—The GFA Soundboard
—The GFA Soundboard
In 1843 Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote in his journals: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” I think the same is true of gaining perspective of a body of creative and scholarly work, at least if that work is thoughtful, attempts to solve certain problems, and is not imitative of the work of others. Pieces of a mosaic only make sense from a distance.
For performing musicians employed in an academic setting as full-time tenured (or tenure-track) faculty, the research portion of their responsibilities is most often fulfilled by performances in a variety of venues, and I began my career—and continued for at least two and a half decades—presenting hundreds of solo recitals in places like Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall) and Merkin Hall in New York; the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series in Chicago; the Trinity Chamber Concerts in Berkeley, CA; the Bass Museum of Art in Miami.
But in addition to maintaining a high level of artistic excellence and creativity, I view my position as one in which I feel compelled to create pedagogical content for my students. I am not satisfied to follow the course set out by the available method books and repertoire series. Why is this so?
I can answer this question with another question: why is it that guitarists today privilege an Urtext edition or facsimile over editions prepared by an editor, yet accept statements and writings about how to develop technique and how to practice that are essentially anecdotal? The idea is that an Urtext has an authority derived from it being based upon an original source (or in the case of a facsimile, is the source itself), while an edition mediated by an editor is usually seen as the editorial equivalent of being anecdotal and personal. But most writings on guitar technique are anecdotal as well—even those by famous artists—and seldom take advantage of previous research in physiology or psychology. I will refrain from mentioning specific works out of respect for my colleagues, but in most guitar methods or treatises one rarely finds reference to others’ work or the application of critical thinking skills; most of the writing consists of expositions of what the author does or thinks he or she does; or the writing consists of an overly methodical series of proscriptive rules that fail to recognize the difference between the requirements of pedagogy and the requirements of art. This doesn’t mean that such works are without value—they might be very valuable—but how is a student to tell, especially, as is likely, that student’s experiences are not aligned with those of the expert author.
So I began work on what became Mastering Guitar Technique. This book went through many iterations and was used in my studio with my students for at least fifteen years before it was published by Mel Bay Publications, Inc. in 1997. My hope was that it would help students understand the “why” behind what I was asking them to do and serve as a source for future work by others.
My Giuliani Revisited, also published in 1997, was the result of a Gedankenexperiment, or thought experiment: how might Mauro Giuliani’s famous 120 right-hand exercises from his Op. 1, first published in Vienna in 1812, be different were he to conceive of them today? I kept about 40 of Giuliani’s original exercises but created another 100. My additions were either based on patterns used in music composed since Giuliani’s time (e.g., the inimitable pattern created by Villa-Lobos for his Etude No. 1), or explored such things as string-crossing and polyryhthms. You can read about practice ideas to use with this book at Giuliani Revisited: Part One and Giuliani Revisited: Part Two on The Guitar Whisperer Blog.
Several years later I noticed that intelligent, sensitive, and creative performers did not seem to apply their intelligence, sensitivity, and creativity to their work in the teaching studio. The result was a long article that first appeared as “The Virtuoso Teacher” in Volume 2, Nos. 1–3 of Piano Pedagogy Forum and later in the Winter/Spring 2000 issue of The Soundboard, the Journal of the Guitar Foundation of America (Volume XXXVI, Nos. 3/4) as “The Re-Imagination of Guitar Pedagogy.” This article is undergoing revision as I have discovered several sources that confirm what were my original observations and thoughts. The new version is available on Leanpub in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI versions so one can read them on any device, but it can be read online here or downloaded through Gumroad here.
All aspects of my work—teaching, performing, writing, composing—are dedicated to developing in myself and others the expressive and persuasive qualities of music. My most personal statement of this is The Pilgrim Forest.
The hour-long Pilgrim Forest, which I refer to as my “musical novel,” is a wordless story told in music. The ten solo guitar pieces that comprise The Pilgrim Forest can each stand on their own in performance, but when experienced as a cycle reveal a complex narrative unity. The music was composed using pencil and paper and I have been slow to create digital versions of the scores, despite requests. But there are now three available and others will follow.
Then there was my immersion in studying and performing only on Renaissance and Baroque lutes from 1995–2001. Many thought it odd for me to stop playing guitar during this time, but I loved exploring the immense library of lute music from the original lute tablatures. Much of this material is simply not available or suitable for guitar transcription.
