Robert Luse Guitar Ensemble (1975-84)

The website continues with further “Music for Everyone” concerts by the Robert Luse Guitar Ensemble. Presented by the Ministry of Culture from 1975 – 84, this period predated such present day cultural landmarks as The Esplanade and the S.S.O. Rob entered Singapore (re-entered, in the case of ‘cellist wife Sylvia Goh, who he met at the Peabody Conservatory in the U.S.A.) to the acclaim of aiding the “greening the cultural desert”. Although largely an imaginary media fixation, this had the advantage of opening up Singapore’s then premier entertainment facilities, Victoria Concert Hall and Singapore Conference Hall, plus full government media support for our fledgling ensemble. Challenges can work wonders and each year’s show managed updates and improvements on the previous shows. Attendance was invariably 90% plus. Full critical reportage gave cause for reflection, as well as a measure of satisfaction that; somehow, each show, we ‘pulled it off.’ Above all (in hindsight) state of the art recording facilities were invariably at our disposal. Cassette tapes, though low-fi in the extreme by today’s standards of digital ‘perfection,’ do help to drive home the ambience of a bit of Singapore’s music history – an era had come and gone, one in which I and my dedicated students played a part. In the words of Groucho Marks, in our hour of need, we had ‘something on the ball.’

The present uploads are mainly from the final year of the “Music for “Everyone Series.” Although we were unaware that, subsequent to 1984, the series was to be replaced by cultural activity on a grander scale, it is fair to say that this concert, both in terms of diversity and quality, marked the group’s high water mark. Thanks for contributions by conductor Joe Peters and (in his only appearance as flute soloist) no less a notable than Singapore’s premier composer Poon Yew Tien. Special mention also to Robin Macatangay, whose ‘Singapore Years’ contributed to a successful and ongoing chosen profession as jazz guitarist.

Guitar Holy Grail: Full Length Works

2 presentations: Luse: Childhood’s End – Sor: Grand Sonata

Full length work: The term is used here to connote that rather slender inventory of guitar works, mainly concertos and sonatas; works in three or four movements that can hold their own in the concert hall with a traditional symphony or piano sonata. A tall order! This topic interests me because; although it is readily conceded that there is this unique instrument called the classical (or ‘classic’) guitar, to what extent, historically, has it actually been an integrated member of the of the classical instrumental community? To be sure, its credentials are in order: a vast literature written at the right time and place, early 19th century Vienna and Paris. (Although some might carp that this date is chronologically a bit late for classicism unadulterated by Romantic excess. Never fear. Stylistically, the foundation guitarists were conservative; their music harkens back to more pristine times.)

As a potential convert from extravagantly ornamented Baroque jangling to crisp, mannered classicism, the turn-of-the-century guitar was not a very promising candidate. Those double string courses did so muddy note articulation. And then there was the quaintness of Baroque notation. Called tablature, the system was a road map for indicating fret – finger location. (A profound limitation, it should be pointed out, compared to then long establish mainstream staff notation.) Although there were attempts to modernize along keyboard lines (that is, to notate guitar on bass and treble staffs at sounding pitch) this only highlighted the advantages of two staves for polyphony; then regarded as regressive by the popular mind; out of touch with the fad culture of the day. And as the vast proportion of guitar publications – those ‘galant’ tunes and puerile, strummed accompaniments so derided by Sor – were adequately served by a single staff, commercial momentum carried the day. But (and it is hard to overstress this point,) such enterprise did little or nothing to advance the cause of mainstream notational criteria. So, within the constraints of a still jangly instrument, the challenges of notating exact music on a single overcrowded staff fell squarely to the foundation guitarists. Each contributor was something of an innovator in this regard and Sor, Giuliani, Carulli and Aguado were prominent mainstream figures, beyond question. The question, one that still resonates today, is, were their accomplishments because of or in spite of, the limitations of their instrument? In pursuit of the “mannered style,” guitar had so much catching up to do; it simply lacked the expressive tradition and resources of its more resonant competitors. Confined increasingly to its salon niche, the guitar slowly dwindled into obscurity, swept aside by Romantic fervour.

A main challenge for full length guitar works is to generate a finale, a capstone, of satisfying breadth and momentum. Attempts on solo guitar have addressed this ‘finale challenge’ in various ways and to varying degrees of success. The most obvious solution, of course, is to compose for guitar plus ensemble, where massed resources amply fortify the finale. A special advantage in composing for guitar ensemble, as in the work that follows, is that the balance between theme and accompaniment is maintained, rather than being divided between guitar and a possibly over-powering orchestra. Childhood’s End is a concerto for solo guitar accompanied by an ensemble of two altos, six primes (doubling on percussion), bass and electric contrabass. It was strongly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey,” and of course, Arthur C. Clark’s novel of the same title.

Childhood’s End: The “Frankenstein Rendition”

“Childhood’s End,” as premiered as a single movement work in 1980 (Leonard Tan, soloist) and later as a work in three movements in 1984 (Robert Luse, soloist) in the annual Music for Everyone Series concerts, is documented in our web site archives. (Scroll down to “images of the period”.)

The present “Frankenstein Rendition” is very much a catch up child, a child of the desperate realization, decades after the fact, that something worth preserving came to pass, back there in the 8o’s. Even if only for the archival record, some tangible trace of Childhood’s End should remain. And so the current project was born. Occupying the last three years, the present recording now consists of a patchwork of overdubs, based on a sole surviving, badly degraded 1980 studio recording (Leonard Tan, soloist). The initial impetus to overdub came from the impotent projection of the alto guitars in the original recording. 1980’s technology was somehow not up to job of capturing cutting edge alto power. Although some of the flimsy alto bits were salvaged (achieving in the process a new status: “archival content”) the alto’s chief function, to cut through massed effects, needed serious resuscitation. Over one hundred overdubs were eventually installed. I was pleased and no little amazed. Due in no small part to the acumen of the recording engineer – Frankenstein was coming to life! This emboldened us to next turn our attention to the depressing dinginess of the primes, special victims; it would seem, of the degraded recording. The present rendition is also topped up by the addition of a new cadenza to the first movement, played by none other than the composer. Eventually, project overdubs ran to 381; outdoing even Mary Shelly for cut and stitches, perhaps?

I hope that, somewhere, sometime, the present rendition may inspire another (acoustically normalized!) performance of this work. In such an event, let the score (rather than the present recording) be regarded as the sole authentic source.

Sor: The Grand Sonata arranged for a-a-p-b Quartet

A dialogue with Dusan Bogdanovich

Rob: In his Grand Sonata, Sor solved the ‘finale challenge’ with one of his most flamboyant creations, the C Major Rondo. With the perfect finale in place, why then does the Grand Sonata languish obscurely on the back burner of Sor’s widely comprehensive oeuvre? For that matter, why does nearly the whole of the guitar’s classical repertoire languish on the larger back burner of mainstream musical life? Although lip service is paid to a few war-horses, the guitar’s classical repertoire fails utterly to occupy the comparably central role enjoyed by the classical repertoire for piano and violin. Why no Aguado Concert Etudes in recitals? Why always the “Magic Flute Variations,” or “Grand Solo,” rather than a nod to Sor’s lesser known sonatas? And why is public performance these days so narrowly focused on niche guitar competitions, to which the mainstream concert-going public is utterly indifferent? One prominent theorist described the classical repertoire as ‘big but boring.’ Maybe so. . . . , but is it a fact that the music is boring, or does the problem reside more in the challenge of delivering Classicism convincingly on an ill-suited instrument? Ill-suited – how so? What difficulties set Classicism apart on the guitar from other, seemingly more conducive historical styles and instruments; do we mean the need for ultimate fluency? Beautiful notes? Partly yes, but fluency in itself does not convey style; nor is style conveyed by ‘mere’ beauty of tone. In fact, the soul of Classicism resides in its own very special thing: subtle dualities completely alien to both Baroque pomposity and overblown Romantic sentiment. How did the concept of dualities emerge out of the starkly monotheistic landscape of the Baroque? Our search, through the medium of Sor’s “Grand Sonata” Op. 22, will be to pinpoint such dualities and to reveal how solo guitar performance generally falls short of expressing them.

