Lou Harrison: Por Gitaro - Suites for Tuned Guitars

John Schneider, guitars (Mode 195)

7 November 2008 4 stars

Por GitaroIn response to the hegemony of equal temperament tuning in Western music, which he saw as a paragon of drab uniform compromise, Lou Harrison began in the early fifties to compose music in Just Intonation.

In this tuning system the intervals are built out of proportions of whole numbers (so an octave = 2:1, a fifth = 3:2, a tone can equal 10:9 or 9:8 etc), not out of multiples of the same basic interval as in equal temperament. The qualities of the intervals are much more idiosyncratic, less homogenised in Just tuning systems, and the basic colour of the music is rich and eclectic in comparison with examples of equally tempered music (which albeit allow much greater fixity and systematisation of sound).

A nice visual analogy of this contrast exists in the frets of guitars. The conventional fretting system replicates the fixed standards of equal temperament tuning. A guitar organised with respect to Just Intonation is fretted quite distinctively, with the usual dull leaden boundary standards replaced by a more playful, more beautiful discreteness (see picture below). The visual contrast is maintained into the realm of sound, as demonstrated on this rather radiant and charming release, where the guitar is subtly revivified as a bearer of the most sumptuously resonant sound.

The highly respected contemporary guitar specialist John Schneider, a collaborator of Harrisonís during the composerís lifetime, assembled and arranged for Justly tuned guitar (with the composerís blessing) much of the work on this disc, which in the main originated as harp or harpsichord works. He performs it likewise. The exceptions are the opening Serenade suite and much of the Ditone Set, both of which Harrison wrote in response to Tom Stoneís invention of a guitar with removable fingerboards. Harrison had ipso facto planned to compose five guitar suites, in five different Just Intonation tunings, but other commissions got in the way and the composer managed just these two.

John Schneider with Just tuned guitarsAs is typical for Harrison the musical style of the works is highly referential. It mixes an open and potent directness of expression (manifest in the cyclic repetitive structures, the simple melodic ideas, the bare textures and the sonorous tuning), with very clear formal and gestural reminiscences from medieval and baroque European music, and from Eastern folk forms. The guitar is accompanied throughout by simple percussion accompaniment. This accompaniment most often underlines the rhythmic accent of the line, but from time to time takes part in the resonant soundscape of the piece, as for example the gongs do in the Air from the Serenade, or the (Justly tuned) gamelan does likewise in the typical melange of In Honour of the Divine Mr. Handel.

Schneider realises everything here with loving attentiveness to the composerís idiom. Eastern modes are sinuously brought forth, whilst the lyric sentiment of much of the writing is always gracefully imbued. The guitarist also though instils a real sense of idiosyncratic playfulness to the music, especially to the middle eastern tinge of for example the Jahla from the Suite for National Steel Guitar, the formally baroque but musically worldly Sonata from the Serenade, or the tango in the first Suite.

Schneider wrings a lovely tone from his guitar in the moving and intimate Music for Bill and Me from that first suite, and his sensitive handling of the resonating Solo from the Suite for National Steel Guitar brings all the richness of the tuning to the fore. He is capable also of technical intricacy, as shown in his limpid readings of the Estampie from the Ditone Set and the two Jahla. The guitarist is alive to the baroque clarity required in for example the Infinite Canon of the Serenade, and he shows himself continually capable in creating a sounding poetry of medieval longing, as in the Adagio, arioso from the Second Suite.

Schneider has a clear command of the Justly tuned guitar, and of the possibilities of the tuning system in general, which allows him to bring these pieces forth with a degree of fluency that means they can be judged solely in terms of pure sound. They are not waylaid by theoretical baggage, and they sound all the fresher because of that. The starkness and simplicity of some of the music may not be to everyoneís liking-the percussion in particular can often be overly literal, though the Just Strings ensemble never cloud the guitarís presence too much in this. But for anyone interested in the intersection of Middle Eastern, medieval, baroque and relatively contemporary experimental music style, particularly with reference to the sort of poetry of longing that runs through all of them, this release comes highly recommended. It offers a unique and valuable opportunity to experience a disc full of direct illustrations of some of the richness that inheres in Just Intonation tuning systems, as realised through the highly sympathetic form of the guitar.

Look out for more reviews of recent Mode releases, a label that specialises in the best of contemporary experimental music, on our site in the near future.

By Stephen Graham

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