Talking Heads: Miloš

When Arcana sits down to talk with classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, we find him at the end of a busy day’s interviewing. For some artists this would be a real chore, but the sense here is very much a positive one. Having returned from a career-threatening injury, this is the sort of day Miloš dreamed of having to deal with.

The reasons for our chat are many, but are headed by his striking new album Sound of Silence. On first glance this appears to be a relatively standard crossover piece, equal parts classical and pop. Closer inspection, however, reveals a carefully studied and assembled set of original pieces and arrangements with the 12 Ensemble that hang together beautifully, each of them carrying personal significance for Miloš himself.

As is customary for Arcana interviews, however, we approach the new album from the very beginning, and his first encounter with classical music. “I believe my first proper encounter with classical guitar was when my father played me an old LP of Andrés Segovia”, he recalls, “and it was at a time when I had started to play the guitar. I was completely discouraged by how particular and tricky it was, with using the nails and reading music, and knowing where each note is. I imagined that playing a guitar meant to strum a chord really loud and sing a song! It was a time when I really didn’t want to go back to the score, and when my father played me that Segovia record – Asturias was the title of the track, by Albéniz – I really was mesmerised by the sound world of it, and because of that experience I think I am a classical musician today. I think I would not have continued had that not happened, so it was a defining moment very early on.”

“I remember thinking, how is it possible one person and six strings, with their bare hands, can create so much magic? That prompted me to really practice and one day to be able to do that myself. When I recorded my very first album for Deutsche Grammophon in 2010 I knew that had to be the very first track, because that is where it all began.”

Segovia was one of several guitarists to leave their mark. “Because of that he will always be very important to me, but my absolute hero in my teenage years was John Williams, and his incredibly peerless sound projection and the quality of musicianship. He is still very inspirational to me. David Russell is an incredible musician, Julian Bream too – it is very hard to just think of one.”

Sound of Silence is a poignant album, and an important point for Miloš to reach, given the recovery he has made. “I hope that my journey will inspire others”, he proclaims, “because I think no matter what you do we all face these sorts of problems. The only way out of it is to accept it as part of life, to re-evaluate and re-think, and then start again.”

With this in mind, he used his time away from the guitar productively. “Even though at the time I thought I wasn’t, I did use that time to really open myself up to a wider world. I was always flirting with the mainstream, and I took pride that as a guitarist you can so comfortably sit between those two worlds. After going through something like that you just do what feels right, and for me it felt right to apply all those influences and bring them into my world.”

His cover of the Portishead song Sour Times is an embodiment of the dark periods he navigated while removed from practise and performance, and was a natural choice for the album. “I just guided myself with what felt like the right piece, because most of them have such an important personal meaning”, he explains. “Some of them are surprises but they just felt right, and I thought why not? You only live once, and now is the time to explore the world. Maybe there will be surprises along the way!”

One such surprise is a sensitive and moving arrangement of the Dido song Life For Rent, transformed from daytime radio to a deeper utterance. “I remember hearing that song a lot when I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music”, says Miloš, “and I remember walking down Oxford Street to hear that song blasting everywhere. I think everyone could relate to the emotion of that song, but it’s so blatantly pop that I wondered if it could work, because I love the song. I think it does work because it doesn’t matter about the genre, whether it’s Bach or The Beatles, Schubert or Paul Simon, or Dido. It’s all music, and it’s all there to be felt and enjoyed and explored. It is such a gift to be a musician and to really bring it inside your world. It is the essence of what we do.”

This inclusive approach has opened up collaborations with the likes of Manu Delago, who plays the hang as part of an arrangement of Nights In White Satin. “After this period of not playing, I realise that collaborating with artists that I like as musicians and love as people is more and more important”, he says, “making music together with someone is so wonderful and it brings so much quality and variety to your own artistry.

With The Beatles album I was also very collaborative, and that’s where the whole direction started. On that album I had Gregory Porter, Tori Amos, Steven Isserlis and a wide range of artists. On this album as well I had Manu, Jess Gillam, the 12 Ensemble. It has been really fun to create music, not just any music but music that hasn’t been played 100 times already, giving it a unique sound.”

One of the defining moments on Sound of Silence is Cancion de cuna (Berceuse), by celebrated Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer, which feels like a light in the darkness of Miloš’s injury. “I put it strategically in that place on the album, because I think it needs it to bring you to the core. It is such an iconic piece of part writing, and Leo Brouwer and his sound world are so unique. With something as simple as that, I had to have it there because it just felt right.”

It is the culmination of Miloš’s album construction, on which he elaborates. “You start off with a huge variety of things and along the way you build, take and remove until it feels right and is ready to be printed, if you like. It’s a long process; it’s not like going into the studio with pre-prepared recital repertoire. It’s actually all new. You don’t know what it’s going to happen or how it’s going to sound until you go in to the studio, and even then you think of new things you can do or things you need to take out. It’s an endless process almost, until it feels right.”

Alongside the album Miloš attaches great importance to his work with contemporary composers. In the last year he has given two world premieres – a Guitar Concerto by Howard Shore and Ink Dark Moon, a concerto by Joby Talbot given for the first time at the 2018 BBC Proms. “It’s some of the most important work I do”, he says. “I really believe that classical guitar needs new repertoire, and in order to open it up even further we need to encourage and inspire important composers to write for the guitar. I’m in a unique position as an artist, because through my work and travels I get to meet really amazing composers.”

