Sunday, November 27, 2011

a relatively recent piece by Matanya Ophee

"Relatively" means within this calendar year.  He's not quite as prolific on Guitar and Lute Issues as he is on his livejournal feed, which isn't to say he's prolific on that, either.  He's more busy editing and publishing, which is what I like about him.  He can't resist making accidental-yet-deliberate jokes because, well, he does that. 

Appropos of the pieces Ophee mentions, I've been wanting to play Ecloghues for years and spent years hunting for the score and my trouble is that the perfect flutist and English horn player for such a project are out of town and parents now. 

I have been corresponding with guitarist friends in the last few years and it has impressed me how the guitar has been around for centuries and we guitarists as a group love to say our instrument is more expressive than that dumb old piano.  We play a miniature orchestra and all that.  Yet it has only been in the last four years that an actual guitarist completed a contrapuntal cycle for the instrument.  I eagerly anticipate studying and listening to Koshkin's preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  Given the time that publication and recording of such a monumental cycle must take it will likely not get published in any form for such a time that I could finish my own cycle for solo guitar. 

I'm no virtuoso by any means and am a nobody composer but I can still say of both Mr. Koshkin and myself that if it has only been at the dawn of the 21st century that guitarists in the East and West have undertaken preludes and fugues for solo guitar that says a lot about our instrument.  It is a young instrument compared to the keyboard.  It is an even younger instrument compared to the great and wonderful contrapuntal idiom that has existed in choral music for at least half a millenia.  So this suggests at least two things for our consideration. 

The first is that such a young instrument in the context of human history should not be expected to really be at the same level as instrumental and choral traditions that have made substantial advances centuries ahead of ours.  Ricercars and fugues and contrapuntal works for the guitar have certainly been written and guitarist-composers have written cycles in which all the major and minor keys are attended to but these workers and works remain rare in the literature and even rarer in performance.  Ophee touches, I think, on one of the reasons why many of these works remain so often unattended to in many ways, they are considered musical white elephants, more physically and conceptually demanding than the musical worth guitarists believe they bring to the performer or the listener. 

And this leads rather naturally to the second observation.  Lest we need any reminders the most beloved composers of concert and chamber music (i.e. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc) all faced complaints that this or that masterpiece was "unplayable".  Yet these works are not only well-known but well-loved.  It may be that unlike the other musical societies and traditions guitarists, when they gather together and say something is too awkward or unplayable, prize idiomatic accessibility and glamor over musical substance. 

If in the keyboard literature and quartet literature innovation and progress has come with declarations that this or that is "unplayable" when it isn't why should we imagine that things will be different in the guitar?  Many works that are standards in the non-guitar literature were declared to be impossible to play and, if possible to play by some mere technical standpoint, were declared horribly unmusical.  Thus Yamashita's transcriptions were considered either impossible "as written" or unmusical as played.  Now I might suggest that as far as that goes the whole subject of guitarists playing transcriptions of keyboard literature is its own subject.  I don't see why Yamashita's "unmusical" treatment of Mussorgsky's keyboard music is so much worse than the treatment of Albeniz' keyboard music.  If you've heard actual pianists play Albeniz you can begin to feel like the Albeniz/Bach/Debussy/Mozart keyboard-transcribing pots are calling the Mussorgsky-transcribing-kettle black.  It's still not guitar music written by guitarists, people. 

And that is why I am excited about Koshkin's cycle.  Instead of we guitarists continually transcribing masterworks that were never written for the guitar and playing it safe there's got to be some room to explore, even if exploration means crashing and burning.  Let's remember that at one point there was not even a Well Tempered Clavier book 1, let alone a book 2 in the keyboard literature.  Koshkin's cycle may not make any impression on non-guitarists.  Maybe Asya Selyutina will record the whole thing and it will be amazing but nobody at, say, The Guardian or the Telegraph or the New York Times will even review it.  Or it might get reviewed with some grudging note that Koshkin's stuff is all right for guitar music but that there's other stuff being done by Brian Ferneyhough or something.  I don't know. 

I do believe, however, that amongst guitarists we should be encouraged that Koshkin has completed such an unprecedented project.  Of course I don't mean unprecedented in that Castelnuovo-Tedesco or Rekhin didn't write their fine cycles, I mean unprecedented in that this is the first time a guitarist composer has tackled composing a contrapuntal cycle.  Given Koshkin's focal dystonia I am not sure he composed with instrument in hand.  Anyone who has done any serious work on contrapuntal music will know, however, that often the worst thing you can do in writing contrapuntal music is to have the instrument in hand.  The contrapuntal tradition developed within the choral idiom, particularly sacred music in the West, and the guitar at its most idiomatic lends itself to all the things that are most forbidden in traditional counterpoint!  So if anything Koshkin's lack of opportunity to play guitar may have positively helped him at this stage in his life tackling counterpoint. 

I wonder how many guitarists will take up the cycle when it's published?  Schoenberg famously quipped that perhaps humans would need to evolve extra digits for his concerto to become more widely played.  Hahn, of course, has demonstrated the work can be played fluently and she joked that those extra digits would just get in the way.  If we guitarists want to keep moving in the direction of new vistas and new musical challenges, new achievements in substantial music, we may have to keep reminding ourselves that what this or that person declares "unplayable" now may not be unplayable, just unpleasant and not musically satisfying. 

Of course there are people who consider Bach to be tedious and uninspired. There are people who consider Beethoven overwrought, overlong, and boring.  There are people who refuse to consider anything written by Stravinsky to even be music.  There were people who considered Mozart's music to have too many notes (because some of his pieces did have too many of those).  There were people who complained that Haydn was some weird emo punk who introduced wild mood and tempo changes into his music that people steeped in the northern German Baroque tradition found unacceptable.  We don't know, and we can't know, whether or not something that seems like a musical white elephant won't become a standard work in the future.  Koshkin's giant solo guitar sonata could end up becoming a standard work.  I honestly hope it does and if the performances of both Papendreou and Perroy are any indication it SHOULD become a standard guitar sonata.  That doesn't mean I don't personally quibble with a few elements of harmonic structure in cyclical form but far be it from me to say you shouldn't go immerse yourself in one of the biggest and best works of one of my favorite living composers.  :)

Well, I've rambled on that for enough time now.

No comments: