Please join us in Olympia next Saturday, Sept. 14th at 7:00pm at the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (1515 Harrison Ave NW, Olympia WA). This is a benefit for the Gaza Palestinian Cultural Palace. All are welcome!
Neil and I participated in the 2019 International Guitar Research Centre (IGRC) conference in Hong Kong, an academic gathering which took place alongside The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts International Guitar Forum and the Altamira Hong Kong International Guitar Symposium and Competition. It was an incredibly packed week of presentations, lecture/demonstrations, and concerts, and a momentous time to be in Hong Kong, as I have reflected on in my history of science blog.
Neil’s lecture/demonstration at the conference explored the practice of improvisation and guitar music in the early 19th century. He brought our nifty packable Terz guitar to play examples of improvised preludes. An excellent overview of all of the IGRC papers and performances can be found here.
In this post, I would like to turn my historian-of-science eye towards the IGRC proceedings and apply insights of the French philosopher Bruno Latour to the practice of music. In his book, Science in Action, Latour refers to the accumulation of scientific data and the dominant explanatory theories as “immutable mobiles.” The process of writing down and circulating scientific discoveries results in scientific knowledge that travels without being changed by local observations (i.e. that is mobile and immutable). Universal scientific findings are findings that are true everywhere. According to Latour, the repeated iterations of information layered multiple times results in scientific knowledge that has gained legitimacy and authority. In the same way, I suggest, a musical score, composed and set down on paper, widely circulated and played over and over by many different musicians, starts to become an authoritative “classic.”
The period we refer to as “Classical” in Western music is generally thought to be the period from about 1780 to 1850. Much of the music composed was published to be purchased by a broader public of expert amateur musicians. These were often highly accomplished players, however, they were not necessarily trained in music theory or the intricacies of improvising from a bass line, as were professionals, especially during earlier periods. The composers who wrote for these musicians, such as Leopold Mozart, specified the exact notes these musicians should play and did not expect them to add to what was written on the page. By the time Beethoven was publishing his music, all musicians were expected to stay true to the score.
Nevertheless, the practice of improvising continued to be a vital part of music-making. Virtuosi famously invented cadenzas to impress their audiences. Amateurs also played improvised preludes and passages, especially in the early 19th century. This was true for guitarists as well as for pianists and other instrumentalists and for singers. This tradition was largely lost by the mid-to-late 19th century in classical music but continued to be a key element of new musical forms such as jazz and eventually rock & roll.
Therefore, when we play musical scores from the early 19th century, we can think of them as mutable mobiles. These scores were published and meant to travel – one could hear the same duet variations of Fernando Sor’s Souvenir de Russie, Op. 63, or Mauro Giuliani’s Rossiniani, in Paris, as well as in Vienna or St. Petersburg. The evidence, nevertheless, suggests that these standards of the guitar repertoire were also meant to be interpreted somewhat freely, perhaps with an improvised prelude, a flashy cadenza, or even some flexibility in the interpretation of an arpeggio.
Like a scientist – a term invented during this period – the early 19th century musical artist created musical performances working from both a written score and from his or her own observations and experiments. In the early 19th century, science too was often performed for a public audience. Sir Humphry Davy, for example, exhibited his own improvisatory flair while demonstrating the properties of gases. Such improvisations were expected. Improvisation was part and parcel of early 19th century culture, both in art and science.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS: Mark Wilson-October 12th and 13th Scott Kritzer-November 16th and 17th Tamara and Neil Caulkins-March 21st and 22nd Jessica Papkoff-April 25th and 26th Oleg Timofeyev-May 30th and 31st Saturday performances are at 7:00 p.m. in the Fire on Main Gallery in Soap Lake, WA and Sunday performances are at 2:00 p.m. in Gallery One in Ellensburg, WA.
What You See, And What You Don’t; Improvised Preludes From Early 19th Century Guitar Methods
Neil Caulkins will be presenting a lecture/recital on the early 19th-century performance practice of improvised preludes. It will be on July 17th at 9:45 a.m. in the International Guitar Research Centre’s conference as part of the Altamira Hong Kong International Guitar Symposium in Hong Kong, China.
Overview: We see descriptions of composers and performers from the 19th Century being tremendous improvisers. We also see reference to improvisation in method books from that time. What we do not see is improvisation on the modern classical music stage. There were more methods for the guitar written in the early 19th century than for any other instrument. Because the guitar was not yet taught in the conservatories, these methods had to offer detailed instruction about every aspect of music. This makes them a treasure trove of information from which all musicians can benefit. This lecture/recital focuses upon the early 19th century performance practice of the improvised prelude. A detailed examination of existing written examples of these improvisatory preludes will be beneficial to all musicians who perform music from this period. Then we will explore how to construct/compose our own “improvisatory” preludes using historic cadence examples as the basis for historically informed introductions.
