Last week’s final paragraph: 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.
Beethoven’s Ghost and the Soundhole Pool
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.