Plucked Polyphony: a solo guitar recital

Below are some notes on a solo guitar recital of which I will give a first performance on October 9, 2011 at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels. Click here for tickets and info. 


Elliott Carter (1908 - ) Changes

John Dowland (1563 - 1626) Farewell

Simon Steen-Andersen (1976 -  ) ...In-Side-Out-Side-In...

Stefan Van Eycken (1975 - ) Leaving

John Dowland (1563 - 1626) Forlorn Hope Fancy

Brian Ferneyhough (1943 - ) Kurze Schatten II


Plucked Polyphony is a solo guitar recital that explores the polyphonic potential of an instrument most commonly used in an accompanying role. This recital also aims to confront three generations of 20th-21st century composers and one Renaissance master with eachother. 

As suggested by their titles the two chromatic Fantasies by John Dowland  ‘Farewell and Forlorn Hope Fancy’ are marked by lament. Written in the 16th century, the beautiful chromatic harmonies sound at points almost otherworldly to our contemporary ear. It is therefore a small step from the complex but freely structured Renaissance pieces which are held together by one simple chromatic melody to Elliott Carter’s Changes where one chord unfolds into a tightly composed polyphonic structure. In this fast paced piece different polyphonic aspects are explored, beautiful lyrical lines are interrupted by sharp attacks, melody becomes accompaniment and chords resonate over each other until the piece comes to a halt with the original harmony presented again in a slow final movement. According to the composer “various aspects of the basic harmony are brought out in the course of the work, somewhat like the patterns used by bell-ringers in ringing changes”

Where Carter’s use of polyphony remains transparent, British composer Brian Ferneyhough takes the idea of polyphony to another level. In his music the polyphony is often deliberately obscured by the hyper complex nature of the score. His solo guitar piece Kurze Schatten II is exemplary in this regard. It takes its title from an essay by German philosopher Walter Benjamin and, like the essay, consists of seven brief parts/movements. Ferneyhough structured the movements somewhat like a baroque suite (three pairs of a slow movement followed by a fast one, the seventh and final movement is a Fantasy), but each of them can also be seen as individual studies on one particular issue. These issues are always concerned with polyphony and with different ways of layering, not just harmony and melody but also rhythm, playing techniques and timbre. In his essay Benjamin describes the image of an object standing in the sun whose shadow becomes shorter the more the sun reaches its zenith until finally object and shadow become one. Ferneyhough translates this image musically by severely altering the guitar tuning. Over the seven movements the guitar is gradually tuned back to its regular tuning until it regains its natural resonance. As usual in Ferneyhough’s music the extremely detailed and complexly layered score often pushes the performer to go beyond their physical limits. The result is an absurd struggle between performer and instrument, in this case even more amplified by the fragile nature of the classical guitar. The music, in a way, questions the concept of virtuosity in classical music and exists in the tense area of trial and error.

At the time of composing Leaving Stefan Van Eycken was writing a thesis on Ferneyhough’s music. He has since changed his musical ideas but this meticulously notated miniature for solo guitar still bears the mark of his former musical mentor, this is most clearly seen in the way he layers the musical material. Leaving is inspired by one of John Zorn’s improvisation études from the Book of Heads, however, no improvisation is involved here. 

The idea of failure as seen in Ferneyhough's music is also present in Steen-Andersen’s piece ...In-Side-Out-Side-In... In this case however, it’s not the performer who fails, but the instrument itself. Steen-Andersen creates a caricature of the classical guitar by trying to make it do things it can’t - like playing loud - but Steen-Andersen proposes an alternative. While the guitar is getting stuck trying to break out of its physical boundaries, the music gradually transforms and another musical layer appears. Steen-Andersen turns the guitar almost literally inside-out. The focus turns to a much softer music, a beautiful intimate polyphony of small guitar sounds that were always there, but to which we were never given a chance to listen because we’re not “supposed” to hear them.