Whenever I sit down to write a piece of music for the classical guitar, I start with little more than a sheet of blank music paper and a pencil, my guitar, a recording device perhaps, a spark of inspiration, and the hope for good musical weather.
I am also, usually unwittingly, performing a seance.
This is something I only realized after the odd experience I’ll describe to you in a minute. Here’s what usually happens: I play a few passages—first spark, best spark. I soon get excited when some little bit of what I play sounds fresh and new to me. I commit that little bit to the page on the music stand in front of me.
At the same time, attracted from an unknown distance, the unsatisfied shade of a dead guitarist-composer sneaks up, and hangs out, squinting behind my left shoulder.
It might be Fernando Sor, I don’t know for sure. He wrote the first piece of classical guitar music that I fell in love with as a 12-year-old, It also seems to me that he’d be as likely candidate as any dead guitarist-composer to come back as a ghost: Sor was a celebrated guitarist-composer in his heyday, but he certainly didn’t die a happy camper. He felt underappreciated as a composer—he dedicated 6 of his later ballets to “whoever wants them,” and tongue cancer killed him, soon after the death of his beloved daughter. Pretty harsh.
This ghost is drawn by the familiar sound of flesh-and-blood fingers, striving to pluck new forms of beauty from the same six strings that once bewitched him. To him they glow like a beacon: these penciled-in notes on music paper, struggling find the right shape and form.
To tell you the truth, after the strange encounter I’ll report on in a minute, I know that my friend Fernando is not the only one who pays me visitations. I know now that the shades, the spirits, the stray thoughts of past guitarist-composers somehow mix with each other, beyond the veil, and come together in mutual desire as a single ghost.
On the night in question, which didn’t seem particularly special other than that it was my birthday, I was visited by such an entity: He called himself Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega-Sanz y Sor.
And so, what follows is my best attempt to relay to you as accurately as possible this mysterious incident:
It’s night time, and I’m home alone, composing, feeling inspired. Where is the music leading me tonight? It could still go in a number of directions. My first musical snippet reminds me of Sor. The next tentative phrases that I write down have a baroque-guitar flavor—the spirit of Gaspar Sanz, 17th Century guitar whiz? And as I pencil in a harmonic flourish, concluding the second line, there’s a hint of late 19th Century romantic Spanish guitar—that would be Francisco Tarrega.
I feel a slight shiver at the back of my neck. It’s the second time I noticed this tonight.
Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor knocks subtly on the soft barrier separating the inside of my head from the inside of the rest of the universe. Without quite realizing what I’m assenting to, I let in his ghost. Suddenly I see him, but only out of the corner of my eye. The shiver at the back of my neck goes full blaze up and down my spine. My hair stands on end. When I turn to look, his form becomes a blur and is quickly gone.
“Who are you?” I ask, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
The ghost doesn’t say anything for a moment, but then a soothing, half-whisper answers me:
You may call me Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor.
The accent is European, but I can’t quite place it—partly Spanish, partly British, a bit of French too. The ghost’s attention is on the music stand, and I turn to look at my fledgling piece, feeling suddenly self-conscious about it.
“Is this piece really that good, that it drew you…all….here?”
The ghost sighs, and the paper in front of me seems to glow for a moment.
“When you die, you leave so much undone. An artist can never leave life satisfied—there’s always so much more left to create. ” He says this with deep sadness.
That’s depressing, I think to myself.
“Only a small portion of one’s vision ever become music on paper. And even this, rarely is it fully recognized, widely heard and deeply felt. The living are mostly deaf—they chase madly after things that don’t matter.” Bitterness, and another deep sigh, giving a brief glow to the music paper. Then the ghost seems to look straight at me. I remain facing forward, frozen.
On your deathbed, that is how it can feel. But after I died, he says, with a lighter tone in his voice, I saw so much more! I saw how much my music mattered. Even that little bit I managed to compose, that it actually mattered!
I feel the lump in my throat get lighter.
From where I sit I can now see how my music inspires the future. And that’s you, and also many others. I can tell he has turned to look at the music stand again.
Yes, your piece has promise.
