Friday, March 02, 2007

Kazuhito Yamashita: Undeniably the Greatest Classical Guitarist Ever

When I say "undeniably" I mean that no rational person with any real understanding of the guitar can deny that Kazuhito Yamashita is the greatest classical guitarist... EVAR! Nonetheless, almost the entire classical guitar universe has been in denial since he exploded onto the scene circa 1984 and demolished stage after stage right on through to the early nineties.

Mr. Yamashita completely redefined what the traditional nylon stringed guitar was capable of by inventing entire classes of never-before-used techniques. These techniques most notoriously included multiple scordaturas-on-the-fly (Re-tuning strings multiple times in mid-performance to make impossible passages possible), and single-finger tremolos (Using both the contraction and extension strokes of a single finger to create tremolos). In addition to these seemingly impossible techniques, he also used extreme dynamic contrasts which had never before been heard.

Add to this his extensive use of the c finger (The right hand pinkie) and the fact that he had no "important" western teachers, and you have the entire recipe for why he alienated almost all of the unfathomably conservative classical guitar mainstream.

Austrailian guitarist Peter Inglis says, "[Kazuhito Yamashita's innovations] should have shaken up the world of guitar pedagogy, but this apparently didn't happen." Well, yes and no: Yes, the mainstream of classical guitar continued on it's well worn path to oblivion - like so many dinosaurs munching contentedly away while watching the afterglow of the asteroid impact in the distance - but no, insofar as those few who could see how Mr. Yamashita changed the entire order picked up his mantle and have marched on.

Kazuhito Yamashita is nothing less than a Nicolo Paganini or a Franz Liszt for the guitar. Just as it took a generation or so for the rest of the virtuoso violinists to catch up to Paganini and for virtuoso pianists in general to catch up with Liszt, it will take a while for other virtuoso guitarists to arise to the technical level of Mr. Yamashita. Due to the obscene amount of pig-headed inertia present in the classical guitar world, it may take a little longer in this instance.

So, "What gives?" you might ask, since it's been well over fifteen years since Mr. Yamashita published and performed his earthshattering transcriptions of Pictures at an Exhibition, Firebird, and New World Symphony. Well, things are progressing nicely, thank you very much: There is a young woman from Bulgaria, IIRC (A Google search turned up nothing for me, but I have encountered her name on the web before), who is now performing Mr. Yamashita's transcription of Pictures - I'm so glad that a woman was the first to do this! - so it's only a matter of time before the peer pressure motivates others to do the same.


UPDATE: Coincidentally (Or not) the woman I referenced anonymously above, Galina Vale, has invited me to join her MySpace circle of friends! My Memory sucks, as she was born in the Ukraine, and she is also ridiculously gorgeous!!!

I have made her the numero uno in my Top Friends group. Not that I'm looking for any special treatment or anything. ;^)

As you were...


Currently, the Segovia transcription of Bach's Chaconne is the sine qua non of the guitar repertoire for aspiring virtuosos, but in due time - inevitably... inexorably - that will be replaced by the transcriptions of Kazuhito Yamashita.

Today, Mr. Yamashita has other priorities beyond virtuoso guitar pyrotechnics, such as performing duets with his adorable daughter Koyumi, and promoting the music of eastern composers. Since his CD output is over sixty (!) now, the rich range of his legacy is assured, not that there was ever any doubt in my mind about that. And, somehow, I don't think he's going anywhere anytime soon: There will be more, since he's only forty-six!

You can read about the legendary Metanya Ophee's initial impression of Mr. Yamashita from 1984 here. This is the first part of the performance that Mr. Ophee witnessed:

And, you can read Mr. Ophee's fine defense of his now close friend Kazuhito Yamashita here. (Those links should take you to a cached pages, as the originals are sadly no longer on the internet).

Why am I creating this monster of a post in honor of Kazuhito Yamashita? Well, in 1989 I was a graduate student at Southwest Texas State University (Now simply Texas State University) and the GFA (Guitar Foundation of America) event that year was - almost unbelievably - in Lubbock, Texas. I attended, of course. On the program were such luminaries as Alice Artzt, Oscar Giglia, The LAGQ, and Stepan Rak... plus this diminutive little Japanese guy named Kazuhito Yamashita. I simply couldn't believe it. He played his transcription of the Dvorak New World Symphony and I was sitting about 25 feet from him watching every move and absorbing every nuance of the sound... with my jaw slackened to the point that it was resting on my chest. Watching him perform a single-finger, multiple-string tremolo with the i while simultaneously using the p to play a bass part, and the m/a in alternation for a melody, AND the c for even higher treble effects was... SIMPLY NOT POSSIBLE TO BELIEVE!!! But, there it was, right in front of my very own eyes. Oh, and let us not forget about the constant series of scordatura re-tunings, shall we?

