Pulling Strings

Pulling Strings

Back in October 2003 when NewMusicBox explored the role of the piano in American music, there were many comments saying that we should have focused on the guitar instead, an issue we had always intended to do at some point in the future. Indeed, the guitar has played a catalytic role in much of our music and has served as a bridge between different musical genres. In fact, just exactly what is defined by the word “guitar” has become one of the murkier vocabulary games in our ever-compartmentalized musical environment. Like many wonderful ideas, the current issue of NewMusicBox emerged over a lunch at the nearby Indian restaurant Sirtaj. Over papadum and Navratan curry, Dominic Frasca, whom I had recently met though composer Marc Mellits, introduced me to Stephen Griesgraber, a composer, guitarist, member of the chamber ensemble Slow Six and Editor of the quarterly journal Guitar Review. We decided that our usual one-on-one conversation would not do justice to the range of the guitar in contemporary American music, so with some tongue-in-cheek mathematics decided it would need to be a conversation among six people, and everything else started falling into place from there. But I should let Steve tell it in his own words…


Stephen Griesgraber
Photo by Sara Blasi

“…making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as if the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony.”
Pontus De Tyard, on Francesco Canova da Milano—Solitaire second ou prose de musique, 1555.

“People come to my concerts just to lose weight. I tell ’em to sit up real close—makes their ears bleed; it’s good for them. One time a pigeon—and this is true—a pigeon flew in front of my speakers and just literally disintegrated, man, just melted.”
Ted Nugent, interview in Guitar Player—August, 1979.

The guitar and its relatives have been manifold instruments throughout musical history. Pontus de Tyard’s words suggest that when played well, the intimate voice of plucked strings was capable of hypnotizing 16th century nobles. Ted Nugent’s appraisal of his own performances indicates the guitar’s capacity not only to inspire fist-pumping and lighter-waving, but apparently to annihilate small animals. These historical and effectual extremes are a reminder of the unique breadth of an instrument that has served court and tavern, concert hall and arena, all in equal measure.

If the 21st century proves to be the musical era in which ever-expanding pluralism and enlightened attitudes toward synthesis are reconciled, the guitar is thus well positioned for a musical landscape in which discourse is not inhibited by allegiance to middling mathematical processes or meretricious conceptualism; in which instrumentation and performers’ pedigree cease to be a basis for classification. The case could be made that the guitar is the universal instrument—a common denominator among musical aesthetics. And fortunately (at the very least for guitarists) composers and audiences have, since the later half of the twentieth century, wholly embraced it as such. From the delicate artistry of Segovia to the riotous wail of Hendrix, the guitar has inspired and provoked millions.

This month’s In the 1st Person column exemplifies the unique breadth of the instrument by featuring a five of America’s most extraordinary guitarists in a rare roundtable discussion. David Starobin, who has arguably done more to expand the repertoire of the concert classical guitar than any other American, shares his thoughts on the commissioning process. Dominic Frasca relates his theory of the guitar as a cultural bridge. David Leisner discusses his dual role as composer and performer with James Emery, whose background as a jazz interpreter, improviser, composer, and arranger reveals a fundamentally different perspective. Mark Stewart confesses to playing, “popular, semi-popular, and unpopular music” and speaks insightfully about the challenges and rewards of performing each. Also in this issue: Mark Delpriora presents a thorough history of the American classical guitar; non-guitarists Terry Riley, Lois V Vierk, Tim Risher and Randall Davidson reveal how they’ve composed for the guitar; and Nick Didkovsky offers a primer for composers on the expansive sonic capabilities of the electric guitar. We also have carved out a space for you to offer your own guitar-related comments in our interactive forum.

I am grateful to Frank J. Oteri and the staff of NewMusicBox for devoting the June 2004 issue to the guitar. And I am honored to have had the opportunity to co-edit the issue. Working with the guest artists, contributing writers, and staff has been a pleasant reminder of the appeal and vast scope of my instrument. I admit to feeling a sense of pride as I considered that this one simple instrument has enabled me to realize the sublime perfection of Bach’s counterpoint, the mercurial moods of Elliott Carter, and the smoky elegance of Django Reinhart; and pride met with nostalgia when I acknowledged that I might know none of this had my mother not found me at age 10, jumping on my bed, tennis racket in hand, doing my best Eddie Van Halen.

—Stephen Griesgraber

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.