My heart thumps noticeably—I can feel and hear it thumping. But I realize I’m not afraid anymore, I’m flattered instead. And I think I get it now. There’s hope in the ghost’s voice, and pleasure. If some part of Fernando Sor, Francisco Tarrega and Gaspar Sanz stayed behind, it’s no surprise that they might be waiting and watching in the wings, coming forward to check things out when someone alive tries to pick up and continue where they left off.
I can feel you all, the ghost says softly. There’s a special quality in his voice that’s hard to describe, but it’s as if listening and speaking were the same thing for him. I feel immediate contact with all lovers of the guitar, all of you with your hearts mesmerized by the soundhole’s mysteries, all of you willing to dive in and dedicate yourselves to bringing its music to life.
I’m still being careful to avoid turning and looking at him directly, the shade of Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega-Sanz y Sor. But he’s getting sharper, it seems to me, and feeling more solid. And now it seems he has the look of a dapper 18th Century gentleman, with dark, tousled hair and a white high-collared shirt with a fashionable cutaway jacket. His hands are caressing the strings of his delicate ghost of a guitar. It must be Fernando Sor coming to the fore :
It was a lovely moment for me, Fernando says. I felt it when you, a shy, awkward 12 year old first fell in love with my Variations on a Theme of Mozart. You heard it on a scratchy recording, and you played it over and over.
I remember that moment fully for the first time in nearly 40 years, deeply touched.
I could feel it every time you carried that tune inside you like a candle of joy, while wandering the unhappy hallways of your secondary school.
Other moments start coming to me too, highlights of many hours spent contentedly exploring the charmed landscapes of Fernando Sor’s pieces. Without moving my head, I let my eyes turn slowly towards the ghost. As I do so, I see his clothing has changed, and his guitar seems larger. He now has a black goatee, mustache, and dark beetling eyebrows. He wears a dark bowtie. Francisco Tarrega has come forward.
I still remember when you played the Capricho Arabe, Francisco says, for your high-school talent show! It was innocent, passionate, and it quite captured the soul of my work. It gave the audience joy.
I’m thrilled to hear this! It’s getting harder to keep from turning to face the ghost.
Ever since then, he continues, I kept an ear on you. And when you started to compose many years later, I was rather pleased. I’ve been paying you visitations. There’s a chord sequence, for instance, in your Threnody that I would have to say I steered you towards. And I especially enjoyed working with you on your Variations on a Mongolian Folk Song. Oh, and your Trio Sonatina! Just lovely!
I feel flattered, but also a little miffed—the part of me that wants to take full credit, that is. But I turn to look at Francisco’s ghost, wishing to thank him as humbly as I can. He is shy though, and by the time my head is turned, he’s gone. My heart sinks. I hope I haven’t frightened them all away.
But before long, I feel the presence again, and now the ghost seems even brighter, and lighter. His hair now seems curly, silver and wild, shoulder-length. A bright scarf hangs loosely around his neck. I sense the wise and knowledgeable air of elderly professor, yet somehow he also radiates youthful exuberance! Gaspar Sanz has come forward.
Gaspar seems less interested in complementing my compositions, but he does seem to be interested in this piece I’m writing. My dear gentleman, I know you are not Spanish by birth but such is never a requirement—only that you are in touch with the Spanish soul while composing.
He offers to play an improvisation on his Espańoleta for me on his original 5-string guitar.
“I’m not sure this piece I’m writing will even sound that Spanish….I just started it….”
But my voice fades as the Espańoleta starts, just behind my left shoulder. I’ve never heard it played with so much magic, so much soul. I’m so mesmerized by the improvisation that follows that I risk it: I turn to watch him play. There is a light halo about his form—as if the light of previous centuries shimmers through him. There is also great darkness all around him—my room has disappeared—and his immaterial fingers create joyful flourishes of glowing golden notes that die out into the darkness.
When he’s done I just say “Wow!”
It’s a dumb thing to say but all that I can think for a few moments. Although to me it did seem that some of the improvised harmonies were a bit…well, modern.
“Those were some unusual chords….was that entirely in the style the late 17th century, maestro?” I ask, and immediately regret my presumptuousness. But Gaspar Sanz isn’t shy like the other two. He looks straight up at me with an impish grin.
