Monday, July 23, 2012

502nd Post

One of my posts on Sunday was, without me noticing, my 500th post. So I think I will take a moment and have a look at the progress of this blog.

The main thing I notice is that I learn a great deal from posting. The obvious way is that most posts have to be researched to some extent. But there is a more interesting and less obvious way. Doing the blog is an exploration of my own engagement with music over some forty-six years. I tell anecdotes from that whole period and it puts it in perspective for me. I start to get a more or less objective sense of my own life and career while telling it to the blogosphere. Of course, this is not what I am actually trying to do.

My real purpose with the blog is to talk to people about music. I have always had a kind of instinctive attraction to teaching. I think you only start to be sure of what you know when you try to tell it to others. In so doing you discover things you didn't know you knew, you discover gaps in what you thought you knew and sometimes you even discover new things and connections between them.

One thing I have discovered is that it is difficult to have objectivity about your career and abilities when you are in the middle of it. You really don't think about these things, you are too busy learning music, playing concerts and teaching. Now that I am away from all that I realize some odd things. I was trying as hard as I could to be a guitar virtuoso and came pretty close.

At my peak I was playing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra and doing a pretty good job--something that relatively few guitarists can do. I actually think that I may have been the first Canadian guitarist to perform the piece with orchestra. One performance was recorded for nation-wide broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They also recorded my performance of the Villa-Lobos Concerto with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. Another CBC broadcast was of a solo and chamber recital in which I played the Manuel Ponce 20 Variations and Fugue on Folias de Espana. That is one of the longest and hardest pieces in the repertoire.

So, a strong performer at least. But I had to work very, very hard to sustain that because I am not a natural virtuoso. I'm also not quite consistent enough--sometimes I made mistakes. The great virtuosi are like machines and rarely make mistakes. While I was struggling to become and remain a virtuoso, I was neglecting something much more interesting and important: I can compose music. I have always composed music, even before I was a musician. The first time I saw someone reading from a score I looked closely at it and then went off in a corner and scratched down an imitation of it on a piece of paper, then ran back and said "play this!" I was nine years old. I taught myself how to read music, something few people do. When it comes to understanding and creating music I have more natural talent than I do as a guitar virtuoso.

I have been composing music for at least as long as I have been a musician--forty-six years. But for all but the last five or so years, I didn't really take it seriously. It was something I did, but I barely noticed that almost no other performers of my acquaintance did the same. I was friends with composers, but didn't feel as if I was one of them. I did take some informal composition lessons at one point and wrote a piece for two guitars and harpsichord that was very well received by the audience. This was in 1977 and I much later realized that it was the first 'process' piece for guitar, preceding Steve Reich's own piece for multiple guitars by at least a decade.

So if I had been a lot more self-aware and open-minded, I would have switched from performance to composition back in the 70s. But many of we humans are not so self-aware! For some reason I became fixated on being a guitarist: that was my identity. Even though I could compose and was interested in it, I couldn't imagine myself being a composer. This might have been partly because the only models I had of being a musician up until I was twenty years old, were performers. I had never met a composer and probably thought that they only existed in books or the distant past. This may be why most musicians tend to come from families of musicians. They get exposed to different models from an early age and this gives them a wide field of possibilities. If I had met a composer when I was nine years old, that might have been an inspiration.

But enough of this. I'm not a narcissist and don't usually indulge in a lot of autobiography in this blog. Sure, I tell anecdotes from my experience, but they are meant to illustrate a point. Let's end with the first piece of classical music that really made a big impact on me and started my 'conversion'. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:

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