Skip to content

Notes for Our Tears are What We Carry of the Oceans for guitar trio

This piece was inspired by a quote from Solar Storms – one of Linda Hogan’s novels: “tears have a purpose, they are what we carry of the ocean, and perhaps we must become the sea, give ourselves to it, if we are to be transformed.”  One of the greatest living poets, Hogan can in one phrase dissolve the barriers between animate and inanimate; past and future; or interior and exterior. I have written two song cycles using her poems: Truth of Matter and Rounding the Human Corners, * both of these are for low voice and guitar.

old b&w

Originally a piece for solo guitar that was premiered in 2013 at GuitarFest West in Calgary, I have reconcieved it as a trio to be part of a larger work titled Four Elements. This trio, being inspired by water, and the first, … As the Brick Remembers the Fire, comprise the set thus far and two more pieces will complete the cycle, being a The Oberon Guitar trio premiered … As the Brick in 2015 in Calgary also at GuitarFest West.

linear

Our Tears opens with a series of figures that feature the descending minor second, a trope used throughout western music to denote tears falling. Guitars one and two play the opening figure in an inverted canon. Some saturating crunching sounds with stacked minor seconds lead into a pulsing energy pushes the music toward the second oceanic section.

This section features flowing arpeggios and melodic fragments. There are multiple currents in the music at this point, as the melodic strains twirl in their own field before they finally meet. I was listening to the duets Colin McPhee played with Benjamin Britten the morning I started this trio. The hocketting figures and the simple octave melodies that enter later give a hint of Balinese Gamelan music.

A lyrical third section reflects an acceptance of those tears and also of our small part in the universe. There is a marriage between people and nature, of sadness and acceptance. If we can give ourselves to our pain, and accept it, we can become richer. In the heart of these thoughts is true compassion. The music ends as fragments from the first and last sections merge.

Mahmood met Nasrudin on his way to the market and took him aside. “Today, and today only I have a bargain for you, an elephant! Not just a part of one, but a whole living elephant for just one thousand dinars.”

Nasrudin scratched his head and said: “What could I want with an elephant, are you crazy? I have nothing to feed it and no place to put it. My wife, children and I live in just three rooms.” Nasrudin was now walking in circles and waving his arms, “The main thing is, where would I keep such an elephant?”

Mahmood continued his pitch, “It’s a beautiful elephant, all gray and ten feet tall with a complete trunk. “It has magnificent tusks, each two feet long, you won’t find a deal like this anywhere else. “He lowered his voice to a whisper, “You drive a hard bargain, Nasrudin, but today and today only, I will throw in a second elephant for only fifty more dinars.”

Nasrudin stood still and smiled: “Now you are talking.”

Advertisements

…where the slow deep centuries of earth are undoing and remaking themselves. [Linda Hogan]

I think of the creative experience as being a place of magic, a window into the infinite and unknowable. One must approach it with due reverence, it does not want to be known.

There is a story about a university music class being taken on a field trip to a North Indian Classical music concert. The promoter peeked out and saw a bunch of noisy students laughing and acting distracted. This was worrisome for him, not the way a concert should begin in his world. This concern for the performer made him think about improving the situation. He walked out onto the stage and said, “ I am going to teach you a chant, which is a very Indian thing to do”. He taught the chant to them and kept them going for a few minutes. He noticed they were becoming less distracted. They kept chanting for a few more minutes, until he figured them all to be in the correct mental space to receive music. At this point he thanked them for learning something new and introduced the performer. The recital was a great success for all involved.