One thing I'll never forget was the dynamic range of the performance. The hall was a fairly crude college auditorium - far from the ideal acoustic environment - and I was sometimes tempted to cover my ears! I've never heard any other acoustic guitarist who was even in the same dynamic universe as the one Mr. Yamashita inhabits. On the other end of the spectrum, the pianissimos were so soft as to be nearly inaudable, but somehow there was never any danger of missing even a single note.

The tonal range was almost as striking as the dynamic range was: From perfect harp impersonations - achieved by playing glissandi with the right hand over the fingerboard - to raspy woodwind effects and nail-biting brass attacks, it was all there... the totality of Dvorak's orchestration, I mean.

After the performance ended, the silence was deafening. The absolutely, positively, mandatory standing ovation was made overwhelmingly conspicuous by the abjectitude of its absence. He just stood there, seemingly to demand the ovation he so richly deserved. Meanwhile, the audience - most of whom were guitarists - were scrambling to collect their wits. I know I was [Let me see here. I know I had at least some wits when I came in tonight]. What seemed to me to be the entire timeline of the universe elapsed (I'm sure it must have been only several seconds, but it sure seemed like forever), then a couple of us started to clap - I'm proud to say I was among that small group who started simultaneously - and it built up into a better screaming crescendo of a standing Oh-My-God! than I have ever been a part of before... or since (And remember, I've been to decades worth of rock concerts).

After the show, I encountered the usual string of what I call the "Lobby Critics." You know, the guys who can't play the guitar worth a damn, but who nonetheless think they are qualified to criticize every great guitarist who they hear perform... even the greatest, which Mr. Yamashita had just proven beyond all rational doubt that he was. Those idiots talk louder than their best guitar forte as well. Fortunately, I had no time for that nonesense, as I was invited to a get-together in Mr. Ophee's room with Alice Artzt, Stepan Rak... and Kazuhito Yamashita. There were as many people there as could fit into the room! Mr. Rak improvised a fugue - which totally blew me away - and Alice played some too (What amazingly smooth tone she gets - Like a female version of Parkening or something). Mr. Yamashita just sat back in a stuffed chair and looked exhausted. I tried not to stare. Eventually, I worked up the nerve to ask him for an autograph, which he happily gave me in the classic Japanese Kanji characters. If I recall correctly, I was the only one who even asked!

Being cursed with soft-as-paper nails, I have had to resort to other means, but you can see where the idea came from.

You need to use all five right hand fingers when you write solo guitar music with passages like this. It was looking at Mr. Yamashita's transcriptions - notated on multiple staves just like this - that gave me the inspiration.

I'll never be as fast or as furious as Kazuhito Yamashita, but the technical aspects of my style are wide open and include many things that mainstream classical guitarists wouldn't do on a dare.

Thank you, Mr. Yamashita.


For some reason, I thought an anime pinup girl would be apropos.


Blogger solitudex said...

Oh my! You managed to catch him in concert playing that transcription!! I've been adoring him for the past few years. I have a copy of his Pictures, but it's far beyond me at this point, unfortunately.

Yikes, blessed you...


Thanks for the most entertaining, sincere and insightful review.

4:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kazuhito Yamashita is today known as a bad performer. Especially his recordings of Bach are cited in this respect: he just moves forward without any regard for musical lines. He aggressively kills everything in his way and mows down every note in his way.

His playing appeals to average-joe-guitarist, who doesn't care about interpretation, but only about a flashy show, after which average-joe-guitarist arbitrarily switches to the some video and enjoys some low quality hollywood action music. Long live interpretation! ha

6:37 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Yes, I think we should all listen to anon comments that tell us interpreting the same old shit the same old way is a good idea. What a load of crap.

