A Miscellany of Things

We haven’t had snow like this for years. Occasionally we get a drizzle of sleet or a smattering of snow, soon to be washed away, but never anything so settled and plump as this:


But as wonderful as the view is, I have almost no desire to go outside. I’m plenty entertained sitting in the study — by the radiator — watching the snow establish its temporary empire, enthralling its subjects, overwhelming the ancient trees, whose branches are forced to bow, and enchanting the drab aspects of life — it coats even the powerlines in a stately, pure white.

This weather is quite congenial to playing music, reading, writing, composing — all the things I most enjoy. So I’m taking this opportunity to blog about things that have been festering in my mind and in my notebook for a while.

Early Romantic Guitars

The modern Spanish guitar, invented by Antonio de Torres, has gradually became the classical guitar. But in the nineteenth century there were other guitars with quite different sound characteristics. Most were were smaller, less boomy, more crisp. To my eyes they are more attractive than modern guitars, though it’s always easy to be seduced by an old instrument simply because it is old. They certainly look more curvaceous.

One the most visually striking is the Austrian Stauffer guitar:


Starting a Commonplace Book

I keep intending to write an ‘about page’ for this blog, but while writing a 1000-word blog post is quite doable, a 100-word biography is nigh impossible. Moreover it’s incredibly dull. I have little musical experience and only one, rather unexceptional musical qualification (grade 8 theory). For good or ill, I am a hobbyist and an amateur.

I am wondering whether to start a commonplace book instead. Here are some quotations I’m considering:

‘I quote others only in order the better to express myself.‘ — Michel de Montaigne

‘Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music — not too much, or the soul could not sustain it — from time to time.’ — Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

‘New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.’ — Felix Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn and His World

‘When music is a national possession, when people want music for their churches, for their homes, when they want to produce their own art and not to pay others to make it for them, then is the age (as it was in Tudor times) of the anthem, the madrigal, music for choral singing on a small scale, music for the lute or the virginals.’ — Vaughan Williams, ‘British Music’ in Vaughan Williams on Music

But it is taking rather a long time to collect such quotes. Most writings on music don’t seem to lend themselves to concise quotations. I will probably end up throwing in some Chesterton for instance, just to bulk it out. Plus, I’m not sure I even want this to be an exclusively musical blog. Which brings us to…

On Reading

As a blogger, it might surprise you to know that until recently I didn’t enjoy reading. I never read books when I was young; I was probably 16 when I read my first book, and perhaps 18 when I read my second (as of writing, I’m 22). It was somewhat of a gruelling process to become literate enough to read. I’d falter at every punctuation mark, my eyes would muddle up or miss words, lose track of the line and so on. I approached it meticulously: I wanted to know exactly why an author used a comma here but not there, why this word and not that. I took very little interest in the content, just the method of writing and communicating. I began this process in my mid-late teens because of a realisation that if I couldn’t read efficiently and write articulately, I wouldn’t have much of a future. At least that’s what I thought at the time. But now I’m not so sure it’s a particular advantage in most of life.

Reading is a marvellous hobby though. I have a bookshelf of about 150 books. That’s about two years worth, mostly acquired this year. Not that many, perhaps, but as I said this is a recent hobby. I used to own a Kindle but sold it a year ago. Holding a physical book gives me a sense that this is an activity, not something passive. It becomes tactile — flicking through pages, marking text, making notes. Okay, you can do this on screens, but it’s a simulation, and one kept at an impersonal distance by a glass pane. I was much less likely to finish an ebook.

Still, I do miss the many the ebooks I read and loved. How I want to go over to the shelf and flick through a copy of Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen, reread parts of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, look up that essay in Taruskin’s Danger of Music. The worst of them is Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a small book but one I gave a great deal of attention to, with many electronic notes. Fortunately, I have just recently acquired a physical copy which belonged to my grandad, and I fully intend to pencil in all those annotations trapped inside the cold, dark Amazonian cyberspace.