I find it impossible to say what makes three notes musical and three others not. There is a power in one set that is not in the other. Where this power comes from is a mystery, it could be memory, associations, rhythms, or even logic. From those three notes you try to build something longer and longer until there isa moment of beauty that wasn’t there before. The skills we acquire help us to build, but not to define beauty. It is one of those things that does not want to be known. There are people who seem to access this place with ease, while for others it takes significant effort.

valencia street colour graffiti 2I teach in a music department at a university in Toronto and students there will be tested at the end of everyyear. Tested to make sure they have learned, and developed some instrumental or vocal skills. These deadlines are important; many of us do our best work when there is an endpoint approaching. There are some strange things that happen in these exams: students are asked to skip repeats, and are asked to stop one piece and start the next at unpredictable intervals. It seems as though the examiner is deliberately creating obstacles for the performer, obstacles that must be surmounted in a limited time. In this situation we lose the reverence for music. Instead of calling this music, we could simply provide the requisite kind of challenges and time limits, offering prizes for the fastest and loudest. It might be a more honest way to label the experience.

Music takes place over time and can stop the sense of time passing. I think of jazz swing and the river of rhythm, or players vamping out on a song because they are saying goodbye to a beautiful experience. I remember the swoon of experiencing Jesu Joy of Our Desiring for the first time. At its best, music stops the feeling of time passing, but we cannot be in a hurry to arrest the movement of time.

The bigger question for me is whether we vanquish art by creating an anxious mental space. Does a young person develop poise and confidence by being stopped and cut off? Examiners are usually more experienced and one would hope that they are good at negotiating the sacred space of music. I’d like to think that the path to the musical experience is full of wonder and joy. Words are the domain of writers and storytellers, so we must in the words of Charles Seeger, music about music. Modeling best practices, inducing good performance and guiding our youth to that magical window.

Nasrudin had been listening and reading about the world around him: famine, the plague, and brigands robbing traders. He found this all so disturbing that he gave up reading and wore ear plugs from then on.

 

“In the place of worn earth we walk on its softness…”- Linda Hogan

jeremy-clark-finished-spruce-top

 

I had the enormous pleasure of visiting the workshop of Montreal luthier Jeremy Clark recently. As we entered the cloakroom he pointed to his bare feet saying that everyone in the coop [10 in all] worked that way. My friend and I removed our boots and walked into the workspace in our stocking feet. After the entry hall was a machinery room with a couple of big band saws and drills all hooked up to industrial vacuums – no sawdust on the socks yet!

jeremy-clark-working-on-topThen we enter into the workspace where five workstations are set up along each of two walls ending at a large window. They are equally spaced, well organized and tidy. Jeremy’s is next to the window and we stand around chatting as he makes coffee from freshly roasted Ethiopian beans.Jeremy is affable, full of joy and passion for his craft. After an appropriate chat, he moves to open a guitar case. “Osage Orange,” he says, turning the back and sides so we can appreciate the colour. “Osgae Orange is actually not all that common of a tone wood. It’s a tree that’s original native to the the Red River drainage of (what is now) Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. Sometimes referred to as “bois d’arc” from early French settlers who saw how valued it was to Native Americans for the purpose of bow construction. Despite it’s name “Osage Orange” is only distantly related to the orange fruit and it’s actually in the Mulberry family. From a material properties and acoustic perspective it’s about as close to Brazilian as any wood you’ll find. The tree that we harvested was actually just oustide of Cookeville Tennessee. Cut it down myself in Georgia. Top is high altitude Russian Spruce.” It is a few years old, and has a 640 – 650 mm fan-fretted string length . As I start to play I note the easy action and the Pau Ferro fretboard. I touch it more carefully, noting the silky softness. “Polished” I ask?I

“A bit,” he mutters and I chuckle, suggesting that his comment is somewhat understated. I have never felt a fingerboard so smooth, and know from past encounters that Jeremy can be proneto impish understatement at times. The radius of the fretboard and the raised fingerboard combine to make it very easy to play. The sound is sweet, but after a few minutes I try to bring out the upper overtones by playing about an inch from the saddle with as much volume as I can muster. “Pumping out the highs,” I say – to which Jeremy responds, “Hasn’t been played much.”

