Karl Herreshoff

An early picture of Karl - photo © by Biljanna Sivanov
Thanks to Stephen Rekas for providing the photo

I first met Karl in 1976 when I was still in high school in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had already heard of him before the concert and looked forward to seeing him in concert. It was my first classical guitar concert.

During the concert, Karl played his baroque lute in the first half and the guitar in the second. I was spell-bound by the entire performance. Karl is an incredibly charismatic person and this came through in every note he played. But what inspired me most was his brilliant and effortless technique.

After the concert, it was the experts’ turn. All the lutenists in the audience declared that he was a great guitarist but not such a good lutenist and all the guitarists said he was a great lutenist but only a so-so guitarist. The warmth and generosity of humanity!

I started studying with Karl the next year at Victoria University of Wellington.

Lessons with Karl were informal to say the least. His studio was next to the Wellington Settlement, a cafe and restaurant, and we ended up drinking coffee there more often than not, and talking to the ladies. Let us just say that Karl is a great admirer of the opposite gender.

But Karl was an intuitive teacher. He had an uncanny ability to look at what I was doing and to teach simply with a word of advice here and a word of advice there. He was not into long expository instructions.

I remember once, I had been working on the Mozart Variations by Sor and Karl looked over when I had finished playing, and said simply, “You should put some daylight between those notes.” And instantly it was all made clear to me. Just one short remark and it produced an instant breakthrough.

But the best thing about his teaching was that he didn’t just talk, he showed you how it’s done. He really is one of the most amazing guitarists I have ever known. I remember once playing the fugue from the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro to him in a lesson and without saying a word, he took up his guitar and played the fugue back to me. And it was the same with the fourth Lute Suite.

Before he had come to New Zealand, Karl had been a member of the Paul Winter Consort. It’s no surprise then that he is a phenomenal improviser. One of his favorite concert items is to improvise an Indian raga on the guitar. He told me once he studied Indian music with an Indian musician whose name I can’t recall.

But Karl is also a great flamenco player. You’re probably saying, all this is sounding too good to be true. A great classical player who can improvise Indian ragas, as well as play great flamenco! What else can he do?

Well, there is one more thing which he did very well. He could play bluegrass on his baroque lute or as he called it, his “impression of Silvius Weiss at the local hootenanny.”

He also played blues on his 23 course baroque lute.

My favorite one was the Garbage Man Blues:

My baby ran off with the garbage man
My baby ran off with the garbage man.
I don’t wanna complain
But who’s gonna take my can.

It was all done in the spirit of fun of course. He was always kidding around. At first I wasn’t used to his dry sense of humor but it was infectious.

In my second year, I started going to his beach house on Raumati South for lessons. The place is about thirty miles outside of Wellington, New Zealand. Karl was touring a lot then, and whenever he came back to town, he would give me a call and I would get on the train to Raumati South.

I usually stayed the weekend there, playing guitar, drinking coffee and chicken soup. Many times, there would be other friends there too, friends like John Beggs, Edrick Banks, and of course the great Marty who was always such a great hostess.

There wasn’t a lot of guitar talk in those weekend get-togethers. In fact Karl never liked to talk about the guitar. He seemed to prefer talking about everything else though. I was a big fan of the beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and we had some lively discussions about the two poets Later I was to find that he knew the two personally and that one of his protégés, Jeffery Chinn had actually recorded an album with Ferlinghetti called “Segovia in the Snow.”

As I got to know him, I began to be curious about his guitar lineage and asked him a number of times about it. He told me that he had studied in Mexico City with a student of Llobet called Frederick Mulder. The rest, I either do not recall or he did not tell me.

The last time I saw Karl was in 1980. I stayed at his place in Soho in New York City for a week. It was in the dead of winter. I had experienced winter in New Zealand but nothing had prepared me for winter in New York City. I was freezing in my thin New Zealand wool coat so Karl took me to a store where I bought one of those thick American winter coats that looked more like a sleeping bag than a coat.

I went to see him play again that week, in a bookstore on Broadway. He played the Chaconne that night. I still remember that performance. It was vintage Karl. The playing was brilliant as usual, and masterful. As a performer Karl is not given to excessive displays. His bearing reminds me of the great artists of the past. There is never any empty showy display in his stage presence. It’s all about the music.

I haven’t seen Karl since that time but I have received an email from him and several letters before that.

Karl, wherever you are, thanks for everything.

A tribute to Karl from Dr. Douglas Pressman

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P Hii
January 7, 2005