What compels us as musicians to try to express the inexpressible? Occasionally, we are struck by a moment of inspiration and try to effortlessly transmit these ideas onto an instrument. But what does this entail? Technique is paramount - a mechanism we hone to implement our ideas instantly and fluently on our instrument; the vehicle through which our conception of sound and tone, melody, dynamics, and phrasing are molded into the physical soundscape. We pursue the enviable freedom to allow any fleeting desire of emotion, color, and phrasing to be transmitted, free of impediment, to the digits. Herein lies the core of technique - the ability to realize any and all possibilities conceived by the free improvisatory self. It is the ability, as a performer, to present an interpretation that combines decisions made in the practice room with the free-roaming emotional context of the present moment.
I aim, above all, for a recording process that privileges the live moment of direct expression over a one that obscures the visceral moment of creation. This philosophy influences the manner in which I track the record, performing complete takes and resorting to editing only when absolutely necessary, as an attempt to preserve the individual integrity of the performance. To this end, I do not aim for perfection, but rather to capture an emotionally meaningful moment - to show the audience an unguarded and intimate understanding of a moment in time through the lens of a composition. The recording process is an emotional progression, the performer forced to battle with both the microphone - a creature that never lies - and one's own perception of the work, one’s ability to perform it as desired. I wanted the audience to see me in the space, exuding the energy and emotional engagement required to project meaning in sound.
This program was designed for live performance - to showcase a repertoire that is challenging to myself as a performer, demanding to a listener, and engaging for both. I have always felt a strong affinity with large-scale compositions that contain both grandiose and intimate sonic environments, and the classical guitar is uniquely adept at covering such a gamut of sound worlds. This program is designed to foreground the twin pillars of Mano a Mano and the Nocturnal. Both of these works can be challenging for an audience, and I wanted to craft a progression that would best enable the digestion of these epic works.
In a studio as in a performance hall, the performer must present his most passionate self, his pursuit of the infinite through the instrument’s mantra of vibration. In order to show this process more completely to the audience, I asked filmmaker Wills Glasspiegel to capture the recording process with two cameras - one stationary and one handheld. The performances you hear on record are the performances you see on the film. As I played the music, coaxing out the plaintive and technicolor voice of the instrument, Wills looked through a viewfinder and stepped slowly and silently around me, afraid of making a sound, looking for an angle, a frame, a finger’s movement through which to transmit what the space was like, how the music felt, how the hands danced on the neck of the instrument, and how the sound reverberated within the studio walls.
Sonata Meridional by M.M. Ponce
Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948) was born in the small Mexican village of Fresnillo in Zacatecas. Soon thereafter, his family moved to Aguascalientes, where he began to develop as a composer, performer, and musical scholar. After studying in Bologna and Berlin from 1904-8, and Havana from 1915-17, he moved to Paris where he worked from 1925-33. It was there that Ponce began to draw on his Mexican musical heritage as a driving force within his compositional language.
The musical world in which Ponce came of age was dominated by the European tradition. It was his pursuit of a uniquely Mexican voice that positions him within the nationalist artistic movements emerging throughout the nineteenth century. This orientation ties him to contemporaries like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918). These composers all searched for a way to craft a musical voice specific to their diverse cultural aesthetics and political perspectives, while still remaining in dialogue with the European tradition from which they emerged.
The Sonatina is one of a series of pieces born from the close artistic relationship between Ponce and the great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, known as the “father of the classical guitar.” Ponce met Segovia in 1923 after the guitarist performed a concert that greatly impressed the budding composer. Segovia was passionate about Ponce’s music, and he enthusiastically encouraged the composer to expand the guitar repertoire. Ponce’s contrapuntal complexity and striking harmonic language was a perfect vehicle for Segovias rich timbral explorations, and the exquisite single-line writing showcased Segovia’s round tone and lush vibrato. I have been inspired by the Segovia heritage of guitar playing since I was a young musician. The sheer impact of Segovia’s sound coming off the record has always remained the touchstone against which I measure my own skill. The ability to coax a wide array of colors and textures, to sing with the instrument, is perhaps the guitar’s most unique and special quality, and one that continues to keep me in the chair pursuing the Maestro’s touch.
From the opening of the work, Ponce paints a vivid portrait of life in a rural village. The distinct themes emerge freshly from the sonic landscape and reappear to reveal the many personalities featured in the town’s life. The ebb and flow of the music periodically regenerates the cycles and recurring patterns in the rustic environment. The piece is filled with a sense of wry humor juxtaposed with moments of extreme beauty and sublime vistas.
The second movement is placed in a shadowy world of a still mountainside midnight. The town is abandoned; only the shadows are witness to the lone melody. The town square and towers sit silent, the blackness thick around, as the jungle echoes throughout the night. As the melodies climb in and around the movement’s winding roads, the lines perch on high notes and cascade down to resonant bass notes, expectantly waiting for the dawn to come.