orange osage tree

As if prompted by an unseen stage manager, Jeremy moves to open another case. This is the spruce/cedar hybrid Patrick Kearney wrote about recently. It is a standard fretted instrument with a sting length of 650. Like the Osage orange guitar, this has the thick heavy sides that are one of Jeremy’s idiosyncratic design features. I find this instrument to be highly responsive to my left hand, and I seem to put vibrato on every note. The easy action seems to inspire this. Dynamics come out well, and the instrument responds in an uncanny manner to my every change of weight, articulation or expressive gesture. As I play, different sounds highlight themselves: at one point it is the ‘C’ on the third string that wants to be heard, and soon after an ‘F’ at the 15th fret on the fourth string asserts itself. Again I find the sound about too sweet and once again pound out the ponticello. I look at Jeremy who says, “Hasn’t been played much.”jeremy clark cedar:spruce top

The sides and back on this instrument are Ceylon Satinwood. “Ceylon Satinwood has all the acoustic potential of the best rosewoods and was the wood used on the finest French furniture in the 17th Century. Because of the high regard in which it was held historical makers such as Enrique Garcia, and Francisco Simplicio used it on their “fanciest” exhibition pieces.”

We start talking about double tops and Jeremy brings down an instrument that hasn’t been played at all. The tuners aren’t don’t even have screws to attach them to the head stock, they are only temporary ones until the good ones come in. This instrument is high altitude Russian spruce on the outside with American red cedar on the other side of the nomex sandwich. Standard frets, 650mm string length with back and sides made from Wenge. “Wenge generally comes from the swampy areas of Cameroon and was used traditionally for ceremonial masks and statues. It’s quite stiff, low damping, and with a high velocity of sound…in short it’s great for backs/sides.” The clear round sound is like the high alpine spruce sound I am looking for. Every once in a while I look to Jeremy, who by now is getting a little exasperated, “William, its not finished yet,” he says to my unvoiced queries over and over.

jeremy-clark-working-inside-of-topAs I play there are intriguing sounds, a loud note on the fourth string then a quiet third string open, followed with a natural harmonic, for example. The special quality amuses me for several minutes before I move on to a set of dissonant clusters over quiet open strings.

Laughing I say, “this is the last thing I expected to find here – classic European single top sound from a Jeremy Clark double-top.” Chuckling for a bit I add, “bet this wasn’t what you expected either!” He nods and explains that this instrument was kind of recycled – the top wasn’t good enough so it became a good way to try a double top experiment, since the neck and body was already built, he needed only to fit the newly conceived double top to the existing structure.

My friend moves ten metres back in order to ascertain the guitar’s projection. We compare the hybrid and the double top and my friend says that both are about equal at that distance. Jeremy explains that he strives to produce the same clarity in the middle four strings that are often evident on the outside ones. “In many concerts and competitions I sit at the back of the hall and can’t hear the middle notes very well. It seems a shame when so much work has went in to learning the repertoire that we should miss those notes.” My improvising changes to reflect these notions. If not quite as responsive as the hybrid guitar, this was still a very responsive guitar. Save for the fact that it was a 650mm string length I might have tried to bring it home with me.

 

jeremy clark guitar hanging

Jeremy explained that you could adjust the action with an alan key, so I asked for a demonstration which he quickly gave, opining that players might want to use the lower action to save wear and tear on the body in the lead up to a concert or event.

All the instruments are very attractive, and with such intriguing design concepts it is fascinating to note that his sound ideal is almost conservative: to produce a beautiful and responsive instrument with good timbral variety and a wide range of dynamics.

Nasruddin’s sweetheart had finally agreed to marry him and a they were chatting in the grass by the river,

“I am so happy, my love,” said Nasruddin, “have you told your parents that I write poetry?”

“Not yet, my dear,” replied the girl, “but they know about your drinking and gambling. I thought it best not to tell them everything at once.”

 

Pick the theory – an Interview with Sergei de Jonge from 1986

This interview took place in the old Lariveé workshop where many of Canada’s leading guitar makers apprenticed. It was now Sergei’s studio, Lariveé had moved to Canada’s west coast to set up a small factory. It was an early autumn day and we sipped tea together.

