IN: Reviews

The Guitar as an Orchestra


GuitarBoston GuitarFest X: The Eternal Feminine begins Wednesday at 8pm at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center with a solo recital by 2014 competition winner Xavier Jara, including last year’s winning composition, Obsession, by Viet P. Cuong.

The events continue through the 20th at various locations; listings here.

The theme of the festival is from the famous last line of Goethe’s Faust, “Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan” (Donna Hewitt: “Eternal anima compels us on”; Larry Rothe: “The eternal feminine draws us toward her!”), but refers also to the Kollwitz-Konnex, Boston College composer Ralf Gawlick’s monumental song cycle for soprano and guitar inspired by self-portraits and diary entries of the German expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz-Konnex is dedicated to the performers, GuitarFest artistic director and guitarist Eliot Fisk and soprano Anne Harley, and will be featured Saturday at 8:00 at Jordan Hall.

Gawlick and Fisk recently had a discursive discussion with BMInt.

FLE: Ralf, your work seems to begin with metaphysical themes: what happened to absolute music? Do you like to work from some religious or thematic construct before you start thinking about the notes or do you ever just write music without any reference to something extra-musical?

RG: Yes I do write music without any extra-musical references. Frequently, though, I’ve written works that have a non-musical point of departure—such as visual art or literature. I don’t want to think about those as stimuli, it’s more that there are works that I need to compose; I’m looking far ahead and some of those works may be absolute music and some are not, for instance: ideas I might have for an opera, a symphony or for another large choral work.

Well, I mean that works with texts are likely not to be absolute music. Theyre likely to have some sort of a theme.

RG: Well yes, but for a symphonic piece, for example: I definitely have ideas. It’s happened with the last couple of works, whether it’s my mass, Missa gentis humanæ, for 8-voice a cappella choir, or a large cantata such as the Childrens Crusade, or now this piece, being very much influenced by the visual arts and literature.

Do all of your pieces have original titles?

RG: Yes.

And do the titles all reference something concrete?

RG: Yes.

So theyre not generic titles? Its not a sonata-in-something…

RG: No.

So you do depart from something?

RG: Yes. There are extra-musical references or else the titles would be meaningless! Absolutely. Which may be suggestive of the work at hand. But generally, if I look back over my catalogue, there are no pieces where I can say: “oh, this is called Sonata no. 1”. No, there’s always some kind of reflective imagery.

So that means that you do a lot of thinking in the world before you start thinking about writing music?

RG: Well, for instance the Kollwitz-Konnex just started in my childhood. She’s been with me throughout my entire life. In 2000 I had the idea for this piece and over the years it has finally started taking shape. Back in 2004 or 2005, I think, when Eliot and I met, we said we should work together sometime. It was not until; let’s say, seven years later, in 2012, that this part of event came to hand. But this idea of writing a piece based on Kollwitz has remained with me.

Because of her being a woman, or feminine?

RG: No, that wasn’t the main reason why I chose this. The reason was because she’s the patron saint of mother and child. She’s one of the great graphic artists of the 20th century. She’s a voice of pacifism and her message becomes our message, the things that she holds so dear and captures in her art. Whether it’s the idea of old age, growing old….

Fathers with children should also be pacifists.

RG: Of course. And in this sense she traverses so much of this century.

Well, she is also a very political artist too?

RG: Absolutely. And she makes no apology for it. But it was not to do with her being a woman, though I am definitely drawn to that.

Its not propaganda, it is real art. But she definitely has a theme.

RG: One thing that is remarkable about her and perhaps it is because she’s a woman is that she so skillfully captures mother, child, the family and that entire dynamic, especially those who are poor and downtrodden, those she depicts whose lives hang in the balance, Kollwitz’s graphic work is heart-wrenching.

I know, I mean its very upsetting and moving.

Addressing Eliot Fisk:

As I was coming in I saw people coming out of a rehearsal for the BEMF concert tonight and I thought of your theme because there were 20 guys with long-necked plucking stringed instruments and only one woman. But on the other hand I dont think that women are any less likely to play guitars than they are to play any other orchestral instrument.

EF: Yeah they are. In this country they’re much less likely. But not in Latin America.

