Written by Ben Verdery
It was the beginning of the 2015-16 school year and four new students were entering the Yale School of Music’s guitar studio. At the commencement of a new year, I hope and wonder if the newcomers’ personalities will jell with the older students. I pray that each will appreciate the others’ gifts and, as time passes, learn from them.
But the opening of this academic year was unique. It was marked by the fact that I had agreed over the summer to have the students perform Terry Riley’s stunning and challenging work Y Bolanzero in just 3 weeks. We were asked to participate in a concert that was not only a tribute to Terry Riley but also a part of a 3-day festival celebrating the opening of Brooklyn’s new concert venue National Sawdust. It was a highly publicized event and the composer would be present. Needless to say, we all knew the pressure was on.
From the opening rehearsals it was clear that the music spoke to the students in a profound manner. Terry and his son Gyan assured me that I could infuse as many interpretive ideas as I saw fit. Together with the players and later the conductor Heejung Park, we arrived at the interpretation you hear. The experience of working on the piece so intensely, performing for the composer himself, and seeing his delight at the result brought us all closer together. The new students’ doubts about fitting in had dissipated by this point, and all that was important was making the music come alive.
After another performance in Yale School of Music’s Sprague Hall, it was evident that we needed to record our performance of this groundbreaking guitar piece. That session was a premier recording project of what is now Elm City Records. It was as intense of as session as I can remember, particularly because we were filming the performance as we were recording the music. Y Bolanzero contains a marvelous architecture. Most of the work is comprised of a measure of 6/4 followed by a measure of 5/4. Later in the piece there is a sea change and the time signature shifts into 7/4. There are also 3 improvisational sections. Two feature guitar -- one performed by Solomon Silber, and the other performed by Chris Garwood on an acoustic steel string guitar.
We hear canonic passages, quick runs passed from one player to the next, and funky basslines that provide a vital bed of sound for the other 6 guitars to bask in. The instrumentation of two basses (Max Lyman and Gulli Bjornsson), a steel string (Christopher Garwood) and four nylon stringed classical guitars (Jiyeon Kim, Hernan Martinez, An Tran and Solomon Silber) creates textures that are often magical and compelling. The work has a trajectory that still arrests me even after several listens. More importantly, it possesses musical truths that we all learned from and deeply felt during our performance.
Who knew that such an unusual piece would unite us in such a way? Who knew that we would get the honor of playing such a wonderful work for one of the world’s most renowned and beloved composers? Such is the magical world of chamber music. It demands that we come together as one -- and that is never a bad thing.
Peace love and guitars,