Monday, January 09, 2006

Just Guitars

I've had a chance to give Just Guitars a few spins now. In an email from Hucbald at A Monk's Musical Musings comes this vivid description: "...justly tuned fret boards look like somebody puked up strips of pasta all over them." They are odd. And it's hard to stop looking at the pictures of fret boards included with this disc. The overall sound is even more intriguing. John Schneider does a fantastic job with this material. This is a great repertoire of music in just intonation that sheds some new light on some familiar works and opens my ears to some new possibilities for these specialized acoustic guitars.

The high point of this listening experience comes toward the end as Schneider performs two movements from The Harp of New Albion by Terry Riley. I've spent a lot of time with the Terry Riley recording of this work for solo piano (in 5-limit just intonation) and I've had a chance to hear it performed live. As a composition it's a personal favorite and this arrangement for just guitar is beautifully done. It's great to hear those familiar chords that open "New Albion Chorale" on acoustic guitar. Schneider captures the mesmerizing quality of this composition and sustains exactly the right energy level throughout.

John Schneider also proves to be a great interpreter of the music of Harry Partch. As an important figure in just intonation and a composer of some of the most idiomatic music of the 20th Century -- the fact that Harry Partch was also a great guitarist is often overlooked or forgotten. Schneider brings a great understanding to this material and brings out the troubadour qualities of the Partch oeuvre.

"Letter from Hobo Pablo" is performed for voice and just guitar alone. I'm so familiar with the original Partch recording for voice, Adapted Guitar and Kithara that I notice just about every detail where Schneider's vocal inflections differ from Partch. The guitar arrangement is a dead ringer of the original version harmonically and so many of these large chords seem impossible - yet fully represented here on this newer version. The humanity of the hobo account in the letter comes through with a bittersweet mix of melancholy, humor and sincerity.

"December, 1942" by Harry Partch is a setting of three texts by Shakespeare, Tsurayuki and Ella Young that is new to me. They are similar to The 17 Lyrics of Li Po. I enjoy them a great deal and feel compelled to seek out the Partch recordings of this work.

Rebekah Raff and Gene Sterling perform with Schneider on the Kithara and Diamond Marimba for this recording of "Three Intrusions." These Harry Partch compositions just sound better with multiple interpretations like these.

Also included on this disc is one of the last works composed by Lou Harrison: "Scenes from Nek Chand (2002)." This is an outstanding work for Steel Guitar in just intonation that draws sonic influences from all sides of the Pacific Ocean. John Schneider performs five other Lou Harrison works as well: "Tandy's Tango (1992)", "Cinna (1957)" , "Palace Music (1971/88)", "Plaint & Variations on 'Song of Palestine'" and "Serenado por Gitaro (1952)." I need to get more familiar with the vast Lou Harrison catalogue. This is wonderful stuff.

The opening work on Just Guitars is an arrangement of "Rhythmicon I" by Carter Scholz for 17 justly tuned guitars. This is a work I reviewed in its digital realization last year. 8 Pieces is a disc I keep coming back to time and again because of pieces like "Rhythmicon." The formal ideas behind it are eerily similar to my own. This work bears a strong resemblance to "Septet" by James Tenney for 6 electric guitars and electric bass (performed by Seth Josel on Go Guitars). But while the digital realization of "Rhythmicon" and the amplified guitars of "Septet" are successful I find this multiple acoustic guitars version of "Rhythmicon I" disappointing. It's a nice sound, but this particular algorithmic compositional idea really calls for electricity and amplification.

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