Acoustic guitarists are placed in a rather awkward situation: the instrument is simultaneously an emblem of triumphant machismo, and one of the most delicate, quiet members of the string instrument family. There is a remarkable symbolic gap between the guitar’s aura of phallic heroism and its objective diminutiveness—it is not very loud, its sound decays rapidly, and it lacks a truly substantial classical repertoire. Many great guitarists have nonetheless been able to use the instrument to heroic ends. The guitar music that interests me most, however, is counter-heroic. It approaches the instrument not as an implement of transcendent expressivity, but a source of subtle sonic materials and affective timbres, of ephemeral sounds and feelings that glimmer in the nooks and crannies of the listening experience.
My upcoming concert at hcl with Shawn Lucas (the last of three concerts in Fonema Consort‘s Soloists series) will feature two significant works for classical guitar that exemplify this approach, though in very different ways: Michael Pisaro’s here (1) and Helmut Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell. In offering a program of Pisaro’s and Lachenmann’s music, we are aware that we bridge two major currents in the European/American avant-garde: the Cagean, radically minimalist as well as quasi-conceptualist aesthetic of the international “Wandelweiser” group (represented by Pisaro), and high-modernist Germanic avant-garde (represented by Lachenmann). Despite their technical and ideological divergences, however, the two works are unified by a relentless search for new sound-worlds and affective spaces within the resources offered by the guitar.
Michael Pisaro writes that his music, like all music, “traces the border between sound and silence.” This border is particularly palpable in here (1), an hour-long work in which the guitarist plucks a note, on average, every 12 seconds or so. (I’ll perform a reduced, thirty-minute version.) The material of the piece is composed in large part of high, delicate partials, shimmering on the threshold of audibility. As Pisaro writes, “the richness of sound is in its inherent instability, and the most unstable sounds are those which approach silence.” here (1) is composed of sounds always on the verge of lapsing into silence, ringing out momentarily before falling into long decays, like a comet and its tail. For the performer, this music involves a certain amount of vulnerability; deprived of recourse to any kind of virtuosic display, the player operates as a curator of sound-events, or even simply another listener.
I’ve been playing and listening to Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell for years now, and upon each return to the work I am newly struck by its intense strangeness. Salut is an absolute technical triumph, more or less unmatched in the guitar repertoire. The score compasses the entire range of the instrument’s technical and sonic resources. This is not to say, however, that mere sonic novelty is the main attraction.
A rigorous Marxian materialist, Lachenmann is endlessly sensitive to the dialectical relation between the materiality of instrumental sound-production and the evanescent demands of musical form. The process of practicing and rehearsing Salut für Caudwell (and one has to practice quite a lot) is the process of coming to experience as organically expressive technical acts that are, initially, almost laughably alien. At moments, these techniques bear an uncanny resemblance to popular and folkloric performance traditions: bottleneck slides create shimmering resonances and, at the work’s conclusion, the players rhythmically rub the strings in a technique that bears a striking visual resemblance to casual strumming, yet produces a completely unfamiliar sounding result. Most famously, the players recite a phonetically-fragmented text over the background of a relentless pulse, as if transformed into a robotic, slow-motion folksinger outfit.
At other moments, it is hard to imagine that one is even listening to a guitar, as when, at the work’s radical, austere climax, brutal, high-pitched attacks are repeated at intervals of nearly 9 seconds. In this remarkable work, the familiar sound-palette of the guitar effloresces into a constantly shifting soundscape, by turns jagged, crystalline, insistent, violent, and resonant.
As part of their residency with hcl this season, Fonema Consort has presented a three-part series, Soloists from Fonema. Samuel Rowe will perform with Shawn Lucas for the last installment of the series.
Soloists from Fonema III: Samuel Rowe with Shawn Lucas, guitar
Friday May 22
High Concept Labs
2233 S Throop St, Chicago, IL
(inside Mana Contemporary Chicago; entrance on Cermak Rd)