The instrument now known as the baroque lute was commonplace in Bach’s Germany. Owing to the fact that most lutes were cheaper and more portable than keyboard instruments, its popularity had remained intact for the centuries in which it had been the ideal means of accompaniment for amateur singers. The instrument, while retaining the shape and timbre of its earlier forbearers during what was perhaps the height of its popularity in the 17th and early 18th centuries, had evolved substantially to reach the form it took on in Bach’s day. Before the middle of the 17th century lutes across Europe, while differing in other aspects such as the number of strings, were tuned in similar ways. This method of tuning-- 4ths around a central major third-- was described as early as 1483 in Johannes Tinctoris’s De inventione et usu musicae. Throughout the course of the 1600s, however, the need for an extended bass register prompted the addition of lower strings to the lute. There were so many strings that in fact a player’s fretting hand could not claim them all, and so the free-floating strings, under which there was no fingerboard, were most often tuned in a descending diatonicism that was adjustable based on the key of pieces. It was these additional basses which probably led to the elimination of the 4ths-around-a-3rd tuning, which was replaced in time by an open d minor tuning above the lower, diatonically descending bass strings (this tuning was by no means, however, universally accepted and the traditional tuning of 4ths was maintained throughout Europe and most notably in Spain in the form of the vihuela and baroque guitar, which later would pass on their open-inconsonant genes to the modern guitar).
Berlioz’s famous words stating that only those who play the guitar well can compose for it are doubly true for the baroque lute, which by this time had developed several tablature notational systems which varied from region to region. These tablature systems are one of the reasons why solo lute music continued to be written mainly by esteemed lute players of the day, and also a reason why the lute music of J.S. Bach stands out as an anomaly.
Found these videos in which I am somewhat featured from a concert in 2009. Carl Fortina is the godfather of accordion soundtracks, and was the original player on the Godfather soundtrack!
(This was written in summer 2011)
Last month I had the great honor of visiting Burnstown, Ontario, where I met Jorg Graf. Graf’s life story reads like a Defoe novel--the man has survived violent storms in his boat, he was swindled out of royalties from an incredible invention of his, and all the while he’s occupied a remarkable amount of positions as an engineer of all sorts. Recently, he’s turned his formidable talents to perfecting guitar tuning heads. I made the 8-hour trek up to his home (during which I struggled to repair my bank account, which had been the victim of some illegal transactions, and also braved my first outbreak of hives), where he presented me with my own set of these wonderful pieces of technology, hand-engraved with my name and an inscription noting my being the recipient of the first-ever Graf-Juilliard award. Jorg set a friend and me up at another German ex-pat’shome/resort/cooking camp and the following night I played a concert at the Neat Cafe, owned by the absolutely wonderful Adam and Kim McKinty. This establishment is the cultural and culinary capital of the region, and they frequently host diverse and renowned musical acts in their intimate concert venue. From what I gathered, they had never hosted a classical musician before, and I was more than happy to initiate the crowd. Here are some videos from the event:
(This was written in Spring, 2011)
I just got back in to New York late last night after Juilliard’s spring break. My time, spent in California, was refreshing and I feel like I have enough in me now to make it through the next two months until graduation....
I mostly took it easy in terms of performing (though I did confuse my “century”s and “100”s at this performance at the American Guitar Society (see above), but I did dedicate some time to setting up concerts for next year, when I’ll be back in L.A. A bass-baritone friend of mine was in town, visiting and auditioning for the young artist’s program at L.A. Opera. Being friends with a singer, and non-guitarists generally, has allowed me many new perspectives on the guitar world.
I’m happy with increased standards of technique which the guitar has gone through in the past few decades. Our pedagogy has been put through a virtual time warp, putting guitarists on par with those other instrumentalists whose traditions run much deeper. But I’m unhappy about what’s been lost in this “Technical Revolution.” In fact, I think that the whole process is rather like a pendulum: a generation of guitarists will be known for sometimes excessive forms of musicality: too much rubato, or an affected style. The next generation, in response, will reject what came before and adopt a much more precision-based attitude to the instrument, with a sometimes bare-bones approach to interpretation. The problem is that plenty of guitarists can be awarded several degrees and win many, many competitions without ever listening to anything besides these precision-based players. This kind of immersion leads to an emulation of those guitarists, which creates, in part, the culture of precision-based playing which exists now.
