Sunday, March 05, 2006

Joining A Guitar Ensemble

In Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss's Treatise On Instrumentation, Berlioz made the following introduction to the guitar -

The guitar is an instrument suitable for accompanying the voice and for taking part in instrumental compositions of intimate character; it is equally appropriate for solo performance of more or less complicated compositions in several voices, which possess true charm when performed by real virtuosos.

What a wonderfully true comment by the master of orchestration. After analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument, he concluded with the following passage -

Its charm is undeniable, and it is not impossible to write for it so as to make this manifest. The guitar, in contrast to the other instruments, loses when reinforced in number. The sound of twelve guitars playing unisono is almost ridiculous.

Such a judgemental comment from this master is made through astute musical observation and sensitivity. Being a classical guitarist, I shall attempt to elucidate on the implications of such a statement which challenges the presence of such ensembles.

As Berlioz had put it, the guitar is an intimate instrument. In a small cosy setting, it is capable of a myriad of wonderful tone colours, richer than many other solo instruments. However, in a guitar ensemble who'll be playing probably the same repertoire as an orchestra or wind ensemble, the tone colours that all the guitars can come up with is so much more inferior to all the different instruments in an orchestra or wind ensemble.

Moreover, given the technical difficulties of the guitar, it really isn't easy to gain control of the full spectrum of tone colours on the guitar. How then are we confident to gather sufficient guitarists with such technical mastery of the instrument to come together to play? I seriously doubt that it is very possible to attain small scale sensitivity in such a guitar ensemble.

And of course, there's the problem of the narrow range of the guitar. Apparently, in the recent years, people have attempted to stretch the possibilities of the guitar ensemble by the introduction of Niibori guitars such as the Soprano Guitar, Alto Guitar, Prime Guitar Contrabass Guitar and Guitarron. Just today, I was asked to join a newly formed Niibori Guitar Ensemble, playing the arrangement of Isaac Albeniz's Sevilla and Cadiz. I always believed that the guitar works best as a solo instrument but I decided to give the ensemble pieces a try. I chose the Prime Guitar, which the normal guitar at its standard tuning. Well, basically I'm more familiar with it and the Prime plays the solo for the slow section of Sevilla, the portion which is truly captivating.

Well, after the experience, I still prefer playing in a small chamber group with other instruments. Despite my dislike for the guitar ensemble, I shall stick to this Niibori ensemble until it starts to interfere with my musical progress...


Hucbald said...

Berlioz played the guitar, Jeff. Be aware, though, that the modern classical guitar is far more developed than his instrument. Just the use of nylon or carbon fiber for strings alone makes the modern instrument lightyears beyond what he knew. It's a fine ensemble instrument now, though the idea of a unison with a dozen guitars does make me laugh. ;^)


solitudex said...

I do not deny the fact that the guitar has undergone various stages of development over these years, but one can't deny the fact that despite the development, the tonal colours of a guitar ensemble is still far inferior than that of an orchestra.

During the romantic era, there had been a certain amount of emphasis on the tonal colours of the instruments in an orchestral composition. Romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Berlioz and modern composers like Mahler, Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov are all well known for their orchestration and their use of the tonal colours of the instruments in their orchestral compositions. If present living composers are given the choice of composing a piece of music for an orchestra, wind ensemble, strings ensemble or guitar ensemble, don't you think that writing for the guitar ensemble would be last on their lists simply due to the pitiful range of tonal colours?

All the pieces which we currently have for the Niibori guitar ensemble are all transcribed or arranged by guitarists who attempt to explore new territories without studying the trends of where the classical music scene is progressing.

I seriously don't think it's about twelve guitars playing in unison, but even if they split up those twelve guitars into four sections, each section playing a different part, it would essentially sound dull due to the lack of colour. The idea of a guitar ensemble is against the nature of the guitar. The beauty of the guitar doesn't lie in a big sound.

Somehow, when people propose starting a guitar ensemble, I have this feeling that they're influenced by the grandeur of the orchestral sound and would want to reproduce it as well. Since a guitar can't fit well into an orchestra, they decided to form a big guitar ensemble, which eventually is a grotesque caricature of what the ideal.

Sorry about my negative comments, but that's really my sincerest reflection when I go for the Niibori ensemble practices recently. I'm trying hard not to influence the others with negative my perception. Oh well, I just thought that maybe the music will sound a little more bearable if some enthusiast takes my place.