There’s much more that could be said about this, but there occurred during this period one epiphanous moment that set me on course for another phase of my work: one summer I was doing nothing but playing lute intabulations, i.e., lute arrangements, of early 16th-century vocal music—primarily mass movements and madrigals—and I heard no other music for five or six weeks. I got in my car one day and turned on the radio and heard something that initially sounded incomprehensible to me. It turns out it was a Mozart symphony.
I had approached the Classical era from a period before (actually, several periods before) and heard all that was new in the Mozart symphony and it was disorienting. This isn’t usually how it’s done: performers are always looking backwards from the present to the music they play and carry their (sometimes) unconscious assumptions about performance with them, or they hew to a set of performance conventions that may have been applied retroactively to a period that never knew them. It turns out that imagining one is approaching a work from the period immediately preceding reveals shades of meaning to stylistic changes that are lost when one is only looking backwards.
My interest as an artist and performer has been to explore ways to escape the invisible and unquestioned assumptions about performance that musicians trained in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have. Malcolm Bilson, writing in the journal Early Music, relates a discussion that took place at the 1991 Mozart Conference at Lincoln Center in New York City after a recording of a Mozart sonata performed by Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was played: “To describe Rachmaninoff’s performance as not heeding the text,” wrote Bilson, “would be superfluous; it was so free in this regard that the penultimate Adagio variation was actually faster than the Allegro that followed it. This gave rise to a great deal of controversy among the participants; there were those who were outraged at the ‘utter lack of respect for the composer and the text,’ while others proclaimed, ‘But who today plays as flexibly and gorgeously as Rachmaninoff?’”
So I began work on a projected four-part series called “The Re-Imagination of Performance‚” The first part, which explored the use and later rejection of the portamento, appeared in the Vol. XXXV, No. 1, (2009) of The Soundboard, the Journal of the Guitar Foundation of America.
I presented a paper based on part two of this series, “The Performer as Co-Creator with the Composer,” at Ithaca College at the Guitar Foundation of America’s International Convention at Ithaca College in June 2009. Joseph Mayes wrote in a review of the week-long festival:
Christopher Berg’s lecture, “Re-Imagination of Performance: the Performer as Co-Creator with the Composer,” came next. The lecture’s title was quickly enlarged upon to include an historical survey of the rhythmic and dynamic freedoms practiced by some of the early twentieth century’s great interpreters, as interpolated from recordings and reviews. He made an example of the two types of rubato (compensating and free) and how they are used and misused today. Berg’s main point, which was well-presented and convincing, seemed to be that modern players should see the interpretation of these players, the tendency to transcend constraints with portamento, rubato, vibrato, and tempo modification, as “historic‚” rather than “old fashioned.” I found this lecture to be the most thought-provoking, reasoned, and well-presented of the festival.
If some of this this seems reminiscent of the ongoing hermeneutical conflict between the rival and irreconcilable interpretive methods applied to the US Constitution, you’d be right: “Originalism” (trying to divine the framers’ intent through a literal approach) and “living constitutionalism” (reinterpreting the text in light of modern demands), loosely compare with Werktreu (a word popularized by Richard Taruskin), or “faithfulness to the work, (i.e., text),” and Komponistentre (a word coined by Bilson), or “faithfulness to the composer’s intentions,” which are almost always viewed though a contemporary lens, albeit unconsciously, and are unknowable. Taruskin further maintains that “the need obliquely to gain the composer’s approval for what we do bespeaks a failure of nerve, not to say an infantile dependency. The appeal to intentions is an evasion of the performer’s obligation to understand what he is performing.” I would add to Taruskin’s remark that the appeal to intentions also bespeaks a failure of imagination.
If you add to the mix the thesis put forth by Akhil Reed Amar, a Constitutional scholar at Yale Law School, in his book, America’s Unwritten Constitution, that there is an unwritten constitution that parallels the written Constitution, you have an idea of an unwritten tradition of performance practice that is passed down through the generations through performance and pedagogy, but not without modification. Amar contends that the unwritten is indispensable to understanding the written, but it has been misunderstood and abused by judges and scholars. This parallels some of the problems interpreters of non-contemporary music, i.e., most of the Western musical canon, face with their scores. But performers generally tend not to be as aware of these diverging approaches as Constitutional scholars are and they commonly conform to a set prescribed conventions about how music of a given period is to be performed. As these conventions have become more deeply entrenched, the understanding of the openness of the score has faded more into the background.