Personally, I think the classical guitar rep is boring as hell. The Bach Lute Suites, especially, ought to be banned for at least twenty-five years from being played under penalty of death. If I never hear them again for the rest of my life, the rest of my life will be the better for it (I do actually play the only three pieces in those suites that aren't anachronistic bullshit). How many recordings of those goddamned things do we really need, anyway? Far less than 10% of what's out there, I say.

Same for the rest of that over-played standard rep garbage. The difference between one guitarist's "interpretation" and another's is so trivial as to be virtually unnoticeable. If classical guitarists weren't such ignorant musical retards who don't know theory or how to compose, they could actually ARRANGE and WRITE stuff, but they can't... because classical guitarists are ignorant retards.

And that's why Kazihito Yamashita's performance was the last classical guitar concert I ever went to... almost twenty years ago now.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Michael in Oahu said...

I don't understand the petty jealousies that populate the classical guitar world. Just close your eyes and listen to Mr Yamashita play. Not only is there a superior technical virtuosity but also a sense of musical flow and dynamics that is unsurpassed. His interpretation of J S Bach's Sonatas and Partitas is the gold standard when compared to other artists. And no-one can interpret symphonic music on solo classical guitar as he has. Calling him a genius would discredit him from the work he has obviously put in to realizing the purist sensabilities of music. Sorry dear classical hacks, but the ear does not lie.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Thanks for that, Michael. My beef with the classical guitar world is that it's so hopelessly conservative.

There is ZERO innovation going on there, and the main sport of classical guitarists seems to be criticism. Since most of them can't play anything outside the scope of Segovia's 100 year-old technique, much less can any of them arrange or compose, I guess that's all they're left with.

The real mainstream guys are so uptight their asses squeak when they walk. Being a hyper-critical neurotic is not my idea of being a virtuoso - same root word as virtuous, obviously - but pushing the edge of the envelope forward is.

Yamashita did that, and all he got from the classical guitar world was criticism and scorn.

I can guarantee you this, in 100 years time Yamashita will be a legendary historical virtuoso, while all of his critics will be laughed at, just as Paganini, Liszt, and even Beethoven's contemporary critics are now.

There has been a whole UNIVERSE of technical revolution in contemporary guitar - tap tech, sweep tech, even synths - and the classical guys haven't adopted any of it. They're fossilized.

2:10 AM  
Blogger Juan said...

Considero , en mi personal y humilde apreciación, que la música de Yamashita no inspira ni transmite nada.
Es un fanchote arrogante que exhibe tecnicas nunca vistas.
El buen gusto y cultura musical occidental, la historial del arte, hacen que este japonés no sea más que un simio zurrando notas a una velocidad impresionante.
Sólo eso.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

OK, I'm going to attempt a translation, as directly as possible, with the hope that the context is not lost.

"Consider, in my personal and humble appreciation, that the music of Yamashita does not inspire or transmit anything.

The great goodness and culture of occidental music, the history of the art, rendered by this Japanese man, is no more than a cloud of notes and impressive velocity."

Apologies for any errors, and if anyone has a better interpretation, feel free to offer it.

I simply do not agree with this. Yamashita's entire esthetic is simply different, from his tonal range, to his dynamic range, to the tempi of his interpretations. I have no problem with a subjective judgement along the lines of, "I don't like it, and it doesn't communicate anything to me," but to dismiss Yamashita entirely because of that is simply an objective mistake.

With the many, many technical innovations he has developed, guitarists who don't like his esthetics - his "naily" and strident tone, for example - should simply busy themselves with developing sweeter sounding versions of his techniques, if that's what bothers them.

I could go on...

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been a classical guitarist for 40 years and my son is an accomplished violinist. Yamashita's interpretations of Bach's solo violin, cello and lute collections are very well done. Slower movements and dances are expressive and have great dynamics. Faster pieces are played no faster nor slower than a good violinist. When the music is marked Presto or Vivace a lot of well known guitarists can only muster a forced Allegro - not Yamashita. Not only can he sustain a Presto from beginning to end, he can be amazingly interpretive at the same time.
He is, in my book, the greatest guitarist of our time.

4:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yamashita is one of the worst guitarists I have ever heard. He's right up there with Eliot Fisk. They should be a duo: Yamashita/Fisk Duo - presenting performances full of Flash and Bang!