Aside from Sharon Isbin?

EF: Yes, there are a number of younger players now who are very good. It’s not that there haven’t been very good ones, there just aren’t that many. But in Latin America it’s just such a part of the culture, it’s more like they have more players. Here in America it’s not like that. It’s much less likely. Just as the flute world features a zillion women and not that many men.

Youre not counting folk music though.

EF: Oh that’s totally equal I think.

You mean there are just as many women playing guitar in folk music.

EF: I think.

And in early music?

EF – It’s true that not so many lutenists are women. I don’t know why that is.

But this show youre doing is a statement that there should be more women composing and playing?

EF: I guess you could say that yeah. But it didn’t really start off as a political statement, although it has partially turned into that. The real point was that we wanted to present the Kollwitz work here. Actually Eliot’s wife was the one who said, “why don’t you make that the centerpiece?” She didn’t suggest Das Ewig Weibliche, or at least I don’t think she did, but Kollwitz was a great Goethe fan and the quotation just seemed to fit perfectly. Das Ewig Weibliche is one of the most famous lines in Goethe and it has 15,000 possible meanings. It doesn’t just have to be…

And it doesnt mean the same thing as female?

EF: No Das Ewig Weibliche, the eternal feminine, I translate it that way. I don’t know how it’s translated usually.

Well Weib means something completely different now from what it once did.

EF: Weib back then it was almost a prostitute, right? But Weib is just woman. [speaks German] from the Zauberflöte aria.

But now you would say meine Dame: Weib is kind of insulting.

EF: Yeah, you might say it in fun, in jest. Weib: it’s like a joke or something. [speaking German]

In any case, how are you redressing the balance in this festival?

EF: Well, for one thing we have some very prominent women players, one of them being Chinese, Xuefei Yang.

Ralf Yusuf Gawlick
Ralf Yusuf Gawlick

Ralf, about the Kollwitz piece: what does it sound like?

RG: Imagine an orchestra performed just by the guitar. It’s pretty much every element.

But it’s one guitar?

RG: It’s one guitar. It doesn’t sound like it. It’s encyclopedic. And I don’t mean this in a positive or negative way: it just is. In terms of incorporating every possible technique and tuning you can imagine is in this work.

So you don’t have several different guitars that are prepared?

EF: I only use one. By the time you leave the guitars around and tune them up again it doesn’t really help you.

Are you going to be spending a fair amount of time re-tuning?

EF: Well not that much time, you have to be quick at it and do it as quietly as possible.

RG: The mental dexterity is the…

EF: The mental thing is unbelievable.

RG: One of the most remarkable things about the guitar is the timbral nuance. I’ve written for orchestra and everything in between right down to solo instruments. The guitar is a beast. It’s also been a phenomenal experience for me in terms of relinquishing control. And what I mean by that is this: generally in composing for an instrument, 99.9% of what I’ve written is going to actually be realized in performance. Here and there, to be sure, there might be changes. But with the guitar, as much as I can, I educate myself…

EF: You can’t learn it?

RG: It’s impossible. And so, the greatest grace and blessing has been the opportunity to work with Eliot for the last three years.

You have some idea about what’s impossible don’t you?

EF: You do, but here’s the point: it’s like this: you can have a garden and you can put some marigolds in it and probably they’ll come up but, if you want to have as many flowers as possible, you really have to know what you’re doing. It’s like a knowledgeable farmer planting or something like that.

Do you think there are many instruments like this? For example: the harp also represents a learning curve, because of all the pedals…

EF: No harp is half a guitar, I promise.

RG: Also in terms of potential possibilities. Because I write for strings—very complicated string music, although I don’t play the violin, I know these instruments inside and out. The guitar is different, maybe because it has six strings. Four I can handle, six extends the limits, especially the timbral possibilities. For example, if I give a chord to the violin and then decide to add some open strings, by this addition I change the harmonic contour of that chord. On the guitar I can have a chord and, if it works in terms of fingering, Eliot will suggest that we add some open strings. You might expect this to change the harmony but, in fact, it enhances the resonance without changing the harmony.

Never mind just the notes and the strings, how do you address all of the timbral possibilities and the different ways of plucking and attacking, up and down the neck or near the bridge…

RG: This is where the relationship between composer and performer comes into its own.

