Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Expanded Guitar

As I try to post every day, I am always on the lookout for material for a post. Last night, I didn't have to go looking for it as it came to me!

Today my violinist and I are going to be recording four new pieces for violin and guitar that I have recently composed. Here is the title page:

As preparation for the recording, we arranged for what I call a "guitar night". My violinist and I got together with two friends who are a guitar duo, Jack and Francis. They also both compose so these evenings give everyone a chance to try out some new compositions. We played my violin and guitar pieces, then Francis played her arrangement of a song, "Camino de Guanajuato" by the Mexican songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez, who was born in the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo. Then Jack had a couple of interesting guitars to show us. The first was a late-19th century guitar that he had had restored to something like its original condition. This was a short string-length instrument that was similar to what Fernando Sor would have played. Jack played a couple of his original walzes and then a  Sor etude. Lovely sound! But then he brought out quite a different guitar:

Click to enlarge

Whoah! Wait a minute, how many strings? NINE? And what the heck is going on with that bridge? Here is another photo:

Click to enlarge

So, the bridge is set at an incredible angle--and notice the frets! They are also angled. How is this beast tuned? Well, in the middle are the six normal strings of the guitar from low E to high E. Above that high E is an added string, a high A, extending the range of the guitar much higher than usual. Then, below the low E is a low B and below that a very low F#. Here are the open strings on a grand staff. Note that these notes are at pitch. Normally music for guitar is written on a treble clef, sounding an octave lower:
Click to enlarge

Jack designed this instrument from scratch and the prototype you see here was built by the fine guitar builder Salvador Castillo from the "guitar town" of Paracho in the neighboring state of Michoacan. Here is his card:

and back:

As you can see, he usually builds normal instruments.

So what was Jack's motivation in designing this guitar? Jack is, like many of us, a very loyal guitarist in that whatever music he plays, he wants to play it on guitar. He is also a lover of the music of Bach and for quite a while now has been attempting to play the inventions (and some pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier) on guitar. Alas, that is pretty hard to do. This instrument makes it more possible. It is also possible to play all the Renaissance and Baroque lute music on this guitar as the range goes down to the lowest strings of the theorbo. Jack says it is also a treat to play, though I think those angled frets would take some getting used to!

At first glance this looks like a guitar from a Salvador Dali painting, he of the melting watches, but listening to Jack play his way through the C-major invention (slowly and with a few stumbles, because he is still getting used to the instrument) makes one think that he has something here!

Of course I had to make a couple of critical comments like: "haven't you just reinvented the harpsichord?" and "won't we need a mutated guitarist with extra fingers to play it?" But that's just sour grapes!

Just as a little historical note: the modern design of the guitar, the basic dimensions and strings, were set in the late 19th century by the Spanish guitar builder Antonio Torres. There have been a few attempts to change this layout, the most famous being the ten-string guitar of Narciso Yepes:

The maestro with whom I studied in Spain, José Tomás, had a less-radical version of the idea: he played on an eight-string guitar and the main reason was so that he could play, not only the lute works of Bach, but his own specialty, the Baroque lute music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss. The Swedish guitarist Göran Söllscher plays on an eleven string guitar, specially designed to play the lute music of J. S. Bach:

Let's end with a little Bach played by Mr. Söllscher. This is the Sarabande from the Partita, BWV 997:

UPDATE: I replaced the notation showing the tuning to correct an error.


Rickard Dahl said...

- That's an interesting guitar. How many different pitches are there in total?
- I look forward to hearing your four pieces (if you intend on sharing them here). Interesting names.
- Having good contacts (musicians) as a composer is probably a crucial thing to get pieces performed.

Rickard Dahl said...

In case I was unclear in my question, I ofc refer to the range of the guitar.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, the session went quite well, so I am planning to put them up in a week or two, after we have edited the raw takes.

The bottom end of the guitar range you can see from the notation. I believe that on the top it could go up an octave and a half above the high A string. That takes it to the three line E.