Wednesday, December 26, 2018

One Year in the Studio, part 4

Now we come to the year in the studio. In the fall of 1973 I decided not to continue at the university even though it had been a marvelous experience for me. The reason was that they had no acceptable guitar teacher, instead insisting that I take piano lessons and play lute in a Medieval ensemble. Yes, one of my earliest experiences in ensemble playing was Machaut! I dropped the piano after a while as it was quite painful for my right hand--I'm not the only guitarist to have experienced this. My decision was also sparked by the advice of my guitar teacher in Vancouver (with whom I started studying after the end of classes at university) to travel to Spain to study. So I started work with the Ministry of Education in order to save money. Then, in January of 1974, I flew to Spain. First time outside Canada. Actually, first time West of Saskatoon! No discernible Spanish.

I had a little Spanish phrase book, but soon discovered the limitations of that. As soon as I got there I wrote a letter to my parents to let them know I had arrived. Yes, this was pre-Internet and trans-Atlantic phone calls were very expensive. I hadn't seen a mailbox anywhere (in Canada they are bright red) so I consulted my phrase book and came up with "¿Dondesta el buzón? "Where is the mailbox?" The doorman at the hotel, very helpful, responded with a flurry of absolutely incomprehensible Spanish while pointing in several directions. I responded with one of my few Spanish words: "gracias" and set out to find a mailbox. It turned out that they were grey with the colors of the Spanish flag in a narrow band around the middle. That was then, now they are bright yellow.

Several months previous I had ordered a guitar from the shop of José Ramirez, the great Madrid guitar builder. Prior to that I was playing a hundred dollar student guitar:

This was taken just before I left for Spain. What surprises me about the photo is how good my hand position is. I think that starting on the electric bass guitar was likely quite advantageous for my left hand as it forced a good hand position and developed a lot of muscle.

So off I went to the guitar shop. When I visited Madrid two years ago I dropped by the shop just for nostalgia and took a photo:

Click to enlarge
It seemed different from my recollection. Apparently they changed location quite a while ago, so it isn't even on the same street. When I arrived there in 1974 and explained that I had a concert guitar on order (they also make student models) they first showed me to a chair in the back of the store and brought out a guitar. After tuning, I started trying it out and began with a prelude by Manuel Ponce. After they heard a bit, they showed me to a studio in the basement where I could try several different guitars. On the walls were several glass cases containing old guitars that used to belong to Andrés Segovia. After deciding on the guitar, I paid off the balance and set out on the train for Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast where José Tomás lived. The folks in the Ramirez shop provided the address. Oh, and the cost of that instrument? As fine a guitar as could be purchased in 1974 (as far as I knew)? $654 Canadian. I later sold it for two thousand dollars.

I first stayed in a little pension owned by a couple of brothers from Argentina. That was an interesting experience. They were really hospitable people. One time when there was a great abundance of smelt (a small fish the size of a sardine) they knocked on my door and handed me a big plate of freshly fried fish. Another time they came with the welcome news that another Canadian was staying in the pension. I popped around, but when I knocked on the door I discovered that it was a couple from Quebec who spoke not a word of English! At that time I spoke almost no French. Spain back then was a different place, much less modern with a lot of old customs. Returning to the pension one evening in company with a Canadian guitarist he made the enigmatic comment: "see you, I've gotta go down to the corner and clap my hands." ?!?!?!? The custom then was if you returned to your apartment late at night you would find the street door to the building locked. On every block was a watchman (here in Mexico we call them veladores) who had the keys to all the buildings. You went to the corner of the street and clapped your hands and he would come around and let you in.

Soon after I arrived I went by José Tomás' apartment which was on Taquigrafo Marti street. My teacher in Vancouver said not to bother trying to contact him in advance. He didn't have a phone and didn't answer letters. So I just knocked on his door. He was a fairly tall man with a head of glossy black hair, of calm temperament and dignified demeanor. I explained that I had studied with his student in Vancouver and wanted to study with him. He was delighted to hear his student's name and asked how he was. He then asked me what repertoire I was currently playing. I told him the Etude No. 8 by Villa-Lobos and some other pieces which seemed to satisfy him that I was advanced enough. Then he said he was leaving for Japan in a few days to give some master classes there, but we could begin when he got back.

So having my lessons all arranged I decided to go to London for a few days to buy some music and attend some concerts. I was hungry to hear live music and Alicante, being a small regional capital, had no significant concert scene. London was a marvel with numerous orchestras, ballet companies and a host of great musicians playing in wondrous venues like Wigmore Hall. It also was the location of the famous Foyles bookshop. Back then it was in two multi-storey buildings with a little street in between. The, I think, third floor of one of the buildings was entirely devoted to the arts. I recall walking through a room filled with inexpensive editions of the classics to get to the room with all the musical scores. This was the first time in my life where I was actually able to view a wide selection of music for my instrument. I stayed there six hours, delving into every drawer where the scores were kept, finally staggering out, lugging a big bag of music in search of a restroom!

