Wednesday, May 16, 2007

an open blog entry to Matanya Ophee, thanks for 'Repertoire Issues'

Here's hoping he doesn't mind that I just blatantly link to his article/lecture transcription.

I doubt we'd ever meet or get along. I've a fairly theologically and politically conservative guy with a white mom and an American Indian dad who has always grown up in the Northwestern United States so if I ever met the guy I don't know if we could have a conversation for long before one of us said something that put the other on edge. Since it's exponentially unlikely I'll ever meet the man that's fine.

But this presentation he gave, this article he published about repertoire issues in classical guitar completely changed the way I think about my instrument, the guitar, and about how I approach composing for it. I went to college and sang in choirs and I learned music from organists and conductors and only eventually did I ever study, for just two quarters, with a classical guitarist. The vast majority of my musical education came through non-guitarists and the most important books I read on music had nothing whatsoever to do with the instrument. How on earth can a guitarist get something out of George Oldroyd's The Technique and Spirit of Fugue? What about Kent Kennan's book on Baroque Counterpoint? Hindemith's Craft of Musical Composition or A Composer's World? Kennan's orchestration treatise? John Verral's monograph on counterpoint?

It would be nice to say the guitar and guitarists had a bigger role in my musical education but Ophee is right, chamber music is where you really learn stuff when you study or play. I learned more about how to approach composition singing in choirs than playing guitar. Studying English sacred choral repertoire, including the remarkable modulatory patterns in William Harris' Faire is the Heaven taught me a lot. My composition instructor was a conductor who played clarinet. But it was studying the quartets of Bartok, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Haydn, and Beethoven where I learned the most about how to put music together. I studied symphonic repertoire, string quartets, piano cycles (Messiaen's Vingt Regards, Ludus Tonalis, Beethoven's Op. 111). Now I can't play any of the stuff to save my life except the first three movements of Ludus Tonalis because as an instrumentalist I am mostly self taught as a guitarist and a pianist.

And the thing is, to me that shows that how you learn your techniques doesn't matter. It has also shown me, alas, that after a decade of studying the greatest chamber music around I am at a loss to think of chamber music for the guitar that is as cool as Bartok's 3rd quartet or Hindemith's Op. 22 quartet (THAT piece is incredible). The thing is there ARE amazing works for guitar that have it playing with other instruments and the pieces that survive long enough to get recorded more than once deserve to be recorded way more often than they are.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Sonatina can't be over-played, not in the way chamber music gets recorded by guitarists.
Ditto for Histoire du Tango, to a lesser degree.
Toward the Sea is wonderful.
When is someone going to record Aubert Lemeland's Duo Variations for viola and guitar again? Seriously, this is a wonderful piece and I have no idea why GSP is still able to sell it year in and year out and yet I've seen no sign of anyone recording it. It deserves to be recorded again even if I think the ending is a little weak.
Koshkin's sonata for flute and guitar is cool and it's actually been recorded twice but to my knowledge never in the United States. Someone should fix that and I don't have the chops for it.
Atanas Ourkouzounov deserves more attention State-side. Then again that could be said about a lot of really good European composers. Thanks to Colt Valenti I am going to have to take his recommendation to explore the works of Angelo Gilardino (sic?) here when I'm not travelling out of state and have some time to pick up a few more recordings and scores.

But for budgetary reasons (planning to get back to my very expensive alma mater) I probably need to do a moratorium on scores and CDs for a while even if I doubt I'll follow through.

And I've gotten sidetracked from my earlier thoughts. Ophee's article seems like it will be as true twenty years from now as it was about seven years ago when I stumbled across it. And it was probably as true the year I was born as it is now.

Anyway, this man's article inspired me to start writing as much chamber music for the guitar as I could . Whether or not it's really any good remains to be seen. I can say that I've found the email addresses of four oboe and guitar duos, two viola and guitar duos, I admit to having not bothered with flute and guitar duos much as yet because that's the one realm of chamber repertoire for guitar that is actually at risk of being over-represented. I've bought a few CDs of flute and guitar music that frankly weren't that interesting. But music for BASSOON and guitar? That's another story. I have a sonata for bassoon and guitar in c minor I still need to work on. If I weren't trying to get on-the-job training out of state and weren't having to brush up on my guitar chops for the wedding of some friends I could probably take the time I need to finish that sonata for bassoon and guitar this year.

And then there's brass instruments. There's nothing. I mean, there's just about nothing. There's a French horn and guitar duo that Volkmar was kind enough to point me toward and I've got that--too bad I don't have a French horn player around to play the piece with because then I'd have a musician I could work with for fine-tuning my still seminal sonata for horn and guitar. I know from Frank Campo's work that even trumpet and classical guitar works are possible, though I can't find Two Studies anywhere and Frank Campo's email doesn't work anymore. I don't even know if he's still alive. This, friends, is why you take aural dictation classes in college! If the composer's work is out of print and he/she isn't even alive anymore how are you going to learn how to play a wonderful piece that exists only on a recording? That's right, you have to transcribe the whole thing yourself, which may be what i have to do!