Sergei had been smitten by the first concert guitar he had seen which was built by Edgar Mönch. After that concert he found the retail price of such an instrument so intimidating, he resolved to build himself one. “I met Jean Lariveé after that concert and asked if I could work for him. He said to come by on Tuesday. That Monday I went to teacher’s college and quit and I started working for John the next day. It was a while before I made my first guitar; I was broke when it was finished so I sold it. That left me no further ahead.”

images

This had taken about six months, and “by that time Jean [Lariveé] and I were pretty tired of each other. We had both quit smoking and were in foul, raunchy moods… and I still needed a guitar.” Having just seen a TV show that featured Pat Lister, who had just built a guitar for Julian Bream, Sergei started work with his second mentor. “I went to work with Pat Lister, where I lived in a tent by the river for about a year. We didn’t get work much, we talked about philosophy, lay in the sun and went swimming. I made about one and a half guitars working with him.”

Moving back to Toronto in September 1971, Sergei set up his own workshop. He spent three months back in Lariveé’s while he saved up for tools and supplies and finally got his own space set up in December. Working long hours he finished fifteen guitars that year.

With the same spontaneity that led him to this vocation, de Jonge decided to move on. After two and a half years of building guitars he sold his supplies and went traveling. The trip took him across Canada, then to the Southern US and finally to Arizona where he spent two weeks on a Hopi reservation. “ I was staying with a 96 year old man – although his friends said he had stopped counting years before. He seemed perfectly fit – at least he could run and jump. One day he said, ‘We need rain’, and I could see that it was pretty bad already so we went walking for a few miles. When we got back he started to play his drum and to chant quietly. Then others began to join in. Gradually the chant became more intense and I joined in. We started to move and we danced in a circle around the old man, increasing the speed of our gesticulations. As we finished the third verse, which was the climax, with a leap into the air, our faces high, beating our chests, the clouds burst. We were soaked by the time we returned to our tent.”

Back in Toronto for the summer of 1974, three unsold guitars remained which allowed him to resume his business. It was laborious having to purchase all those supplies again. On future sabbaticals, he stored his gear rather than selling it.

A few years later, he went to Europe with his wife. “ My idea was to spend about seven years traveling around the world. We had a baby in Amsterdam and then travelled through Greece, [the former] Yugoslavia, Turkey and finally to Israel. This was just a stopover for India, Nepal and points further east. But my wife had other thoughts. We were with a three-month old baby, and came back to Canada where I had to make a living. This is all I know how to do: makeguitars.”

images-1

As he builds guitars, he tries new ideas: “ Every guitar is an experiment. I spend more time than is practical testing different finishes. Sometimes I have to strip a guitar and start over.” He chuckles for a bit, “this happens fairly often.”

“I like to use animal glues rather than the industrial ones. Natural materials can be heated and taken apart easily, which is an advantage for doing repairs. It’s strong, maybe not as strong as resin glue, which is a modern substance that hasn’t stood the test of time. I’m working with wood – a natural material and I’d like to hold it together with a natural material.”

For a while in the early 1980’s, Sergei gained notoriety for his multi stringed instruments. They were built for Toronto guitar teacher Ted Lebar and included an eleven, fifteen and finally a seventeen string model.

A de Jonge guitar always has a good bass sound so he concentrates on producing good trebles. “In Spain, you can pick up any cheap guitar and the balance between the treble and bass is always very good. Theses instruments are from places that make five guitars a week, and the overall sound may be small, but the treble-bass balance is good. I’m sure they don’t spend hoursthinking about it.

“The more I make guitars, the less I know. One theory is to make the top as thin as possible, while still maintaining the structural soundness. Yet the guitars I’ve made with thick tops have turned to be among my best. Another theory says that the denser the wood in the neck, the better the sound will be while another dictates the opposite to be true. I just use whatever available wood is lying around and pick the theory to suit that.”

Sergei prefers North American spruce to European because he can always get the best. “I usually get split trunks sent from Oregon or British Columbia. That way the grain is straight, and I know exactly what I’m getting. I cut all the tops myself. With European spruce, I don’t have a good supplier for split trunks so I have to buy cut tops.”

