Monday, August 20, 2012

On classical guitarists and "expressive" playing

I play classical guitar.  I participate in discussions of the guitar and guitar literature.  It's common for me to come across guitarists who dislike the piano and talk about how inexpressive and mechanical it sounds.  Cue discussions of how the guitar has all this expressive possibility that pianos cannot match.

Like what?  Do people only define "expressive" in terms of what the average guitarist does?  Do audiences who pay to hear Barenboim play piano (or conduct) pay to hear someone who is incapable of being musically expressive for having a baton or playing a hammer-operated keyboard?  Of course not.
Then why would guitarists claim that the piano is inexpressive.  Do they say this about the harpsichord, which doesn't even have the capacity for dynamic range the piano (and related instruments) have?  Not generally.  Putting down the piano as not being expressive won't change the fact that far more people have bought recordings of Beethoven's Diabelli variations than have bought the complete guitar sonatas of Diabelli.  You can dig through this blog and find my break-down of Diabelli's approach to sonata form in light of Charles Rosen's observations on the fluidity of sonata forms elsewhere on this blog.  The point for this paragraph is that when I say Beethoven is more sought out than Diabelli I'm pointing out the obvious to show guitarists that overcompensating for a lower level of appeal by putting down the lack of "expression" in the piano is idiotic.

What is also not helpful is the actually "expression" guitarists cite as a defense of the beauty of our instrument.  I don't have a polite response to guitarists who keep prattling on about how our instrument is "expressive" in ways the piano cannot match.  I'm still conviced the two great obstacles to guitarists composing significant repertoire comes first from ingrained sheer physical laziness and a subsequent insularity of the mind.  See the earlier reference to Beethoven and Diabelli.  If Sor's work is often good it is not at the level of Haydn or Mozart.  A useful rule of thumb is to consider the exposition of a sonata form.  If you hear the exposition in a Haydn string quartet or a Beethoven symphony or a guitar sonata by Sor or Giuliani and instantly want to hear it again then you've got yourself a fun exposition.  If you find yourself anticipating the development because you get that the exposition just wrapped up already ... .

To compensate for these problems guitarists as a group too often seem to embrace some Pavlovian priming effect of some kind in which "expression" allows guitarists to pretend that we guitarists have this great power pianists don't have.  We get to pluck a string over the fingerboard or near the bridge!  We get to play a note as a harmonic!  We get to play this one note on three different strings and this means that the guitar is a miniature orchestra.  If that were to be how I would actually go through my musical life I'd rather transcribe all of Art of Fugue for a banjo quartet than play the guitar.

Before I tackled 24 preludes and fugues I didn't realize it was actually possible to create a double fugue in three voices in D flat major for solo guitar.  It would seem the world of classical guitarists is full of people who have already decided what is and isn't physically possible or, worse, what is or isn't musically "worth" the trouble of playing--this begets a culture in which what is considered musically "worthwhile" is systematically predetermined by what is physically convenient.  It's little wonder Gilardino remarked that even in the best cases in 19th century guitar literature ease of idiomatic expression trumped musical values.  I'd have to agree. Expressive playing is wonderful but let's not pretend that by means of "expressive playing" that the average guitarist is in any way more expressive in any meaningful terms than the average pianist.

Let's also not pretend that the average guitarist composition has the same offering for an audience as an average work in the standard literature of just about any other instrument.  I'm not saying this is apples and oranges, I'm saying that audiences spend money to tell us what they want and what they want often doesn't involve the guitar.  Dismissing them as phillistines is not proof that our instrument is more expressive.  It may just be that what we're expressing or how we're expressing it could be more interesting, maybe?

The older I get the more grateful I am that my musical education was among symphonic musicians, pianists, and vocal performance majors.  The sheer physical laziness of a guitarist is often the pathway to a mental and scholastic laziness in which debates about which edition of Villa-Lobos is the best one or whether Sor is better than Giuliani gives the non-guitarist world of concert-goers reason to ignore us.  Of course I'm not saying those points don't matter among guitarists, I'm saying that the fact that those kinds of debates happen amongst guitarists is meaningless to everyone else.  It's on the order of a scholastic debate about whether an obscure passage in Ecclesiastes is about the advantages of brewing beer.  Yes, I dug into that and it was fun but I have no illusions normal people care!

Now if I were to sum up a guitarist composer whose work has mattered to me a lot over the last fifteen years it'd be Nikita Koshkin.  Setting aside all my interest in his music I can explain the significance of Koshkin as a guitarist-composer in a single sentence.  I was introduced to Nikita Koshkin's music through a drummer!  Really, that's the truth!  When a guitarist hears about a guitarist through a drummer that is a sign that the guitarist is composing something that gets the attention of someone not in the insular world of classical guitar.  That's at least one way of knowing whether a guitarist has written some music that is significant, isn't it?


David Dembinski said...

It's easy to mistake a good vibrato for "expressive", and it's an easy trap to fall into as well. I probably shouldn't say more as a simple strum-and-singer. As a relative outsider I do find the classical guitar world an interesting, if strange one.

chris e said...

The way out of this insularity - as well as the way beyond it - is to read pianists on the subject of expression. For a very simple first take I'd recommend Charles Rosen' Piano Notes.

The other slightly amusing aspect to this claim, is that classical guitar *playing* itself has improved immeasurably in the last few decades as you have a whole new generation of players who have adopted a much more scientific approach to such things.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Ooh, that's another Rosen book I should get to. Thanks for mentioning it.

Matanya Ophee has mentioned at length that guitar performance has improved through our casting off Romantic interpretive conventions being applied to every. single. thing. written for the guitar. When Segovia did it that was his personal touch and, okay, we can respect. But we don't all have to do that. :)

I'm more of a Julian Bream fan myself. Commissioning 5 Bagatelles, Britten's Nocturnal, Tippett's The Blue Guitar and Takemitsu's All in Twilight makes it easy for me to dig Bream a bit more than Segovia.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

David, fun avatar. :) Thanks for posting.

chris e said...

" When Segovia did it that was his personal touch and, okay, we can respect. But we don't all have to do that. :)"

Yes, and it was not just vibrato - but also excessive amounts of rubato - applied to things like .. Bach. As well as romantic interpretative conventions there were also construction techniques and practising regimes that dated back to the same era.

Bream is one of the few of his era who stands up against modern guitarists. The others, not so much.

Paul Hardy said...

Fervently agree!
And anyone trying to limit the overused rubato, timbral effects etc which are the staple of "expressive" guitar playing gets dismissed as "mechanical" or "soulless", even if s/he plays with more musical intelligence or structural awareness than the romanticised norm