For the California Guitar Trio

This is a "re-issue" from an earlier blog. I've updated it a bit but mostly it's true to form.
Many of you know I do most of the classical works the Trio performs. I've also done a few original works, Leap on CGT's Pathways and now Prelude, Hammer and Rude which is just coming into performance.
I met Paul Richards through an old friend and the former Salt Lake City jazz guitar guru, Don Ayers.*(*There's a Buddhist belief that there are seven secret masters alive at any given moment. If Don isn't one of the seven secret guitar masters he at least knows where some of them used to live. He's now appearing as Prometheus Bound by Carpal Tunnel Distress in a city by a bay. ) Years later after both Don and Paul had enrolled to study under Robert Fripp, Paul approached me to produce some works for them. I was surprised given that I'm totally involved in contemporary atonal and modernist styles of writing and the symphonic and chamber repertory. I was even more surprised when Paul said that was exactly what they wanted.

I couldn't imagine how the works would be received by their audience. Some great moments were a standing ovation - scratch that; the audience were on their feet halfway into Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor at a summer blues festival in Park City. Paul told me that on their first solo European tour of the same piece they heard someone in the audience chanting "Fuga, fuga!" while they were still backstage.

When I heard the trio play Beethoven's 5th here in Salt Lake, as soon as the first notes were played a giggle rustled through the audience. I thought "uh oh" I watched the audience realize it was no joke, they were going to hear a symphony. Soon they were beginning to listen. By the end they were so enthused and ready to jump to their feet and applaud before the piece was finished: they almost couldn't wait
This isn't about me or the Trio, it's about the music. It's about Beethoven and Bach. I always thought that more people would like classical music if they gave it a chance, and this proved it. Not that we didn't have anything to do with it. It's easy to butcher an arrangement when you're reducing an entire symphony orchestra down to three players. And, even when I get the lines in place it takes a great deal of skill just to play it, let alone bring it to life.

I also learned something else. The people at these concerts went there intending to listen and expecting they'd enjoy themselves. They were ready to be involved. I used to see people look like that at Utah Symphony Concerts when Maurice Abravanel was conducting. I've seen it in Europe but I seldom see it here anymore, mostly because orchestras are run like corporations these days. Keeping works like these alive, giving a new audience a chance to experience them, is a debt I owe.


If you've never heard this work live, then you don't really know the work. For some reason the producer decided to mix the piece with a dominant upper melodic line instead of equally balanced independent three-part counterpoint. But as it is it serves as a perfect example of the difference between harmonic thinking and contrapuntal writing.

When I first gave the piece to Paul I mentioned that I couldn't decide between the thick chords just before the return to the opening material of the piece played in a higher or lower octave. I preferred the lower octave but I thought it might be too muddy down that low. So I wrote it in the higher octave where it came in the piece and at the end I added two blank measures and then wrote it out in the lower octave. I told Paul they should decide which to use once they played through the two versions.

They didn't have a chance to work on it for quite a while and once they started, for some reason or other I didn't get to hear them play it before they put it on their program. The next time they came into town I got to hear it. They did a great job, but instead of choosing between the two versions they played through the piece with the upper octave as written and waited two measures at the end of the piece - I thought it was over - and then they played the low octave. And it worked better that way!

The Toccata and Fugue

My wife Lou and I still argue over whose idea it was to do this work for the Trio. I keep reminding her that if it was her idea we can't get royalties because she’s not a member of ASCAP. One thing we do agree on is that we were just sitting down to watch one of our favorite movies, the original Rollerball with James Caan, when the Toccata comes booming out of the speakers.

Toccata means touch piece. It was first used in the Renaissance and gave the performer a chance to warm up on the job, going through scale patterns and chords. By time Bach uses this form, it not only gave you the chance to go through scales, but to play more specific parts of the piece to identify what to listen to in the following fugue.

Fugues themselves are described in terms of a great number of rules that if you think about it a little you'll see are practical solutions to combining a line with itself in this manner. Once you decide to write this kind of piece, a lot of it makes perfect sense. It's said that only the first one is hard. I think that's because the first time through you're figuring out the concepts behind the rules. From then on you work from the concepts. Most often the rules aren't written by composers but by theorists who try to explain what's going on. They are only human and should be forgiven.

There isn't a single form that is a fugue. They all differ from one another in some respect or another. But they all have a number of things in common; subject and answer and sometimes a counter subject, too; episodes based on some more or less recognizable fragment of the subject; a dominant prolongation and stretto, and a coda. Bach adds an extended cadenza that echoes the toccata between two dominant prolongations.

The Fifth Symphony

Besides being a powerfully evocative work, it is also one of the first to be organized throughout by a motive. Before this, motives were extracted from a melody. Here the motive is the melody.

And there's great evidence of St. Ludwig the Jokester, especially in the first movement. Okay, it's not a haha joke; it's a composer's joke on common harmonic wisdom. The opening - GGGEb_____FFFD_____ - should identify Eb as the tonic. We hear the tonic and its third which identifies home and whether we're in major or minor. We even hear the all-defining leading tone, the 7th note of the key. But somehow we don't hear Eb but C as home.

Harmonic theory suggests that it might be the absence of harmonic roots that leaves the fragment open to interpretation. Roots a fourth apart are the strongest in defining a key, from the first note of the key to the fourth or the fifth to the root. Oh yeah? Later Beethoven introduces the second theme with that exact series of relationships - Bb up a fourth to Eb and then F down to Bb. This is the classic I IV V chord progression that the harmonists assure us will identify a key, in this case Bb. Not here. Bb is not the root - Eb is.