Are we in the 17th Century? Music performed always takes on the hue of the current epoch. I’m interested in expression and creativity, not correctness.
I have no argument with that. I’ve have learned much from attempts to resurrect performance practice of previous centuries. They reveal something valuable and essential about the true spirit of the music. But I have always equally treasured the “historically wrong” yet artistically exciting interpretations and creations. Is it exciting music? Is it fascinating? Is it gorgeous? Does it challenge you to listen deeply? Does it wake up your soul? Those are the kinds of questions that seem more important to me than “is it correct?”
By the way, did you know my music inspired Rodrigo to write a magnificent concerto? Of course you do. He seems quite proud of this. It was quite wonderful, and quite “incorrect!”
I converse into the night with them, with him, with it, this ghost, Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor. Gaspar reads us some of his poetry. Fernando talks about his ballets. Francisco talks about the use of fingernails—he’s changed his mind on their use. We talk about the status of our instrument and its music in the world today.
More and more these days I see the world turning away from these compositions, this style, this tradition, says Gaspar.
I feel it too! says Francisco Fernando, that although there are more people listening because there are more people in the world, the world’s attention is no longer on the classic guitar. It no longer feels that important.
Perhaps it is going to slowly die out, Gaspar Francisco says.
“I hope not, not in the near future at least,” I say. “If it does, that would be pretty sad.”
Then perhaps it will show up in the music of the future as we show up for you, says Gaspar Fernando. From behind the left shoulder. As a memory, as a ghostly suggestion, as fragments of a forgotten musical language.
“The guitar itself is more popular than ever,” I point out. “Just not the classical guitarFrancisco is quite adamant in his dislike of anything amplified, feeling that it all contributes to the drowning out of his beloved tradition. If classical guitar music fades away, so too we would fade away! says Francisco. And amplified music is one of the biggest reasons for that.
Gaspar says, But there is one thing that will never fade, and that is Music itself. It only seems to end. It only seems to begin. From where we stand, we can see this clearly. Because we can see music. Every moment is Music, fed by the past, called forth by future.
“You can see music? All of you? What is that like? I ask, excited.
Fernando Sor says “Seeing Music is like wandering through a vast weatherscape. The many tones create colors and emotions, The harmonies paint the sky and the clouds, the rhythms build up into pounding storms of sound, and yet melodies are like the sweetest of breezes…
Francisco Tarrega, interrupting him, says “Hmmm. I would describe Music more like a magical city-circus full of wonders, sprinkled with gardens, parks and forests of ancient music, cathedrals of angelic sound, charming alleyways lit by the light of serenades… “
Gaspar Sanz, who’s been here the longest, says, “Ahem….I’ve been much intrigued by the study of ‘neuroscience’ in your time. Even though I have no neurons myself, so to speak! He chuckles lightly. The best way to describe all of Music, he continues, is that it is the inside of an infinite universe-sized brain whose neurons and synapses are the melody, harmony and rhythm of the spheres. All that can be imagined, everything alive and all that is beyond life, it’s all Music!
Hmmm…hmmm, Fernando and Francisco interrupt, sounding a bit doubtful, but they allow Gaspar to continue:
Death is a university, you see. And it has a truly exquisite music department. Since I died and was afforded this perspective, the growth and evolution of music on your plane has been quite something to see. I’ve been continually educated and inspired and entertained, for 300 years.
So much new music coming into being, so many traditions—and anti-traditions! All of them discovering and connecting with each other. Their paths now criss-cross each other freely and very few hidden enclaves of expression remain. The exploration and novelty and complexity and life of music has developed…ahem, ‘exponentially’. He pronounces this 20th century word with a curious sense of relish, yet seems not entirely sure of its appropriateness.
By now, I have not only turned my head to face Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor—I’ve turned my chair and am facing the entity toe to toe, guitar to guitar. Gaspar continues:
Imagine, for instance, as dear Francisco’s vision might suggest, that Music is a city within a forest. Imagine our musical civilization growing from the mists and mysteries of this primeval forest. As virtuoso guitarists, our tradition comes from an ancient one, that of cultivated oneness with a single instrument. It’s built from the wood of those ancient trees, and we use our touch to entice the wood to sing.
