Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Story of My Apostasy

Apostasy is the
formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. It can also be defined within the broader context of embracing an opinion contrary to one's previous beliefs. One who commits apostasy (or who apostatizes) is known as an apostate.
Wikipedia also comments that
Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: very few former believers call themselves apostates because of the negative connotation of the term.
But I'm pretty comfortable with it! I have mentioned in a number of places on this blog that I became something of an apostate with regards to the ideology of modernism--and from the comments it seems I am far from being alone. I call this "apostasy" because in the modern world where many societies are no longer fundamentally religious, a number of belief systems have grown up which resemble in many ways religions. Among these are environmentalism, communism and my own, aestheticism, where you have the conviction that there is something transcendent about art.

I did not come to music early in life, taking to it like a fish to water. It was an incremental process. My mother was an old-time fiddler but that music never grabbed my interest. I started to get interested in the mid-60s as a teen when I heard songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (though I had a particular liking for Eric Burden and the Animals!). Also at this time, and through George Harrison, I got to know the music of Ravi Shankar. I took up the guitar, joined a band and started writing songs. I probably wrote forty songs by the time I was twenty. All lost, I'm afraid!

Then came my first apostasy: a friend played a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and I was completely overwhelmed. This was the music I had been looking for. So I started buying classical records. When I discovered Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Debussy my conversion was complete. When I discovered that there were a lot of transcriptions of Bach for classical guitar I had discovered my vocation. I have talked quite a bit about my career as a classical guitarist so all I will say here is that for twenty years or so I was a solo classical guitar virtuoso with a pretty decent career which included many, many performances as recitalist, chamber musician and soloist with orchestra. I recorded many programs for nationwide broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and issued a commercial recording with Fanfare Records in Toronto. Here is a recording from around that time:


All was good, right? Well, not quite as there were three different problems: first, my career stalled out. My recording didn't sell and my record company refused to pay the picayune royalties there were and even refused to provide an accounting. I later sued them and they settled out of court. I had gotten a few better paying engagements to play concertos with orchestra and the CBC recorded two of them for nationwide broadcast: the Villa-Lobos Concerto and the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. Here is my recording of his Zapateado:


Frustrated at hitting a stone wall with my career I decided it was simply a question of pushing a bit harder. Trying to get a recital engagement in Toronto I called one impresario every week for a couple of months. Trying to get more concerto engagements I sent a promotional package to every conductor in Canada, some seventy orchestras. Then I followed up by phoning every one of them personally. That was some phone bill. The result? Nothing. After hanging up the phone on the last call I recall walking into the living room and saying to my fiancé, "that's it, I'm done". What I meant was that I was done with the whole thing, the whole guitar virtuoso career. That was my second apostasy.

At the time I didn't know if it was just that I was an inadequate guitarist or what, but it didn't matter. Whatever the reason, I was done. So, what next? You can imagine how psychologically dislocating it is to have your fundamental identity as an artist and a person just dissolve. It was, of course, my own choice and my own fault. I was unable to accept a declining mediocre, routine career. Music for me was a sacred calling. Most guitarists in this same position, and believe me, there are lots, simply took the dull teaching job and stuck it out until retirement. But that, to me, was like death. So I fussed around a bit. I wrote a couple of books on guitar technique and playing Bach (which also didn't sell very well, but at least the publisher sent me royalties!). And then I decided to become a musicologist so I enrolled in graduate school in the doctoral program. I completed all the seminars and then decided that this kind of academic career really wasn't what I wanted. That was my third apostasy.

So I really did drop out. I moved to Mexico and got into business: finance and real estate, which still pays the bills for me. But after five years of carefully avoiding any musical activities, I was drawn back and started playing the guitar again. After a couple of years of that I finally came to realize what I should have been doing all along was composition.

I composed music from my earliest days as a musician. I remember trying to write a song after playing bass guitar for only six months. Then, after converting to a classical musician, I started writing compositions in that style. I taught myself to read music when I realized I wanted to write songs with orchestral accompaniment! I wrote a few songs with guitar accompaniment, some chamber music for flute and guitar and multiple guitars. Here is a piece for guitar orchestra from the late 70s that I wrote:


I think the best piece from back then that I wrote was inspired by Ligeti and Steve Reich titled "Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord". It was very enthusiastically applauded at the premiere. Sadly, both the score and recording of that piece are lost.

In any case, when I got seriously into composition, about ten years ago now, I started with a couple of pieces that were probably equally influenced by Steve Reich and Debussy (if you can believe that). I realized that I had to go through a real evolution if I were ever to write anything of any value, so I started educating myself.

That may sound rather hilarious from a guy who spent a total of twenty years at university, eight as a student up to the doctoral level and the rest as a lecturer, but oddly enough, university only provides you with a partial education. For example, in all those years as a student, we did not once take a serious look at a Beethoven piano sonata.

My education consisted in listening to, with the scores when available, all the Beethoven piano sonatas, all the Haydn string quartets, all the Beethoven string quartets, all the Shostakovich string quartets and so on. When I realized that I wanted to write for orchestra I started listening to that repertoire: all the Haydn symphonies, all the CPE Bach symphonies, all the Mozart symphonies, all the Beethoven symphonies, all the Schubert symphonies, plus those by Dvorak, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Shostakovich again and Allan Petterssohn. It takes a long time and a lot of listening to get familiar with the basic repertoire.

And then you have to sit down and start writing. The first few pieces, no matter how old you are, are probably juvenalia. Here is one attempt at writing a symphony from a couple of years ago:


This is not a real performance by orchestra, of course, all the instruments are synthesized and a real performance would sound much better. But it might give you a vague idea. The video is the first page of the score and then just some photos of Mexico City and other places in Mexico (and a couple in Canada) that I had kicking around.

So that is kind of a tour of my career from a certain point of view. Now I am at the point where I think the piece for orchestra I am working on now is good enough to put out. And I have some other plans for recordings. I hope to release a bunch of recordings, some old, some new. Here is a brief list:

  • Favorite music for guitar, mostly Spanish and Latin American virtuoso music
  • Bach and tangos from Argentina, for guitar
  • Modern music by Townsend and Leo Brouwer, for guitar
  • Songs from the Poets, twelve songs for voice and guitar
  • My compositions: chamber and solo music
  • Music for multiple guitars, transcribed and original
  • My compositions for orchestra


vampireslugger said...

I very much look forward to hearing your recordings. I have been following your blog for a bit now, and your remarkable story and series of wonderfully titled 'apostasies' has confirmed to me that this is one of the best blogs around.

Oh, and on your latest post, 'My Fifth Greatest Symphony Composer', I may well seem like an apostate to your form of aestheticism, but I think Kalevi Aho would be my fifth favourite symphonist.

Anyway, just wanted to show my appreciation for your blog,


Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Steven and welcome to the Music Salon! Thanks for the lovely compliment.

I am amazed to say that I have never listened to the music of Kalevi Aho! Right now I am listening to the first movement of his Symphony No. 16 with great appreciation. Thanks so much for mentioning him. Finland really is a musical superpower.

Marc Puckett said...

A fascinating look at your personal history-- thank you for sharing it. A great challenge, stopping on the way and going in an entirely new direction, and doing that again, when it's necessary. Am looking forward to the availability of the CDs.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that what I am going to have to do is start my own record company. I'll keep you posted!