There's another "joke." If you sing the melody you begin to see that beneath the familiar opening is a very powerful descending second, from Eb to D. This is the tonic and 7th of Eb but C is the real root. When he gives the series of fourths ending on Bb that we saw above, it seems that he is extending the downward step from notes within a melodic fragment to movements between keys - from C (minor) to Bb (major.) Bb may be the tone that most affects the passage, but it isn't the tonic, it's the fifth, extending the joke of what you see is not what you get. What a card. It isn't until the triumphant ending that these two factors - the motive and the supporting leaps of fourths - come together.

God Rest Ye

I chose to set this Aeolian tune with principles of Renaissance or "strict" counterpoint, the most important being imitation. Portions of the melody recur but often in disguise; in "inversion" or upside down, "retrograde" or backwards, or even "retrograde inversion" both backwards and upside down. All of these occur with some curves thrown in.

The opening begins on the second note of the melody and combines two sub-phrases of the melody played at the same time and then repeated in inversion. Leaving off the very first note, the "pickup", forces you to listen a little closer to find out just where in the melody we are. Even though it only takes a note or two before the melody comes into focus, by that time you"ve begun to hear these as individual lines rather than a melody and harmony.

You"ll notice that, although the first two phrases are accompanied simply by a descending line the effect of the two is very different because the first begins on a consonant and the next begins one step lower on a dissonance. In the next section the lines begin to combine in something like a fugal "stretto" before moving into a higher register where the three lines combine in a dissonant ensemble. Finally, the melody is heard over a very dark and poignant ensemble that is the melody of the tune played in "augmentation" - longer rhythmic values.

There is a disguised recurrent figure that organizes the work. The first two part statement of the melody ends on a fifth - D and A. The next begins on a second - C and D. This recurs at the end of the first three part phrase after "let nothing you dismay." Here it is a leap from D to Bb to A. We still have the D to A fifth, but now the second is above the fifth. In the following higher more dissonant statement I control the construction of the lines so that they combine in various combinations of fifths and seconds. And the very ending note of the arrangement imposes the Bb once again over the D A fifth.

Sugar Plum Fairy

As of this writing (5-4-02) you haven"t heard this yet, but you will. Tchaikovsky is generally thought to be a facile melodist but somewhat lacking in depth. This is a classic case of being so good at something that you make it look easy.

In one of his works, the famous piano concerto, he's still criticized for not sticking to the normal procedure of using two contrasting themes, that he uses over twenty, none of which ever return. Actually, every one of the more than twenty "themes" are transformations of the exact same small motive.

It's true that Tchaikovsky's melodies flounce just like the tutus on the ballerinas he wrote for, but don't think there aren't any brains behind that pretty face.

(The trio never did do this work. I eventually re-did it for the guitar ensemble I conduct at Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts. We did it last year and we're working it up again for this.)

Prelude Hammer and Rude

Those of you that like to figure out odd meters are going to love this one. Through much of the work there are seldom two measures in a row that are the same meter and even then they're almost all either odd meters or oddly "pulsed." One twelve measure stretch has the following meters - 5/8 3/8 2/4 3/8 5/8 2/8 3/4 2/4 7/8 7/8 7/16 3/8.

This is a fairly common procedure for me. I don't decide on meters beforehand. In fact, I write without meters or even bar lines. I just indicate notes as groups of two or three or more eights that belong to a "beat", obviously of flexible length, and then group them into meters on the basis of metric pulse - a succession of strong and weak with the first beat of the measure being the strongest. Take for instance 7/8. I might group that as 2+3+2 eighth notes, or 3+2+2 or any other grouping that adds up to 7/8. The above two groups have three beats in the measure, like a measure of 3/4 with an expanded second beat in the one and first beat in the other.

I had two goals with this work. First, I wanted to give the Trio a work that would make them look really good. Second, I wanted to scare the neighbors. I didn't realize what difficulties my metric organization would cause. It's pretty common for classical musicians to just read this type of writing on first sight. They've been working on it for over 100 years in situations a lot more complex than this one. In some cases they have a conductor to help. They just react to the groupings of the notes and don't notice anything about the meter except the bar line.

The Trio, like many musicians, keep time by tapping their feet. Most often, beats have two subdivisions, so your foot taps on every other one. This works even in odd meters. In every other measure you're tapping on the beat and in between you're tapping off the beat. It's a real trick and takes a lot of concentration. But here that doesn't work at all where one beat has two and the next three parts and the next measure may have something completely different. The solution was to learn to react to the beat and not the meter.

As far as scaring the neighbors: the Trio is only playing the prelude so far and it's a set-up. Just wait for the Hammer and Rude!

(After doing this for a short while the trio retired the work. I never heard it although Paul tells me a recording does exist somewhere. I reserve the right to re-use the title for another work at some future date.)

The Ninth Symphony

Considering that Beethoven is my personal spiritual master this was a difficult task. The movement is a 17 minute set of variations, a perfectly balanced structure, where each variation is a link in a chain of logical developments. I had to cut about 8 minutes without interfering with the structure, the development or the emotional impact. The problem was compounded by the expanded orchestra and chorus. Both the chorus and orchestra make their own specific, highly identifiable, and very different contributions to the overall sound.

The Moonlight Sonata

This is nothing like the textbook description of a sonata. It's almost as if the first movement were missing. You might almost think Beethoven was playing another joke this time with form, and you'd be right! Instead of contrasting themes and the mixture of the two in the development, all in a single movement, Beethoven gives each its own movement. The first two movements contrast on every level (The CGT hasn't recorded any of the second movement, only a fragment of the first and the entire last, so you have to trust me on this. Or better yet check the original.) Slow, fast; dark, lively; minor, major. And the last movement combines the two in one of the most dramatic movements of any of his 32 sonatas.