Do you indicate all that?

RG: We don’t.

EF: Ralf has his text, his score and then I look at the score

EF: I’ve done this with all the great composers with whom I’ve worked. For example, Luciano Berio sat right next to me and asked: “How can I notate that? Show me what you’re doing…”: this was equally true of other really big names from the past, all of them.

RG: Britten, Julian Bream….

EF – Except with Britten it was unusual because he wrote with absolute care. That Nocturne (?) actually is almost perfectly written for guitar, but it’s not aiming to project as big an orchestral sound. It’s an intimate piece written for a very intimate player in a specific way. Britten was incredibly careful but also his approach suited the aesthetics of that particular piece. The Kollwitz blows the top off of everything. It goes from the most extreme intimacy to the most heart-rending shriek of horror about war because Kollwitz was that kind of artist. She was so much of her time and place that the work reflects that fact, and she was also the voice of human conscience, having had this very cruel first-hand education when one of her sons wanted to enlist in 1914, when all of Europe was getting patriotic, the intellectuals were all signing up based on their (delusional, as it turned out) ideas about what war was going to be. Then they encountered the most horrible war in history, worse than World War II in terms of the plain horror for the soldiers, if not for the civilians. Her son, who signed up with her support (and against the opposition of her husband) left for the Front in October of ’14 and was promptly killed. So Kollwitz knew firsthand the chasm between government propaganda and the realities of war. There are many moments in this piece where she’s just yearning to have her children back.

RG: The idea of the piece goes back to an idea from 2000 or 2002. I wanted to somehow create a work which incorporates her self-portraits, of which 84 are acknowledged, though there are probably a total of 120 if you include the “unofficial” ones, (in this regard, Kollwitz is often compared to Rembrandt), and somehow link these to her own writings: mostly from her diary. She’s an incredible writer and, for a good eight months before composing I scoured the diary and came up with numerous entries reflecting different themes, such as: old age, growing old, death and children, being reunited with your children. The resulting work on stage is in six movements, some of which include two self-portraits. The sixth movement represents the final decade of her creative life, so we cover her life from young lady all the way to her last decade. The nine portrait images are all physically placed on stage.


RG: They’re not projected, they’re printed. And I was granted the rights from the Kollwitz heirs. The grandson is very dear to both of us: he helped with the rights to be able to display them on stage at the performance. So, Kollwitz is present visually as you’re witnessing what Eliot and Anne are doing. Because that’s important, as we didn’t want to simply rely on the words.

Then how do the words get across?  Are they spoken or sung?

RG: They’re sung and printed in the program.

EF: They’ll be in the program on Saturday night. The words are amazing. I had assumed that the diary entries were used chronologically. When I went back to study Ralf’s sources I discovered that he had been very smart about ordering the diary entries by theme rather than in strict order, so that in fact some that you think are late are actually not that late. He interpolates them in a very brilliant way.

But did you have a chronological diary too or just a book which was put together?

RG: The diary is chronological but we should rather imagine these themes as being centrifugal. Take the idea of death or of old age, which you might expect to talk about just as we are getting towards old age. Kollwitz writes about these while in her 40th year.

What is Opus 1 of Schubert? Erlkönig. They thought about death all the time in the 19th century.

EF: Because everybody was dying all the time.

RG: So the idea is more that these themes recur throughout her entire life. And so in that sense I didn’t just want to score a simple, chronological progression, though that is partially present as well. However, what she writes when her son, Peter dies in 1914, and then again her writings in 1937 are interchangeable. It’s the same theme over and over.

Is there an arc to the entire piece?

EF: Oh yes, there is a huge arc. I would say the piece builds towards the climactic movement where she says, in 1934: “I dreamt last night that there was a war again”.

And she says that each war gives birth to another, while earlier, as a prelude, she’s talking about how there’s no end to human suffering. The work proper does this a bit, but you know it’s real when it gets to the “war” movement and the guitar is crossing the strings and imitating a snare drum and making other percussive effects, culminating in violent chords, with the singer declaiming that “this has to stop” and nobody should die in a war”. You know this is the limit when the guitar hits a percussive chord [imitates percussive noise].