Yes, yes, bravo! Says Francisco Fernando, that is a most apt description!
Gaspar continues: And we use the fire of our hearts as well. There is a flame of warm, loving attention that makes playing and performing with a guitar feel like sitting warmed by a bonfire in this forest. The fire is the attention of the listener, and your own listening attention. You stoke this fire and enliven it with every note you play.
“That’s such a beautiful analogy…” I say as I thoughtfully consider it.
Such bonfires are still easy to light, they are just harder to maintain. Other forms of electric musical noise fill the forest, shooting back and forth, blasting it with shots of energy and excitement, lighting up trees. Much of the forest is clear-cut, and built over, and its leftovers are confined into parks and gardens. Amplified booms and rapturous crowds inundate the available clearings, Light and sound rush about like traffic, rain down like lightning, and the tiny bonfires are quickly extinguished.
Thus the older elegance of cultivated oneness with our single, simple instrument is drowned out….
Suddenly, we hear the distant the rumble of piano arpeggios, growing louder and closer. That’s when I remember that today is my birthday, which I share with non other than Ludwig van Beethoven! And it seems the great composer himself has decided to pay us a visit.
As he approaches and his music grows louder and louder, we can see he’s playing what seems to be the grandest of grand pianos, designed to play the music of the spheres, perhaps? It’s formed from the the surrounding darkness, but it shimmers and glows and occasionally blinds us with light, depending on what he’s playing. His feet are working pedals that seem to be affecting not just his piano strings, but also, perhaps, the surrounding cosmos.
A crashing chord announces his full arrival. “I wish to humbly suggest….” says Ludwig van Beethoven, and strikes another chord….”the real reason that the classical guitar repertoire is fading!…” Chord, chord, chord.. “….and that would be its overall meekness!”
Piddly tinkling on the keys.
“So Perhaps, my colleagues, you need to stop settling for sweet miniatures and shallow reflections of the true greatness possible.”
“Shallow reflections?” says Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor, sounding appalled.
Beethoven ignores this. Arpeggios and scales start slowly and gently, then speed up and race off into the blackness, come plummeting back down and quelle surprise, they land pianissimo, somewhere in the gravelly bass range of his great piano, initiating a gentle rumble, which continues to build from there, poco a poco, while he speaks again:
“No! I say your repertoire must break the mold, expand the possibilities, shine like a beacon on a hill, part the waters of history with glorious masterworks that the world can not ignore! Do you see, for instance…” He begins a massive chordal accompaniment sequence “…the great symphonic repertoire fading away in the eyes of the world?”
The chords take wing, hinting at symphonic greatness.
“No—and this is largely due to my influence on the course of musical history…I humbly suggest.” The chords subside into a final, most humble cadence.
Well, Ludwig, in fact, orchestras are also struggling to maintain relevance and financial solvency these days.
The voice is that of Gaspar Sanz. There’s irritation on his face, and he sounds as if he’s finally done putting up with the rants of some crotchety uncle.
And there are plenty of brilliant masterworks and all kinds of innovation in the guitar repertoire. It’s just that the scale of the instrument…
Beethoven interrupts Gaspar with a final, final cadence, played more loudly and more finally than the previous one.
“I’m glad to hear that you agree with me, my fine fellow!” he says. “And so shall you all finally go forth and heed my advice now?”
Fernando Francisco Gaspar face flashes briefly towards me, carrying a frustrated frown. Herr Beethoven, you’re but pretending to be deaf! How can you be both dead and deaf? We no longer need our ears to hear.
Eh? Wunderful! Says Beethoven. I shall look forward your progress. He plays the final, final, FINAL cadence.
The guitarist’s ghost sighs. Fernando Sor’s voice takes over: When will we all have a chance you hear your 901st Symphony, Herr Beethoven? It’s been a while, and I have been most looking forward to it. Perhaps you have been on vacation?
Beethoven’s ghostly heart lights up as if there were a reddish lamp within his chest.