With a rollicking chord, the spell is broken, and the third movement plunges us deep into a sultry fiesta, complete with a raucous band, dancing crowds, and a procession of colorful exhibitions. We experience the daily dramas unleashed in the wildness of the town’s celebration, as Ponce paints a series of smaller vignettes, never straying from the festive spirit of the movement’s mood. With one final ascent, we are whisked away from the scene and out of the piece’s world, a vision given life and painted to miniature perfection.
Lute Suite in E Minor BWV 996 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Do we pick the works that resonate with us, or do the works pick us? I have been performing this lute suite since my earliest days on the instrument. In such a way, the suite is deeply interwoven with my musical identity. I like to think to my experience with this piece in terms of a mutual grafting process - of the music onto my life, and of my life back onto the tapestry of the music. Herein, in deeply personal terms, musical meaning is derived.
The opening of the Lute Suite in E minor by JS bach presents a cascade of notes, falling in a repeating pattern from the upper register of the instrument to the depths of the bass. Immediately the listener recognizes the appoggiatura, or leaning figure, prominently featured within the motivic melodic material. This leaning motif marks the work for emotional significance, pulling the listener into a world of existential yearning. We can imagine Bach sitting at his lutenverg - the keyboard instrument at which he most likely wrote these pieces - and evaluating the scope of the machine that would work to unravel the counterpoint coiled in his mind.
Within the Bach suite we see the composer demonstrating one of the defining characteristics of Germanic compositional ideology: inclusive compositional practice. The entire idea of the codified suite, built around the dance forms of the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, is the byproduct of both French dance movements (in which the movements could be interchangeable and the progression of the suite was not necessarily considered) and the mind of German lutenist Jakob Froberger, who codified the progression of movements and composed suites that had an internal logic to their key relationships.
Bach was an eager assimilator, and throughout his career he worked on studying and producing works in new and updated styles. The opening prelude is cast in French Overture style, its doubly-dotted figure pioneered by the French court composer Lully, in order to depict the slow and measured march of a Regal procession. This opening movement is full of drama, the falling scalar figure cascading into dramatic chordal utterances. Eventually the prelude leads towards the presto, a rollicking piece of counterpoint that delights the listener and quickly works toward a climactic cadence, closing the first large-scale statement of the piece. The allemande is a beautiful meditative movement, the constant flow of notes undulating and outlining the harmony. The nuanced ways in which Bach enlivens the binary structure of these dance movements constantly challenges the performer. The performer must be sensitive to the characteristic rhythmic motifs that define the identities of the dance movements. Again, striking a balance between strict rhythmic accuracy and boisterous buoyancy is paramount, enabling and ensuring that the movements come to life.
After working through the brisk and upbeat courante, the mood settles into the more somber Sarabande. These slow triple-meter dances typically mark the emotional core and central axis of such suites, revealing the most interior, sacred, and perhaps tragic moment from which the suite must rise and ascend. The bourree elevates immediately out of the sarabande with a simple melody and repetitive dance pattern that captivates the listener. Bach was known to enjoy a hearty drink along with some improvisatory communal music making, and one cannot help but imagining a different vision of the stern cantor, flushed in the cheeks, having happily found a musical morsel worth working out on the page.
This movement presages the piece’s culmination in the gigue, the virtuosic show piece. Meant to be a cathartic arrival, or perhaps a dance floor clearer, this gigue exhausts the feet of the dancers, with its pace faster than any previous movements. The movement immediately greets the audience with a descending scalar pattern perhaps reminiscent of the opening prelude, but now treated to voracious note-on-note counterpoint and parallel runs that accelerate the movement ever forward. I have always felt the pianistic impulse within this music. The figures were first realized under Bach's hands at the keyboard, his fingers flying and dancing over the keys. Indeed, there is a certain flow that is enabled by pianistic scalar movement. Within this topological transferal lies the guitarist’s most difficult task: making the pianistic runs of the gigue seem fluid and natural on the guitar. One must not be afraid to let the fingers fly, let them go, let them loose, and allow their own mechanism to directly connect with the impulse and pulse rate of the heart.
Mano a Mano by Magnus Lindberg
Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is renowned for his complex and virtuosic compositions; their rhythmic density and stacked spectral harmonies produce soundscapes of intricate detail and multidimensional coloristic shading. This piece pushes my limits as a musician, forcing me to nuance my technique and create new technical solutions as a response to the music’s demands.
From my first hearing of this piece, Mano's sublime ethos and unique harmonic language captivated me. All the piece’s aggressive, atonal and virtuosic outbursts counterbalance its lush harmonic soundscape, drawing from both serial and octatonic systems. Further, the composer’s use of tonal collections -- the major, minor and diminished triad, and the half-diminished seventh -- as structural building blocks lend the piece an immediately familiar, visceral element.