Performers rarely venture into this textual thicket, least of all in writing. The unreflective self-confidence many performers possess convinces them of their own inerrancy when approaching their texts. What Thomas Macaulay (1800–1859) famously wrote about the intellectual culture of the Jesuits in the second volume of his History of England could be paraphrased about the artistic life of many performers: “They appear to have discovered the precise point to which technical excellence can be carried without risk of artistic emancipation.”
Further installments of my “Re-Imagination of Performance” series are underway, but recent changes to The Soundboard’s submission policies—mainly restrictions on length—have made it unclear whether I’ll try to publish future installments there, and the long-awaited Soundboard Scholar, which is to be a top-tier, peer-reviewed journal, has yet to appear. When it does, its authors are prohibited from publishing their articles “in English elsewhere, either in print or through electronic media of any sort.” I have opted for immediacy and the freedom to disseminate work in a variety of ways and have decided to issue works from this site and my Guitar Whisperer blog. I’ll also be folding future articles into my Classical Guitar Companion.
The Classical Guitar Companion was first conceived in 2001, and like my previous books, was used in my studio for many years before publication. It was published in 2013 and is about to enter into its second printing. I have conceived of it as a two-volume work. Volume One is focused on practice; Volume Two will be focused on performance. Volume One of The Classical Guitar Companion contains about 250 pages, features over 200 examples, etudes, and pieces organized to help serious guitar students better navigate the shoals of becoming well-trained and expressive artists. Rather than try to shepherd each student down the same path, the book allows students to approach their training within a flexible and personal curriculum based upon their weaknesses and strengths. The work is unprecedented in its organization. In addition to a series of essays on practice and study, the work is organized into ten main sections according to the technique used, e.g., scales, arpeggios, slurs, with brief commentary. The pieces in each section progress by degree of difficulty, insofar as that’s possible given the variety of backgrounds and abilities students have, but material within the sections can be studied concurrently according to one’s strengths and weakness, interests, and advice from a teacher. In this regard, it is the antithesis of a typical method book through which one progresses page by page, or an established graded repertoire series.
Volume Two will continue my “The Re-Imagination of Performance” series and will also contain numerous pieces and performance notes. There will be more about this later.
My most recent project is a 25-page article titled “Mental Strategies to Improve Sight-Reading, Memorization, and Performance.” This article takes advantage of recent research in neurology and psychology to help students develop secure skills in these areas more quickly. This article probably will not be submitted to Soundboard, but will be included in the next printing of The Classical Guitar Companion (around January 2015), and is available on Leanpub now.
I find that the diverse activities of performing, teaching, composing, and writing have served to illuminate each other. And although I cannot claim to be at a place where I can understand my work “backwards,” as Kierkegaard wrote, I find myself in agreement with Rudyard Kipling’s sentiment, “What should they know of England who only England know?”
- The actual quote is, “It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards.”↩
- The translation of the German “Urtext” is “true text.”↩
- Think only of the way Segovia’s editions of Bach are viewed today. ↩
- And the writing is often poor. ↩
- Malcolm Bilson, “The future of Schubert interpretation: what is really needed?” Early Music, Vol, 25, No. 4, (November, 1997): 715–722. ↩
- Joseph Mayes, “GFA Convention and Competitions, 2009‚” The Soundboard, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1 (January 2010): 66–67. ↩
- Stanley Fish makes convincing case in “Interpreting the ‘Variorum’” that there is no meaningful difference between one’s interpretation of a text and one’s recreation of the intentions of its creator. See Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 3. (Spring, 1976), pp. 465–485. ↩
- Richard Taruskin, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) 97. ↩
- Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By, (Basic Books 2012). ↩
- The original quote is “They appear to have discovered the precise point to which intellectual culture can be carried without risk of intellectual emancipation,” and appears in the second volume of Macaulay’s History of England (1848). ↩
- See Soundboard Scholar.↩