(...but no emotional content and cultural understanding whatsoever)

1:54 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I don't usually respond to anonymous comments, but this is funny because I agree with you about Eliot Fisk (But not Yamashita, obviously).

My favorite musical comedy CD of all time is Fisk's Virtuoso Guitar. The abject tastelessness of his outrageously over-the-top ornamentation never fails to make me bust a gut laughing, sometimes to the point of tears. His Bach Bourree in E minor has to be the pinnacle of outrage. I'm laughing just thinking about it.

You can make all of the subjective value judgements you want to about Yamashita's playing, but there is simply no objective way to dismiss the fact that physically and technically he can do things with a simple acoustic classical guitar that no other guitarist has ever been able to do at all. I've watched him do it up close, and the moves he makes with his right hand, especially, seem impossible, even when you are watching him make them. It is really and truly astonishing, and there he is in a universe all to himself.

As I say to other guitarists who don't like Yamashita's "naily" tone, interpretations, or whatever; if you don't like the way he plays Dvorak, Stravinsky, or Mussorgsky, then let's hear you learn those transcriptions and play them in a way that you think is "better."

Needless to say, nobody has yet taken me up on that challenge, because they can't.

Truth be told, I like some other guitarist's renditions of standard repertoire better than Yamashita's, but I can hardly stand to listen to standard-repertoire-playing classical guitarists at all anymore, because that music is so over-played and much of it is massively over-rated as music.

I never get tired of hearing Yamashita play his epic transcriptions, however: I'd rather listen to that music than any other classical guitar album by any other classical guitarist. Nobody, but nobody, has been able to "blow my mind" with standard rep since I saw Yamashita in 1989.

In fact, between 1989 and 2009 - twenty years! - I went to exactly zero classical guitar concerts. That whole scene is profoundly uninteresting to me, because there's little that is ever new in it, and most of what is new sucks.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

I agree that Yamashita is a great innovator, but I don't enjoy his playing all that much. While Yamashita deserves all the credit in the world for the transcription and new techniques involved, my favorite performance of the Dvorak symphony is Jorge Caballero's. Caballero has done some very impressive transcriptions him self.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He is, or was a very good player technically, to call him the greatest is presumptuous at best. Narciso Yepes was a master of tone and accuracy and his playing was very emotive. Other than Christopher Parkening what has america offered to the world of classical guitarists.
I could go on and on but I have to remind myself that you are a texan.
Alonson Tsaringa

12:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yamashita is really a guitarist who pushes the bounds.

I recently saw a discussion which lists players just like him (some of the Best Classical Guitar Players):

Best Classical Guitarist

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Yamashita shows us a different way of interpret classical music into guitar playing. I think his technique is great although I personally don't like.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Paskal P said...

Interesting post.

Technically, I think he's on top up until now. I've collected more than 15 of his CD and I can assure anyone that he really honest with the music. When it's marked Allegro Assai or Presto, he can do it. Other guitarist that I heard can't come close to this technical demand, I can give you my metronome check if you want a prove. Check out his rendition of Bach Sonatas/Partitas or Asencio's Collectici Intim. Especially the latter where the crazy passage all over the place and exact tempo marking given, I NEVER heard any recording with tempo close to the required except Yamashita.

Sound-wise, I feel that he Changed A LOT from his early years. His tone is much warmer right now. I compare the Bach Violin Sonatas/Partitas from his late 20's to the recent one when he's 43 years old, he's much more controlled in his tone. Same for his rendition of Sor. I think judged him only from small number of his CD is wrong. Try to hear him in his mature years (late 90's up to now) will give us another perspective.

I agree to some degree, he's too much aggressive in his playing. While frankly this is not my taste, I'm very grateful that we know there's person like him. He opened my ears about how the guitar can be played. Personally, from this style I think he's very gifted when playing Spanish music. I never heard such energy, flare and everything that make Spanish music so powerful. Hearing him playing Suite Compostelana or Invocacion y Danza makes me doesn't want to hear other rendition which in most case too 'Classical' or too 'Clean'. His playing of them So unique, so powerful, so ... sigh I can't describe it. Hear it yourself.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Andrei Krylov said...

Great post! I like Yamashita a lot. I never heard him live, but was deeply impressed by his playing. And I agree with many other things you mentioned in in your post. I did not know that he uses a pinky :) - I am using pinky all the time also ...
Thanks for posting it!

8:46 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home