March 29, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Simple Stringed Pleasures, Episode 1

Brought to you by Trader Joe's Bay Area Dark Roast...

Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, to rule, to lay up treasure, to build, are at most little appendices and props.  -  Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592).
 Sir Paul tells a nice anecdote to introduce "Blackbird."  As Liverpudlian youth, he and George Harrison did not want people to think they were "thick" so they played a little classical  music as a "party piece" (an Irish term for casual performance at a get-together; you know, the way that Americans don't). McCartney played a few bars in the video above from the Bourree in E Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the dance movements from the Lute Suite No. 1.  Some of what the talented knight plays is clever improvisation, stylish and musical in his usual way. 

I wondered about a connection between the two pieces from the time I first heard "Blackbird."  "Blackbird" is in the key of G major (an easy guitar key which shares the key signature of E minor, the key of the Bourree), and the two-note counterpoint in both tunes is similar, with a smooth flow up and down the fretboard.  If you know the Bourree, "Blackbird" is not too difficult; your hands have been there before. It doesn't mean you'll play the Beatles tune like Paul McCartney, but only Paul can do that. 

I was thinking about classical guitar recently when I came across an instructional book by Aaron Shearer in an old steamer trunk here at the house.  The copyright was 1964, which means that when my cousin Jim first recommended it to me, it had only been in print a few years.  Jim wrote the name of the book down one evening in Saratoga, California (in what we now call the Silicon Valley, but what was then only a country town down among the fruit orchards of the Santa Clara Valley).  It was one of the family get-togethers, complete with party pieces, that always happened during the holidays. They all sort of run together in my mind now; I wouldn't be able to tell you whether there were ten such gatherings or fifty, a memory lapse maybe a little like Dylan Thomas's inability to remember whether it snowed for eight days and nights when he was twelve, or twelve days and nights when he was eight. The Christmases of his childhood were in Wales as my Thanksgivings were often in Saratoga, and childhood everywhere seems as if it's meant to last forever. You don't count things at the time, because nothing is finite.

"Get this book," Jim said, in his usual no-nonsense way, which was nevertheless always full of nonsense.  "Get to the end of the book and you'll be able to read music for guitar, then you can buy sheet music and play whatever you like."  That seemed like an amazing promise at the time, and it was just as amazing when it turned out to be true.

The Bourree was in the Shearer book, in fact; later anthologies I bought always included the Bourree in E Minor from Lute Suite No. 1 by Johann Sebastian Bach.  No matter where you turned in the world of classical guitar, there was the Bourree in E Minor.  It occupies a place similar in classical guitar to Fur Elise on piano.  Everybody who plays classical guitar plays it, and what a kick to realize that Paul McCartney did, too, only he did it by ear and made up his own licks.

One difference between the guitar and the piano is that the literature written directly for the piano is, comparatively speaking, immense.  For the classical guitar, one is mostly limited to transcriptions from other polyphonic instruments (piano, cello, lute) and some pieces written directly for the instrument by talented guitarists, such as Francisco Tarrega, Fernando Sor (the "Chopin of the guitar"), and Heitor Villa-Lobos.  The pandemonium among classical guitarists created by Mason Williams when he unleashed "Classical Gas" in the mid-1960's is perhaps better understandable in this context. First, it was a terrific piece; and second, at last, something new in the genre. 

In his marvelous story, "How Playing Country Music Taught Me to Love My Dad" cousin Jim Houston recounts his father's musicality, which is where Jim picked up his own bad habits.  Since, au contraire Michel de Montaigne, the American ethos lies squarely in the direction of a Philistinian laying up of treasure so as to afford a comfortable funeral, playing a lot of music in a nonprofessional way is a decided waste of time.  Anyway, Jim's father Dudley hailed from an area (you couldn't really call it a town) of East Texas called Pecan Gap, and to escape this province, Dudley dropped out of high school, joined the Navy, and ended up at Pearl Harbor in the 1920's, working on a submarine crew. That will get you out of East Texas, alright.

When he left Honolulu for San Francisco, Dud brought back a couple of ukuleles and and a Hawaian steel guitar.  If memory serves, it was always my dad who coaxed Dudley into bringing the steel guitar out at Thanksgiving to play "The Hilo March" or "Steel Guitar Rag."  He was much diminished, even way back then, by chronic disease and arthritis, but he could really play.  HIs talent influenced his son, the older of two children.  Jim recounts his own years of guitar obsession in the same story:

"For several years I spent half my mornings on classical and flamenco guitar. By that time he [Dudley] had pretty much quit playing. After the family moved down to Santa Clara Valley, his old picking buddies were too far away to meet with. Most of them had packed up their instruments anyhow, when their fingers gave out. And by that time I was married, living here in Santa Cruz, starting my own family, taking on a few guitar students for the extra cash, and trying to go the distance with the classical repertoire - Villa-Lobos, Tarrega, Fernando Sor."

I have always liked that passage, in part because it displays Jim's gift for producing a snapshot of transition in life, of an ending episode ("they packed up their instruments anyhow, when their fingers gave out"), and in part for its unintended hilarity.  Because it seemed completely natural to Cuz that during a time when he is "starting a family" (three children, in fact), he would spend "half [his] mornings on classical and flamenco guitar."  That, more or less precisely, is the portrait of the artist as a young man.  There must have been times (perhaps many times) when his wife, listening to the guitarist work his way through the (admittedly very beautiful) Villa-Lobos Prelude No. 3 (which Jim taught me to play the right way) when she wondered, "What the hell is going on around here?"

Or maybe not.  Anyhow, I have always been the same way.  Don't ask me what the point of it is; I wouldn't be able to tell you.  I picked up the bad habit from Jim; my younger brother picked up the bad habit from me.  Without bad habits, life would be a very poor thing indeed, devoid of great and glorious masterpieces.