The title suggests some great battle or the unfolding of some conflict, and the piece does not discourage such an interpretation. Surely the music presents a turbulent narrative, one with a driving and insistent energy, but the music’s character also reveals a more introspective and noumenal side. Is this a physical contest -- Hector and Achilles outside the Trojan walls, with all of the attendant historical context? Or is it rather a battle of brothers -- perhaps Cain and Abel locked in the original fight that so defines our human consciousness. Or perhaps this is simply a battle waged within -- the artist struggling at his craft, pursuing some unachievable end with the sense of perpetual Fichtean striving that marks an act of serious creation. The fact that the composer invites the performer to improvise a cadenza seems to be an invitation to engage one’s own imagination and invest the piece with a personal emotional narrative.
Asturias (Leyenda) from the Chants d’Espagne by Isaac Albéniz
There is a certain mystic and primal magic within the compositions of Isaac Albeniz. His piano pieces are evocative of the diverse musical heritage of his cosmopolitan Spanish homeland, with echoes of rugged flamenco music, Arabic sonorities, and the classical european tonal tradition. His melodic craft seems to unify all of these elements and contribute to the individual identity of his compositions. His voice on the piano, perhaps crafted to be evocative of the guitar, is easily and effectively transcribed for the instrument. Stemming from the definitive recording of this work by Segovia, this piece has long been a core member of the Spanish classical guitar tradition. I still vividly remember the moment my teacher first played Segovia’s record. As I became familiar with the finger patterns that week, I discovered my fingers could fly ahead of the music, pushing the technical limits and the pattern of the piece ever forward. I have just as vivid a memory of being scolded for my careless disregard of consistent rhythmic delivery, and in the next week of practice the metronome was an even-keeled taskmaster correcting my sense of time.
The middle section of the work opens with the crystalline octaves that immediately transport the listener to some past moment, perhaps pacing along a Spanish castle’s wall, looking out over the countryside to some hazy Beyond, under the Mediterranean sun. The evocative melodic motifs continue this illustration, painting the story of a lost love, silk tapestries, and low candlelight surrounding fragrant memories of the twin plants of Word and Song.
Nocturnal(after John Dowland) op. 70 by Benjamin Britten
The Nocturnal is one of the few fully actualized masterpieces of the guitar repertoire. Based on an ayre by John Dowland, the piece is an inverted theme and variations, with the Renaissance ayre placed at the end of the work - a cathartic and gorgeous arrival point, sheathed deep within the compositional structure. The lyrics of the song are quite poignant, pushing the reader deep within herself into a spiritual meditation:
Come heavy sleep, the image of true death;
and close up these my weary weeping eies:
Whose spring of tears doth stop my vitall breath,
and tears my hart with sorrows sign swoln cries:
Com and possess my tired thoughts, worne soule,
That living dies, till thou on me be stoule.
Come shadow of my end, and shape of rest,
Allied to death, child to blakefac’d night:
Come thou and charm these rebels in my breast,
Whose waking fancies doe my mind affright.
O come sweet sleepe; come, or I die ever:
Come ere my last sleep comes, or come never.
The piece is a journey through a reverent space of personal reflection - a dream state through which the performer wades, scaling emotional peaks and virtuosic textures, eventually devolving into quiet ruminative passages and lyrical melancholy. The performer must be careful not to present a series of isolated episodes, but rather to maintain a connective narrative thread among the movements. The stark progression leads finally to the foot of the mountain, the broad passacaglia and the placid final movements of the piece.
The Passacaglia is built around the descending scalar motif found in the first line of Dowland's song. Here Britten pushes the music to its breaking point. The surrounding figures push and pull at the low motif until finally, bursting from the seams, a torrent of scales rip through the texture, careening down the fingerboard to the lower register of the instrument, eventually crashing into the bottom. With a final last gasp of pained breath, and the last bass note, the Passacaglia ends, revealing the lush and ethereal world of the final movement, a heavenly incantation that hovers above the earthly realm. Is this sleep that we fall into, or rather the final passing, dissolving into the ether until the final reverberation disappears into the mists beyond?
Sevillana (Fantasía) by Joaquín Turina
The flamenco spirit, historically speaking, cannot be separated from the character of the classical guitar. I have long admired this piece, captivated above all by Turina’s ability to conjure the free and improvisatory spirit of the flamenco guitar on the written page. The performer must necessarily embody the work - the rhythmic structure of the strumming patterns, the dramatic outpouring of the melody, and the hoarse wail of the flamenco singer.
The piece explodes with a rasqueado (a strum). The pattern repeats and gathers energy, wild and irreverent. I can feel the cool seclusion of the flamenco cave, where a dark and communal music is made through a passionate interplay of dance, music, and singing. The primitive sounds are all present - feet pounding on earth, fingers on gut strings, hands on hands, and the voice, a direct conduit into the preconscious self, the true unclothed self. As we sit in the practice room, we cannot forget the smell of the wood, the soil, the water: the raw elements of life from which we spring. These elements give us the emotional fire needed to imbue the music we play with our own experiences, to mold the sonorities into communicable statements. I strum the rasqueado pattern, allowing myself to become lost in its reverie. My fingers run across the strings, the wood resonates, and I dig my hand into the ebony fingerboard, the guitar singing for my heart.