Saturday, March 09, 2013

Repertoire issues, prejudice against the guitar, and the "elusive sound"

Prejudice against the guitar always existed, and still exists today, even in countries like the United States where the guitar is being taught in more than 800 conservatories and universities. Let me read to you a short passage from a guitar concert review which clearly illustrates the common perception of the guitar by the majority of professional musicians:

“. . . But here is an instrument we long have not heard in our concerts, an instrument flying over from the blazing south to our distant cold north, an instrument of Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, an inseparable companion of any Spaniard . . . in a word, the Guitar, too inadequate an instrument for the concert stage . . . we would have liked to listen to it under the window of a beautiful maiden in a quiet summer night, under a silver moon, when a warm breeze lightly ripples the mirror-like surface of the river, whispering to itself in the rose bushes along the shore . . . but in the theater, in the midst of crowds, under a painted ceiling, and by the light of stage projectors, the guitar loses all its beauty, all its inherent melody . . .” (Gazette Repertuar, 1839).

If we think that this early nineteenth century contemptuous nonsense is an exaggeration by today’s standards, we only have to observe that even in those conservatories and universities the guitar is allowed to be taught, it is always delegated to a separate corner, with hardly a contact with the rest of the students and faculty. We find it necessary to apply to our instrument the adjective “Classical,” with the hope that by so doing, we would somehow convey to our colleagues that we are not to be confused with balladeers, rock’n’rollers, gypsies and mariachi. Violinists and pianists have no need to use the adjective “classical,” even though the piano is still the instrument of choice of many jazz players and one can find it in my country in every bar, every hotel dining room. At the turn of the century, the piano was also the favorite instrument in the public houses of San Francisco, New Orleans and St. Louis and it was precisely in that environment that rag-time piano music first became established. The violin is an important part of hillbilly, Country-Western music in the USA, and is used as a folk instrument in the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Mexico, the Arab world from Marocco to Iraq, and in many other countries. Violinists never worry about that

I have assembled a considerable lexicon of anti-guitar invective from different countries and different times. I am at a loss to explain why it is that of all musical instruments, the guitar, the instrument which was part and parcel of European musical renaissance from the sixteenth century on, is singled out by other musicians for ridicule and derision. I have some theories on the subject, but they are not the kind that can be discussed in polite society. The fact remains that we have a problem, and if we wish to continue as a living musical discipline, we have to try and find a way out.

Seeing as Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective has stayed in print for a while perhaps a lexicon of invective against the guitar could be a marketable spin-off.  I'd be interested in reading through the lexicon of anti-guitar invective.  The year I read Ophee's lecture transcript was the same year, actually, that I read this.  Even when praising a guitarist such as David Starobin look at how the guitar and its literature as a whole get described.

Dogged devotion: David Starobin
Wigmore Hall, London

Tom Service, Tuesday 14 December 1999 19.00 EST
The rarefied pleasures of a classical guitar concert seem more at home in an intimate salon or sitting room than the wide open spaces of a concert hall. In David Starobin's performances, feather-light trifles by Giuliani and Regondi - composers justifiably neglected outside the guitar-playing fraternity - were swamped and swallowed by the Wigmore Hall.

But in the second half, Starobin presented a selection of world and UK premieres from the contemporary guitar repertory that he has almost single-handedly created in recent years. Six pieces based on dance forms, part of a sequence of more than 50 Starobin has commissioned, demonstrated that there is more to acoustic guitar music than frilly technical virtuosity.

Robert Saxton's Miniature Dance for a Marionette Rabbi was a perfectly proportioned drama of breathless, flashy figuration. By contrast, Simon Bainbridge's Dances For Moon Animals created a crepuscular ambiguity with veiled harmonics and sharp changes of register. However, works by Paul Ruders and Colin Matthews seemed to be less successful attempts to disguise the guitar's naturally elusive sound with compositional sleights of hand.

Mauro Giuliani, of course, is considered one of the most important guitarist composers in the entire history of the instrument and yet his works are summarily dismissed as feather-light trifles.  Some of Giuliani's works are actually very long and his chamber works aren't performed nearly so often as his works for solo guitar.  The question of whether or not non-guitarists even know the extent of Giuliani's literature is a live one even if we agreed that Giuliani's cumulative works amount to feather-light trifles compare to Beethoven, Lizst, Bach, or Stravinsky.  Or even Haydn. 

If Service found Giuliani's work to be feather-light he'd have found Carulli's Op. 21 guitar sonatas even more insufferable to sit through than I recently found them to be.

But let's notice that even when praising specific guitar works performed by Starobin there's this observation about what Service considered a less effective composition for the guitar, Colin Matthews seemed to be less successful in an attempt to disguise the guitar's naturally elusive sound with compositional sleights of hand.  So effective compositions for the guitar disguise the guitar's naturally elusive sound, huh?  Wow, that's great to know, isn't it?  :)  What is this elusive sound?  Is it hard to capture or define?  Or is the sound of the guitar simply hard to remember?  If effective writing for the guitar compensates for something vague and forgettable about the very nature of the guitar's sound that might be worth pondering for a few paragraphs.

