Friday, April 19, 2013

HSU Guitar Ensemble: Concert Program 

 Mbira by William Kanengiser
 Jason Hall, Jerry Olofsson, Kris Lang, and Dan Fair

 Bad Boy by Toru Takemitsu
 Jason Hall, Charlie Sleep, Justin Santos

 Rondo by Paul Hindemith
 Justin Santos, Jason Hall, Dan Fair

 Little Suite by John Duarte
 Jerry Olofsson, Greg Willis, Tyler Vaughan, Rory Urquhart

 Rumba by Štěpán Rak
 Jerry Olofsson, Dan Fair, Kris Lang, Charlie Sleep

 Zelda Lullaby (1986) by Koji Kondo
 Arranged by Kris Lang
 Kris Lang, Rory Urquhart, Jake Masterson, Nigel Gunn

 Zelda Theme
 Arranged by Justin Santos
 Justin Santos, Rory Urquhart, Greg Willis, Jake Masterson

 Guitarno – Based on Music from Chrono Trigger by Yasunori Mitsuda
Arranged by Joe Kitzerow
 Dan Fair, Kris Lang, Charlie Sleep

 Mario (1985) by Koji Kondo
Arranged by Charlie Sleep
 Jason Hall, Jerry Olofsson, Charlie Sleep, Kris Lang

Director's Notes by Nicholas Lambson

 This year, the HSU Guitar Ensemble has been focusing on 20th century music. I have always been fascinated with the 20th century for its incredible diversity; works can range from experimental and atonal to folk music, and in many cases be eclectic mixes of many genres within a single work.

 Advances in technology play a particularly big role is shaping music of the 20th, with film music and electronic music being clear examples. Video game music also stems from a new medium made possible by technology, with a need to accompany and enhance the action of the game (similar to film scoring) utilizing electronic sounds. That music has reached well over a billion people since then. A look at the sheer volume of sales of these games reveals the magnitude of its impact: Super Mario Brothers sold over 40 million copies; The Legend of Zelda sold even more at 52 million; and the Halo series has sold over 50 million as well.

 The increasing use of smartphones and tablets has opened up a new avenue for video games as well, with Tetris being downloaded 100 million times, and the Angry Birds franchise surpassing one billion on its own. Admittedly, not every video game score is going to be great, but can that be said of any medium? Arguably, the bulk of games may be made quickly and cheaply, and the music may well reflect that fact. However, the best of them add depth, immersion, humor, and emotion to the action, and as these experiences reach billions of people, it becomes hard to ignore video game music as the major facet of our global culture that it is.

Though the demographic is expanding, the fact that the majority of the players (and listeners) are young is substantial on its own, as countless hours of video game music shape their young musical minds. People who have grown up with these games remember the music and sound effects well, and arrangements are frequently performed by professionals and amateurs today. For example, the Final Fantasy score by Nobuo Uematsu is regarded as some of the very finest video game music, and has been performed many times. Its next major performance will be in May by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The HSU Guitar Ensemble decided to dedicate part of our own concert to video game music, and the students have done much of the arranging themselves. The staples, Mario and Zelda, will be in attendance. Music from Chrono Trigger will be featured as well, which is a somewhat lesser-known title many gamers revere. The genre has certainly evolved a great deal since the first games of 50 years ago, and if art is a reflection of culture, then the music that has reached over a billion people is art - even if it is fun.

 The first half features pieces written specifically for guitar ensemble, with the composers coming from various parts of the 20th century and two of them are still living, composing, performing, and teaching.

 Toru Takemitsu was highly individual composer, philosopher, and author, and his music ranges from atonal to folk music of both the East and West. His works employ a vast array of timbres including all Western instruments, Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi and biwa, and electronic music. He frequently combines elements from the West and the East, and composed in a variety of styles from serious art music to arrangements of popular music songs, of which his Beatles arrangements are notable. In addition to his extensive catalog of varied compositions, he was fanatical about film and composed music for over 100 of them.

 In his last days, while bed-ridden and fighting cancer, his regret was that he had not seen a single film that whole time. Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu originally composed Bad Boy for a film of the same name. The music draws on old “Spaghetti Westerns” and the compositional style of Ennio Morricone, who is the composer famous for such films as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This piece is essentially a tonal composition that contrasts sharply with so many works in the rest of his catalog. However, Takemitsu blends that style with a few dissonances, cross rhythms, and meter changes to make things a bit more interesting.

 Paul Hindemith is one of the very finest composers of the 20th century, and arguably of all time. Unfortunately, many famous composers do not write for the guitar, so its repertoire generally comes from guitarists who are writing for the instrument who are not necessarily well known outside of the guitar world. The guitar ends up with a very insular community so it is a rare treat to have someone of Hindemith’s stature compose for the guitar.

 Hindemith was concerned with bridging the gap between 20th century intellectual art music, which had become atonal (or at least extremely dissonant) and had alienated many listeners, and a more accessible style based in tonality and other familiar musical elements. There are notable composers on both sides, and Hindemith falls somewhere in the middle. A key to understanding Hindemith’s approach is in his concept of gebrauchsmusik or "music for use."

 Rondo is the only piece Hindemith wrote for the guitar, and it is somewhat unusual to write for guitar trio-most works are guitar quartets or duets. The title refers to a Classical era form where the opening musical idea recurs throughout the piece, interspersed with new ideas. If the first section of music is labeled “A” and the other sections are labeled with their own letters, the typical form is labeled ABACA. This piece is a good example of the way Hindemith balances modern and familiar elements. The title certainly recalls familiar classical elements, and there are several very tonal sections. There are also very dissonant moments throughout the piece, it very quickly modulates through different tonal areas, there are some interesting syncopations that subvert the meter, and there are several places where he employs quartal harmonies. He treads a fine line in Rondo, using the two styles for tension and resolution. It is an extremely dense piece that goes by quickly, but it is a memorable and substantial contribution to our repertoire.