Oct2009courseSince this interview, Sergei has moved a couple of times. For years he has had a School of Lutherie that heruns from his workshop. Thousands of students have come from the world over totake this world course. The young man who was in teacher’s college has come full circle.

…the flower petals flow downstream

June 16, 2018

After carrying my parents’ ashes for over thirty years, I wished them goodbye again this morning. It was a sense that the time had come to release their earthly remains back to the world.

I am poised between the ages of their passing: dad at 52, while mom left us at 71. A dear friend and mentor, Robert Evans, gave me the vase I have been carrying them in. Robert’s kindness helped me through the time of mother’s passing and it was in the lake near his cottage, six months after the funeral, when I felt my spirit let her go from my heart.

I turned 52, which was a year filled with trepidation. There was a similar feeling on the one year anniversary of my heart attack – it is good to have passed those dates. Over the years since his death, I’ve written to my father numerous times with personal questions. Sometimes there was a benevolent feeling that came to me as those emotions were expressed.

Today, my questions to him would be about songs. He died young and hadn’t sang and played guitar often during our time together. It still seems he sang more than me. He must have had a fabulous memory because he learned everything by ear without the aid of tape recorders. In contrast I naturally drifted toward the “security of written music”. I would ask him what he loves to sing about and what makes a great song.

His guitar playing life was cut short for a while by an industrial accident, which removed the tops of three fingers below the nail line of his left hand. Assuming he started playing when he was 18, he could only have sung and played for 12 years before this enforced stop. There were two or three times that he borrowed an instrument. It is with great fondness that I reflect on those serenades when he sang to me for hours. At family parties I remember him singing and playing for what seemed the whole evening. Even though those finger stumps looked too wide to fit between the strings, he managed somehow and sang with joy and gusto as the whole room joined in. Dad passed away while I was in my first year university a few months after I turned 18.

I would ask my mom about the times when her dad doted on her before he died. She hadn’t yet reached her teens. Under the umbrella of that affection her dreams and hopes would have been optimistic. I remember her singing in the kitchen as she baked fresh biscuits in the morning. She introduced me to the joy of picking and eating fresh vegetables off the vine, and explained to me how my father preferred the home made ketchup to be quite spicy.

Leaving her in Toronto, I went to study in Paris, learning French and new ways of looking at the world. Returning to graduate from the University of Toronto, we lived together until I left to start my own life. We met regularly for dinners going to interesting little places that were opening up on College Street between Dufferin and Lansdowne.


flower petals in bowlThis morning we burned some sweetgrass and sage to honour the first nations of this land. We added some herbes de Provence to honour my distant paternal French ancestry and black tea to honour my mother’s English heritage. We cast flower petals on the river to give us a visual metaphor for the flow of ashes and to create a target for our prayers.

We also brought the dog, who, danced in the water with glee. Unknowingly, she functioned like a sacred clown, contrasting the somber atmosphere with unbridled joy. It is good not to be stuck in one emotional sphere.

Later today, we will listen to You’ll Get Used To It, an old Wilf Carter song that I remember dad singing to me at least twice. We will also listen to a goofy song: Today Is The Day We Give Babies Away With a Half a Pound of Tea. Mom sang this to herself and always smiled when she got to the part, you just open the lid and out pops a kid.

 

Goofy, somber, gleeful and serene.

Not as Much as Tomorrow

In the past few days I started learning an old song from my youth, “More Today Than Yesterday” by The Spiral Starecase [correct spelling – they did named themselves after a Hitchcock film but corrupted the orthography]. There was a video available of the group playing the piece, so I watched the guitar player/singer’s hands on the fret board to make learning it easier. The opening chords were from exercise number two from the Mickey Baker book, “A Modern Method in How to Play Jazz and Hot Guitar. Pat Lipton, the singer/guitarist/composer was alternating between G Major 7 and G 6 much of the time, as per the dictates of Mickey Baker’s lesson. It turns out that Mr. Lipton had learned a new chord but couldn’t find a pop song that used it, so he wrote one himself.

chelva alley it goes up and upThis made me think of a Randy Bachman story, about his lessons with Jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau. During One lesson, Breau taught Bachman an ending formula. The next week Bachman came in to his lesson exclaiming, “You know that ending you taught me last week? I used as an intro in my latest song.” At which point Breau said, “You can’t do that man, everyone’s going to think the song is over before it begins!” The song was “She’s Come Undone, written in 1969, about a girl who dropped lsd and was never the same. It was an appropriate observation, for a good Mormon boy like Bachman.

