by Kevin Gallagher
I remember being a boy growing up in elementary school in New Jersey and always passing a poster which was on my art teacher’s door. The poster was a cartoon of a man making Xerox copies of a steak. Underneath the cartoon was the caption “Be Original.” Now, for a long time I saw that poster and never gave it any thought, but for some reason the image stuck in my mind for the last 25 years and lately it has grown in its significance.
One of my prime reasons for being interested in classical guitar and classical music is because with time, I began to develop an original voice. I started noticing that I had ideas on technique, tone, fingerings that most either didn’t know or used in different ways than I did. I also stopped worrying about what others would do in musical situations — although I have always been interested to see if they had something I could learn from and use. With time I had a style. A way of playing that set me apart from others who also have their own styles.
The problem with classical guitar right now is no matter how different and original our playing may be to the few who know, the simple fact is that the concept of playing classical music on an unamplified nylon string guitar is not original to the world anymore. Now for some, this doesn’t matter and in fact they have never thought about it. But for me, it presents serious problems and I feel like a “copied steak.”
I have had some great musical experiences on stage with classical music and the guitar. Some people do notice some of the different things I do. In some of my concerts I have gotten compliments, like “Your tone is like Segovia” or “You remind me of Bream.” Now, believe me, for me to be compared in any way to these great men is a high compliment and I take it as such from the kind people who said the words. But there is something else hidden in these words which is not so obvious. The fact is, I am standing on the shoulders of these great men of the past. These men were leaders and mavericks. They were original. Although in the details I am certainly different from them, in a broader sense, I am doing exactly the same thing.
Now as an artist I have a choice. I can try to do what others have done first and try to do it differently or I can do something which has not been done yet. Both are beautiful and can be fulfilling to different personalities. Without thinking about it, I have chosen the first option until the present time. But now I want to do something new and I think many others feel the same way.
For some, being original with the guitar will be through their repertoire. You know – so and so plays orchestra pieces on the guitar, another plays those keyboard pieces on guitar, another commissions concerti for guitar, etc. Others will compose their own repertoire. Others specialize in Latin music, etc. For some it will be unbelievable technique. But for me, it was always the interpretation. That’s where I found original ideas. Unfortunately now I find that this isn’t enough to make me the artist I want to be.
In every other century in history, music and composers have followed society’s technological advances. When the piano was invented, it was used and composed for. When the valve horn was developed, it was used and composed for. When percussion was developed, it was used and composed for. In the late 20th century however, “classical music” stopped developing along with these technologies. As electronics were invented, they were mostly ignored by classical composers/musicians while the rest of the musical world embraced them. As recording techniques were developed, they were mostly ignored by classical composers/musicians while the rest of the musical world embraced them. Most importantly for me, when the electric guitar was developed it was almost ENTIRELY ignored by classical composers and performers while the rest of the musical world embraced it.
Well, these are the facts and we have to think about why it happened. I believe the main reason was because in music school we tend to put the classical tradition on a pedestal. We marvel at our composer/performer heroes and our teachers encourage us to learn from them. But learn what from them? Learn how to be like them? Learn how to play/compose like them? No.
I think the main thing we must learn from composers/performers of the past is how they were original from others before them. Period. Originality is one of the most important things in Art and yet most of us are afraid to be original. We think about what our peers will say, what the critics would say. We must think first of what WE want to say artistically and then be willing to accept the consequences.
Unfortunately, most composers/performers of the 20th century thought and still think of musical originality as being entirely harmonic or rhythmic. This is a lie. The evidence from pop music clearly shows that even basic triads/melodies can be colored in such a way that it is perceived as new, even if it really isn’t. In the 20th century, technology expanded instrumental colors more than ever in human history. There are sounds from technology of which no one else in the history of the world could have ever dreamed! But still, what do most composers write for? Piano, string quartet, orchestra, maybe classical guitar — the colors of the 19th century. Beautiful yes; but original?
There are many composers of my generation who grew up listening to pop music or jazz and in fact still do. Unfortunately, at some point they are told by Academia to compose only for traditional instruments (violin, piano, orchestra, etc., etc.). Acadamia generally ignores modern popular instruments and considers the study and use of them to be some strange aberration of modern times. There are a few composers who dare to write for non-traditional instruments but it is uncommon still in this modern day of computers and technologies. How many trained composers write for rock or pop group? Electric keyboards? Turntables? Electric Guitars? Very, very few and yet, musical history is going to show that these were the important instrumental developments of the late 20th century.
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” — Charles Bear