Sunday, March 04, 2007

Logically Extending Classical Guitar Technique

My previous post about Kazuhito Yamashita got me to thinking...


Back in the early days of rock guitar, many guitarists in that idiom did not use the little finger of the left hand. The situation at the end of the past century (Millennium, actually) in the classical guitar world was perfectly analogous: Players did not use the little finger of the right hand.

After the age of Jimi Hendrix in the rock guitar world, more sophisticated players arose who took a more logical and inclusive approach to thechnique. Not only did the little finger of the left hand get drafted into action, but a host of extended techniques arose as well: The melodic tap technique of Eddie Van Halen, the liquid legattos of Alan Holdsworth, the blazingly fast pick-every-single-note technique of Al Di Meola and Steve Vai... you get the idea.

In the classical guitar world, however, the pace of change has been glacial. Basically, there are no significant numbers of classical guitarists who have advanced technique beyond that of Andres Segovia and his heir apparent Christopher Parkening.


Well, there is no doubt but that the vast majority of the existing classical guitar repertoire requires nothing beyond Segovia's technique, for one thing. After all, he transcribed and/or edited much if not most of it. That which he did not have a personal hand in during his astonishingly long life and career, his various desciples did.

But another factor is simply the granite-headedness of the majority of today's classical guitarists. I've heard some say that the right hand little finger is "unusable" because it is so much shorter than the other three. Not to name any names, but the dolt who spewed forth that nonsense is one of a pair of brothers who are relatively prominent in the pdagogical world of guitar here in the United States.

So, let's look at this logically, shall we? If length is the yardstick here (No pun intended), then what about the thumb?

By that measure (Ha, ha), the thumb is worse than useless, because it's much shorther than the pinkie finger is.

Flush that idiocy.

Truth is, the hand was designed by Its Creator (Whether you are a creationist or an evolutionist) to relax so that the fingertips align perfectly.

So, let's just call a spade a spade, shall we? Most classical guitarists don't use the c finger because, A) The conservative and threadbare old repertoire they play doesn't require it, and B) they are too lazy and/or scared to modify their ninteenth century technique to adopt it. There: Don't we all feel better being honest?


Since I come from a rock and jazz background, I've never been squeemish about adopting so-called "extended" techniques (Which are really simply inclusive techniques). In fact, I actively seek out pieces that will expand my technique so that my compositional horizons will be broadened. That is why I perform things like Eddiie Van Halen's Spanish Fly and Joe Satriani's A Day at the Beach: So that I can cop the tap techniques to use later in my own stuff.

Why anybody would be reticent to expand their musical universe, I'll never understand, but many seem content to spend their eternity in the previous millennium. Not me.


In a related note, there are many comments to this blog that I don't publish. The reason? In a nutshell, they are idiotic. I've spent over thirty years studying just about everything that has anything to do with music, music theory, and musical composition, so pardon me if I simply have zero tolerance for zit-faced kids with strong opinions and no knowledge or understanding to back them up: I do not suffer fools, gladly or reluctantly. In other words, if you are not wise enough to learn from my work, take a hike.


One of the pieces that I've written - and the series of posts I've created about it - that has been most controversial has been the series on the Axial Fugue in E Minor for solo guitar, which is the finale from Sonata One. I got a lot of the "Well, actually; there are several parts of the fugue that are physically impossible to play." Yadda, yadda, yadda/Blah, blah, blah. I suppose I could have responded and explained the stages of my compositional process, but judging from the rest of the content of the responses, it would not have done any good. Some people simply refuse to recognize art when they encounter it. They don't even honestly attempt to understand it.

So?... I did the fingering for it just to prove that it is possible to play. Not only that, but much of it is actually quite easy, because it is idiomatic guitar music!

To reiterate, my compositional process ia an unfolding series of revelations. It starts with an inital spark - a premise of one sort or another - and then it grows. First, all of this growth is in my noggin, and - when it has reached critical mass - I then commit it to pixels or paper (Hardly ever paper anymore).

The goal is - in the case of guitar music especially - to write the purest form of absolute music possible, and then see what, if any, compromises I have to make to realize it on the guitar. After playing the guitar for over thirty years and writing for it nearly as long, I don't get myself into any dead ends anymore. Oh sure, I may have to adjust note durations - add rests in certain places and stuff like that - but when I write a guitar piece away from the guitar now, I know it will work.

This was exactly the case with the Axial Fugue, which at over four hundred measures, is by far the most epic piece of guitar music I've ever written.


