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Our Circle Gets Larger

October 10, 2012

One day while working on Ponce’s Sonatine Meridional, I had the notion to look at the work like an orchestrator.

There is a long history of thinking about the guitar like this.  Beethoven, after hearing Mauro Giuliani play, commented that the instrument was “a miniature orchestra in itself”. While in France I sat listening to one of my classmates play Tarantos, one of Leo Brouwer’s non-tonal works, and was entranced by the variety of sounds  I was hearing: Brouwer had written an orchestral work for the guitar.

This is an instrument with huge sound potential.

So I took my cup of coffee, my pencil and my photocopied score to the work desk and began to dream the music differently. Each phrase had a certain character, and I asked myself which would be best here, woodwinds, brass or strings?  When should I alternate between instruments? Which sections were better suited to solos and which would sound better tutti? I began the process and eventually came up with a detailed “orchestration”.

I played trombone in my high school band, in the pit for musicals and for the symphony orchestra. In addition, I sang in the choir for Vivaldi’s Gloria and for Carmina Burana. These marvellous experiences enabled me to feel the power of classical music from the inside. These memories fuelled my imagination as I pored over the Ponce score and imagined phrases being played by different instruments.

This re-imagining of the score helped me  interpret the music  and create my own vision of the score. Most of all it helped me to feel that the music was bigger than me.

More than three decades later I was watching a masterclass given by Manuel Barrueco. He questioned a student about a point of interpretation for Bach’s fugue in D major. After hearing the answer he became quite animated and spoke of his experience playing with rock and jazz guitar players. He felt they all had a big sense of the music, and their own place in it. He opined that classical guitarists often think small, not feeling the music to be connected to the larger world. [I must note that Manuel’s experience of rock and jazz players included the very best of the best. I am sure that there are small musical visions among mediocre players in every genre of music the world over.] Decisions about how to phrase in this work had to be made in terms of Bach’s oeuvre, and baroque music in general.

Later in the class a very talented young player was rocketing through an arpeggio passage in a work by Costé. Manuel stopped the performance and started buzzing his lips, making a flapping sound. “Arpeggios are not a card stuck in the spokes of your bicycle – it is music and should ALWAYS BE MUSICAL”. The player suitably chastened, restarted the passage, and this time played it beautifully. A word to the wise was enough to get the music re-imagined.

As I have matured my listening habits have changed, as have my artistic influences. Early in my career I listened to and read everything I could about the guitar. Later, I moved on to listening to music from the world over and devouring texts by composers about music. Later still, I read books on fine art composition, and novel writing. The circle of my influences has moved from the specific to the general.

One night Nassruddin dreamt that he was given nine piastres. As soon as he saw this he said ‘O now pray make them up ten or why not eleven.’ With this dispute having arisen during his dream, he awoke and saw that in his hand he had nothing. Closing his eyes again he tried to go to sleep. He stretched out his hands and said, ‘Well, well, nine piastres would be a wonderful gift.’

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