Music for Use

Music for Use

This week was spent working on an interesting bit of Gebrauchsmusik (if I may stretch the term a bit): a guitarist requested a short solo piece suitable for opening solo recitals, and I responded with a piece that literally “tunes up” his guitar for the concert.

I recently employed some scordatura and peg slides in a cello piece, but that functioned more as a “special effect” or timbral modification rather than anything approaching a coherent, integrated premise. Sometimes I like to pick up on a thread that previously played a supporting role in earlier compositions and then develop it into the focal point of a later composition; this being such a case, I began from the assumption that scordatura had to play some central role in the piece’s argument. The idea I arrived at—a piece that tunes up the instrument—was one of several I listed on a big brainstorming envelope. I chose this particular idea for its aforementioned functionality as well as the fact that it was the idea that most revealed a poetic (rather than purely schematic) dimension.

One of the chief joys in taking on freelance gigs involves the chance I get to respond to some element of the commissioner’s personality, programming, and other considerations. So if I know a piece will be used to open guitar recitals, then I damn well intend to take advantage of that fact! If nothing else it’s a great catalyst for generating ideas; but so much the better if I can think up a piece that specifically engages and takes advantage of unique considerations such as (in this case) placement on a program.

There are a great many stories from American folklore about guitarists acquiring supernatural musical ability through a demonic “tuning up” of the instrument. The old Robert Johnson myth of meeting the devil at a deserted crossroads has many forms, but most versions have the same basic outline: an eager learner is approached by the devil, who offers to impart unearthly musical ability unto the young wannabe in exchange for something else (usually a soul will do in a pinch). What interested me about these stories, so central to the blues tradition in particular, lay in the detail of the devil having to modify or tune up the guitarist’s instrument—what a great musical moment! What might that sound like?

I decided that the opening of the piece would have to start right at that first moment of tuning, and start with a bang. I eventually settled on an appropriately demonic, rattling tuning for the guitar, one that made the instrument sound more like a broken-down blues guitar than something that Segovia would have performed on. The opening chord itself is rich and foreboding, utilizing the 6 detuned open strings as well as the high pitches produced by strumming the strings behind the 1st fret, close to the tuning mechanism. This broken-down and ambiguous opening chord is matched by a free, cadenza-like absence of underlying pulse; a steady pulse begins to take shape as the music develops, and the guitarist gradually tunes the instrument back up to standard concert tuning as the rhythm, harmonies, and tone quality all become more steady and folk-tinged. It was a fun creative challenge to find opportunities for the guitarist to retune without intentionally interrupting the development of the music, and I also “built in” tuning checks (for example, including two harmonics produced on adjacent strings that ought to produce a high unison along with time to fidget and make sure that the thing is really tuned up).

I’m not quite done with the piece yet so it will be interesting to see how these ideas wrap up. Still, I’ve already gotten a great amount of joy out of crafting a creative response to a particular performance situation rather than resorting to generating a “generic” guitar piece—in fact when I was younger, I was often so obsessed with writing “my” music that I often failed to see the incredibly satisfying (and free) inspiration in almost any performance situation. Whether we’re writing a piece for a performer who specializes in extended techniques, a unique performance space, or even a fairly mundane performance situation like the opening of a recital, the path ahead is often clarified in the performance opportunity itself.

For me, it’s often helpful to think about a given project having some kind of use or purpose other than just writing good music, as long as this leads to some good music in the process. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I have a hard time writing abstract music with no performers or occasion in mind!

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2 thoughts on “Music for Use

  1. danvisconti

    thanks, mclaren, the guitarist (Jason Vieaux) is premiering the piece in May 2011. A recording is in the works but not sure if it will be released anytime soon.

    One of the defining aspects of being a composer (or at least the kind of composing that I do) is the inevitable gap between idea, execution, and dissemination. I’ve always envied the fact that improvisers and some computer musicians can close that gap and I often look for ways to incorporate what I’ve learned from them into my own notated compositions–in fact I hope to write a few posts later this year about some projects I’m starting into that will be internet-based for faster (and real-time) access. Thanks for asking!


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