I told a fellow I know at my church I would eventually write a piece for us to play. He plays tenor trombone. As an American with the complete works of Blind Willie Johnson ... I'll just leave it at that. By now you can figure out what my funnest stunt for THAT sonata is going to be and Nadia Borislove half-way beat me to the punch already. And since this city has a symphony that premiered a great tuba concerto by Samuel Jones you can bet money I've got the study score for that concerto and will one day, I hope, compose a duo for classical guitar and tuba.

And in case it's not obvious how much this resembles the precedent of another composer's work I'm not going to spell it out if it isn't already obvious. Ophee's advice about guitar repertoire happens to coincide with some ideas proposed by a favorite composer of mine, and both together got me thinking that rather than do what all the other guitarists are doing I'd like to see what I can get done by actually not focusing on the usual solo repertoire at all but focusing just on chamber music as much possible. It's obviously one of my pet obsessions besides theology and cartoons.

And as far as that goes I have finished a sonata for clarinet and guitar and have been kind of stuck over the last year because clarinet and guitar duos are astonishingly rare in classical music. In jazz, not so rare and I have started pitching my sonata to the jazz set even though it's not exactly jazz. It's an hommage to Ellington with spots for improvisation so I hope it's close enough to jazz for the jazz set because most classical guitarists I've come across don't necessarily show me that the get what a jazz sound would work out to be. Okay, Tom Baker and Colt Valenti and Michael Niccolela are all local examples of guitarists who can play whatever style they want but that doesn't mean I have reason to think they'd be interested in playing my stuff as such. By the way, brief plug, Colt's CD is fun. Look him up and check out his stuff.

If I have a fantasy of putting out a CD it's to put out a CD of all chamber music. Half the stuff would be mine and half the stuff would be music that has inspired me to write. Then again, I don't have the chops because I've been too lazy to build up my solo technique and because I've been too busy composing. I'm starting to understand what Robert Muczynski was getting at when he said his piano teacher thought he composed too much and his composing teacher thought he practiced piano too much. You can get so bent on one you don't do as well as you could at the other and if you try to split the difference between the two all the time your learning curve is long, slow, and steep.

But when I hear what else is out there in the world of guitar repertoire I don't usually regret taking the long, slow, steep and since 1997 mostly self-taught path. My theory professor and composition professor gave me the tools to figure out my tonal sound as I go and the rest has been following the advice of my guitar teacher that I knew enough after two quarters with her to learn whatever techniques I wanted and that I should only learn techniques when I had something MUSICAL to do with them. Maybe that's why I can't play tremelo and can't play fast but feel comfortable playing a three minute piece in B flat staying close to the nut.

Something I've learned looking at chamber repertoire has me buidling an ad hoc theory for why there's so little of it for guitar compared to solo repertoire. It's not that the chamber music is exactly bad but it does seem like guitarists love to avoid the keys that come most naturally to a lot of other instruments, especially woodwinds, let alone brass (which are avoided for obvious problems of the sheer volume brass instruments produce). But why should that be? Why should there be so many string quartets in B flat major yet any time a violinist and guitarist play together all the pieces seem to stick to keys that can be comfortably executed with a maximum of open strings? It explains why no one plays Lemeland's Duo Variations, which total eight minutes in playing time and are all in D flat. If classical guitarists spent as much time mastering the ability to play in any key as they did in playing fast or flourishing stuff some of these little gems in unfriendly keys could get better represented.

But I'm just ranting beyond any organized thoughts now and I do need to get some sleep. Mr. Ophee, you might never hear my music, and if you hear my music you may not like it, we may never meet and if we do we might not get along but if you're out there and by any chance happen to come across this blog that really has nothing to do with you. Your writing has inspired me to do what a musician in Seattle told me is "filling a vacuum that doesn't exist."

The vacuum does exist because if the measure of a standard for the guitar repertoire is something that has been played to death, or something that is over-represented on CDs then the number of "standard" chamber works for oboe and guitar is pretty small and it's been more than a century since Coste wrote La Montagnard. It's possible no one has written a sonata for tenor trombone and guitar so someone should. My composition professor liked to say that before Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony we in the West didn't know we needed it. Well, at the risk of sounding too confident by light years, maybe the reason we don't have a standard repertoire piece for tenor trombone and guitar is because no one has written it yet. If the piece is worth playing I like to think eventually it will get played. It's at least worth trying for because that's more fun than listening to the same Bach and Albeniz transcriptions year after year, no disrespect meant to either great composer keyboard-player.

So, anyway, thanks Matanya Ophee. Maybe if I'm actually any good at this you may eventually hear a piece of mine.

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