Trevor Babb

Guitarist – Composer

2nd Dublin Guitar Symposium

I landed in Dublin around 11am on February 22, having slept a mere hour or two since waking up Thursday morning to pack my bags and catch my flight. Knowing what was going on all morning in the northwestern quarter of the city at the DIT Grangegorman campus, however, sleep was the last thing on my mind. I received the symposium schedule ahead of time and knew that I had already missed a stimulating morning session of papers and lecture recitals discussing 19th century repertoire by Mertz, Giuliani, and Schubert and contemporary music by Boulez, Miranda, and del Puerto. I hightailed it out of the border control at Dublin Airport and caught a bus, knowing full well that I hadn’t a chance in the world to catch Steve Goss’s keynote lecture on the guitar and the politics of nostalgia. Regardless, I didn’t want to miss another moment of what was promising to be a rich, thought-provoking conference.

While I missed Steve’s keynote, from what I read in his abstract, the lecture clearly set the tone for much of the conference. Steve posed questions about whether the guitar favoring tradition and heritage over innovation and culture, whether Segovia’s vast repertoire expansion for the instrument was more interested in constructing a historical repertoire over genuinely responding to the current historical moment, and if so, have we simply carried on this conservative legacy through apostolic succession? I don’t think these questions are especially new for many of us on the forefront of the guitar world.

Reading Steve’s abstract calls to mind my years on the circulation staff at the Yale music library, perhaps containing one of the most comprehensive collections of guitar scores in the world among other things. Yale’s purchasing budget was so large that they would simply buy ostensibly whatever was published every year. The guitar collection had grown so large that I was tasked with thumbing through several thousand solo guitar scores and pulling aside anything that I considered obscure, lacking in quality, or otherwise justified for off site shelving in order to make room for more acquisitions. While I enjoyed a wonderful tour through much of the guitar’s greatest repertoire, I also encountered a lot of lame neo-baroque compositions and insubstantial impressionistic pieces with silly titles that I will withhold from mentioning in this post. And as Steve mentions in his abstract, many of the landmarks of the guitar repertoire - Aranjuez, Britten’s Nocturnal, da Falla’s Homenaje, Ponce’s entire oeuvre - are more concerned with responding to history than their contemporary context.

Its been clear to me, even from my earliest days of professional study in undergrad, that the guitar repertoire has a blatant inferiority complex. This condition is the result of many factors. The guitar’s limited dynamic range makes it difficult to incorporate into larger chamber music contexts. I sat in a music history lecture on Berlioz where my professor noted that Berlioz played the guitar, an instrument that lacked repertoire written by “major composers.” Perhaps the historical reconstructionist approach to the instrument’s repertoire was Segovia’s and other guitarists’ way of saying “look at us, we can play serious music too! Please, pianists, violinists, take us seriously!”

And so here we are, in the 21st century at a conference in Dublin asking the questions: How do we respond to this? How do we move forward from this? What is the future of the guitar, not just with new music but with historical repertoire too? I was encouraged to see a wide variety of answers and perspectives regarding the guitar community’s current state of affairs.

The first paper session I attended was largely concerned with the topic of transcription. Going back to the Renaissance intabulations of polyphonic mass settings, transcription has long been an important activity in the plucked instrument community. A real highlight of this session was Katalin Koltai’s lecture exploring many of her original transcriptions. By using innovative scordatura, single-string capos, and a heaping helping of ingenuity, she demonstrated some wildly effective transcriptions of Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes, Bartok’s The Night’s Music, and a movement from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata. Her single string capo approach in particular emerged as a woefully under-utilized technique to expand the guitar’s musical language.

David Harvey then gave a thoughtful presentation on the principles of arranging for the guitar, using Albeniz’s Torre Bermeja as a case study. Harvey illustrated a wide range of decisions in comparing the variations in the piece’s first few measures in many different published arrangements of this piece by Segovia, Llobet, and others. Ultimately, Harvey explained the decisions that he arrived at in his own arrangement of the piece and laid out a series of principles for transcription seeking to honor the original source and avoid arbitrary decisions to stay true to the original work.

I confess that as the afternoon wore on, I was starting to feel the weight of exhaustion and was tired of lugging my rolling suitcase around, having arrived at the conference directly from the airport. After hearing an interesting lecture from Jamie Akers encouraging celebration of the historical repertoire and bringing to light several charming 19th century works by female composers who unjustly have been shrouded in obscurity for close to two centuries, I checked into my AirBnB accommodations and retired from the conference for the day.

Saturday proved to be an even more invigorating as the morning paper session kicked of with Francesca Naibo demonstrating free improvisation on the classical guitar. As a resident of New Haven where there’s a lively free improvisation scene, I was pleased to see this addition to a conference spanning the spectrum of tradition and innovation. Martin Vishnick’s paper on sound sculpting followed and made it clear to me that his books on the same topic are worth digesting thoroughly.

Ioannis Theodoridis then presented a well researched presentation concerning the physiology of guitar playing. His exploration of the ways that our bodies work illuminated just how little we know about how our bodies work in order to accomplish instrumental performance and how much needs to be done. I’ve been tremendously self-conscious of my collapsed shoulders ever since.

Mark Del Priora’s keynote lecture was also concerned with history and moving the repertoire forward. Priora effectively rejected a Harold Bloomian anxiety of influence with regards to his own composing and instead, viewed the past as a deep well from which to draw out, modify, adapt, and synthesize the musical practices of his predecessors. Much like I discussed in my own research on John Zorn, Del Priora freely draws upon the compositional practices of his predecessors who he admires and creates something new as a result. The idea of the compositional mash-up was especially celebrated by Del Priora.

As a side note, Priora also lamented the lack of performance of transcriptions in competition performance due to the fear of irritating the juries with one’s decision of key, or other superficial aspects that come with a fluid musical text. This provoked a lively discussion about the progress in guitar technique over the last 30-40 years as evidenced in recent competitions, the dismissal of the concept of the “Urtext”, and a solidification of my personal subscription to the old maxim of Béla Bartok stating, “competitions are for horses, not artists.”

I had the privilege of chairing the afternoon session “Exploring Compositional Boundaries.” My job was easy as we had two presenters in the time allotted for three, so there was little moderating to do and presenters weren’t held back from thoroughly saying their piece. Leonardo de Marchi led off discussing new commissions for ten-string guitar, tuned as in the works of Maurice Ohana. Leonardo exhibited detailed analysis and impeccable performances of two new works written for him by Italian composers Stefano Alessandretti, and Giorgio Colombo Taccani. These works illustrated the ten-string guitar’s vast vocabulary of natural harmonics, clusters, and extended range while forging new idiomatic technical ground expanding upon the historical repertoire of Ohana, Maderna, and others.

The other presenter in this session was Belfast based composer Alan Perrin who demonstrated a unique vocabulary of harmonic hybridity in his guitar quartet Kosmos. Perrin’s lecture made me wish I had three other ambitious guitarists in my vicinity to take on this piece, as the work has yet to find an adventurous quartet to give it a first performance. Discussion primarily centered around how a composer writing ambitious and demanding music can get said music performed, illuminating the uphill battle that it is to take music beyond what’s deemed to be standard practice.

I had the privilege too, of getting something of the last word of the conference giving my lecture recital on early electric guitar repertoire at the end of the last paper session. After going beyond my allotted time trying to cover too many pieces, the wine started flowing and we all went out for a lovely dinner, assured that the future of the guitar lies in the hands of many capable, thoughtful, and intelligent individuals. Onward and upward, and kudos to Eion Flood, Marco Ramelli, and the rest of the committee who worked so hard to make all this and more happen.

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