The prospect of of fingering this piece out scared me. No joke. Most of the pieces I write are miniatures - the overwhelmingly vast majority, in fact - and there are several reasons for this. Paramount among them is my uncontrollable "workaholicism": Once I start a project, I absolutely, positively cannot leave it until I either finish it, or pass out from exhaustion. The latter was the case in this instance, as after fingering over ten pages of it - which took about thirty hours - I simoply had to go to bed. Miniatures don't do that to me.

Another factor is my technique. Since I'm a composer who happens to play the guitar, versus a guitarist who happens to compose, I'm no virtuoso in most senses of the term. I can compose beyond my ability to play any old time, but what is the point? If I had a Kazuhito Yamashita or a Christopher Parkening to play my work, no problemo. Heck, I'd probably stop performing entirely if that were the case.

Alas, I'm just a minor genius laboring away in obscurity (/joke).


About seventy-two hours ago I began this project, and I cannot guarantee that there aren't a few mistakes and/or omissions - I sure there are - but the piece as fingered is possible to execute if you A) Have the technique, and B) have large enough hands (I'm six feet two inches tall and my palms are pretty wide, so I can make some fairly radical stretches).

Other than that, there are no tricks or magic here, despite the fact that I am a wizard (I'm watching the Dresden Files in the lower right hand corner of my monitor at present).

Since the progression of voice numbers is two, three, four between the exposition, counter-exposition, and recapitulation, there is nothing to see here: As it appeared in my head, it is possible to execute on the guitar: I changed nothing on this page. Though the non-open string zero axis on E in measures 20-33 is tricky, it is not overly difficult either.

On the last system of page two the counter exposition begins. Since the drone on the high E and the zero axis on B are open strings, this is not all that difficult to play. As I said, it's idiomatic guitar music organized around the open strings of the axe.

Though the true three-part answer section on the top system is not exactly easy, any descent virtuoso could play it. Yamashita could probably sight read it. So, here we are one hundred measures into the piece, and I've had to change exactly nothing from the pure, absolute music version that I wrote in my head.

Over one hundred thirty measures, and I still have had to change absolutely nothing. Since there's nothing to see here, let's move along (Unless you want to check out the fingering for yourself, of course).

You'll notice quarter rests in measures 143 and it's inversion at 155, but I knew these unisoni were going to be impossible to execute when I initially wrote the passages. I've made it through the exposition and counter-exposition with no problems: 165 measures... and counting.

Though the top system- the beginning of the development (This is a sonata process fugue, remember) - looks formidable, all of the open strings involved make it pretty easy to execute. Same with the middle system and the bottom system: The judicious use of open strings adds a lot of weight to a guitar texture. Why do you think Mr. Yamashita uses all of those scordaturas anyway?

OK, here I got a bit of a surprise, as I had to add the quarter rests to the top voice on the first system. I nearly made it two hundred measures with absolutely zero modifications from what I had imagined. Not bad for an old cowboy.

As you can see, I haven't removed all of the analysis markers from the book version yet, and I haven't changed the second header title yet either. Over thirty hours is a lot of work: You are bound to miss a few things.

Same deal here: The quarter rests in the top voice for the uppermost and bottom systemsare new. Part of the point of the compositional process I've developed is to get the most pure form of absolute music possible onto the guitar with the fewest possible compromises to the idiom. I want the music to be idiomatic, but I don't want the guitar to write it for me (As is the case with the majority of contemporary guitar composers out there today).

The half rests in the lead of the top system here also are new, but they are not really unexpected. Besides, if I can ever work this up to the tempo I want it at (Not likely), those rests will be entirely pedantic and not noticable at all.

In the fourth system there are dotted quarter rests, which I have had in the score since the beginning: I knew the B-flats would be problematic because they are not an open string.

Here in the recapitulation - on the upper two staves - we have the original contrapuntal combination that I came up with before I even started writing anything out. The only thing I had to change was to add the quarter rest in measure 306 (The rest in 305 was already there).

In measure 327 there is a new quarter rest in the bass, other than that, all is as it was.

Same passage/different mode: the rest in the bass at 357 is new.

Though I figured this out before I started fingering the piece, the reast in the bass at 387 is new from the last version I posted here.


So, there you have it. Out of 404 measures I had to slightly modify a handfull in order to make them technically correct with respect to exactly what the guitarist can actually execute. Other than those minor details, the piece is perfectly perfomable (Though it is beyond my abilities for certain).

I hope this puts an end to the infantile anonymous comments that come through about this, but somehow I doubt it. When people have a lot invested in being willfully ignorant, they will go to extreme lengths to mitigate against the cognitive dissonance that encounters with the truth will inevitably produce.


Now, I'm going to get back to nursing this cold I have.

I feel your pain, baby: I feel your pain.


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