Monday, March 21, 2016

Musical Identity

I won't dig around for it, but a long while back I put up some posts about musicians and identity. I think I mentioned something about how as many musicians take up their instruments at a very early age (five or six years in many cases), their personal identity is fused with being musicians. Not only that, but this identity is very stable over their entire lives. A classical violin virtuoso at seven is likely to be still a classical violin virtuoso at sixty-seven. A good friend of mine has played in the same orchestra for her whole career, nearly forty years.

Now, for better or worse, my own path has been quite different and I mention it just to illustrate diversity. That's a good thing, right? While most successful musicians do follow a single, focussed path, there are exceptions. My mother was a musician (traditional fiddle music) but I didn't immediately catch the bug and, apart from signing me up for piano lessons at age eleven, she didn't try to direct me. The piano lessons didn't take and I didn't become a musician until my middle teens when I started listening to popular music with more interest and took up the bass guitar. My later teens were devoted to playing blues and rock on bass guitar and later electric six-string. Then, after playing in a few mediocre bands, I swerved into what was often called "folk" music at the time. By this was meant Bob Dylan, Donovan, the Incredible String Band and other groups whose sound was more acoustic than electric (Bob himself switched from acoustic to electric). It was a time of considerable musical ferment.

At the very end of the 60s somehow I discovered classical music. I think my mother had a couple of Ferrante and Teicher LPs. They were a piano duo quite popular in the 60s:


All I can remember is that I really liked the Spanishy stuff like MalagueƱa:


There were little glimpses of other musical genres even in rock back in those days like the introduction to the Doors' "Spanish Caravan" which uses a flamenco granadinas:


Again, it was the Spanish flavor that I found interesting. But I soon realized that classical music was this huge other world so I started listening to Debussy, Dvorak, Beethoven and most of all, Bach. When I discovered that there was a whole repertoire of Bach that could be played on guitar, my way forward was clear:


For the next twenty years I was completely devoted to being a classical guitar virtuoso with pretty good results: I rose to the level of doing national broadcasts for the CBC and playing concertos with orchestra that included the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez and concertos by Villa-Lobos, Vivaldi and others.

But I became disenchanted. Looking at the careers of others in my field I realised that, if you could not break through into the stratosphere of international virtuoso with a recording contract and touring internationally, you were, sooner or later, going to slump into the same tired routine of teaching, teaching, teaching with the occasional concert. That just didn't appeal to me. So I took another swerve and did graduate studies in musicology. This was actually a real delight because it reawakened a whole intellectual side that had been a bit dormant after all those years of practicing scales, slurs and arpeggios. At the end of the day musicology was not a good fit for me and, after a years-long hiatus in which I was pretty far away from music, I came back and started exploring composition in a serious way. I have been doing this for nearly a decade now and it is what I should have been doing all along! What can I say, in some ways I can be pretty oblivious.

But this kind of wandering career through music is pretty rare, at least in my experience. I think that perhaps the fundamental reason for it was that my early life was itself very multi-faceted and unstable, meaning that from when I was born to when I was seven we lived in seven different small towns in northern Alberta. This gives a kind of restlessness to my view of the world and makes me not want to be put into any kind of box. What I like about composition is that I get to make my own box!

Now, what can I possibly find to put as an envoi for this post? I am not on my home computer so I can't put up one of my own compositions, so it will have to be something else... Oh, I know. This is a tune that I used to play during my brief "folk" period (and yes, I know it is more country than folk):


And this is what I was playing five or six years later:


If you follow this link, you can hear my version of the piece: "En los trigales."

8 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks for the history and En los trigales. Happy Bach's birthday, too!

I discovered the other day that one can lay out $500 to attend a Dylan show this summer here in Eugene....

Bryan Townsend said...

You're welcome!

In our calendar Bach's birthday is March 31st.

The Never-Ending Tour! I doubt Dylan gets down to my neck of the woods unfortunately.

Marc Puckett said...

Tsk; the man on the radio ('partita is another word for suite') was going on about Bach's birthday all morning long. Oh, is it Old Style v New Style, perhaps?

Marc Puckett said...

That is silly, using the OS date, tsk. Why would they be doing that? The 31st is also a weekday-- I can see that it might be wanted to do the birthday programming on a weekday rather than over the weekend-- but the 31st is also &c. One of those things one never thinks about; wonder when the German princes in Bach's part of the Empire changed to NS. The office being very quiet....

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, my reference was the Wikipedia article:

"Johann Sebastian Bach[a] (31 March [O.S. 21 March] 1685 – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period."

But I just checked with Christoph Wolff's book on Bach and he just says that he was born on March 21st without mentioning anything about the Old Style vs the New Style calendars.

Bryan Townsend said...

This article in the Guardian clarifies: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/mar/06/js-bach-329th-birthday-scholars-numerologists

"To mark his birthday in 1685 – which is sometimes dated to the 31st of the month these days due to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in Germany in 1698 – the Bach museum in the composer's hometown of Eisenach will take a closer look at his esoteric interest in number puzzles."

Marc Puckett said...

Am going to try today to figure out when the various German states in Bach's life submitted to the Pope's new calendar.

Bryan Townsend said...

That sounds like a nice project!