As one of the up and coming talents in classical guitar, Mak Grgic has performed all over the world. He recently finished a tour as opening act for k.d. lang’s Ingenue REDUX tour, receiving glowing reviews and standing ovations. Within the span of months, he will have performed across China, Europe, and North and South America; all while also organizing festivals and competitions all around the world. We asked Mak how he got to here, what he remembers of learning guitar and developing an outside-of-the-box way of performing classical music. We also asked how he manages such a tough schedule, and he shared some tips, along with his perspective on the “stale” CD.
What is your fondest memory of playing and learning music?
My fondest memory of playing and learning music? I guess those would be two different instances.
The first would be this time a few years when I played with the Assad Brothers. They’re a very famous guitar duo, at this point legendary. I was thoroughly excited to get the chance to play with them and share the stage with them, and it was a breakthrough for me in terms of performance artistry and stage demeanor.
Classical musicians are usually much more strict about the way they approach performing. The Assad Brothers were relaxed on stage when they performed, and it opened my eyes to what it means for classical music to be enjoyed by the player and the public rather than revered and being semi-alienating. That performance was in Denver at the prestigious Newman Hall. Since then I can say I don’t get nervous before performing. It’s because my mindset has changed.
The second thing was probably one of the earliest stages of me trying to play any kind of improvised music. I try to dabble in that sometimes. That was freeing as well for me. I am not a jazz guy. I’m not a really good improviser, but in a way there’s something liberating about trying. About three or four years ago, I started looking into that a bit more, halfway through my studies at USC. I played a bunch of gigs—full on bar gigs—and that was eye-opening and liberating for me in the sense of dropping the shackles away and feeling very light while performing. And that delineates the style in which I play today, which is with a very relaxed demeanor and stage presence.
As a guitarist, you’ve never enjoyed improvised solos before?
It’s not that, and it’s not about me enjoying listening to them. It’s about me enjoying actually playing them. If one’s a classical musician from the get-go—educated through the academia—there’s a certain fright about that and it’s hard to describe it, but it’s the fear of imperfection. So many classically trained musicians actually never try to loosen up and just play a solo. And I’m glad that at this certain stage, I got rid of that fear and just went for it. In terms of listening, of course, I’ve listened to jazz all my life.
Going further back, do you remember any particular moment?
There was this one moment. For the longest time, I wasn’t that interested particularly in music. I was doing sports, doing math a lot—you know, competing. I started pretty late with music, when I was about eleven.
But I do remember the moment where I realized there was a certain magic in music. I was taking the tram to my high school in Zagreb, Croatia. I was listening to a recording my teacher gave me, Evgeny Kissin, a famous pianist playing Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto, and there’s this part in the second movement where the piano takes over. It takes over the exact theme of the orchestra, but it becomes a solo. It was one of those shivering moments. I couldn’t describe the feeling; it was very surreal. It made me realize music is something special that transcends your daily existence; there’s something very important about it. I guess that indescribable importance is what we call universality of language in music.
How did you decide on guitar specifically?
I didn’t; my dad decided. He said, that is the best instrument to take. So I went with it. Where I was from, the public music education system is pretty strong, so you go into public primary school and you learn music as a part of the extracurricular program. Nothing really drew me to music. I didn’t hear any particularly amazing solo only to all of a sudden be enchanted..
You balance a lot of festivals and activities. What advice or tips would you give to maintain this balance or energy?
What I can say is that this work requires continuous effort. No opportunity, not even a small one, should be disregarded when you are promoting your image and your music. It’s continuous work and good work, because I enjoy what I’m doing. But it is work nonstop; that’s without a doubt. I haven’t been on vacation in two years. I haven’t taken a day off. So my work ethic is probably much more severe than most of my peers, but it also showcases that work bears more work. You can’t just sit in the back of the car and hope that the invisible driver will take you somewhere. You have to start driving.
Are there any new projects?
There are three CDs coming out: MAKrotonal, Balkanisms, and La Buena Vida with Adam Del Monte. CDs are not yet obsolete—they are a business calling card for any musician. To think creatively on something even as stale as a CD. So all of my CDs are really heavily curated. There is no one piece that is just random.
Just out of curiosity, how did that happen, the tour with k.d. lang?
They needed a classical guitarist and they called me. She wanted to use a classical guitarist to open her concert. Why? I have no clue.