Monday, November 02, 2009

Preludes and Fugues for solo guitar, taking stock of a project nearly one third of the way to completion

I have been researching things musical while on the job hunt and I have discovered that Igor Rekhin composed a set of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar between about 1990-1995. So I realize that I am not the first composer to think of writing an entire set of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. I am not the least bit surprised that the first composer to complete and publish such a set of works is a Russian composer!

I am merely a dilletante and not an expert at guitar literature from Russia or eastern Europe but my experience has been that Russian composers for the guitar retain what I can only call a certain sort of seriousness about the scope of the repertoire, not that that will make any sense or even seem rational. In the golden age of classical guitar repertoire in the West we had a number of composers composing large scale works in contemporary styles (i.e. like Haydn, like Mozart, like Schubert, et al).

Yet by and large contrapuntal works were not being written and don't tend to be written for the guitar, while the pinnacles of the repertoire in keyboard and string literature invariably include fugues. We see fugues in the string quartet repertoire, solo violin repertoire, piano repertoire, symphonic repertoire, and at the risk of overstating a case it would appear that the capacity for polyphonic composition is often a touchstone in establishing the seriousness, academic and otherwise, of much literature. It signals a point of arrival in your ability to conceive of music melodically, harmonically, structurally, and emotionally. One could be forgiven for thinking that the difference between classical guitar and the more popular forms of art music might be the distinction between polyphonic works and homophonic works. A certain levity and liveliness of material may also prejudice non-guitarist music critics in the world of art music from taking guitar repertoire seriously but that is another topic for another time.

A set of preludes and fugues for two guitars was composed by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and I have Delcamper avoz to thank, a great deal, for introducing me to those works. A set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar represents an even more difficult step in the repertoire and it is not too surprising Rekhin's achievent came some thirty years after Tedesco's. I have not, alas, had an opportunity to study Rekhin's work in much detail but I would be pleased to study Tedesco's fugues and compare them to Rekhin's fugues.

Any cursory research into what I do will reveal that I have been composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar since 2007. I have gotten to a point where nearly eight of twenty-four have been completed. When I read that Rekhin has already composed such a set I was encouraged. If a composer can compose and publish a set of such works then this establishes a precedent for my work. What surely amount to essentially little known or unknown works in the West means that while my set, when I finish it, may be unusual, it will not be without precedent.

What is more, having composed nearly a third of the works already it will certainly not be possible for me to somehow emulate Rekhin's style since I have not actually heard any of the works beyond cryptic mp3 samples at the composer's websit.

What I believe can be confidently said about the non-guitar literature and its "serious" element is that a measure of seriousness and artistic weight literally accrues to size. It shouldn't be the case, you may say to yourself, in a fairer and better world, but size basically matters. It takes a greater level of mastery to compose a Mass in B minor, a Passion According to St. Matthew, a Goldberg Variations, an Art of Fugue, or a Musical Offering than it does to compose even a Jupiter Symphony (hey, I do like that one even though I'm not a Mozart fan). It does take a level of mastery to compose a Ninth Symphony, an Op. 111, a B flat quartet with the Grand Fugue in it, and so on. Even in rock music the concept album can often indicate a higher level of musical mastery over emotional content and structure than bagning out 2.5 minute punk screeds.

To be fair this is not the same as saying that different works built around different aesthetic criteria or philosophies of aesthetics don't happen or should be measured by one measure. I'm just pointing out that there are different kinds of mastery in composing a novel, a sonnet, a comic book, a terza rima, or an essay. Guitarist composers and composers who have written for the guitar tend not to write novels and yet it is often, if you will, the critics who absorb novels who shape the tastes of music. Even in rock music this can pervade where the "novel" of the accumulated short stories of an artist like Bob Dylan or Aimee Mann or The Beatles take precedence over, say, The Doors, or The Monkees.

What I have been thinking about for a long time is that guitarist composers tend not to think things through at a cyclical level. Each movement is usually a self-contained entity in a larger work. You see less of this in the masters of the golden age like Giuliani or Sor, for instance, but it is to some degree still true even there. In fact it was arguably non-guitarist composers like Rodrigo, Britten, and others who throughout the twentieth century gave us a sense of what was possible in cyclical works for the guitar. Britten, of course, was particularly a genius about this, as was Takemitsu. I confess to having no real love for Henze and I hate Ginastera's Sonata. I will throw a bone and say that IF someone can play a persuasive account of Ginastera's Sonata I'll give it a shot because I enjoyed his dances for piano ... but I have not had a chance to hear that champion yet.

Koshkin has taken steps toward cross movement cyclical unification that I consider promising but I admit to being a purist or a snob here and note that Charles Rosen pointed out that the contrast within an exposition is less a contrast of thematic characters than of tonal centers. A certain tonal polarity needs to be emphasized between the tonic and dominant so that the resolution in the recapitulation is effective and Koshkin, though I believe he is a brilliant composer, has often taken such a fast and loose approach to sonata form that his dramatic gestures are sometimes robbed of some of the power they might have through a more assured and steady contrast in harmonic anchor points in the exposition.

Alas he has focal dystonia now so we'll never get to know precisely how his composing might tighten up if he integrated his wonderful approach to thmes into a more classically "classical" sonata allegro form. Be that as it may, his Sonata for flute and guitar is a marvelous example of the kind of cross-movement cyclical development of gestures that I submit we see often enough in non-guitar literature but not that often in guitar literature.

For my part, what I hope I can tackle is to compose a set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar that I can compose alongside my sonata cycle of duos pairing the guitar off with each instrument of the orchestra, give or take some less common members of the instrument families. I am not afraid to say that I believe that at some point some guitarist composer should be willing to make a commitment to such a series of cycles. Preludes and fugues for solo guitar obviously look back to the titanic accomplishments of J. S. Bach, while a giant cycle of duo sonatas looks back to the works of Beethoven (and someone else but you either know who that someone else is instantly or you won't figure out who it is).

