Meet Tony Ackerman, a world-renowned American guitarist who has lived in Prague for over 30 years. He has performed in thousands of concerts and recorded 9 albums with jazz pianist Martin Kratochvil. Tony is now working for NYU Prague in a newly-created position– our first Faculty Coordinator of the NYU Prague music program. The program, which was started by Dr Lawrence Ferrara from Steindhardt in 2005, has enticed hundreds of budding musicians from NYC to Prague. We met with Tony to find out more about his plans for developing this highly successful program.
Tell us about some of the changes that you hope to bring to the music program.
Most importantly, I want students to get in personal contact with Czech artists– to play with jazz musicians, to work in studios … this has been happening organically, but hopefully we can formalize it, giving a structure to what is already happening.
One of the ways I want to do that is with a new course that all music students will take: The Collegium Seminar. There is a course of the same name at Steinhardt, but the Prague course is quite different. We want students to discover what is unique here, to find out what Prague has to offer. We’ll go to concerts, visit studios, invite guests here… in a few weeks we’re going to a Baroque music concert where the musicians play on historic instruments from the period. Students will get to see Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in the same theatre where it premiered when Mozart lived in Prague.
What unique qualities do you think Prague has to offer NYU students?
Students sink into the rhythm of this cozy, welcoming, beautiful city. It isn’t New York, and it isn’t Berlin – but it’s small size is exactly what makes it so accessible, with lots of opportunities to collaborate with top ranking musicians. Musicians don’t need to speak Czech to integrate into the culture – they speak the language of music and can befriend Czechs through their shared passion.
Tell us about your musical background and what you specialize in.
In my life, I’ve worked in many musical areas. I’m best known as a jazz musician, but recently I’ve started a career as a solo player –I take six of my guitars, line them up onstage, and play them – in fact in one of my new compositions, I play all of them, running up and down to pick up different guitars… when I was doing my PhD at UCSB I did my stint as a university composer , writing the kind of music no one wants to hear… At Harvard I got music theory boot camp in 1968 – when I teach oral comprehension, it’s all from that experience. I was a rock musician in the late 60s. I’ve played in contemporary music groups, playing premiers of pieces in NYC. Playing many genres has its benefits – it’s given me a global view – but as well as perhaps its drawbacks.
You were one of the very few Americans living in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime. How did that happen, and what was it like?
I first visited Prague at the age of 15 in 1965, a rare American tourists brought by my art-historian father to see stupendous architecture behind the Iron Curtain. Years later I married a Czech woman who I met in the USA, and because we were married, we could travel back and forth across the Iron Curtain. On one of those visits in the 1970s, I met Martin Kratochvil , a fantastic jazz pianist. Then in 1983 I moved to Czechoslovakia because I got a fellowship to study Czech contemporary music – music that was virtually unknown in the West. So I moved here with my wife and kids, and we lived in a tiny apartment for a year. I stared playing jazz and performing with my friend Martin Kratochvil, and the work was really interesting – at the end of the year, I wanted to stay. It was a horrible time for the country in many ways – the lack of freedom to travel, people were cut off from achieving their ambitions in the external world… But the plus side was that the energy was turned inwards – it led to amazing jokes, people had time for hobbies, like raising bees. They listened to music so much more – our concerts were packed in the 80s. I wasn’t subject to the same repression as others – I got a job teaching music at the Embassy’s high school and because of our diplomatic license plates, we could cross the border to Germany whenever we wanted. It was a bit surreal.
What has been most rewarding about teaching NYU students?
I love NYU students. – or at least the ones who have chosen to come here There is something about the mysteries of Prague that brought them. They are very open and curious about the city. They are amazingly well trained in music as well as being open and flexible. And I like the smallness of the program – it’s very family like.