RG: It’s violent.

EF: Right. I call upon someone greater than us.

RG: It’s Goethe.

It’s also Luther isn’t it?

EF: But basically a C chord should not be browned up for making breakfast.

So how long is this?

RG: 15 minutes.

So, do you see it being performable as individual sections, as songs, or are you only going to allow performances of the whole thing?

RG: I may allow individual numbers to be performed.

EF: People can perform individual movements. I think it would be easier to present an individual movement rather than to excerpt, say, four movements. I could imagine doing one movement to illustrate something in a lecture-recital.

RG: Yes, it’s not like the Chopin preludes, where you can say…

Well he never played them all in one concert.

RG: It’s different here, Chopin definitely authorizes the player to excerpt and to pick and choose. The idea here is different. There’s a very large guitar solo that a soloist could perform on its own but, dramatically, it’s a song cycle. And the thing that’s very different about this song cycle from pretty much any other song cycle is that, despite the fact that you have nine individual songs, the themes, the ideas recur.

EF: But the motives come back.

RG: The motives are constantly varied, reshaped, redrawn: within the movements they come back. But the themes, the ideas also return throughout.

So all the pictures will be on stage at the same time?

RG: Yes, all nine.

EF – They are placed on big easels behind us.

RG: If you look at the DVD of the CD you’ll see them there.

So have you advanced the language of singing to the same extent that you’ve advanced the language of guitar? Are you asking singers to do something unusual?

EF: I think it’s a tremendous range. But I would say the singer’s vocabulary was already stretched this way by Schoenberg a hundred years ago. You know, there’s a bit of Sprechstimme. But mostly I think that the use of the voice is more like what one might have heard before simply because more composers have composed for voice. I think Castelnuovo-Tedesco may have a song cycle that’s almost this long. There are many great composers who have written for guitar and voice. I cite some of them in my brief program notes to the concert.

Starting in the Renaissance?

EF: Well starting in the Renaissance, of course, there’s a tremendous literature of lute songs, which are fantastic, especially all that pre-Baroque stuff.

But was this written for a particular singer?

RG: Yes.

So the singer who was in the recording is actually going to be doing the first performance?

RG: Anne Harley. Through our mutual friend we were put in contact, with Anne being asked to work with a composer on producing a song cycle. And immediately, in 2012, during the course of the same phone call I said to Anne: “I have a subject”. And because she’s actually very interested in women’s studies and gender issues, she responded “perfect”. And that’s when I went back to Eliot, seven years later and I said “Eliot, I think I’ve got our project, are you on board with it?” And Eliot graciously said “I’m on board”. And I said: “can we run things by both Anne and Eliot?” One of the most remarkable about Anne is her dynamic range. That’s something that will floor you.

So she has a decently supported pianissimo as well as..

RG: Listen, you will hear, I always say, “don’t show me how loud you can sing, show me how soft”.

It’s like that for pianists too.

RG: Yes, it’s a razor’s edge. And so in that sense the work is not as encyclopedic for voice as it is for guitar, but that’s not the point. The vocal role is different but it’s really a duo song cycle for voice and guitar, not for “accompanied” voice, and the guitar is literally its own orchestra. I don’t even really want to say that because that’s not fair for the guitar. It doesn’t need the comparison with the orchestra.

So is this more difficult than the Berio Sequenza for instance?

EF: I think that, on a purely technical level the Berio is of course a real showpiece. And this present cycle is not written to be a technical showpiece. This is more an “emotional range” showpiece. I think it’s more the issue of concentration and the variety of moods, and some of the same techniques we used in the Berio are here. But what’s so challenging is, first of all: it’s fifty-five minutes long and includes every possible thing you could do with the guitar. I mean: we really pushed the envelope as far as possible: soft, loud, harmonics, scordatura. Most of it is with a rather standard scordatura with the E string to D. The only two we didn’t really use was the standard guitar tuning.

RG: But at the end you have to go down to the C string too right? The D goes down to C.

