September 28, 2010

Recording: Sor Studies

I want to make a point of recording myself more often and getting comfortable in front of a mic, so I am planning to record something at least once a week when possible. Today, I sat down with my book of Sor Studies and recorded a few that I have worked on occasionally. I've never really tried to memorize these studies, but I have worked on more than half of them in the book and I like to just come back to them from time to time and apply whatever new things I've learned since the last time. They're perpetually works in progress for me, but I am not particularly interested in performing them so I just use them to see how I'm doing. There's always something new to discover in them, and there's an awful lot of them, so I consider it one of the best bang-for-buck guitar books I've ever bought.

My recording setup and my Extreme Isolation Headphones let me listen to myself as the mic hears me even as I'm playing, because the sound of the guitar in the room doesn't bleed through so much into the headphones. Normally, I hate that, because it sounds weird without the room acoustics. But I realized today that it's a handy tool for practicing, as well; it lets you hear what you're doing approximately as an audience would. It makes it obvious how much you need to exaggerate things like tone color changes, dynamics, etc in order to get them across to the listener.

Here's today's recording:

Fernando Sor: Studies Op. 44 no. 11, Op. 60 no. 7, Op. 44 no. 9 by wbajzek

September 27, 2010

Some thoughtful quotes from an interview with a horror writer

This is from an interview with Thomas Ligotti, a modern horror writer who's one of my favorite authors. I think that what he has to say about writing a story applies just as well to the process of composing or studying and performing music:
I’ve always had to know enough about the story I’m going to write and be enthusiastic about it to make it worth the bother to write the thing in the first place. So I meditate on it, make tons of notes, ask myself if there is something missing from the story that should be there or something that’s there and shouldn’t be, and rack my brain to take the idea of the story to the farthest limit it will allow. Satisfied that the story will be worth writing, I start writing it. In the process, I usually come up with better ideas than I had originally planned. If that didn’t happen, the story would only be adequate, as a number of my stories have been. It’s not possible to plan every metaphor and structural aspect ahead of time, of course. I’ve had to trust that my abilities in these areas won’t let me down.
Here's another interesting quote from his answer to the preceding question.
Then I read Poe and Lovecraft for the first time and found what I didn’t know I was looking for: writers who put themselves on every page of their work, who wrote like personal essayists and lyric poets. Every fiction writer I’ve ever admired wrote in this manner.
A lot of emphasis gets put on respecting composers' intentions and studying scores carefully, but in the end most of the the best and most widely respected and listened-to performers are known better because they put themselves into everything that they play. If you compare Barrueco and Williams playing a piece, I am sure they both are attempting to convey the meaning of the score, but in the end they always sound like themselves.

September 23, 2010

Some thoughts on interpretation

I've been playing Heitor Villa-Lobos's Prelude 3 for about 3 months now. You can hear this morning's recording of it in my previous post; usually I play it twice (as written) but it's a tricky piece to pull off that way. I read a quote recently (I think) from Antigoni Goni, which I can no longer find, where she said something to the effect of, "when part of a piece repeats, just as we are all changed by the passage of time." I think she's a real master of this idea, by the way; I am very fond of her recordings and it sounds to me like she never plays anything the same way twice. Every repeated section has some new facet or insight.

Back to Prelude 3. This is an oddly formed piece in which the entire thing repeats, and the second page of it repeats as well; the long pedal segment gets repeated four times if you play it all as written. What is one to do with that?

Another interesting thing is that yesterday I sat down with the score and listened to nearly a dozen recordings of it, not a single one plays it exactly as written, rhythmically. Note values are lengthened, shortened, etc, in the extreme. I'm not talking about a little rubato; I mean, sometimes what is written as a half note gets played as an 8th or 16th. Furthermore, if one DOES play it exactly as written, it sounds kind of flat. Some parts sound rushed, others will sound like they come in very late.

The question is, what did HVL intend when he wrote it? Did he mean for it to be played so romantically, but wrote it the way he did to make it fit the notational constructs properly? Or has the tradition of playing it romantically overshadowed what's written in the score? Of course, there are segments were, dynamically, many performers do the exact opposite of what the composer calls for, and it's hard to make the case that they are following his intention that way.

The point I am getting at is, what's most important? The composer's intention or the performer's own style? I'm not so sure that's even what really matters; I think the most important thing is that the performer is convinced by the interpretation they use and the audience will pick up on that and it will communicate the them. Otherwise, if the performer is unconvinced, how can the audience be?

Something different: recording the guitar at home

I felt like I needed to do some recording, to try to get more gigs, so I started working on that this week. Recording guitar is tricky, especially at home and on a limited budget. I record using my Edirol R-09HR, which is incredibly handy and easy to use. I think it's a great field recorder, but I haven't been happy with its internal mics for recording guitar. Let's face it, the guitar's just not all that loud, and so you either need very sensitive mics, or you need to mic the instrument really closely. These things have resulted in too much background noise, or an unnatural guitar sound.

A few months ago I bought a pair of Naiant X-W mics, which are very affordable and sound great. I have had great success with them for recording flute and fiddle, and recently, my wife's piano trio (piano, violin, cello). These are pretty loud instruments, though, which the guitar isn't. I was still running into the same problem; I had to mic the guitar pretty closely, or get too much background noise. This recording of En Los Trigales was done that way; the mics are about 20 inches away from the guitar, spaced about 6 inches (which, having only one stand, is all I can manage at this point). It is pretty good but, given the mics sensitivity, the echo of my room became a problem on the staccato passages. I masked this a bit by using some digital reverb; in this case, it was TC Electronic's free M30 reverb. In hindsight, I think I used too much and I don't think it sounds very natural. Once upon a time, I had a TC Electronic G-Force, and their PerformanceVerb reverb plugin and loved them. I hate to say it, but I don't think the newer plugin sounds as good.