Dusan: Yes, I know your recording of the improved “Grand Sonata” and it is certainly much closer to the big pieces of the classical period. In a way by adding chromatic lines etc. you are really ornamenting and enriching the piece, but the essential structure still has the weaknesses it has: it does not have the inspiration, harmonic complexity of a Mozart or humour and originality of a Haydn. The big harmonic adventure remains the Eb modulation via pivot “G” at the beginning of the development section of the 1st movement, though the 2nd movement and the rondo remain quite inspired pieces of music.

That said, in my early concert days, this same op.22 was constantly in my repertoire and I did work on articulations, timbres (added some pizz. too) and dynamics very similar to yours.

Rob: That summarises the qualitative differences between Sor and the “two classical giants” most aptly! Like many worthy composers, Sor was not in that league. But still, the comparison does not impinge on my main preoccupation here, that of a Grand Sonata anchored firmly in the Classical style.

We may well ask: How do mainstream classical repertoires maintain their dominant presence in concert halls, while exactly the opposite fate has befallen comparable guitar repertoire? And why – in contrast to the latter’s lowly status – does Baroque repertoire command universal acceptance? It should be pointed out first of all that, unlike the absence of foremost Classical composers, J.S. Bach, through transcription, is the central fixture of Baroque guitar repertoire.

Dusan: It is a tough call to compare a suite by Bach to a sonata by Sor.

Rob: On purely musical grounds, most certainly. But the query here is confined to why Baroque style seems so much more obliging on guitar than does Classical style? Crucially, the emphasis throughout a Baroque section or even whole piece is on a single broadly portrayed emotion. This stable ambience is relativity impervious to the slings and arrows of blemishes such as misplaced motive articulation, such inconsistencies being still quite common on guitar, though long resolved in mainstream editions.

No matter small lapses! The instrument’s hauntingly appropriate tone, its compelling sense of period authenticity inevitably carries the day! (Plus, the average member of a guitar audience may not be too critical of small inconsistencies!)

Dusan: Perhaps you are not giving enough credit to the tastes of guitarists, which have evolved a bit since the middle of the last century. The fact is that some of the composers such as J. Dowland, F. C. da Milano or J. S. Bach are indeed giants that are the principal representatives of their epochs. If we only had say, F. Spinaccino and Telemann, we would have a similar situation as we have with F. Sor and M. Giuliani (reality check: how often do you hear Vivaldi’s concertos?) Guitarists would be flocking around contemporary figures such as B. Britten, J. Rodrigo and whatever they can lay hands on.

That said, most guitarists still do not have great musical education and a style such as Classicism, which requires great discipline in articulating, giving different shadings in dynamics and architectural design (including emotional structuration), is largely obscure, but then the Baroque and Renaissance greats are also often played with a lack of the same. Listening to Glenn Gould play Goldberg Variations or Haydn, for example gives the impression of the same care and attention to detail. In the guitar world, mudding Bach is perhaps not as common as mudding Sor, but if a Mozart work for guitar was around, it would certainly draw a great attention, but it would not be a guarantee for an excellent performance either.

Rob: Excellent points, boiling down to different levels of forgiveness to “mudding” in the respective styles, yes? In Baroque, a single motif gains credibility through reiteration, not to say even monotony of articulation. We become so imprinted by the motif that even when monotony fails, the mood carries on.

Different rules entirely apply in Classicism, where motive duality prevails. Subtly varied emotions are often juxtaposed, and often so in close proximity. (Example: 1st movement from bar 21, where the “noble” theme is directly answered by “wise-cracking” echoes. Dualities like this may have their birth in efforts to keep the King awake? But quickly enough, the style took on a viable life all its own.)

