Trevor Babb

Guitarist – Composer

Electric Guitar and Classical Music in the Guardian

I was delighted last Friday to stumble on an article by composer, Christopher Fox, in the Guardian about the electric guitar with particular attention given to its role in classical music. Mr. Fox makes many great points in this short article (which you can read in it's entirety here) that I'd like to point out and respond to in this blog post.

Fox opens the article describing the history of music not as a history of music, but a history of machines, the tools that musicians use to make sound. Fox describes "the technology that channels people's imagination" as the real driving force behind musical change. This is an interesting proposition to consider, though my performer brain likes to think that music exists no more than in a machine or instrument than it exists as notes on a page. However, his illustration of is primarily used to show that the survival and proliferation of music relies on the survival of the instruments for which the music was written.

Another noteworthy point that Fox makes when talking about the genesis of the electric guitar's invention is that the electric guitar's "main source of energy is external to the player." The amplifier being the primary variable affecting the amplifier creates a tremendous challenge for electric guitarists, especially those of us who play in a notated, classical idiom. The electric guitar's volume can be unruly and taming undesired sound in a notated idiom where one must play from a fixed score presents a challenge that is diametrically opposed to the challenge of the classical guitarist. While the classical guitarist is trying to project as much sound from a relatively quiet instrument as possible, the electric guitarist is taming a boisterous beast whose loud volume is primarily controlled by forces that are only indirectly under the instrumentalist's control.

I also thought that Fox's point about different types of performer ownership between popular music and classical music was also worth musing over. Fox illustrates how when listening to a violinist play a Shostakovich violin concerto, there's a sense of detachment between the instrumentalist and the sound of the music. Perhaps this is in part due to the strange dichotomy between composer and performer in which we all (composers and performers alike) are navigating through a sticky mire of ambiguous ownership. Fox muses that the vast timbral variety in the electric guitar's sound that is accessible through its multiple designs and many technological accessories and auxiliaries makes for a greater degree of creates a stronger link between guitarists and their sound. Perhaps this is why Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint has been recorded many times over and still receives fresh and new interpretations 30 years later. Each guitarist uses not only their unique musical individuality but their unique techno-instrumental interface to create a different timbral atmosphere that is more explicitly linked to the instrumentalist than other traditional classical instruments.

Fox's comments on classical music written for electric guitar cover some unique material. Fox mentions pieces for multiple electric guitars by Rhys Chatham, Glen Branca, and Tim Brady. Brady's piece 100 questions, 100 réponses is especially intriguing as a piece for 100 guitarists, 80 amateurs and 20 professional musicians. Brady describes the piece as an attempt to break down the divide between creative music and the general public. I've argued elsewhere that the use of the electric guitar in vanguard composed music moves toward a more accessible avant-garde through it's cultural associations, deep roots and signification in popular music, and experimental appeal to composers. I'm heartened to see Brady working to cultivate a deeper relationship between the avant-garde composer and the general public.

I thought it was interesting the Fox, a Brit, only referenced classical music from North America. Electric guitar music by British composers such as Laurence Crane, Gavin Bryars, Brin Harrison and many others was a noteworthy absence from a British publication. However, I'm encouraged to see that Fox has his own ideas that he is developing for Brady's group and for the Berlin based electric guitar quartet, e-werk in the near future. Fox's earlier electric guitar work The Grain of Abstraction is certainly a standout in the electric guitar literature and I can't wait to see what he puts out next.

On a less related note, I'm looking forward to giving a performance of Christopher Fox's work Chile – originally for solo guitar – with an added organ part. The concert will take place on September 16 at St Thomas's Episcopal Church in New Haven. The fantastic English organist, Simon Jacobs, will be joining me for a whole program of works for guitar and organ by Chris DiBlasio, Daniel Pinkham, Ian Krouse, Christopher Fox, Rene Eespere, and Simon Jacobs. More details are available in the Upcoming Concerts page of this site.    

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