Joaquin Rodrigo: En Los Trigales by wbajzek

Today, I did some more recording with a different setup; I switched to my CAD m179 mic, set to the hypercardioid pickup pattern. This is a very sensitive mic with a fairly flat response (compared to other mics I have owned), and using this pickup pattern I was able to avoid some of the echo from the side walls. This let me move the mic back to about 3.5 feet away, and I think it picked up the full range of the guitar very clearly without problematic background noise or room echoes.

I was skeptical about recording the guitar in mono, even though I am really fascinated by mono recordings. I knew it could be done but until today I'd never achieved a satisfactory sound that way. In this case, it does sound a bit brighter than I think my guitar actually sounds, but I left that alone, figuring it would just help make the recording clear. It picked up the bass really nice, I think.

I used digital reverb again; this time, the free Lernvall Audio LAConvolver plugin with an impulse response file recorded in a church somewhere. I am really pleased with how this round of recordings turned out; unfortunately it still suffers from ambient sounds, like cars driving by and stuff, but for demo purposes, that's OK. Such is life. I actually had to call it a day as the garbage truck arrived and I knew that the rest of the morning was going to be filled with beeping and crashing noises.

The following two tracks in this post were recorded with this setup. I plan to do more soon, and will experiment further... I may be able to get away with moving the mic a little further away from the guitar, which would help tone down things like nail noises and string squeaks which would not be so prominent in a performance anyway.

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3 by wbajzek

I will continue posting clips to my Soundcloud page as I complete them. So far, all of them have been recorded with my Robert Garcia "'37 Hauser" model guitar, with an adirondack spruce top and indian rosewood back and sides. I'm just crazy about this guitar, and love playing it.

Leo Brouwer: Estudios Sencillos 1 & 2 by wbajzek

September 15, 2010

Recent gig post-mortem

I gave a couple of solo performances this past weekend, for the first time in a few years. They went great! The first was as background music for a reception at my local library. It sort of fell out of the sky for me, was a nice warm-up opportunity for me as it happened to be on the night before my scheduled recital. Aside from the incredible hospitality of my hosts, I had some nice comments from the attendees, and found that many of them gathered around me rather than away from me. Always a good sign! Background music gigs are sometimes a bit awkward but I was made to feel very welcome.

The following day, I played at the Burlington, WA public library's concert series. I had seen Noteworthy Duo there a few months ago, and felt like it was a surprisingly great place to perform. It has a very welcoming atmosphere and great acoustics. I am a big believer in the intimacy of live performances and would generally prefer a house concert over a large hall any day, and this place has a living room -like feel to it with acoustics that allow you to hear the music clearly anywhere in the large room.

I played the following program:
  • J. S. Bach: Cello Suite 3 BWV1009
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos: Etude 1
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos: Prelude 3
  • Agustin Barrios Mangore: La Catedral
  • Leo Brouwer: Dos Aires Populares Cubanos
  • Joaquin Rodrigo: En Los Trigales
Aside from the Barrios and Rodrigo, these were all pieces that are new to me as of this year. How did they go? Well, I really like the Brouwer pieces but they didn't seem to fit, somehow. Perhaps they would have been better before La Catedral, to break up the mood a bit, but I have to admit, they just don't feel like "my" pieces. I no longer plan to keep them in my concert repertoire. Brouwer is one of my favorite composers, though, and very influential to my approach to the guitar, so his music will continue to play a role in my repertoire.

I had actually prepared Rodrigo's Sonata a la Espanola, as well, and I wish now that I had played it. The main reason that I didn't was that somehow I managed to go well over-time before I got to it, which is odd because with it, I had clocked my rehearsal performances at 61 minutes. It means that a bit of tuning and a few brief words in between pieces and perhaps a some slower than intended tempi filled up more time than I would have guessed. On the other hand, I still felt a little uneasy about the last movement of the Sonata, and everything that I did play I was able to play with total conviction.

I suppose that is one of the big differences between these performances and the ones I did several years ago; I haven't necessarily studied this music for as long, but I have done so more thoroughly and confidently than before. Part of that comes from the experience I have amassed in the years since, but a lot of it is a change in approach, too.

I have come to understand and appreciate in a deep way, the importance of one's frame of mind while studying, practicing, listening, and performing. This is a direct influence of Kevin Gallagher on me and he writes about it quite a bit on his blog. I think that for me it boils down to the fact that I can have an understanding and intention in mind before I play, and I can look back critically on what I played, but when I play I need to just trust myself to do what I have trained to do. In essence, I played these two performances the same way I play irish flute in social situations ((non-jam) sessions), which is that I listened and enjoyed the music while my body did the work for me.

I think that this is what all accomplished performers do, and is kind of a prerequisite to real musical communication, which I believe I was able to achieve at least some of the time. Everything I have read or heard about performing well can be rephrased or interpreted in this way. For me, it's something new; I have been working on it all year and started finally breaking through the inner-critic and other barriers I've set up over the years and I'm happy to say that these were the best solo-guitar performances I've ever given because I was able to listen to and enjoy every note I played as clearly as if someone it was someone else playing it for me.