The good news: Unlike Baroque terraced (layered) dynamics, classical style utilizes constant crescendo and diminuendo; no barrier whatsoever on guitar. But dynamic contrasts, though sufficient unto question – answer phrases, are only the first step towards mainstream standard dualities. This level is achieved only when dynamics, tone colour and articulation are combined. To succeed for a start, microphone aided performance is crucial on guitar in all but the best natural acoustics. Even so, to achieve the ultimate m.i.c., mainstream instrumental criterion, a mic alone is far from sufficient guarantee – oh, how those open strings love to jangle, those sympathetic harmonics to overstay; to say nothing of the ability to change r. hand coloration at the blinding speed required! This takes long and systematic training.

Solo control is of course simplified once parts are divvied up. As one would expect, an alto-alto-prime-bass (a-a-p-b) quartet expands control exponentially. (And yes, to demonstrate this resource is the primary objective of the present rendition!) If nothing more, ensemble versions of solos like the present one can expand the soloist’s vision towards more inspired and authentic interpretations.

But from whence the requisite technical control? The good news: Varied articulation, involving as it does facility and anticipation rather than strength, can be part and parcel of basic development, the same as on piano and violin; unlike current strategies where tension is engendered from the start rather than imagination, simply from proceeding with mistaken emphasis on strength, which of course children conspicuously lack. With appropriate early training, the same level of control routinely achieved on violin and piano should eventually be attained.

And it does seem that Sor, in his heart of hearts, may simply have had too grand a sonata in mind! Although in form, the architecture is indeed ever so grand, yet in the service of that form, much of the content suffices on solo guitar merely as void-filler, without thematic or harmonic ingenuity. So the question for the present arranger was, “Can form-oriented solo materials be suffused with inspiration when translated to quartet?” Imaginatively, I reached for the phone (summoning his master’s voice, of course) – “Ah yes, Maestro, we could possibly now overlay a thematic context to these chords,’ or, “about these answering phrases, might they now be coloured somewhat more imaginatively?” etc. Having settled into this happy (if curious) routine (it was a very high phone bill!); distractions and/or intrusions to the stylistic flow were minimised. Seldom was I troubled by naughty, original ideas!

Dusan: So, it’s all there for the new generation: we made some efforts and let’s hope some will continue in our paths.

Rob: Hear, hear! And regarding my now ‘archival’ 1987 rendition, I find Sor’s broad brush inclinations only grow in my appreciation over time. He is not known as the ‘Beethoven of the guitar’ for nothing! (Note: not the Mozart or Haydn.) And at last the day has arrived whereby the modern guitar, mic enhanced, does at last confer his fondest wish: ‘for a way to be found to add more sound to the instrument.’ The present rendition, then, is all about granting that wish, so that the long suffering fellow might at last, (if only vicariously) ‘occupy himself with methods of diminishing it.’

Michael Haydn Sinfonia in G

Less well known than his brother Joseph, Michael Haydn was predominantly a church music composer. Originally for string orchestra, the work is played here in transcription for alto, prime, bass and contrabass guitars.

Homage to Stephen Foster

Two Fragments
Allegro molto

By the use of smooth transitions and careful attention to overall form, Luse has sought to weave divergent elements into a coherent and stimulating tribute to one of America’s most enduring composers.

The work opens with an optimistic Allegro, somewhat in the manner of a Burlesque.

The central variations, on Foster’s “Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair” are followed by portions of the spiritual “Now Let Me Fly” (requiring participation from the players and audience) and the Tennessee Waltz. The work concludes with an Allegro Molto.

Robin Macatangay Jazz Solo

Jazz solo from Music for Everyone concert (1984) with the Robert Luse Guitar Ensemble.
Photo montage by Robert and Bruno Luse

Robin Macatangay on myspace:

Images from the period:

Mouse over slide show below to reveal controls. Click on slideshow to view enlarged pages in Picassa web albums.

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