Almost exactly a year ago, those San Francisco music lovers informed enough to follow the Old First Concerts series, given at the city’s Old First Church, had the good fortune to hear an exceptional recital of the guitar repertoire of roughly the last half century. The guitarist was Giacomo Fiore, a student of David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a doctoral candidate in Cultural Musicology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. For the benefit of those who missed this fortuitous opportunity, through either bad timing or lack of carfare, Fiore has now released Colors: Modern Music for Guitar, a CD featuring three of the works presented at this recital, along with one previously recorded by Tanenbaum. The latter is Michael Tippett’s suite, The Blue Guitar, included on his Acoustic Counterpoint CD, released by New Albion in 1990. Fiore’s recital selections include Toru Takemitsu’s “All in Twilight” (also included in Acoustic Counterpoint), Scenes from Nek Chand, Lou Harrison’s last completed composition, and Benjamin Britten’s Opus 70, the “Nocturnal After John Dowland,” dedicated to Julian Bream, who first performed it at the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival.
This is an impressive array of repertoire. Each of these compositions is highly expressive in its own way. They all go far beyond the usual limits of what most listeners expect to encounter at a guitar recital, and each is grounded in its own set of highly cerebral foundations. Nevertheless, the level of intellect never interferes with the resulting expressiveness, although the ambitious listener is likely to find the experience enhanced by knowledge of what goes on down in the engine room, as Peter Grunberg likes to put it.
The most accessible of the works on this CD is probably the Harrison composition. Nek Chand is an Indian artist; and the “scenes” of this work’s title are from his eighteen-acre sculpture garden in the city of Chandigarh, which “grew” from his recycling of materials collected from demolition sites. The cerebral side of this work involved Harrison inventing an instrument, called the “just-intoned resophonic guitar,” for the performance he had conceived. This name has to be unpacked in order to be appreciated.
“Resophonic” is the simpler concept. It refers to the body of the instrument having three independent resonant chambers, each of a different size and shape. The result is that each chamber enhances its own characteristic portion of the acoustic spectrum, which means that every note played by the instrument induces, through resonance, its own characteristic “natural harmony.”
The approach to intonation, on the other hand, is a bit more advanced and slightly more complicated. Just intonation, as it is defined, for example, in the Harvard Dictionary of Music, is the tuning system in which all intervals of the chromatic scale are determined by the first five natural harmonics, which include the octave (2:1), perfect fifth (3:2), and major third (5:4). Harrison took a similar approach but began with a gamut of the six successive intervals that occur between the sixth and twelfth overtones, assigning the pitch D to the sixth overtone. This results in two “Wolf-notes,” which differ from any pitch in the equal-tempered system; they are C-sharp (the leading tone to D) and F (the minor third above the D).
How much of this is necessary when it comes to listening to Harrison’s score? That is for the listener to decide. Harrison was clearly influenced by the Indian setting of Chandigarh, so there is a good chance that he was seeking a unique expression of the elaborate resonant qualities of the sitar. Those qualities are reinforced by his used of glissando in a very sitar-like fashion. However, one can appreciate these qualities without getting too involved in either physics or mathematics; so one can decide how much one wishes to investigate in detail just what makes this “engine” run and how much one is sufficient to see where Harrison leads by piloting up in the wheelhouse. Either way, one is likely to be fascinated by the sonorities of this score.
Takemitsu’s “All in Twilight” was similarly art-inspired. In this case the inspiration was a “pastel-touch” picture (a particular approach to watercolor) by Paul Klee of the same name. Klee’s technique led to a genre of impressionism decidedly different from that of the French movement, and Takemitsu’s score strikes the listener as an attempt to capture that particular approach to impressionism in music. As with Harrison’s composition, however, any detailed account of the relationship between visual and auditory impressions may be secondary to an awareness that Takemitsu’s palette of sonorities is as compelling as that of Klee’s colorations.
Tippett’s composition is similarly inspired by a painting, but through a more circuitous route. In this case the canvas is “The Old Guitarist” by Pablo Picasso. However, Tippett’s focus was not on this painting but on the poem it inspired, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” by Wallace Stevens. In 33 stanzas Stevens digs deep into the philosophical questions of the relationships between objective reality and artistic representation. However, because this is a poem, his “philosophical investigation” is pursued through evocative connotation, rather than explicit denotation. Tippett’s suite draws upon three specific evocations from Stevens’ poem, a lion transformed to stone, the act of juggling, and impressions of morning dreams. Here again we encounter music whose expressive power owes much to its command of a rich palette of sonorities, meaning that, once again, the listener may rest content with navigating the flow of those sonorities without worrying about the sophisticated details of Stevens’ text or the relationship to those details to Picasso’s arresting image.
The oldest work on the recording is the Britten. This composition is usually described as a set of eight variations on the song “Come Heavy Sleep” by John Dowland. However, these are not variations in any traditional sense of the concept. Rather, they are based on a deconstruction of the source being varied. Each explores a very specific feature of that song in isolation; and, to make the game more interesting, the song is not performed before the variations are introduced. Thus, the basic structure is one of theme-and-variations in reverse order; and the listening experience is rather like the auditory equivalent of assembling a jigsaw puzzle. One begins with pieces, as the compositions develops, one encounters suggestions as to how those pieces may be assembled, and, by the conclusion, the assembly of the Dowland source is “played straight” to the listener. Familiarity with Dowland is helpful, but one can come to that familiarity through repeated listening to this recording.
I suppose it goes without saying to conclude that I was as impressed with Fiore’s recorded performances as I had been when I heard him in recital. However, I should also repeat that, while all of these selections can involve a mental workout as satisfying as it is intense, each of them has any number of fascinating surface features that can provide just as much pleasure at face value. The result is a CD that invites repeated listening, and repeated listening is always the perfect vehicle for moving from surface structure to deep structure. Fiore has prepared a most inviting program through this recording, and the invitation is well worth accepting.