“Whenever I get the chance I try to get them to write something important for me, but with Joby and Howard it was very natural. They heard me play, we talked and that was it. Both premieres had to be rescheduled because of my injury, and as soon as I felt better I was ready to do it and the moment of me returning onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, for Joby’s piece, was exactly a year ago today! The premiere at the Proms was like a rebirth. Howard’s was a couple of months ago. He wrote me a very beautiful piece and we premiered it in Ottawa, and the reception was amazing. He is such a legend in his world, and it’s a privilege to play a piece by a composer of that stature, to have a chance to play his work, I am excited to take those pieces on tour and make them live beyond their premiere. This is almost for me my most important work. The pieces are already recorded, so you should expect them in the not too distant future!”

Miloš’ reassurance is important here, for too many new commissions and pieces get one or two performances before fading from the spotlight, with little chance to appraise them over time “It is very important to keep them alive, and that they become my whole library of commissioned pieces. I want to premiere the Concierto de Aranjuez of the 21st century, and that’s very important to me.”

To that end, further projects are afoot. “I’m working on a new piece with David Bruce, who is a fantastic composer based here in the UK. He is writing me a piece to give with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in February 2021, and I am working for some other composers because I think it is very important to keep that going, to give things new life.”

He recognises the opportunity to give more repertoire to an instrument still in its relative infancy, when compared to its string ‘rivals’ the violin and the cello. “Absolutely. When you are lucky enough to be the artist that people perceive to be a flag carrier for that instrument, that’s a role you have to take really seriously because it’s up to you to commission new repertoire for future generations, and that’s a privilege. It’s a very important part of what you do.”

With this approach, is he looking to continue the work begun by two of his heroes, John Williams and Julian Bream? “Exactly, especially Bream who did so much collaboratively, and who did so much to create what is now the core repertoire of the instrument.” Miloš’ position, balanced between pop and classical, would seem ideal for future developments. “I hope so. For me that’s very important because I feel the guitar is one of the world’s most loved instruments, and it speaks to everyone. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at some point strummed a chord on the guitar and tried to play a song. It’s an instrument of people, and in the times when we are struggling with new audiences in the classical world, it’s the perfect instrument to invite new audiences into the concert hall.”

It also works on social media – a fact not lost on Miloš. “It works so well on playlists too. The whole world is changing, and when I see the world of recorded music today and compare it to a couple of years ago when I had my last album, it’s a completely different ball game. That also creates opportunities, and I’m very excited about that! There really is an audience out there, and we’ve just changed the ways we are thinking about reaching them. The guitar is loved, and I think it’s loved because it doesn’t scare anyone. You don’t need to be a connoisseur or a classical musician to understand it. I love that in my concerts I get teenagers, young professionals, people from all walks of life.”

Given his recovery from injury, I confess to being worried for Miloš when looking at his intensive tour schedule. Presumably he is fully in control of the demands made on him physically? “Absolutely, although I do enjoy the intensity of touring. When you are touring and going from one place to another you are really finding a different way of performing, and everything flows. I never had an issue with the number of concerts I played, that’s not why I injured myself. I had to develop a steel core in order to be able to take the experience of performing in a very secure and connected way. This stability is what I’ve been looking for, and the reason why I had to stop and regroup. I’m excited by my tour, there are a lot of concerts in the UK – 20 in all – which is a lot in two months, and I can’t wait! There are some very famous and important venues in the bigger cities and then some smaller ones, which just feels right.”

Miloš is refreshingly open when talking about his experiences of injury, and the effect that have had on others. “In the musician’s world it is a taboo, and that’s not right. In the world of sport or ballet, if you injure your leg or your arm everyone is so supportive and understands that it is part of the job. In the world of classical music it almost means that you have done something wrong, and that you hurt yourself because you are not good enough or haven’t practiced enough! There are all these prejudices about a musician’s injury, and I would really like to change that by opening it up. That’s why I talk about it, because to me it is very important to show we are not some sort of fantasy creatures that are able to create the music of the angels – we are real people that suffer real things, have real emotions and can also suffer injuries. Openly talking about it I think can create a much more inclusive environment.”

He recounts meetings with artists who have not been so fortunate. “It broke my heart so many times when I was on this recovering journey how many people I have met who never recovered, just because the way it’s all set up is in my opinion completely wrong. A musician’s injury is not a black and white thing, it is not one diagnosis. It is a number of very complicated relationships which are physical and psychological at the same time. To untie that knot takes so much understanding, and that’s why it is very hard to recover. I was really lucky I think, because I had it in me to not give up, but that should not be the case.”

Sound of Silence, Miloš’ fourth studio album, will be released on Decca on Friday 13 September. You can pre-order the album by clicking here

The guitarist also heads out on an eleven-date UK tour ‘The Voice of the Guitar’ the following week, beginning at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall on Saturday 21 September and ending in The Lighthouse, Poole, on Friday 11 October. There will be a further chance to catch him when performing Rodrigo at a further nine days around the country. All tour details can be found on his website

Finally, you can listen to MILOŠ – The Complete Playlist on Spotify below:

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