That’s part of the reason why I came out to New York: to get away from that “guitarists-playing-for-other-guitarists” culture. My first year here, I roomed with an oboist. The role the oboe plays in the orchestra is one in which precision is assumed. But within that, what distinguishes an oboist--what they aspire to-- is a high quality of sound and phrasing, of vibrato and expression. I guess the name of the game is to strive for a vocal quality in playing. We guitarists are lucky in that our instrument is capable of such quality-- of vibrato, of portamento, etc. Our instrument is not like the piano, where every pitch is both literally and figuratively black and white: there is no space in between the half steps in which there is so much possibility for expression.
So if it’s too much a strain to immerse yourself in some old Segovia, Barrios, or Llobet recordings because of their mannerisms or lack of precision, why not try out some Heifetz? or Casals? Then again, why not go straight to the source and emulate vocalists? Although I’m still relatively new to this approach, incorporating it has become the most exciting part of my practice and performance.
(This was written in late 2011)
I was asked to write a short essay about my “Desert Island Album”-- the one album I couldn’t live without. Here’ goes:
I had mentioned this assignment in an e-mail to a friend, a man who is best summed up in the wordebullient in the sense not necessarily of cheerfulness but rather the one that tends to characterize boiling water. In his response he brought up the John Cusack vehicle High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same title, in which the lead character runs a record store and has a habit making impromptu “top five” lists--albums, breakups, whatever. I mention the character of my friend only to pair it with the fact that he often High Fidelity-ized reality, pegging people in his life as a type defined in the film: this person as a “Dick” kind of person, or that one as a “Barry.” Why someone whom I’ve already associated with boiling water would choose to view his world through these glasses, tinged with their turn-of-the-century rom-com hue, is something that I have never really thought about because it so often turned out to be a fine way of coping with the variety of people one meets at music school. The friend had long ago identified me with John Cusack’s character, and so when I tried to come up with my top five albums for him, I was surprised at how un-promptly the list came.
My experience with this cantata first came about when I was to give a short introductory lecture on Bach’s Leipzig cantatas for a class in Fall of 2009. When looking into a heightened use of rhetorical gestures which accompanied Bach’s employment in what would be his home for the remainder of his life, one text pointed to the third movement of this cantata.
While I had hitherto been without much experience in the realm of Bach's cantatas, and had little knowledge of the composer’s use of cantata word-painting in his pre-Leipzig days, this movement, a soprano aria, had a profound effect on me. Furthermore, I had enjoyed the large-scale detective work which was carried out earlier in the year for one of J.S. Bach’s motets and which had served as a primer for a new and interesting kind of analysis for me. I was determined to be able to discover on my own the same kind of eye-opening revelations which were so readily exposed in that motet-- to delve into the text, learn about the circumstances of composition, and to see what role this piece played in Bach’s life.
The motet, though now largely absent from modern concerts, has nonetheless played a crucial role in the development of polyphonic music throughout the history of Western art music. What began as the simple application of new text to older music nearly eight hundred years ago went on to become one of the longest lasting and most influential genres of composition--and the perfect vehicle for early musicians to develop their own distinct voices as composers. Because its history is so expansive--both in its longevity and in its international span-- the term ‘motet’ has meant many things to many different people. While its origins can be traced back to early 13th century France, it was a very different motet which was popularized and exported to surrounding nations. The motet, like many other musical genres, found its polyphonic culmination in the learned hands of Johann Sebastian Bach though he was here again standing on the shoulders of more giants than many of his idolizers may care to admit to. An important aspect of motet writing--if not the most important-- was that as it grew, it necessitated the evolution of many technical parts of music writing--and changed people’s ideas about how music could be composed. The motet had passed through perhaps more hands than any other kind of polyphonic genre before it reached Bach, and those skilled hands left it grown and changed. Pérotin was the one who perhaps started the practice, though some time would pass before ideas changed and the more rhythmically complex motets of Guillaume de Machaut were to be possible. The well-traveled and cosmopolitan Guillaume Du Fay exemplified the newer, more consonant harmonies which were being disseminated throughout continental Europe in the fifteenth century (and in effect contributed to the more international harmonic language that was to be found there), and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the so-called “Prince of Music," brought the counterpoint found in motets to heights never before explored. All of these composers, and many more, played a crucial role in delivering the motet to Johann Sebastian Bach (who called only seven of his compositions “motet”).