Thursday, June 22, 2006

Making a Piece Your Own: Arranging for Guitar

As I have mentioned previously, my performance set is organized around a series of Preludes I wrote that proceed around the circle of thirds starting in A minor. So, the main body of my set goes through eight suites from A minor to A major. While the Preludes begin each suite, the end of each suite is a "Crowd Pleaser" type of piece: Classical Gas by Mason Williams for A minor, The Desert Song by Eric Johnson for C major (Yes, it's in A minor, but I use the Guardame Las Vacas variations to re-transition: There are SO MANY great pieces for guitar in A minor, for obvious reasons, and I've never found anything "cool" in C), Spanish Fly by Eddie Van Halen for E minor, A Day at the Beach by Joe Satriani for G major (I had to transpose it down a whole step from A major to make it fit on a standard classical guitar neck), Scherzo in B minor by yours truly, Huckleberry the Bald, for B minor, and then comes the "dead zone."

There are three pieces I have collected for the D Major Suite so far: The requisite Prelude in D major, the Bouree II from the 3rd Cello Suite by J.S. Bach, and finally another prelude of mine in D minor. All three of these pieces use a dropped D tuning, so I have been shopping for a drop D tuned crowd pleaser. I was planning on playing Steve Morse's Modoc here: He plays it in an open E-flat tuning, and playing it in open D would be no problem. Well, not exactly no problem, because I'd have to re-tune the top three strings between pieces. As much as I love the piece, that would cause an unacceptable pause in the flow of the set with the Multiac, and it would positively be a nightmare with the fretted Glissentar.



While mindlessly surfing World Guitarist to see, well... what the World of Guitarist's was up to one night, I stumbled across the home page of guitarist Don Witter Jr., which was featured. In Don's sound clips section was a positively ripping version of a Brazialian/Portuguese Cowboy Song called Eu So Quero Um Xodo, which positively slayed me. (As an aside; before I came to classical guitar I composed just a TON of Latin Jazz, so I am quite familiar with the idiom and predisposed to be smitten by it).

Well, I had to find out about the piece, so I used the contact information to e-mail Don about it. Mr. Witter very graciously replied to my inquiry within, like, a couple of hours, and informed me that the piece was an arrangement by another guitarist, Tim Sparks.

Again, an enquiring e-mail to Tim was responded to forthwith, and he - amazingly - sent me a PFD score of the music! What a guy!

And, of course, the piece uses a dropped D tuning.

I love the internet.


Not only does Tims PDF have the music for Xodo, but it also has the tablature and, and some fascinating background about the piece!

Turns out that the north-east of Brazil is not the rain forest we norte Americanos usually think of when Brazil comes to mind. Rather, it is a sprawling grassland with cattle and cowboys, and the native language is Portuguese. It is from this culture that this song originates, and the title translates roughly as, "I am Looking for a Sweetheart." Anastasio Dominguinhos is the original composer, and it turns out that Mr. Sparks spent some time down there, and so this arrangement.


Obviously, I'm doing an "arrangement of an arrangement" here, and not an arrangement of the original. This is no matter in this instance, as I want an instrumental version anyway, and I plan to elaborate on it quite extensively. By contrast, when I arranged Bach's Jesu I went to the original Cantata, and arranged it in the original key with the original form so that the guitarist could perform it solo, or along with the original ensemble and singers. For Xodo, I plan to make three versions: A transcription "in my head" from the original, which I will present today, a fingered version with all the articulations worked out, which I am currently half-way through, and finally a quasi-improvisitory extemporization which will be much closer to Don's fabulous version than to Tim's basic original.


Here is Tim Sparks' original arrangement:

If you think I am in any way disappointed that this version is so simple compared to Don's wildly improvised take on it, think again: The goal for any arrangement of any piece by any guitarist should be, by my philosophy, to make it his own. As a result, starting off at the beginning and modifying the piece to suit your taste and your technique should be the focus. None of the crowd pleasers in my set are exactly like the originals; they are all modified in some way, and a few, like Spanish Fly, I have virtually re-composed. My encore piece, for instance, is... Are you ready for this?... Stairway to Heaven, but over the years I have worked large segments of the original guitar solo and vocal lines into it so that now, it is mine (And, people do love it in a funny, "I can't believe he's playing that!" kind of way).



I stayed as true to the original as possible the first time through, changing only those things which seemed most obviously desirable. The primary focus of this version is the physical layout of the music: In order to get my notation program's sequencer to play the form properly, I had to re-do all of the endings. In the first section, for instance, I had to move the first ending back to measure six from measure eight "on account of the ties" (Bonus points if you get that obscure movie reference). Likewise, I had to move the first ending of the third section back to measure thirty-one of Tim's version to get the Coda phrase to play properly. Finally, I had to make a one-measure adjustment to the end and Coda as well: Now, it plays in the sequencer just as Tim's score indicates it should.


Here is my version one of three:

Because of the layout changes, the measure numbers do not match between the two versions, so I'll henceforth be using my measure numbers to point out the few musical changes.

In measures eighteen, nineteen, twenty-one, and twenty-three Tim had open D's, which I changed to fretted E's because I wanted to hear a root position E dominant seventh at those points: The third inversions just sounded too dense and tense to me, and the change is a simple one to execute on the instrument.

The sequence that begins on page three in measure forty-seven has been improved: Measures forty-nine and fifth-three were previously exactly like measure forty-seven. By adding a third element to the sequence and playing with the previously exposed juxtaposition between the G-sharp and G-natural the overall effect is indubitably better.

That's it for this version. The next one has quite a few changes already, and it is really enjoyable to play. As it so happens, the program for the D Major Suite in my Lexicon MPX-G2 is one of the "largest" of my set, so on the Multiac Grand Concert this thing positively rocks!

Props to Don Witter Jr. and Tim Sparks for being so cool and gracious to me in this prioject!


From the same friend who sent me the awesome pics of the albino whitetail deer fawn comes this:

That's right: That circa twenty-pound orange tomcat chased that circa two-hundred pound black bear up the tree. We don't usually think of cats as being as territorial as dogs, but they are. I about busted a gut when I saw this.


Having spent a lot of time on farms and ranches in my life hunting and whatnot, I know that this scenario is *not* funny: Bulls are dangerously territorial, and I almost had to shoot one once to keep it from killing me. My grandfather kept a shotgun loaded with rock salt rounds in his Model T truck to discourage a couple of particularly ornery Holsteins he had!


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