Sources: Current scholarship, such as by Kenneth Hamilton, has focused upon the piano literature such as by Cherny. This lecture draws upon guitar methods and music from the early 19th century. The foundational methods by Sor and Aguado establish a basic understanding or recognition of improvisation. Then the methods of Batioli, Boccomini, and Opus 100 of Mauro Giuliani, will be examined in detail. Cadence examples, particularly from the Batioli method, will be presented as grist for construction of our own “improvised” preludes.
We have been generously loaned a guitar for practicing while we are here in the UK, but didn’t realize that it would be a fine handmade instrument, carefully crafted from local woods. The luthier, Les Backshall, has built forty guitars in the last decade or so and is now making ukeleles for his grandchildren (lucky kids!).
The top of this guitar is European Spruce, common in modern guitars as well as earlier instruments such as lutes and vihuelas. However, unlike most classical guitars which have backs and sides made of Rosewood (either Indian or Brazilian), the backs and sides of this guitar are made of Yew (taxus baccata). This yew is a tree that figures importantly in English history. Yew needles and seeds are also toxic to humans which has led to many references to it in mythology (think Druids – this is England!).
The Yew tree is indigenous to England. A slow growing conifer, it has a beautiful, distinctive grain and bright sound. It is perhaps similar to Maple, which is what one usually finds on the backs and sides of early nineteenth-century guitars, including ours. We came across a very old Yew at the Oxford Botanical Garden on a visit there last week.
Yew was a much favored wood for the making of longbows and lutes. It conjures images of King Arthur and traveling bards. As we’ve wandered castle ruins and cathedrals these past few weeks, adventure tales of Medieval England come to mind.
The problem is that pressing the right forearm into the edge of the guitar can cause injury and exacerbate repetitive overuse of the forearm muscles. In answer to this problem there have been a couple different products created and marketed. They each have their own limitations. These products also have an eye to protecting the guitar’s finish. I have rediscovered a new use for an older product that is readily available, cheaper than the other options, provides superior protection for the arm, and also can protect the guitar’s finish.
One of the devices marketed to deal with this problem is the guitar arm rest. Some guitars even have them built on. It provides a rounded surface to rest the arm against rather than the sharp edge of the instrument. While I will admit that this is an improvement, it still means that you will be putting pressure on your forearm in the same vulnerable, possibly already injured, spot. You will be putting that pressure on a rounded ½ inch edge rather than a pointy edge. These items seem to affix to the guitar using either suction cups or a screw/grip mechanism. I have never had good luck with suction cups-they always come loose. The screw/grip mechanism on the one I looked at could not accommodate a guitar less than 3 ½ inches deep. Because I play little 19th-century guitars, that would not work.
The other device I have seen is a padded sleeve to cushion your arm from the edge of the guitar. Again, while that is an improvement, it merely cushions the pressure a bit. One will still be putting pressure, though somewhat more diffusely, against the same vulnerable, possibly injured, area of the forearm.
I was sharing my thoughts on the shortcomings of these devices with my wife, Tamara. I told her that what I wanted was something on my forearm with boning to spread the pressure over a much greater area, rather than just have it against the same spot, albeit more diffusely. (Boning is the technique of sewing a series of stiff rods into a garment to provide support or stiffness. Historically, the rod was a piece of whale bone, but it could be metal or plastic as well.) She asked why I didn’t just use my old archery forearm guard? It has boning and you can wear it under your long sleeve shirt. This was a great idea, I thought. I dug out my old arm guard, put it on, pulled the long sleeve shirt over it, and started to play.
The difference was immediately obvious. The boning distributes the pressure over a much greater area, reducing injury. Whereas a sleeve or arm rest would essentially distribute the pressure over an area ½ inch by the width of one’s arm, the boning distributes the pressure over a rectangle that is 2 ½ inches by 6 ½ inches, and runs the length of one’s forearm. This result in a huge pressure reduction on the forearm. By having the sleeve of your shirt over it, the top of the guitar is also protected from the guard. Another advantage to the use of a boned archery arm guard is that they are readily available and cheap. The hunting outfitter Cabelas has them for under $9.00 and they are available in black. Here is a link: https://www.cabelas.com/product/hunting/archery/releases-release-aids/arm-guards-finger-tabs-gloves/pc/104791680/c/104693580/sc/104529780/i/103864680/omp-strap-arm-gurad/2180762.uts?slotId=10. Be sure to get one with boning, many do not have it and, unfortunately, the product descriptions do not mention boning as present or absent in the design. You have to look at the picture to see if it is boned like the one pictured in this post or on the included link.
As a guitarist who loves music and instruments that have not changed essentially in a couple hundred years, I find it congruous that the old technology of the boned archery arm guard can be re-purposed to relieve a problem of which we’re now becoming aware. I also find it heartening that this old solution is readily available for a fraction of the cost of the newer devices. I make no claim of being the first to think of this. I have just come upon it recently, seen good possibilities, and have tried to spread the word. Good luck.