Sunday, March 20, 2011

An orchestra through the reverse end of the binoculars

Today I want to share a video I found a few years ago that continues to be a major inspiration to me:

Let's for a moment forget about the fact that Segovia is a classical guitarist, that he is demonstrating these things on a nylon string guitar, or even that he plays a guitar.  Any instrumentalist can seek to develop a palette of sounds in this same way, and so many of us who developed in popular music styles seem to simply content ourselves with one tonal quality, one dynamic level, one way of attacking the instrument.  We can do all this before resorting to digital effects to artificially change the sound of our instrument - something I have nothing against, but something that I hear often, and rarely hear done in a way that reflects a mastery of the sound being produced.  Nels Cline is one of the precious few guitarists who I've heard really use a lot of effects, and use them like a real instrument.  Because that's what they are - a guitar with effects is no longer just a guitar.  It's a new instrument, and like a new instrument, it needs to be studied and mastered.

The thing that really blows my mind about Segovia's approach is how he integrates these different tonal characteristics so thoroughly into a piece.  What I mean is, often I, for example, may say - ok, this section I'm going to play with this sound.  This next section with this sound.  Segovia truly hears the entirerty of the line, and says, ok, these three notes, that's the cello coming through - this stab, that's brass.  This moment here, that's piano.  It creates the illusion of orchestration, almost in the same way Bach creates the illusion of polyphony with a single line in the Violin Suites.

Speaking of which, the best example I can think of to demonstrate this is by far Segovia's recording of the Bach Chaconne.  It's long, but very worth it.  Note especially at 6:57 as we transition into the Major section of the piece, how Segovia uses his timbral choices to bring in the new section as though viewed first from a distance and zooming in, a very cinematic effect.  At least that's what I think of. Segovia transcribed this piece for guitar in 1934, and though I don't know when this recording is from, the good sound quality would suggest later.  This recording is from the album "Andres Segovia - The Segovia Collection, Vol. 1"

Andres Segovia plays J.S. Bach's Chaconne in Dmi, from Violin Partita #2:

I could say a lot more about this piece, about its emotional weight, about how it comes at the end of a suite were each preceding piece slowly adds and develops each motif ultimately heard and realized in the Chaconne, which itself is far longer than each any others, and far longer than typical for the final section of a Baroque suite.  Listen for how the essential musical material of the piece is presented in the first 4 bars, only to then be twisted, turned, elaborated on, first in minor, then major, then returning to minor, over 13 minutes.  How the mood goes from dark and musically spare, to dense and intense, to nostalgic at 6:57, to exuberant, before returning to the original feeling and musical material, a feeling now felt so much deeper because of the material preceding it.  Wikipedia tells me it was perhaps written in memory of Bach's first wife. 

To me, this is the apotheosis of classical music and the relationship between composer and performer - Bach wrote it, Segovia interpreted it - transcribing it and arranging it for his instrument, orchestrating it dynamically and timbrally.  He didn't simply play it and try to recreate it faithfully, itself a lot of work, he made it his - he owns it, it is not something outside of him, even as he first recorded it over 200 years after it was composed.  The emotion of the piece, how Bach wrote it, how Segovia played it, how I hear it some 70+ years after that speaks to how the essential elements of human experience and feeling are unchanged.  Any music can convey that to anyone.  Music only dies when listeners, critics, or musicians pay more attention to the stylistic features of the music than the underlying creative, emotional content.

This music, the Chaconne, is real, adult emotional expression, in contrast to our society's (and a lot, but not all of pop music's) obsession with youth - granted I'm young, and obviously value youthful expression given that everything I've recorded would qualify as such, but one spends most of life not being between the ages of 17 and 30, and examples of mature musical expression do not have such a high level of visibility or value in our current culture.  I understand the Chaconne better now than I did when I first heard it 4 years ago because of the life experiences I've had, and I expect this appreciation and understanding to only deepen with age.  That statement is not meant as a judgment call on one kind of music v. another, simply an observation. Bach was somewhere between 32 and 38 when he wrote this around 1720, Segovia was 41 when his transcription was published.

But I digress far from my original point, which was going to be that, while Segovia probably saw the electric guitar as an abomination (ok, he definitely did) - just think of how many more timbral options I as an electric guitarist have at my command.  To begin with, any way of attacking a classical guitar you can do it on an electric too - it might not be quite the same, a layer of subtly might not be there, but it can be done, and that lack of subtlety is made up for in the fact that I have two pickups, two tone knobs, two volume knobs, all the knobs on my amp, my pick, the fingers on my right hand (and the gradations of nail v. flesh, and RH position, the same that Segovia uses) and any effects that might be on the floor in front of me - I personally use a wah pedal and the channel selector switch on my amp, to go between clean, dirty, and very dirty settings.  Why should I not alter these settings as I play?  Why not practice these things, to develop control over them?  Nevermind the fact that I have a way wider dynamic range (volume) and can still achieve some level of subtlety playing within a band at a high volume.  Within a group, I can fill my sonic space in any number of ways to complement the texture of the group - I'm thinking of course of playing with Matt Endahl (piano), Kate Olson (soprano sax), and Tim Cohen (drums), who I'll write more about later.  I'm not saying I'm a master of this kind of thing, anything but.  Most guitarists outside the classical world seem blissfully unaware of these concepts.  I know none of the jazz guitar lessons I took as an undergrad so much as once mentioned developing a dynamic range or tonal palette - all that came for me by suggestion and necessity when playing with the Creative Arts Orchestra - an experience I'm sure I'll describe more in the future.  I hope that opening up this line of thought might inspire more guitarists to experiment similarly.

I'd like to dedicate this post to Andrew Sargus Klein who showed me how to get an Mp3 embedded into blogger, and with whom I first shared that Segovia video when I found it more than two years ago.

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