Most of my reading has been non-fiction. For a while I was convinced that novels were an unproductive use of time. How I got this absurd notion I’ve no idea. I finally broke free of this mindset this year. These are among the novels (and novellas) that did it:

  • Don Quixote
  • The Leopard
  • A Journey Around My Room
  • Mendelssohn Is on the Roof
  • An Equal Music
  • The Man Who Was Thursday
  • Out of a Silent Planet and Perelandra (still need to read the third one)
  • The Death of Napeoleon
  • The Noise of Time

I am currently staring at my bookshelf admiringly. There is no particular order to it. Some authors are grouped together but not others. It seems that books of a similar size are kept together; this might simply be because of the way the shelves are designed. The oldest book (as in physical age) is probably a first edition of Chesterton’s The Return of Don Quixote (1927) which I just purchased recently, quite unaware of its age. I doubt it’s worth anything. I generally prefer older editions simply because I find the clean whiteness of new books slightly irritating. Though the sense of history is nice too. At the beginning of the Chesterton, written in unfaded pencil, is ‘M. Hursey, 1934’.

I’m a slow reader, I think. I frequently pause, and if it’s non-fiction, and I’m by a desk, I’ll probably take some notes. So I was curious about my reading speed and took these two online tests. The results:

Test 1: 419wpm and 82% comprehension

Test 2: 512wpm

But I’d never read that fast unless under pressure, and even then I couldn’t sustain it for long.

Sparky’s Magic Piano

This is one of the great, though unlikely, hits of the 1940s. It was incredibly popular and has not yet faded from memory, appearing on many children’s music albums. Sparky is learning to play the piano and like most children hates practising. But one day the piano speaks to him, telling him to play any of the keys and that he, the piano, will in turn play whatever piece Sparky requests. You’ll have to listen to find out how it all ends.

The magic piano speaks with a vocoder effect — well, technically the device was called a ‘sonovox’. Gilbert Wright invented it in the 1930s while shaving. With the razor pressed against his Adam’s Apple, he noticed something unusual. Experimenting, he found that the razor altered his voice. There is something very frightening about the sound. As I child, I vividly imagined myself as Sparky, except my Sparky was a timid soul frightened by the expressionless series of notes with which the piano spoke. In fact, it just might be the source of my peculiar disliking of pianos. How soulless that voice is, how little of humanity there is to it, how well it represents the cold mechanical operation of a piano. At the same time, the piano has incredible power — just look at how it enchants and empowers the boy. There’s nothing more frightening than that. The piano is too powerful, too totalitarian in its scope. The vocoder voice of the magic piano is the voice of a dictator.

Walking in Medieval Times — Toe to Heel

According to this video, medieval people walked with the balls of their feet touching the ground first, rather than heel to toe. They wore leather shoes, little more than glorified socks, meaning that their feet were not adequately protected from rocks, creatures etc. Walking toe-first allowed them to feel for any potential hazards. I tried walking this way in my socks, and although I managed to amuse myself for a few minutes, this is clearly one area where humans have made some progress.

I can’t help feeling that there must be some kind of analogy here to ‘historically informed performance’.

My Favourite 20th Century Symphonies

Kalevi Aho — Symphony Nos. 7 & 9

Shostakovich — Symphony No. 15

Ives — Symphony Nos. 3 & 4 and the New England Holiday Symphony

Sibelius — Symphony No. 2

Vaughan Williams — London Symphony

Pettersson — Symphony No. 7

Korngold — Symphony in F Sharp

Szymanowski– Symphony No. 4

Stravinsky — Symphony of Psalms

Poor Little Sullivan

There isn’t much competition for the title of Britain’s Greatest Nineteenth Century Composer. Elgar was 19th century in spirit, but really blossomed at the start of the twentieth century. John Field is excellent I’m told, but I’m unfamiliar with his work. Hubert Parry wrote some cracking songs but I don’t much have an ear for his orchestral work. That leaves Arthur Sullivan.

People often think of Sullivan as a second-rate composer, one who could have been great if he’d tried harder. Indeed, Sullivan is a peculiar kind of chap: a first-rate composer, for sure, but one who composed very little first-rate serious music. One symphony, one grand opera, one cello concerto, the song The Lost Chord and that’s about it. (He also composed Onward Christian Soldiers, a fact often forgotten.) The music was perhaps old-fashioned, but that’s no crime in my view. It is very good music, and we should be ashamed at how we neglect one of our great composers. His ‘Irish’ Symphony:

For the most part, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are performed so badly that we forget how marvellous the music really is. Too often they are left to amateur groups to perform. (And there was that awful film with its synthesised score and hammy acting.) Very few decent recordings exist. If you’re fortunate enough to catch the ENO, say, stage a G&S opera you’ll release how ingenious they are.