EF: But before that there’s a capo movement which is the analogue to changing the key of something and well actually to the open string and I said “there is no point in me trying to play this with b-flat bass, with this capo in it”, so we capoed it at the 3rd fret but I already tuned down now D and G, then the last two movements: the war movement and the apotheosis at the end; that’s also with the low C, which I’ve used only rarely and I’ve used it in Gershwin. Every once in a while I use the low C, not extensively, but it’s very special: an amazing sound. And once you start playing with scordatura…

Is that a 5th down from a normal tuning?

EF: It would be a major 3rd down. And the 5th string is a step. So the 6th string is in C. We are used to about 4 to 5 scordatura but we’re not that used to C and G, but it does change the geography.

But what you see on the score is what you hear right? It’s not like a B-flat clarinet?

EF: Yeah. I like to read pitches. Bach, in the fifth cello suite, of course also used an altered tuning for the top string: what he calls the A string would be down to G so he wrote the finger position. I was studying the Lutsik version of the 5th cello suite with Ralph Kirkpatrick years ago. He was using the Bach manuscript of the 5th cello suite and it just drove me nuts, because every time you’d hit what would be the A string, everything is written a step off, so you have to transpose, but only certain pitches. It’s like reading in tenor or alto clef because it’s just one whole step off. But no, I like to read pitches, all things notated in pitches, with the exception of the capo, which is notated as you finger it because it’s simply too difficult to write capo stuff with it transposed: that means that you have to read everything a minor third down and that’s just too much for my weak brain. Especially after forty minutes of slightly complex… The thing with this piece is the intellectual and emotional challenge, because you’re reliving somebody’s life from the beginning to the end.

When I play the last chord of this piece and it’s a wonderful chord, it’s basically an A major chord but it has a B in it and it has this… it also turns out that it is actually the dominant to the opening chord of the first movement— so it would cycle, the whole thing, It does actually end on the dominant which is great, because it’s places the ending in a question.

You don’t feel like Anna Russell saying after 16 hours we’re just back where we began?

EF: No, you feel that you’ve just been through an entire life. We’ve been through all the ups and downs and exultation and I guess it’s what it means for any of us who aspire to not go through life in a numbed state. We try to go through life, actually feeling it, living it. And it takes its toll. You know, if you block off emotion, if you block out unpleasantness, you aim for a life that’s very simple and doable – and it would drive any of us crazy. I think but the alternative is… Let me put it this way: I think that I’m very interested for example in the model of Socrates and Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, who are all three, none of the three of them has to die, right? It’s all set up for Socrates to get out, they’ve got the boat waiting there, he could go: he could get out. Christ is the son of god for Christ’s sake, [laughter] I mean he doesn’t have to die, and Martin Luther King could’ve had a nice quiet middle class life as a pastor and stayed in his father’s practice: he doesn’t have to die. None of them has to die, so they all voluntarily, in their case, die. But I’m thinking that: maybe what makes us human is our ability to suffer, which is different from feeling physical pain. I’ve been thinking about this a lot: suffering is different from feeling pain. They’re related: sometimes they’re connected, but suffering is when you allow yourself to feel and when you go through life not blocking feelings, which takes its toll and puts lines on your face and turns your hair gray. I think I’m almost at the point now where I think maybe that’s what defines us being human. I guess people would say certain dogs suffer; I think whales and elephants suffer, so maybe it’s not the definition of what makes us human. Certainly for me, the definition of what makes us fully alive is allowing ourselves to feel.

But anyway this isn’t the only work in the program. Now is this the work that you think would most appeal to people who are interested in the guitar?

EF: Well I hope all the works appeal to people, whether they have to do with the guitar or not.

But, in the Intelligencer you’re reaching a general audience, not guitar aficionados so are you perhaps asking people to come to one event in your festival?

EF: Well I hope this is the main event.

But it’s aimed at a guitar crowd isn’t it?

EF: No I hope it’s aimed at a human crowd, I hope it’s aimed at everybody. You know, this happens to be a guitar festival but, what I’m trying to do with this guitar festival once made it a dubious battle in the plains of heaven. I don’t want to just have a guitar festival. Most guitar festivals are a week or two weeks of two solo guitar recitals a day and that’s all that they do. And the repertoire runs out and the imagination of performance runs out and that’s not interesting. Or they sometimes pull in different kinds of guitar: they present jazz guitar and they do rock guitar.

