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Almost a Pianist, Virtuoso Guitarist Pierre Bensusan Impresses with Signature Style

Pierre Bensusan

For a virtuosic guitarist, Pierre Bensusan almost ended up a piano player. He started his formal music study in piano at the age of seven, not long after his family moved from his native Algeria to Paris.

He stopped playing piano after being "abandoned" by his teacher and felt sure he would not play music again.

But his father encouraged his musical appreciation by playing records from various styles at home. Later, his father bought Bensusan a guitar, which he taught himself to play.

"Music had to come out. Music was sort of saying to me, "Hey, hey, Pierre! No, no, no, no, no. We like you, you need to let it go through you,'" he says. "And that's exactly what happened with the guitar."

Ten years later, he signed his first recording contract – on the guitar.

Today, the Los Angeles Times describes him as "one of the most unique and brilliant acoustic guitar veterans in the world music scene." His music draws on his Algerian, French, and Jewish heritages as well as a variety of folk traditions from around the world.

But it was in returning to his classical roots - and the works of composers like Schumann and Beethoven -  that first inspired him to try writing his own music.

"Without me knowing about it, it sort of told me something about music from inside, the way it's made, not a recipe, but just sort of an inspiration, to see music from within," Bensusan says.

Pierre Bensusan

"Music had to come out. Music was sort of saying to me, "We like you, you need to let it go through you. And that's exactly what happened with the guitar." -Pierre Bensusan

Now he approaches composition like a challenge, playing with his own expectations.

"I try to go from a point of view of what I would like to hear - not what is doable or not doable," he says. "What are the sounds, the notes that should be there, the chords, the harmony?  And then see if it’s doable or not."

And he says he tries hard to extend that surprise to his audiences. His music often defies listeners' notions of what's possible on the guitar. One way he does this is his signature DADGAD tuning. He says he developed it by taking risks like jazz and flamenco guitarists do.

"Very often we don't really deepen the tuning, we just stay on the surface of it, and I decided to not stay on the surface of the tuning that I use...and to really make it like a standard tuning," he says.

Bensusan was in Milwaukee in February, teaching and lecturing and performing at the Peck School of the Arts recital hall on the campus of UW-Milwaukee.

You can hear more of our interview in the supplemental audio section below.

Supplemental audio

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.