Sullivan had the most incredible ear for melody. And his music was witty. Take With Cat Like Tread which, given the song is about sneaking quietly about, is hilariously loud, and with the grandest of endings.

And the snow has stopped. A sign that I should stop writing. I am trying to think of a piece of music related to snow, but embarrassingly nothing is coming to mind. (Well, except for The Four Seasons, but that’s far too obvious!) So going back to the first item, here’s a video of Tarantella by Johann Kaspar Mertz performed on an early romantic guitar by Juliane Bergemann:


VIDA Guitar Quartet at King’s Place

Why aren’t there more guitar quartets? The possibilities for new repertoire are exhilarating. How often do you get to hear the works of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams on guitar? The guitar can be such a quiet, lonely instrument, suitable for neither orchestras nor most ensembles. How wonderful it is to see four of these lonely creatures together, and creating such a big sound!

At least there are a few guitar quartets. And VIDA Guitar Quartet are clearly among the best. I caught them a couple of nights ago. It was a Bach-themed concert: after two contemporary pieces unrelated to Bach, they launched into a fantastic arrangement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, followed by Prelude and Fugue Nos. 2 & 4 by Mendelssohn, Bacanas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 by Villa-Lobos, and two Bach-inspired premieres by Laura Snowden and Howard Skempton. The third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is on YouTube:

Perhaps it’s my decrepit speaker, but this video, impressive though it is, doesn’t quite capture the extraordinary colour of the quartet. Each part was clearly separated. They could have sounded quite homogeneous; unlike a string quartet they all share the same range, except for one seven-string guitar, and are essentially all playing the same instrument (as opposed to violins, viola and cello). However, with the right musicians the sound world of the guitar is exceptionally varied — the string can be attacked in so many ways. One gets a better sense of this by watching the short promo for VIDA’s upcoming album (the music they are playing is from Light Perpetuum by Laura Snowden):

Following an incredible mishap — a tuner that fell inside the guitar — they ended with piece by British composer Howard Skempton. He titled it Bach variation for four guitars, but it was really an arrangement of a Bach fugue (I forget which one) — the twist being that it used only natural harmonics (except for the chap who lost his tuner; he played the bass line on a seven- string guitar). It was like listening to a music box but without any hint of the mechanical. The sound was warm and round, almost perfect.

As there isn’t a clip of Skempton’s Bach varation, here is VIDA playing Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Warlock was a very strange chap indeed: an Etonian, occultist (hence his surname), composer, writer, and somewhat important figure in the revival of early English music. His pieces were clearly influenced by Elizabethan music and have a certain charm.

Robert Johnson — Pavan No. 3 in C Minor (Guitar Transcription)

A few weeks ago I rambled on about the guitar repertoire, suggesting that we focus more on the lute and guitar music from around 1500-1750 and away from the Spanish repertoire. I suggested, among others, more Kapsberger, Zamboni and Bacheler. Now I can add another name.

Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633) — not to be confused with the African-American blues guitarist — was the last great English lutenist. As it happens, he was also the son of the first great lutenist, John Johnson. The two Johnsons essentially bookend at either side the short but fruitful Golden Age of English Lute Music. There are about twenty extant solo lute pieces by Robert Johnson. Most are almains, four are pavans, a few are galliards, and there is only one fantasie. I dare say if more survived he would be a more celebrated composer. 

His Pavan No. 3 isn’t playable on guitar from the original lute tablature, and I don’t believe it has been transcribed for guitar before — so I thought it would be good fun to try. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. (Next several sentences are purely technical, if you want to skip ahead to the video and score.) The pavan was written for 10 courses (paired strings), with the added bass notes extending the range by a fifth. Therefore I transposed the piece from C to D minor and tuned the guitar’s sixth string down to D. This way all the bass notes remain and the piece is transcribed almost note for note. (The only exception I recall is bar 29, where the inner voices of the first chord had to be removed.) Given the reduction from ten to six strings, there are a few big left-hand stretches — the biggest stretch is from the second to seventh fret (bar 12, beat 2) — but it isn’t a fast piece, and most players should have little trouble playing the piece once the fingering has been worked out. 

I like to think I am an able Sibelius user, though I will admit that formatting multiples voices on a single stave was a bit fiddly. If anyone thinks I’ve done something wrong, or scored it weirdly, please tell me and I’ll make any necessary corrections.

Here’s the PDF. Beneath the video are image files. The pavan begins at 2:40, before which is the The Prince’s Almain, also by Johnson.