So how is this different?

EF: It’s not as interdisciplinary as I would like it to be but it’s more interdisciplinary than any other guitar festival, and I’ve always had a general theme. Last year we had American Odyssey, and the British Invasion… We’ve had a lot of different themes, so I’ve always felt greatest. On par with bigger enterprise, like when we would go to Europe and play the Berio Sequenzas or something: you know, it was a great feeling. Or, when I sometimes would play in the pit for ballet companies. I always loved the feeling, even when you’re a soloist with the orchestra, the best part is being part of a big program. I mean I like playing solo recitals too: it’s great and I can play anything I want to play. But what I’m also trying to do in this concert program actually, it happens that the three works on it are major works by Germanic composers we also have a world première for a work by marimba and guitar by Kurt Schwertsik called Conversation Piece. And I think that’s going to be a terrific opening. By chance Ralf studied with Schwertsik, like, a hundred years ago.

RG: This is wonderful: in 1990 I did my education my junior year at the Hochschule and he was my teacher for about a semester and. lo and behold.

And you have no work by a female composer?

EF: I don’t.

Why not?

EF: Well, because it didn’t work out that way. We do have a concert that’s almost entirely dedicated to contemporary female composers.

But fifty percent of the performers are going to be female?

EF: More. Because there are three performers, on my concert and two of them are female. And then I’m doing my own transcription of the Bach suite for the five stringed cello. So there are three kinds of dramatic works, the Schwertsik, the Bach, and I think it’s an extremely varied and even unique program. There’s never been this particular collection of works. And so it’s incredibly challenging. The Schwertsik piece is not that long, it’s incredibly intricate and I’ve never played a duo with marimba in my life. We commissioned this piece with the help of the Augustine Foundation, which has been very generous to us in many ways. Rose Augustine was the doyen of classical guitar in the city of New York for many years, she was the widow of Albert Augustine who made the first nylon strings for Segovia back in the late 40s. And so the Augustine Foundation was created by Rose on her death and it even existed during her lifetime. At her death it was really endowed to provide tremendous support to GuitarFest and, in recording the Kollwitz, their grant was instrumental.

RG: And also actually for the commissioning as well.

So the third work is also newish?

EF: Well, my transcription of the Bach cello piece has not been played in years but that’s the third piece.

What’s feminine about that?

EF: Nothing. Not everything has to relate to the theme, but, in a way it does because the marimba and guitar have a similar range and there’s a lot of back and forth and sometimes there’s call and response and the instruments together and the instruments have every possible posture of conversation. So I think that, you’re absolutely right: I had no woman composers in this but there is one program that’s being performed on Thursday night, the first half of which is all works by women composers and modern contemporary music which is being presented by one of my great students.

So that’s alongside the festival?

EF: No, that’s part of it. There are three major nights of concerts, and on the opening night we have our competition winner from last year. That’s a simple kind of introductory event.

Eliot Fisk (Jesse Weiner photo)
Eliot Fisk (Jesse Weiner photo)

And that’s a more conventional guitar recital?

EF: Yeah, that’s a more conventional guitar recital. That’s a free concert. And then Thursday night, the first half is all women composers and the second half is women performers, including my wife: she’s playing the D-minor Partita. And the more recent scholarship is thinking that maybe the Chaconne was the Tombeau piece for Bach’s first wife, and there’s all this numerology. As a matter of fact the musicologist who undertook the most groundbreaking research on it was a woman as well.

She’s playing on the violin?

EF: She’s playing a transcription on the guitar.

The whole Partita?

EF: She’s playing the whole thing. So that’s a pretty big event, and that’s being followed by our administrative director Jennifer McNeil’s playing a few short pieces, and then Kim Perlak from Berklee School will play modern American works, I think some of which were written for her. So that concert is very much dedicated to the theme. Then Friday night, we’re starting off with two very short pieces and then Xuefei Yang is playing a 70-minute block: obviously a woman performer, I don’t know if there are any women composers on that but that is about as close to featuring important women and artists as we could come in a classical concert. We asked Sharon Isbin, but she wasn’t free. She sent us a lovely couple of lines that we could put in the program.

So when is the opening night again?

EF: Wednesday, June 17th.

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