360°Sound spoke with classical guitarist, arranger, and educator David Sewell about his debut album, Coalesco: Harpsichord Music for Guitar, available now on all major streaming platforms. The 11-track, 35-minute album features original classical guitar arrangements of harpsichord compositions by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Domenico Scarlatti.
A Mississippi Gulf Coast native, Sewell now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches guitar at Grand Canyon University. Sewell has been playing classical guitar for 16 years and electric for 20. He has earned three degrees in guitar performance: a doctorate from Arizona State University, a master’s from the University of Louisiana, and a bachelor’s from the University of Southern Mississippi.
In this exclusive interview, Sewell talks about interpreting Baroque harpsichord music for classical guitar, the underappreciated genius of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, his forthcoming shark-inspired electric guitar album, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Tell us about your guitar journey. You started with electric. What led you to classical guitar?
David Sewell: I started on electric guitar because my uncle played electric guitar and I thought he was really cool. I kind of wanted to be cool like my uncle. I got into more technical guitar players that were influenced by classical music, and I guess through that discovered classical guitar. I took that up late in high school and just decided to go to college for it. I still play electric guitar a ton. I’m actually writing an electric guitar album right now. I’m going to try to do electric guitar and classical guitar albums.
Tell us about your interest in baroque music and the harpsichord.
Bach was how I got into learning how to read music, which I wouldn’t recommend that’s how you start to read music [laughs]. I had a teacher who didn’t really know how to teach technical-style guitar, but he could read music and I couldn’t when I was very young. Since I was into that style, he taught me how to read music from a Bach keyboard book. That might be really where I got into classical music.
I’ve been really, really into Bach. That’s why I’m out in Arizona because the professor of guitar at Arizona State, Frank Koonce, is very renowned for his Bach arrangements for classical guitar. I had been reading out of his books throughout my undergrad and master’s degrees. I’m really a big fan of his arrangements.
There are two composers on my album, one is [Domenico] Scarlatti and the other one is this female composter named Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Her music is not as known as Scarlatti’s. I found her music through Dr. Johnathan Kulp, a professor I had during my master’s degree studies. It was a piece by her that was on the graduate listening exam, this harpsichord piece by [de la Guerre]. I thought it was super cool. I tried to arrange some of it for guitar. What really stood out was the prelude of that suite. It’s an unmeasured prelude, which was something I had never heard of. That’s what made me start arranging this specific music on the album.
What is an unmeasured prelude?
It’s a very niche genre of preludes that happened in the 17th century in France, specifically Paris. It didn’t last that long, only a handful of French composers wrote for the genre. It’s a prelude that starts a dance suite. It’s completely unmeasured; it has no bars. It just has what appears to be random notes on a staff. Basically, you improvise it, but the notes are there, almost like a controlled improv.
What goes into arranging these harpsichord pieces for guitar?
First off, the challenging thing is that the harpsichord gets one or two octaves lower than the guitar. The range is lower. So, when you see these lower bass notes, they have to be put on the guitar to where it fits. Sometimes that might clash with upper voices. You have to find a way to keep the top voices under your fingers and make the bass voices fit without compromising the actual music. You don’t want to go too high up on the neck. You want to go as low on the neck as possible because it sounds brighter and that’s kind of how a harpsichord sounds.
What separates your album from other classical guitar recordings?
This is the first recording of de la Guerre’s music on guitar, and I think it’s important because she’s not as well-known, and she really should be. There are hardly any female composers during the Baroque period. What’s crazy about it is she was extremely successful during her time when it was unheard of for a female to be a composer and performer. It just wasn’t a thing back then. She and King Louis XIV were really close, and the public really liked her. She was very well respected. This chick was killing it back in like 1687 when no other female was doing it.
She also composed in different genres. She experimented in Italian genres, which a lot of French composers didn’t do anything like that. They were all ride-or-die French, kind of like they still are [laughs]. She also was the first female to compose an opera in France. She got to live to see that opera performed. Most of her music, if not all of it, was published while she was alive.
It’s important because arranging her music for guitar will maybe bring it to new audiences. I couldn’t find any unmeasured preludes recorded or arranged for guitar. It’s pretty new even though it’s very old music. You might like the way this music sounds on guitar better than a harpsichord.
Tell us some about the electric guitar album you’re working on.
It’s kind of funny, my wife is a marine biologist. We grew up on the Gulf Coast, so the beach is a big part of our life. My wife used to tag sharks. She and I have this weird bond over sharks, and that’s actually what the album is about. It’s an instrumental, shreddy guitar album that’s inspired by sharks, which sounds silly but that’s what it is [laughs].
Each track is going to be a different aspect of a shark’s life. One track is called “Ampullae of Lorenzini,” which is the receptors on a shark’s nose that help it detect prey. It’s an aggressive, on-the-hunt kind of song. Each song will be inspired by something shark-related [laughs]. The album will actually be called Shark Music.