 Štěpán Rak is a unique guitarist and living composer. He was born in 1945 at the end of World War II. He was discovered as a baby by Russian soldiers in the Ukraine and taken to Prague where he was adopted and brought up as a member of the Rak family. He studied graphic art and painting at the Fine Arts School in Prague but music exerted a much greater pull on him. At the age of eighteen, he started playing guitar and double bass in various Jazz and Rock bands, and he soon developed an interest in Classical music, which led him to study guitar and composition at the Prague Conservatoire.

 In 1981, Štěpán Rak established formal Classical Guitar Studies at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts where he has been teaching ever since and in 2000, President Vaclav Havel appointed him the first university professor of guitar studies in the Czech Republic. Rak has toured and given master classes internationally, extensively published and recorded his works, and his works are regularly performed. Classical Guitar Magazine said that “there can be little doubt that future generations of guitarists will look upon Štěpán Rak as one of the great geniuses of our time." And English composer, John Duarte (who is also on this program) has said "Beethoven described the guitar as a 'miniature orchestra'; no one has done more than Stepán Rak to make this believable " and that "Rak is alone in entrusting to the guitar even the most violent and disturbing emotions and in the extraordinary array of sounds he extracts from the instrument."

 Štěpán Rak is well known for the use of extended techniques and special effects in his compositions and he frequently includes the use of his pinky on his right hand to pluck with all five fingers as opposed to the usual four. Neither of these elements are completely unique to him, but he tends to use these techniques more frequently than most.

  Rumba is a fun piece that uses its recurring rhythm (3+3+2), which is introduced by one guitarist playing percussion on their guitar before the whole group takes it on in this fast and energetic piece. Typical of Rak’s compositions, it is extremely accessible and is definitely a "crowd-pleaser," but there are also some very interesting chromatic passages scales used throughout the piece.

 John Duarte is an interesting figure in the guitar world. While he did not have a traditional musical education, he studied Jazz guitar, studied on his own, and was proficient on other instruments as well. Playing bass, he sat in with Jazz greats Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. He was also well connected with other such guitar luminaries as Ida Presti and Andres Segovia, who was the most highly esteemed guitarist of the time. Segovia was so influential that any other composers and musicians that he associated with and respected were in turn respected by the international community.

 John Duarte was a gifted composer and musician, but he was also an academic and a socialite. He has written countless articles for all of the top guitar publications, wrote liner notes for major artists, and contributed to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He frequently hosted gatherings which brought together various other important composers and performers in the guitar world. These meetings culminated in various collaborations and allowed for a free exchange of ideas. Segovia was certainly present at of many of those meetings, and met the number of other composers that he would go on to work with, creating new repertoire for the guitar.  Segovia and Duarte became friends as well as professional collaborators. Duarte composed the music for Segovia's wedding.

Duarte’s style is essentially a mixture of the traditional and the decidedly modern. The nature of his Little Suite is an excellent example of this. The dance suite was a fixture of instrumental music in the Baroque era, though the dances themselves came from individual nations in Europe during the Renaissance. By using the form of the suite, Duarte draws upon historical and somewhat familiar music, and indeed two movements we will be performing, the Anglaise and the Gigue, very clearly recall dances that are hundreds of years old.

However, Duarte frequently plays with the listener’s expectations by incorporating very modern elements. For example, in the Anglaise, Duarte alters what would otherwise be a very traditional musical device used in the Renaissance and Baroque. There is a short melody that is passed around the group, which normally would be repeated exactly by each member using the same notes but staggered by a measure or two, or it would be repeated up or down a perfect fourth/fifth. Instead, Duarte has each member repeat the same melody only a note apart. After all the members enter, a cluster of notes is formed which was a very modern practice and indeed. Often the effect is one of surprise, where dissonance is introduced suddenly in an otherwise traditional passage. Other times, Duarte walks us gently into a modern idiom, which blurs the distinction between the two.

A final interesting note on this work – the first movement has the interior voices harmonizing in 2nds! This, along with the clusters, definitely makes the work sound very modern and very tense. This clash is resolved later in a more traditional way in the Gigue, which is another iteration of the mix of traditional and modern in this work.

William Kanengiser's Mbira is a very special work in many ways. There are few works like it for any instrumentation, mostly because of the style and the prepared guitar techniques used.  Mbira was composed by a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, William Kanengiser, which they recorded. While I was earning my undergraduate degrees, my guitar quartet decided to write and ask for a copy of the score since it had not been published. They graciously sent us the score and performing that piece was a highlight of my studies.

An mbira is an African thumb piano, also sometimes called a kalimba. A small wooden box is held in both hands, and the thumbs press on small metal tines that are similar to piano keys to make sound. Not only does this work employ some African musical devices, it requires the performers to alter the sound of the guitar to mimic the mbira. A strong representation of African music is achieved through the use of syncopation, cross-rhythms, and rhythmic layering. To achieve the mbira effect, the players “prepare” the guitar strings by crimping staples around pairs of strings. Most players crimp one staple around the first two strings, placed close to the bridge, though one guitar adds another staple to the third and fourth strings.

 American experimental composer John Cage is famous for his prepared piano works (among other things), where various objects are placed directly on the strings of the piano to achieve new timbres. There are a number of prepared guitar works out there as well which can use alligator clips, bottle caps, and fishing line sinkers to name a few. I think this prepared guitar piece definitely achieves the desired effect of making the guitar sound like an mbira!

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