Stupid Machine!

31stAug. × ’07


Two weekends ago I ventured to the western side of the state for the last time this summer for a two friends’ wedding. (To each other. Congratulations Joel and Miranda) Being both musicians there were a few people there to wax musicological with, including a post-doc fellow from Lawrence and a friend starting her doctorate at Northwestern this year. (Congratulations Elissa) As conversations with other people tend to go I felt stupid and over my head by the end of it.

It’s different kinds of stupid and over my head each time, however. This time I left the reception wondering just how ill-prepared I was should I attempt to continue on in musicology. It’s not that I’ve taken less music history than the average performer, but most everyone else has had the opportunity (or obligation) to crawl inside many of the great masterworks, be it through song or orchestra or string quartet or whatever. Even at my most evangelical I can only find a handful of guitar pieces that might make mention in a general textbook.

Most of the major landmarks of the guitar repertoire, often the ones most responsible for extending the instrument’s vocabulary such as Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal and Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje a Le Tombeau de Debussy, are speedbumps in the respective composers’ careers. A notable exception to this is Elliott Carter’s Changes (no YouTube video, sorry), marking his turn towards production for solo instruments.

There are three exceptions to this quagmire, that I see anyway. One has managed to worm its way into the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where it practically defines the music of a region. By this I mean Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez, particularly its Adagio. Yeah, it’s famous and all, but taken in context a lot of its appeal comes from its quaint neoromantic stylings. The second is one of two appearances of any fretted instrument in the venerable Norton Anthology, John Dowland’s lute song “Flow, my tears”. That’s cool , but it’s really in there more to show how vocal songs became instrument works (see Lachrymae Pavan) and c’mon, it’s the fucking lute.

I’ve got one tricksy weapon up my sleeve. Even passing musicologists know of Luis Narvaez’s Guardame las vacas, a vihuela tune from the 17th century. Since it’s the first documented example of a theme and variations. Booyakasha!

Perhaps I’m being too sad sacky about all this. While I lack the forced knowledge that playing important pieces brings, I also won’t have the baggage that someone who bombed through said pieces in youth orchestra might have. Furthermore I’m sure people who’ve played dumber instruments have had success. Anyway, if you’re unfamiliar with any of these hawt geetar jamz, all of the preceding links are to YouTube performances. So enjoy with gusto.

Pool image snagged from the Google Earth forums, photographer alas unknown

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