Seeing as in rock and pop and jazz the sound of the guitar isn't exactly elusive let's consider what the unamplified guitar may have going for or against it.  The guitar's sound is not so elusive that hundreds of riffs in rock and roll aren't defined by the guitar.  It's not like Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" has an elusive sound, it's signature riff, whether played on guitar or keyboard, is one of the most relentless ear worms in the history of American popular music. 

But without amplification and distortion the guitar's naturally elusive sound can be explained pretty simiple, we're listening to an instrument without the resonance of a bowed string instrument or, by extension, the sustaining potential of woodwinds, let alone the capacity for sheer volume available to brass.  These shortcoings are considered so severe by guitarists many of them simply avoid pitting the guitar against any instrument that is not also a guitar, perhaps dsicussing in vague, philosophical terms how the guitar will get covered up.  Guitarists who are not putting "classical" in front of their instrument back up other musicians and have fun playing music in which they tackle accompaniment.  It seems more the classical guitarist who will most likely talk about the guitar being a miniature orchestra without feeling very interested in the orchestra supporting the soloist for a concerto. 

Let's run with the possibility that disguising the elusive sound of the guitar is actually a goal, ,the goal is to compensate for the guitar's remarkable decay rate by creating music that accepts the decay rate as the reality that must be worked within.  The guitar is not usually played with a plectrum and has more than four strings so it won't do, apparently, to have endless streams of repeated notes that can sometimes be heard on the mandolin.  If you've ever heard a mandolin orchestra ... well ... thirty mandolins playing long sustained tones as opposite an unaccompanied choir as possible.  Wenatchee has to confess that the mandolin and guitar are two instruments whose decay rates tend to make them sound more ridiculous the more of them are added to a stage.  Six guitars will still have the same brittle, swiftly decaying sound that lacks the sustain of almost nay other concert instrument.

Enter fingerstyle and a steady flow of moto perpetuo arpeggiation.  There's only so many things we can do with that rapid decay and constantly keeping busy with the right hand over pretty simple harmonies has historically been one of the cities of refuge for guitarists who realize that if they don't accept the reality of the swiftly dying sound of their instrument they'll be considered guilty of musical murder if they try to make careers only out of, say, transcriptions of piano literature.  Plenty of us enjoy Albeniz played on the piano or Bach played on the violin.  Concertgoers don't want to only hear transcriptions of the greats on the guitar, the guitar should have its own natural, original literature.  That Giuliani's work can be described as feather-light highlights Matanya Ophee's observation that guitarists have a credibility issue with non-guitarists and that if we really want our instrument to be respected we must win the respect of non-guitarist musicians.  How might we do that?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it can't hurt to build a musical life beyond your official instrument. While Ophee observed that guitarists often seem relegated to back corners of music departments there's a sense in which classical guitarists relegate themselves to these back corners if they don't take time to discuss and immerse themselves in the repertoire that normal music students and musicians get into.  As snobby as we classical guitarists often are snobbery doesn't help us.  If we can't talk about Beethoven's 9th or Mendelssohn's Elijah or Handel's Messiah or Bach's Matthew Passion or Mozart's Requiem then we're unable to talk about the repertoire that still packs concert halls decade after decade.  If people are going to drop $30 or more for several hours of their lives then hearing the Emerson string quartet play all of Bartok's quartets or the late quartets of Beethoven might beat out hearing a guitarist play transcriptions of Mozart, Bach and Albeniz.

For that matter, people may drop a few dollars to hear Dave Brubeck or John Lee Hooker instead of hearing Albeniz transcriptions played on solo guitar.  If you go to a jazz or rock concert then you may hear Rush play every song in a three hour marathon in a way that makes each song sound exactly the way it did on the album.  Not everyone goes to hear live music so that they can hear exactly and only what they heard on disc.  Nobody would go to a jazz concert wanting to hear exactly the notes they heard on the CD.  It seems to be classical guitarists who avoid improvisation. 

For that matter, the disdain with which classical guitarists often look at popular music doesn't help.  Richard Taruskin's polemics won't suit everyone, obviously, but he pointed out that popular music criticism exploded as an art form and one of the things that we see in pop music criticism is discussion of politics, culture, and social values.  In other words pop music, whether you like it or not, is about something.  Critical discussion of concert music, Taruskin asserteed, has devolved into composerly and scholarly shoptalk in the last half century or more. 

