would be a mixture of pop and classical music. We were invited as the only classical soloists in that year.

SM: The European Night of the Proms.

PK: Yes, exactly. We were asked to make arrangements of some well know pop pieces associated with the guitar and combine them in a medley. Rather than just putting one piece after the other we wanted to make it more special by incorporating our own musical styles. The first piece was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. I took the rhythm of the song and composed a 17 bars long Bach-like intro to it. For an intro it was rather long and when it finally turned into ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ it took the audience completely by surprise. They absolutely loved it. Two Michael Jackson songs and Nirvana’s famous ‘Smells like teen spirit’ followed connected with ever shortening baroque-style compositions. It was a huge success and although I composed only about forty bars of the medley I guess I could say that it was my very first own composition performed live for the first time in front of eighteen thousand people. In any case it was a promising start and we decided to compose more music. Perhaps because of my Bach like first piece I suppose that my compositional style leans more towards our classical roots, whereas Zoltan tends to write in a more ‘popular’ fashion. In our general classical concerts we can easily get away with performing my pieces but would not dare to play Zoltan’s music which is why we tend to perform my compositions more frequently than Zoltan’s (laughs).

SM: In these concerts you played to half a million people in vast arenas around Europe. What did you use for amplification? I presume it was wireless amplification.

PK: Yes, but we have been using wireless amplification a long time before the Night of the Proms concerts. We used to feel that plugging in the instruments can spoil the illusion of a classical guitar concert for some people. It happened often in the past that that even hard core classical guitarist did not notice when we used wireless amplification. At the Proms concerts we used Ramirez guitars which we thought had the best built-in amplification systems. They are truly great instruments! In fact at those concerts we had to use two wireless systems each. One for the guitar and one for the ear monitor which was a very new experience for us because we had to play with a click track. Rather unusual for classical performers but that was the only way. We were performing in huge arenas with an orchestra that was sometimes nearly fifty meters away. It was very, very difficult to do at the beginning but you get used to it after a while. In one of the concerts there was a problem with the computer and our in ear monitors didn’t work properly. We could only hear the orchestra and the click track but not our own playing which was rather scary.

SM: Millions must have heard the broadcast performances in the media. Bringing the classical guitar to that amount of people must have had an influence, particularly on the younger generation. It would be interesting to know how many of these took up the classical guitar after these shows.

PK: Yes indeed. It was quite an interesting and a very important experience for us in many ways. The biggest challenge was to perform for an audience that has never been to a classical concert before. Luckily the organisers advised us on what to perform. It was their suggestion that we play something classical in a contemporary version and to put together a medley of popular songs that everybody in the audience would recognise. It was a huge success and it seemed that everybody enjoyed it.

SM: Did the size of these audiences make you nervous at all?

PK: Oh yes, especially at the beginning. I will never forget the experience of walking on stage in front of 18,000 people for the very first time. They were incredibly loud and I thought “No, I’m not going out there!” (Laughs). Some friends told us afterwards that we were as white as chalk! But after 3 or 4 times you get used to it and then it is not scarier than playing just for 20 people.

After the tour some of the performances were uploaded on YouTube and we were sometimes criticised by some classical guitarists for playing that kind of music in that kind of environment. “What happened to them?” –they asked. “They used to be serious classical guitarists.” We still are but you have to put our experience in perspective. We were asked if we wanted to play in live concerts for some half a million people. Even if we played every day for the rest of our lives for an average size classical audience we would not be able to reach that many people. It would have been crazy to turn down such a huge chance. Plus, I don’t feel that we had to sacrifice our integrity as classical players. If anything that tour has taught us many things: we extended our arranging skills, started to compose, learnt to play with a click track using in ear monitors and started playing in standing up which we previously did not think was possible at all. Now we even do it in our classical concerts and audiences, with the exception of a few classical guitarists, find it to be a welcome addition to our performance style. There are some pieces where moving around actually helps with the interpretation. For example if you have a solo you can take a small step forward, just like a singer would do in an opera and it helps to focus the audience’s attention.

SM: So how do you perform in concerts now – is it a mixture of sitting and standing?

PK: Yes, it is. Lively, dramatic and extroverted pieces we tend to play in standing and calm introverted pieces in sitting. It does not only help with the communication but also adds an extra dimension and variety to our performances. The only difficulty is that you have to adjust your technique when standing up.

SM: Is it a big adjustment?

PK: It certainly is. Some techniques such as the rest stroke for the fingers are surprisingly easier when standing up and others become more difficult because the instrument is simply not as stable as it is when you sit.

SM: So do you always use wireless nowadays?

PK: Not at all. Since we play nearly everything with the apoyando technique our acoustic playing is rather loud. The only challenge is that you have to learn to play slightly differently when amplified. Technically there is no point playing extremely loud if you can achieve the same just by turning the volume up a little.

SM: Why did you choose Liverpool to come to live in?

PK: Zoltan moved to Liverpool first when he got married. I lived for about five years longer in London than him but at some point the travelling just became too much to bear and I decided to join him.

SM: So what of the near future? Do you have any more recordings coming out?

PK: We plan to do some more CDs in a ‘non-classical’ style in which we plan to include more of our own compositions. We are also planning a classical album of our own arrangements of opera themes by Mozart, Rossini, Bizet and Tchaikovsky.

SM: Something to look forward to there then. Thank you very much for talking to me.

PK: Thank you Steve.

updated: 3 years ago