Johnson Pavan 3-1

Johnson Pavan 3-2

Reforming the Guitar Repertoire

If I say ‘classical guitar repertoire’, what comes to mind? For most people it’ll be the Spanish guitarists from Sor to Villa Lobos. But while the Spanish repertoire is ever popular, it can be rather dull. I notice that the British guitarist Sean Shibe, clearly a rising star, has distanced himself from it:

My gripe with the “Spanishry” associated with the guitar is not that it is associated with the guitar, it’s that often it’s the only thing associated with the guitar – because it can be the most marketable. I always felt pushed to play that repertoire, because promoters always want something fast and flashy.

He instead looks to the 20th century British composers who, thanks to the efforts of Julian Bream, gave us a wealth of guitar music. Shibe’s album, Dreams and Fancies, can boast impressive performances of Walton, Berkeley, Arnold and Britten (alongside a couple of John Dowland fantasies).

Nevertheless, I take the opposite approach to Shibe. Learning the guitar, I’ve found that the best music for the instrument predates the modern classical guitar. The period 1497-1757 contains the most sublime music playable on guitar. (The dating, or at least the starting date, is somewhat arbitrary: from the birth of Francesco da Milano until the death of Domenico Scarlatti. 1500-1750 covers nearly everything.) First, there is the music for Renaissance lute, much of it written for a six-course lute, and pieces written for seven or eight courses are usually easy to adapt for guitar. Secondly, pieces written for the Baroque guitar, which are fewer than those for the Renaissance lute, but contain some marvellous pieces by composers such as Robert de Visée and Gasper Sanz. Thirdly, the Baroque lute repertoire, which is generally less suited to classical guitar than its Renaissance counterpart, but there are many great exceptions. And fourthly, Bach and Scarlatti, many of whose works are not only easily playable on guitar, but arguably sound better on guitar. The supreme example is Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, originally for violin. John Feeley playing:

I’m flicking through the ABRSM guitar grade syllabus considering whether or not to pursue them. In addition to the sight reading, scales and all that, you have to pick three pieces from their list of around 20-30 pieces. The list is divided into three sections, each representing an era, roughly: 1) Renaissance and Baroque 2) Classical and Romantic and 3) modern. You pick one from each list.

Not all the pieces seem very idiomatic. For the first few grades, instead of going for some of the simpler (but nevertheless beautiful) pieces for lute, we get often unimpressive arrangements of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi et al. for guitar. Things start to improve in later grades when pieces by de Visee, Weiss, Milan et al. appear.

The Classical and Romantic section is the usual stuff: Giuliani, Sor, Tarrega, Aguado and some lesser knowns and transcriptions. All quite pleasant, but not a lot of it is terribly interesting.

The modern section feels a bit desperate. In between the Ponces and Brouwers, there are a lot of mediocre compositions by unfamiliar names that are basically pastiches (not writing them all off, though). There really isn’t much to choose from, as much of the best modern guitar music is too difficult for even Grade 8.

And while I of course see the advantage of such a comprehensive grading system, the eras aren’t anyway near as discrete as the syllabus suggests. Playing de Visee’s guitar suite requires a quite different approach to a da Milano fantasie, though they somewhat misleading come under the same section. One would also hope ghat most students are taught about the different types of ornaments used, the difference between Renaissance and Baroque (in the former you neither slur them nor let the notes ring), though somehow I doubt it. 

So, the grades are problematic and uninspiring — not that that I would expect them to be otherwise. The problem is that many students, at least in the UK, seem to learn their instrument almost solely through grades. They never stray outside this patchy repertoire.

The guitar needs to somehow de-shackle itself from the Spanish masters. No other instrument is so burdened by its national heritage. The Spanish repertoire consists of too much insipid music and makes the guitar seem a less serious instrument. Sor is great for learning, but rather tedious. Giuliani is good fun, but not that enriching. Tarrega wrote some lovely music, but none of it on the level of a Scarlatti sonata or even a Dowland galliard.

Okay, then, what pieces should enter the repertoire? To start with, how about the Kapsberger toccatas. The Toccata Arpeggiata is frequently played, but the others seldom are, yet they work so well on guitar. Here’s his Toccata VI:

And more Zamboni:

And Bacheler. I was trying to find a video of his variations of the popular French song, Une Jeune Fillette, but here’s Monsieur’s Almaine instead:

And you can never, ever have enough Dowland. Should be as much required playing as Bach or Sor for any guitarist. 