Being a composer myself, by hobby, I love reading shoptalk sorts of stuff.  I only regret the post about sonata form in the solo guitar works of Sor, Giuliani and Diabelli in the sense that I merely discussed generalities about expositions and recapitulations without looking into developmental processes in their development sections.  Working on just that simple overview gave me a deeper appreciation of Diabelli's guitar sonatas, which unfortunately most musicians and guitarists probably regard with disdain either because of legends associated with Beethoven's famous set of variations or a guitarist's disdain for Diabelli's comparatively unglamorous themes.  As a composer I have come to respect Diabelli's handling of sonata form more than that of Sor or Giuliani.  Sor and Giuliani at their best are good, but Diabelli was entrusted by Beethoven with engraving some of his important late works. The life of a musician and composer is never simply going to be about music.  Wenatchee The Hatchet is almost certainly more widely known as a blogger than a composer and absolutely better known as a blogger dealing with a remarkably narrow subset of church history than as a guitarist who composes sonata forms and fugues for solo guitar.  Shoptalk here on music is less frequent than I would prefer in an ideal world.

As fun as shoptalk about how music gets made and what that means is, that sort of shoptalk frequently alienates normal readers and listeners. Most people are much less interested in what the notes in a musical work do than in what the musical notes mean.  The supposed political significance of backing total serialism as a blow against communism in a Cold War setting where Socialist Realism and its advocates pit themselves against decadent Western formalism is for people old enough to remember what living through the Cold War was like.  Rest assured, there are plenty of people who don't care about that history and care even less to listen to music by Milton Babbitt or Elliot Carter.  People want the music they listen to to mean something, not merely the compositional sleights of hand by which some composers managed to get foundation money and some academic tenure to write music that not-very-many-people listen to.  Some people want to be reminded to don't stop believing, after all. Hold on to that feeling that's more than a feeling..

So for classical guitarists what do our musical notes mean?  For many non-guitarists the answer is not much.  When you find out how many people actually won't listen to music that doesn't include a human voice you'll discover that there are some prejudices for other kinds of music.  Guitarists have not only a prejudice against classical guitar to consider but also the reality that there are some prejudices for other kinds of music.  Ophee's pragmatic and prudent observation is that for normal musicians in every style of music, including concert music, chamber music is frequently how things get done.  Let's think about that.  As Ophee put it, consider the musical value of the work as a whole and not just the glamor or prestige of the guitar part.  Playing simple block chords has its place and has musical value. I agree. 

Now at the end of all this let's think about Tom Service writing about that elusive sound.  It's not so elusive, is it?  The decay rate of the guitar is indisputable and if we think about the legions of adagios for strings that have made up many a tear-jerking moment in film soundtracks (look no further than Samuel Barber, after all) that decay rate the guitar has may be the simplest, most awkward reason many guitar works don't lodge themselves in the memory.  The very nature of the instrument is so evanescent then dedication to musical values becomes all the more important because we are dealing with an instrument whose physical limitations are so remarkably unforgiving and unyielding. 

Let's say that Tom Service is right about that naturally elusive sound, the unamplified guitar won't sustain.  We all know this if we've played the thing.  For those who want to play feather-light trifles they can keep playing that music.  For those who want the instrument to be respected then the path toward that will probably come about much the same way it's come about for other instruments, through a whole lot of repertoire that has been considered "unplayable" or alleged to not be worth the physical effort of playing the music.  How many times did Beethoven quip that his music was being written for some later age when he got complaints about technical problems?  Not that many, I guess, but enough.  When Hilary Hahn was asked about Schoenberg's reported quip that humanity would have to evolve an extra finger to make his violin concerto more feasible she smiled and said that the extra finger would just get in the way. 

Working with and around the decay rate of the guitar is going to involve recognizing that there's a lack of resonance in a variety of places for solo guitar and to make something musical of that whether or not it is easy to play.  Unaccompanied choral music can be the most restricting and unforgiving kind of musical performance out there and yet we've got unaccompanied choral music by Messiaen and Xenakis.  If we guitarists want to reach the hearts of audiences part of that is hinted at in Starobin's commissions of dances.  If we content ourselves to play etudes then no matter how brilliantly we play them audiences may at length realize that an etude is a study piece that builds technique toward concert literature.  Dance music is, in its inception, incidental music, music made to facilitate doing something. Why do people dance?  Well, I don't dance myself but I've observed people long enough to know there are a few reasons. 

By all means keep playing the etudes but if that's what we keep giving audiences, that and piano transcriptions, let's remember that the guitar's sound evaporates while the violin's sound lingers.  Realizing the guitar has many limitations does not mean we really need to be musically limited by them.  Stravinsky, after all, made that point about how the more restrictions he placed on himself the more free he was.  As I hear and see things guitarists have advanced to a level of technique and facility for which the very idea of something being non-guitaristic seems a little odd.  If a non-guitarists were to ask one of us whether it's possible to write in B flat minor we shouldn't hesitate to say "yes".  We can explain what is and isn't feasible within the key of B flat minor for solo guitar but we should not act as though they key doesn't exist.  There are things we guitarists and composers will only learn if we set aside trepidation about what keys are not "guitaristic" and see what can be done in them.  That is part of learning to live with and work within "the guitar's naturally elusive sound."

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