This makes me very happy, to think about, creative spirits who expand their knowledge base and use it to write pop songs. In doing so the vocabulary of the idiom grows, and we all become a little bit richer. Any idiom that stops growing and changing risks becoming stale. I think now of George Harrison as I listen to some old Beatle songs and marvel at his guitar parts, which are sometimes inflected withjazz or country styles and the appropriate mannerisms.

alan-bell-wood-on-beachHere I sit as a classical guitarist pondering these things. When one of my dear friends was studying viola in Paris in the early 1980’s, he once did a gig with a pick-up orchestra for a pop singer. Word of this got back to his viola teacher, who threatened to ban my friend from his studio because this association with popular music would ruin his good name. The alignment of music with the class structure was so strong at that time that I wonder how much I missed during my own time in France. In Toronto’s current economic climate, many freelance violinists work regularly with mariachi bands to supplement incomes.

Necessity has broadened our horizons…

Nasrudin was dining with the sultan, who leaned over to ask him about the stew. “I thought it was quite good your majesty,” said Nasrudin smiling.

The Sultan replied, “I thought is was terrible.”

“Quite right, your Majesty, it was horrid,” said Nasrudin.

The Sultan frowned, “did you not say it was quite good a moment ago?”

“Ahh, eerrm, yes,” said Nasrudin, “but I serve the Sultan, not the Stew.”

The past is behind and the present all around. Writing music is a way of uniting all those voices…  

          At some point this past year I realized that my recent work wasn’t new music. Certainly it is freshly composed, but it no longer explores sonic frontiers. Rather, it seems to explore older areas. I wish that when hearing one of my pieces, a listener might say: “That sounds like something I have heard before, like something that has always been there.”

valencia graffit apt 2This is reminds of the semantic confusion during the 60’s and 70’s when people were said to be writing “folk music.” Properly understood, folk music would be that which has been passed down from older generations. The successful songwriters of that period immersed themselves in the songs from the past and have made our world richer by adding songs like “The Circle Game”, or “ Me and Bobbi McGee” to our world. Perhaps there is a blur between the old world and the new now. So much music available from so many different places.

Having composed for prepared guitar, and having employed extended techniques, my goal now is simpler: to take an idea and make the most of it. In order to do this, one must let the idea dictate the paths to follow, be they tinged with bluegrass, old folksongs or the limits of a church mode. We create within limits and there is a joy from trying on different clothes, so to speak.

A critic once commented about one of my CD’s that there wasn’t a cohesive style. There were rags and choros, followed by imitative parodies and innovations. One can’t really imagine Steve Reich or Phil Glass doing those different things on a recorded project. I’d like to think that there is a bit of myself in each of these styles, that my ears are made afresh with every project. Each piece is an adventure, be it through the world of 12 bar blues or through a looping pedal. Each piece is a different way to use my resources.chelva steep incline 2

It is also the response of a teacher hoping to share the joys of discovery with the guitar world. Ragtime and blues music present the challenge of using certain harmonic patterns, while the restrictions of a mode may force one to think of melodies and drones. Each new problem is a bit of a stretch. My place in the music world may be modest but is filled with wonder.

One day Nasrudin went to visit a neighbouring village. He stopped to rest, and while doing so read a bit from his favourite book. He put it down to have a drink before getting up to leave. It wasn’t until he was at his friend’s house that he realized his book had been left behind. It was no longer there on his way home and he worried that it was lost forever.

A week later a goat came by and dropped the book at Nasrudin’s feet, which inspired the master to leap up calling, “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.”

“Not really,” said the goat, “your name was written inside the cover.”