It will be done when it is done, he says. You can not place a time requirement on cosmic innovation! He plays a series of measured, dramatic chords, chords so open and wide that the reach of his hands must be gigantic, “Each new symphony must needs embrace that much more of the infinite universe,” he says.
But Herr Beethoven, says Gaspar as the chords die away. I wish to pick up the previous discussion.
Beethoven is silent, but he has stopped playing, which seems to indicate that he may be listening.
What you have suggested might not be possible. The guitar’s nature is not suited to shine like a beacon on a hill, or to part the waters of history with glorious masterworks. The guitar is not a symphonic battleship.
Nor is it a cosmic piano, adds Francisco.
Gaspar continues. The guitar’s soundhole is a pool, Its tendency is not to send sound out as far as it can go. Its tendency is to pull you in.
Yes! says Francisco. Yes! And it certainly is not shallow, this pool. But you have to lean over it, become mesmerized by the way it transforms and reflects and mirrors the sounds and sights. When it beckons to you, fall inside of it. Swim in this pool, and come out shaking off its music, changed, refreshed, watered.
Fernando says sagely: Herr Beethoven, your music provides light and inspiration to us all. But they are right, the guitar is more like a moon, more like a moon than like a sun. If it creates its own light it’s akin to candle-light. But it reflects everything that surrounds it. It is receptive. It senses everything, music of past, present and future, and it mixes that with the mysterious inside workings of its player, vibrating as one with player’s heart, body and mind, inviting, inviting all to come within themselves. The strings take your fingers’ impulses into the dark inside of the instrument and of your own soul, and reflect them out through the sound hole.
Do you understand? asks Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor
Beethoven is looking down at the piano, seemingly deep in thought. His fingertips rest gently poised on the keys. Suddenly Mauro Giuliani, the virtuosic sometime-rival of Fernando Sor, comes floating in to the conversation on a virtuosic filigree wisp of arpeggio. Accompanying himself on the guitar, he sings a little ditty:
Tra La la La la!
The guitar is like a miniature orchestra!
That is what Herr Beethoven, you said to me,
when I play’d this tune for thee!
He plays a piece—even though it’s a new composition, it’s still cut from the familiar Guiliani cloth, so to speak. Nevertheless, he proceeds to blind and dazzle us all, as his ghostly virtuosity catapults through keys and regions and produces sounds that are surely beyond the capabilities of live wood and string. I keep looking to see how this or that bit is even possible to play, but it looks like a normal guitar, and he makes it look easy.
Beethoven’s piano joins Giuliani’s guitar, slyly at first, but soon overpowering it, until Giuliani meets the challenge, and trading phrases, they crescendo together….and then stop suddenly as if at they met a cliff’s edge.
“The guitar is like a miniature orchestra?” says Beethoven. I did say that, but twas but a passing remark, Mauro.
But now though you are no Beethoven, Herr Giuliani, you have certainly developed your art since passing on! Now, I must say that this guitar is like a miniature cosmic orchestra!
Beethoven turns to me now. I tremble a bit. Herr Kauffman, as is fitting to a composer who shares my birthday, I implore you to bring such sounds into the world of the living, If the guitar cannot contain this glory, it is your duty to stretch it until it can!
And…” he plays an instantly recognizable melodic motif “…Perhaps if you would see fit to transcribe one of my first nine symphonies instead of more of Amadeus’ light souffles, you’d find your model!
“I’ll certainly consider that,” I say, and realize I’m practically mumbling. Beethoven’s presence is intimidating. “Definitely…consider..it!”
(Not the fifth symphony, though, I’m thinking to myself. Transcribing Mozart’s serenade for strings, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, was hard enough)
“That would certainly stretch the guitar past…I mean to… its limits.”
I sense another presence, and glancing to my left, I see that the great Andres Segovia has arrived. He is regally observing the proceedings. Segovia, who often asserted that the guitar is an orchestra seen through the reverse end of a telescope.