Back in Alicante, I moved into a flat near Tomas' apartment, sharing it with an Irish guitarist. We had four bedrooms, fully furnished, linens and kitchenwares included and we even had a maid. All this for the princely sum of $75 a month. Not each, shared. Across the street was a little bar where one went for breakfast. The first time I was there the fellow behind the bar enigmatically said: "you're a guitarist." Yes, ok. "A classical guitarist." Uh-huh. "You study with José Tomás." Right again! I later realized that Tomás was one of the most famous residents of Alicante and that he had a community of young guitarists studying with him was common knowledge. But how did the bartender know I was one of them? I was obviously foreign, of the right age and I had the fingernails longer on the right hand.

So I settled into a long period of intense concentration on mastering the instrument. I had my room in the apartment. It was nearly bare with a bed, a little table, and a chair. That, plus a music stand, was all I needed. I am reminded of a painting of Van Gogh of where he lived in the South of France:

No allusions here to my similarity to Van Gogh!! Just that these little rooms in little towns on the Mediterranean coast were a bit similar.

All I did for month after month was practice guitar. The routine was to start with technical exercises to build agility, control and speed. I would spend at least one or two hours on slurs, scales, arpeggios and studies. I don't recall the details at this distance in time as I have changed my approach a few times since then. I also don't recall Tomás ever giving me any particular exercises to work on. Lessons with him were purely about repertoire. He started me off on the fairly simple pieces in Emilio Pujol's collection of music from the vihuelistas. I still have that book:

Apart from tone and consistency, one of the obvious things you learn from this kind of repertoire is how to handle independent voices. I continued to work on the Villa-Lobos etudes, particularly the first one, a formidable arpeggio study that it took me years to master. I used to have a little book that I noted down every piece that I learned in, but sadly, I lost it years ago. I recall learning a couple of Venezuelan waltzes by Antonio Lauro, some Bach, the English Suite by John Duarte, Preludes by Villa-Lobos and lots of other music. The editions and fingerings by Tomás himself were particularly sought after and we either made photocopies or wrote them out by hand. I still have a hand copy I made of La Burgalesa by Moreno Torroba which is to be played in E major, not the published key, which I think is F sharp. I would memorize pieces fairly quickly. I think I memorized all three movements of the English Suite in a little over a week. I also was working on the Studies by Stephen Dodgson.

It is safe to say that all I did for the eight or so months I was in Alicante, was to practice guitar four or five hours a day, read Russian novels and go for lunch with other guitarists. My most frequent companion was Klaus Helminen, from Finland. I found a little bookstore that had the Penguin translations of Russian novels and I read Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Sholokhov and Turgenev. I guess I was in a rather removed state of mind. On one occasion my Irish roommate had a friend staying with him, a California blonde, quite voluptuous. As I came out of my room after a couple of hours of technique with a lot of scales in dotted rhythms she came up to me and said, "we're going to go skinny-dipping in the ocean tonight, want to come?" I blearily consulted my watch and said something like, "I dunno, I really have to practice." Excessive practicing of scales can do that to you!

For an envoi today, I have La Burgalesa by Moreno Torroba in my recording:


Will Wilkin said...

As if I didn't already know I wasted my own youth, reading of yours reminds me of reading Rosseau's "Confessions," similar to me in feelings of innocence high in proportion to the also-high level of adventure. In both accounts I vicariously enjoy relatively easy access to an immensely deep human heritage of European civilization, accessible to whoever will set out in exploration of it.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think lots of us waste our lives in different ways. The most disciplined person might discover, in their middle age, that they should have pursued more will-o-the-wisps and spent less time in business school.

Patrickj said...

Thanks for your reminiscences, Bryan. Can you imagine doing what you did then now?
Somewhat off topic, but not completely. I have a jazz guitarist friend who places quite a high value on improvisation. Did you ever consider that as a goal you would pursue? We’re you aware of the ‘school’ of jazz guitarist improvisers? I am intrigued by the whole idea of improv, but for the most part are not impressed by results I hear. Also, what do you think of this sentiment re: improvisation from NY Times review of book on Dexter Gordon:
“Explaining a system by which record executives swiped royalty rights from the musicians they employed, Ms. Gordon writes: “The confiscation of the music, the devaluation of their creativity, the notion that ‘spontaneous composition’ in jazz — improvisation — is inferior to the kind of composition that is done over long hours with pen and paper and the canard that players are not composers: All of this has plagued jazz history and caused economic hardship for musicians to this day.””Explaining a system by which record executives swiped royalty rights from the musicians they employed, Ms. Gordon writes: “The confiscation of the music, the devaluation of their creativity, the notion that ‘spontaneous composition’ in jazz — improvisation — is inferior to the kind of composition that is done over long hours with pen and paper and the canard that players are not composers: All of this has plagued jazz history and caused economic hardship for musicians to this day.”

Bryan Townsend said...

Actually, I still am doing what I did then now, or a version of it. In a day or so I will be putting up more posts about my Toronto recording project.

As to jazz and improvisation, my first few years in music were rather improvised in that I played in a number of bands that played a lot of improvised blues. I largely stopped improvising when I discovered classical music, though I do often improvise in order to discover material for new compositions.

If you want to make an argument in favor of the aesthetic quality of jazz improvisation then I think you need to start with some basic aesthetic principles, that is, what is aesthetic quality in music, specifically jazz and how does improvisation exemplify this quality? Then you would need to seek out specific musical examples to illustrate your argument.