I don't think that we as guitarists should fret so much about being taken seriously as artists or as composers. If anything I believe that classical guitarists have been so busy hoping to be taken seriously on the world stage no one is paying attention to the ways in which the guitar got more attention when the guitarists paid more attention to everyone else's repertoire. Segovia played transcriptions of Bach and Albeniz, you know, keyboard composers. Instead of the guitarist constantly looking inward at the admittedly beautiful repertoire we have, why not look outward to the string quartet, to the piano literature, to the wealth of choral literature, to music for woodwinds, to the symphonic repertoire, to percussion repertoire?

Now composing a set of preludes and fugues in itself will accomplish nothing for the guitar as a "serious" instrument. The vast majority of guitarists will simply never touch such repertoire. I notice that no Western guitarists seem to have touched Rekhin's work, though a couple of Russian guitarists seem to have ventured to play a few of Rekhin's works on disc. Unfortunately no one has seen to it to play all 24 preludes and fugues, which is too bad. I am not sure I have enough chops to play such works myself or that if I dared to play the cycle that anyone would care in the slightest here in Seattle. On the other hand, I don't know if anyone will much care if I compose a set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar of my own here in Seattle.

But I believe that the challenge of such a cycle is worth the effort. I believe it is worthwhile for a guitarist-composer to tackle such a gigantic challenge because that is what makes life fun. Until I knew of Rekhin's set I supposed that the only reason we did not have word about a set of preludes and fugues was not because such a cycle had not already been written but because it had not been published or published widely enough to get better recognition.

So if I am going to compose a cycle of preludes and fugues for solo guitar what I would LIKE to be able to do is to compose them in such a way that they have an immediate emotional appeal and accessibility. I want to compose, if possible, as much like Bach as possible but to do so with the emotional immediacy and friendliness of Haydn (who also, it must be said, wrote fugues).

Notice I appended Haydn and not Mozart or Beethoven to Bach! As the members of the Emersons put it about Haydn, you never get the sense that he brings his ego into things, that he is showing off to prove how great he is the way you do with Beethoven and even Mozart. His music reveals that he is a man of the people. He has the academic style but the academic style is to better serve you with somethign warm and entertaining.

So many breakthroughs and revolutions have happened in non-guitar repertoire that there are certain projects that have not been undertaken for the sake of comprehensiveness that I think should be undertaken. If, as the axiom has it, the guitar is a miniature orchestra, there is no excuse for guitarists to not be intimately acquainted with the repertoire of the instruments in the orchestra.
The metaphor of the guitar as orchestra has been over-played and has wanted badly for meaningful application. Don't just talk about the guitar being this little orchestra, remember that in the orchestra the strings do a lot of grunt work to support sections that have solos and that huge stretches of music go by where you, in the orhcestra pit, are simply a small part of the music.

Most guitarists would not consent to play this sort of "orchestral" music I have just described. Sure, Yamashita was happy to play the Op. 19 trio by Giuliani, which is an adorable piece and I'm glad he recorded it, but many guitarists would balk at the prospect of goign to so much effort to just be in the background behind the violin and cello. For my part I have not had the fortune to find musicians who want to play that sort of chamber music with me and too often I find what "chamber music" means in the world of classical guitarists is, "Oh, we have TWO guitars ... maybe even MORE." If the guitar in itself is a miniature orchestra what is gained by getting more miniature orchestras? Have that miniature orchestra back up a bona fide soloist already! Find a cellist, find a flutist, find a violist, find a trombone-player. If the guitar is that miniature orchestra there need to be more concertos in which the guitar is the orchestra having a playful, witty conversation with the soloist, working together toward a common end and the pleasure of others.

What is more, if the guitar is really a miniature orchestra then why shouldn't there be an Art of Fugue or Well-Tempered Clavier equivalent for solo guitar? If the guitar is REALLY not limited by this or that as so many idealistic guitarists (who are almost invariably PERFORMERS and not composers) love to say, then let's see people step up and start playing contrapuntal works more consistently, and not just the transcriptions of Bach sonatas and partitas. Seriously, I can pay to hear Hilary Hahn play Bach more brilliantly than the even better-than-average guitarist is probably going to play Bach transcribed from violin to guitar ... and Hahn is (no offense) going to be smarter about it and look better doing it.

But for my part if the axiom among some teachers is that you study Bach and listen to Bach but don't PLAY Bach if you're a guitarist then the solution is to simply write a set of contrapuntal works that AREN'T Bach but that are informed by his works. After all, no one said it couldn't be done and if they did Rekhin has apparently proven that this "couldn't be done" did get done.

Now I may eventually get to study Rekhin's works and I might find I don't like them. A fugue is only as good as its tune, after all, and perhaps Rekhin is the sort of composer who has that kind of contrapuntal control that lacks a winsome, emotional expression. I don't know, I haven't been able to study his work yet, but anyone with the drive and ambition to compose 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar is going to get the benefit of the doubt from me. Besides, if his cycle proves it can be done then to me it is yet more proof that my own project for solo guitar is not absurd.

So as you can see, I have a few years of life ahead of me (I'm in the middle of the 30s) and I have two big old cyclical works to keep me busy, the oft-mentioned preludes and fugues for solo guitar, and the oft-mentioned sonata cycle of duos pairing the guitar up with all sorts of other instruments. I have in the last nine years gotten six of the duo sonatas finished and in the last two years have finished seven of the 24 pairs for solo guitar. God willing and with a lot more work I hope to finish both cycles and I hope that the classical guitar world will hear some of these pieces and that, if things go really well, a lot of people actually like what I write.

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