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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

What's Special About The Guitar

No volume, no sustain, no range, but there is one thing...

Sometimes it is good to take a step back and put things into perspective. At this moment I am doing so and thinking about the guitar itself. What is it about the guitar that I like, when it has so much against it compared to other instruments?

It doesn't have volume. By the measure of any orchestral instrument the dynamic range is from very quiet to very very quiet. Stravinsky went further and said "it's not so much quiet, rather it sounds from afar". Play the guitar with a string quartet and you have a struggle to be heard. Play a concerto with a chamber orchestra and you cannot hear the guitar beyond the tenth row unless the orchestration is as light as a feather - and what's the fun in listening to that for twenty five minutes or so? As far as the sound heard in the first ten rows it lacks weight and beauty for many of the lower harmonics are lost, leaving only a thin line breaking through the orchestral texture, audible but only just.

It doesn't have a sustaining sound. The great cellist Pablo Casals noted this when he heard his compatriot Andrés Segovia play him music by Bach. The lack of sustain makes lyrical playing very difficult, which is why the guitar comes into its element when it plays fast rhythmic music.

It doesn't have range. The pitch distance between the lowest and highest note is not even four octaves, which sit in the lap of a grand piano with room to spare either side.

It doesn't have a repertoire. Until the 19th century good pieces are no more than a few isolated dots on the musical landscape. The first great piece was composed less than a hundred years ago, and that was Manuel de Falla's Tombeau. Benjamin Britten said "the guitar is an instrument without a repertoire" although he improved the situation by composing his great Nocturnal for it.

So I return to the question I posed at the beginning. What is it about the guitar I like? Maybe some of the negative aspects I have described have a positive element contained within.

It may not have sustain but on playing a note both life and death are evoked together. Julian Bream has said that the note blooms instantly at its birth, whereupon it immediately begins its decline. This is a striking and poetic image.

Because the guitar lacks volume we listen all the harder until a tiny world of gradations reveal themselves as from a fairy's wand. And when the wand is waved a spell is cast on the fingers, nails, flesh and strings, from them emerging something special.

Andrés Segovia cast the spell superbly and described the guitar as "a miniature orchestra," and so it is. The beauty of the guitar is there contained: in the spell-binding sound world it creates. That is what I like best of the guitar.

But a beautiful sound world conjured from a fairy wand is not enough. Let us go forth and continue the business of creating music for what Agustín Barrios described as "the mysterious box". Without a music of its own it will remain just that, and surely it deserves more.

December 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=879 .
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