Maybe it’s the kitschy but abundant associations with campfires, or perhaps it’s the secret desire that we all (debatably) have to become professional flamenco dancers, but the sound of a guitar holds a certain amount of relatable energy to it, some kind of mysteriously familiar timbre. Air-guitaring is basically a developmental skill, and the instrument is often played by children and fantasized about by aspiring rock stars.
The guitar is looked up to as an instrument that can do anything and still be familiar and household. Music sometimes is not this; it's easy to look at music (especially composed, "classical" music) as a daunting, complex web when it really is just the familiar sounds we know woven together, most often. The guitar, being the superhero it can be, can take down these walls of bias and fear.
|photo by Brian Richardson|
I had a seemingly mundane experience a couple nights ago that showed me some truth to the simplicity of sound, and I hope my attempt at a metaphor here doesn't totally fail.
It was a warm summer night, and I had spent the last few hours listening to music, so I rolled the windows down in my car and drove the quiet, river-parallel street home. The large portion of the road goes along houses with large chunks of land in front of them, so there aren’t any major buildings or structures close to where I was driving. The sound of my car against the street was single-pitched and constant, only changing when I would slow down or turn.
But as I turned onto the road that leads to my house, the fields disappear and bigger, more solid fences become closer to the road. As I would drive past a wall or fence, the sounds of my car and the wind would bounce back at me, making a louder sound than when I would drive past open air. Since the walls were split up, it would make a sort of rhythm.
This reminded me that sound isn’t some tangible thing that spills out of instruments or a wall that orchestras create, but a simple thing, actual waves that can bend and disappear and reflect. I know this seems very far from the theme of this post, but it made me think about the guitar—the instrument’s vulnerability from the common, rural foundations it has in our culture and the universal knowledge of its workings and sound make it seem more of a person among us than something in an instrument shop. It’s like the difference between hearing, say, Obama speak at a conference and your aunt speak at the dinner table.
After all that attempted allegory, what I’m trying to say is that the guitar and all its cultural power can remind us how the sounds that create music, from rock to classical, are ingrained in all of us and aren’t as daunting as they sometimes can seem.
Shall we examine the guitar’s place in varying genres of classical/classical-leaning music?
The place where I’ve been immersing myself in stringed sounds lately is Pat Metheny’s solo music, sort of jazz-folk-alternative stuff. After obsessing over his interpretation of “Electric Counterpoint,” I found a record of his at the store I go in about once a week. The record was New Chautauqua, his 1979 album of solo work—the instruments included are electric 6 and 12 string guitars, acoustic guitar, 15 string harp guitar, and electric bass, all played by Metheny. His playing is ethereal, and he has the ability to make a dense jumble of notes the clearest thing you’ll ever hear with his rapid picking and spot-on emphasis. His solo stuff, unlike the Pat Metheny Group’s more traditional jazz sound, is dreamlike and something you would listen to on a road trip in a beat up truck across the desert. The sounds of the guitars in his pieces are both grottos of amazement and comforting because of their familiarity.
Check out the title track for a classic, feel-good jam:
Or “Country Poem,” my favorite, for a nostalgic piece that calls for a far away, long ago home:
OOORRRR another one of my favorites, “Sueño con Mexico,” a gentle, flowing piece:
Another group of music that has to be mentioned is the classical guitar repertoire. From the Renaissance to the present, stringed instruments like the guitar have been common instruments to write for, and their familiar, relatable quality is constant throughout. In the Baroque era, composers like Gaspar Sanz and Francesco Corbetta were guitarists while composers like Robert di Visée or Sylvius Leopold Weiss were lutenists. During the Romantic era, the guitar began showing up in landmark composers’ works, such as in Paganini’s virtuoso pieces for the instrument, like his Capriccio No. 5:
…that inspired Steve Vai’s “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for the movie “Crossroads”:
The 19th century was the “Golden Age” for guitar, with composers who wrote specifically for the instrument, bringing it into the spotlight. Francisco Tárrega, a Spanish guitarist and composer, wrote some beautiful music during the period, like his “Capricho Arabe."
It’s haunting and sounds traditional at first, which it definitely is because of Tárrega’s influence on the rest of the guitar repertoire, but the flares make it seem like a spontaneous humanoid or whatever a guitar can be that’s close to a human. This is what a lot of classical guitar repertoire does—it brings the common landscapes of classical music to a medium that often reminds us of modern experiences, which can remind us how proverbial the music we call “classical” really is.
And then there’s one of the coolest nooks in which the guitar can reside, contemporary music. I’m not talking about rock or indie or the places people can find guitar instantly, but the family of music that is ingrained in violins and pianos but accepts the guitar so perfectly. Both acoustic and electric guitars melt seamlessly into the different sounds of today’s music. An example I came upon while watching “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is “Phone Call” by Jon Brion, the rock musician and composer. The trembling outlines of C sharp major to F minor sound toy-like, as if they would come out of a windup toy from a different planet. Against the stability of the strings, it’s a beautiful little piece:
Mark Dancigers is one of the most prolific guitarists in the contemporary world right now. He’s in the NOW Ensemble, composes, and does many side and solo projects. He’s most often on electric guitar, and the rebellious flavor that has come to be associated with electric anything mixes with the traditional orchestra instruments like richness and acidity (either can be either)—opposite, perfect. Take the excerpt from his “Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra” with the Princeton University Orchestra. The way the notes bend up and down from the strings is like sound waves themselves. Or his anchoring position in Judd Greenstein's "Sing Along":
The guitar really isn’t unlike any other instrument. It has strings that need to be tuned, virtuosos, and pieces composed for it. But the cultural position of the guitar, one that resides so close to people who don’t even play it, can help it bring the pieces it’s included in out of the daunting roles they’re sometimes given. After all, even we classical fanatics fantasize of rock star dreams.