He paws a single note from the first string, and it sings out like a flute. Changing the angle of his ghostly fingernails, the second string sounds a call like an ethereal trumpet. Then the third and fourth sing to each other in portamento passages, a haunting violin and cello duet. His thumb plays a forceful passage on the sixth string, causing my floor to vibrate as if an entire orchestra section of double-basses were present. Finally he rattles the foundations with a series of massive tamboura strokes.
The presence of the maestro attracts more guitarist-composers, aficionados, and deceased virtuosos. I really don’t recognize all these people—some do look vaguely familiar….That’s got to be Dionisio Aguado supporting his guitar with a loopy looking tripod. Is that Paganini tickling the strings of a gorgeous little inlaid instrument and committing ghost notes to ghostly paper? Or is it Hector Berlioz?
Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor is smiling now. More is visible to us from behind your left shoulder, so much more, he says.
Suddenly, we are all seated at the edge of a circular pool of water, hundreds of us, many guitarists I recognize, and many more that I don’t. Many are men—the history of guitar has been dominated by men—but there are more women than I would have expected. The edge of the pool gently curves around, and we can all see each other, look into each other’s faces.
I see that the pool is actually the soundhole of what must once have been a truly gigantic guitar, one that would have to be thousands of feet long if you were to excavate and measure it. For the giant guitar is covered by hills, grass, rocks, and trees. Perhaps it has become them. Nearby, in one direction is the edge of a forest, thick, deep and tall. All around me, I see the fossilized remnants of other giant guitars—headstocks, bouts, fingerboards many stories high, rising from the ground like old ruins. I’m sitting on a portion of the soundhole’s patterned edge, the rosette, which is made of some kind of stone, or fossilized wood. It’s decorated with rich geometric designs, inlaid with patterned gems.
Someone steps out of the darkness of the forest and comes to take his place by the soundhole pool…it’s Agustin Barrios, the Paraguayan guitarist-composer. At first he seems to be dressed colorfully, in full Indian garb, but as he approaches, his costume becomes a shimmering tuxedo that reflects the colors around us. As he sits with his guitar it picks up the deep azure blue of the soundhole pool.
The blue water that fills the soundhole looks silky at the surface, but it is brimming with quiet, deep music, unfathomably deep.
Gaspar Sanz is sitting to my left now: See this music-scape open out all around you, above you and below you, he says, striking a bright rasgueado chord that sets the pool rippling with ornate fractal shapes. He strikes another chord, which creates a rich new pattern in the water, and then gestures upwards. Our eyes and ears follow. Even though the sun is still lighting the sky, above us and around us we can see the sparkling swirls of the milky way, the flicker of endless stars, and a huge pale moon, much larger than I’m used to.
I’m shocked into inner silence by the feeling of vastness.
The sun slowly sinks below the horizon, the sky becomes darker, while the moon and stars shine brighter, the moon taking the same hue as the soundhole pool. We sit silently around the pool, hundreds of us, listening to the silent music of the water that sounds as if it comes from within each of us. Time passes and the moon passes over the trees and disappears, and everything around us is dark, the water black, gently lapping.
We listen again. I don’t know how long this lasts, but after a while, the orange of dawn starts to color everything, faintly at first.
Opposite me, on the far shore of the pool, the first ray of sun paints a man orange. The instrument he holds is not a guitar, but a tortoiseshell lyre. He looks at me momentarily, his eyes deep black, and then starts to play. His simple gut string melody is the most haunting I’ve ever heard, and with it the sun rises some more, and as the man plays his last note, he walks into the pool and disappears into the music. Just as his last note is about to die, another player takes up the melody, renewing it, changing it, adding his own touches of simple harmony. He too plays his last chord and disappears into the pool as the next player continues his work. This lasts for a long time, a musical trip through centuries of guitar-like instruments slowly becoming guitars as we know them, the same haunting tune passing through a procession of historical and personal styles, not always in chronological order. In fact some of these players are playing styles of music that I’ve never heard or imagined before, on instruments I barely recognize. Could they be from the future? I don’t know.
It’s getting to be twilight once more, and finally Fernando Francisco Gaspar Tarrega Sanz y Sor, who still sits at my left, takes his turn, rippling the pool with his elegant charm, and with a final plucked harmonic tone, he steps in and disappears.
Now it’s my turn.