More of this and less of the Spanish stuff — yea or nay?

Flesh versus Nails

It has become orthodoxy that you play classical guitar with nails. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century there were two leading guitarists, Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and Dionisio Aguado y García (1784-1849). Among other differences, Sor believed one should use the flesh of the fingertip to pluck the string and Aguado believed one should use the nail. Sor was aware that this had possible disadvantages, especially when it came to speed and projection (Aguado was the more virtuosic player, for sure), but he was confident that the purer and warmer tone of flesh playing was worth it.

Historically many classical guitarists used flesh (e.g. Julián Arcas (1832-1888) and Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), though Tárrega was a convert to flesh in his later years). I recommend visiting Rob MacKillop’s site for comprehensive list of players old and new. MacKillop is undoubtedly the best advocate for flesh playing online.

Come the end of the twentieth century flesh playing had become a rarity. If one were a partisan for flesh playing, it would be easy to see this as an unmusical compromise: speed and loudness in exchange for sound quality. But nails do give you more variety in some regards: you can’t, for example, achieve that same crisp ponticello sound with flesh. However, the consistency possible by using flesh means that volume won’t affect tone as much. With nails, a loud note sounds much brighter and more metallic than a soft one. But with flesh, a loud note retains its warmth (if you want it to).

This is, at least, my experience thus far. I recently cut off my nails. It was all rather traumatic: late at night, whisky bottle half empty, sweat drenching my clothes, the nail clippers poised an inch from my fingertips, as if a metaphysical wall were in the way. The clippers felt like twelve stone; my hands were shaking unrelentingly.

Okay, okay — not quite that bad! But I did oo and uh over it for some weeks. I am probably historically-minded, generally more interested in what is old than what is new. And when I found out there was a common practise (flesh playing) with many weighty advocates, but that has since become very unorthodox, I naturally wanted to try it. It also fits nicely with my desire to eventually play the lute, which is generally played without nails. (Though perhaps the same contrarian spirit will inspire me to take up the cause of those minority lutenists, past and present, who have advocated nails…)

In case you are unaware of the stigma against flesh playing, the guitarist Phillip de Fremery has an excellent post about it on his site. In it he notes that

There is reliable record of players whose applications and subsequent auditions to long-established Masters programs were summarily rejected, with the proviso that if they grew their nails back they would be considered for admission. Another case surfaced more recently, when a casual exploratory interview was met with the same quick closing of the door without a note being heard.

Pedagogy gone mad, I say. Flesh playing has many advantages that any musician with an ounce of imagination and historical knowledge would realise. Among the advantages I can think of: a more tactile way of playing, a more consistent tone, more angles of attack available, in some instances more ‘authentic’, if you go for that. Fremery notes another rather interesting possibility:

those who find themselves interested in the physics of all this will observe that when one plays without nails the string can be pulled much farther back – and further back at many different angles – before it is released, and that when one thinks of this from the point of view of archery, for instance, the implications are interesting to say the least

I recorded myself playing Tarrega’s Lagrima, a rather easy piece. I tried to give it as much dynamic and textural variations as I could, which might be why every recording I made had one or two mistakes (but recording oneself is generally an infuriating experience). This one, despite two very slight hesitations, best demonstrates the possibilities. Apologies for the quality — it was recorded on my phone:

[ETA: Fellow guitarists might like to know what I’m using. It’s an old Kimbara guitar (a low-end guitar from late 60s/early 70s) with D’addario Pro-Arte normal tension strings. Nothing special or historical.]

I cut my nails Thursday, and at first the sound was much worse than this. One has to learn to pluck the string in a completely different way: pushing down and then pulling under and across. Watch this video for the technique in slow motion. It also helps to tune the strings down about a semitone, to help lower the tension so the string is easier to pluck at first. I saw a suggestion in a forum to sandpaper (very fine sandpaper, I must add!) the part of the strings where one plays. I used P1200 sandpaper for this and it worked very well. Nylon strings are usually too smooth, it seems. The fingertips need to grip onto the string a bit. It is often recommended that you use gut or nylgut (nylon-gut hybrid), which I will do in due course.

Now, in case my meagre little recording was unconvincing, here’s a nail-less virtuoso, Virginia Luque. If anything, her left hand is the most impressive — those chord changes, my God!