Review Summary: Fretboard Composing.
The Classical Guitar. No. 3
You can usually tell the difference. On the one hand, there’s those players on the guitar that impose their musicality onto the instrument. From neoclassicists like Paul Gilbert and Jason Becker, to blues cats like Buddy Guy and S.R.V., to metalheads like Paul Waggoner and Marty Friedman, guys like these are composers at the fretboard. They aren’t dictated to, they dictate. But then there’s guys like Rusty Cooley, Michael Angelo Batio, Zakk Wylde and Kirk Hammet all who let the fretboard do the composing. The latter two are particularly egregious offenders. What I mean to say is that these kinds of guys write their music with their fingers rather than their ears.
It’s a simple process really. What typically happens to players like these is that they’ve gotten too comfortable with a too few number of shapes and scales. They play them over and over again, inside and out. They can play them at a lightning speed or even with feeling. But soon enough the music in the mind’s eye has become shackled to the boundaries of the shape, and once that happens the player can no longer compose or improvise without the shape doing the talking. Sometimes fretboard players are unmistakable. I saw Black Label Society in concert once and Zakk Wylde took the stage for a twenty-minute solo of everything but music, just blitzkrieg pentatonic and chromatic scales. Over. And Over. And Over Again.
Shape masturbation is a symptom of another serious imperfection of the guitar, its tuning and note layout. To illustrate, except for the interval between the fourth and fifth strings, the guitar is tuned in fourths, E-A-D-G-B-E. (Briefly, all that “fourths” indicates is the difference between four notes. In this case A is four notes from E, D is four notes from A and so on. See for yourself. Take the major scale for example, CDEFGAB. F is four from C, G is four from D, A is four from E etc. The same principal applies for every interval. G is five from C; it therefore gives you a “fifth”. B is three from G; it therefore gives you a “third” etc. etc. Hope that helps.) Contrary to popular belief, the “perfect fourth”, as it’s known, is not a consonant interval; it’s dissonant. The fourth is so dissonant, in fact, that the same contrapuntal
rules Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven abided by instructed the composer to avoid fourths precisely because of their dissonance unless necessary—see Fux’s 1725 seminal counterpoint treatise. Thus, tuned in fourths, the guitar is inherently a dissonant instrument.
Alright. So freakin’ what？This means that utilizing the tonal system on the guitar isn’t always easy or practical. A Bb-minor harmony in root position, Bb-Db-F-Bb, on Bb2 (two Bbs below middle C) is a tough chord to grasp on the fretboard. That’s a really basic harmony ladies and gentleman. Much easier to grasp is the chord in this configuration: Bb-F-Bb-Db. It’s a very natural shape on the guitar, and it works in any position up or down the neck. Ok problem solved, right？No. The problem isn’t that the harmony configured in this way is bad, it isn’t, it’s that the guitar makes certain configurations flagrantly easy and others impossibly uncomfortable. At times this is good; certain 7th chords are easy to grasp and that’s great for jazz. At times this is bad; the pentatonic scale forms so naturally on the guitar that it can easily warp a player’s inner sense of harmony. In practice, it’s easy, natural even, to become uber-repetitive in your playing. And it’s not as if one’s playing is intrinsically separated from one’s songwriting. No sir. They bleed into each other. Beethoven’s main
compositional vehicle were his improvisations. Classical guitar composers, then, are presented with an additional challenge of overcoming the inferior quirks of the instrument’s layout.
But remember, fingerboard composing isn’t limited to masturbators; it applies to anyone who lets the guitar invert the power hierarchy between man and instrument, usually when a guy is trying to show off. This is where Piorkowski’s Sentient Preludes
comes in. When I started this series, I said that I would describe to you an example of “modern guys trying waaaaay too hard to be cool.” Well, here he is. Sentient Preludes
is a set of ten individually named preludes that are supposed to evoke their namesake. I’ll leave aside the fact that Piorkowski included the dictionary definition of “Sentient” in the prologue just to, you know, let us know that sentient means “sen.tient sen(t)-sh(E-)nt, ‘sen-tE-nt, adjective [Latin sentient
, present participle of sentire
to perceive, feel] 1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions 2: AWARE 3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling.” I’ll leave that aside.
But let’s talk about the titles for a sec. Can we talk about the titles？“Elusive”, “A Halcyon Presence”, “Instead of Ashes, the Oil of Gladness” … like R u srs m8？Seriously, why does every solo guitarist or guitar driven instrumental project feel the need to give vague, pretentious names to their compositions？I mean, even kick-ass players do it. There’s Marty Friedman’s “Dragon’s Kiss”, Paul Gilbert’s “Silence Followed by A Deafening Roar”, and Animals as Leaders’ “The Joy of Motion”. It’s like these guys are trying to be blues poets in a world without trains. This isn’t even to mention the straight up weird-pretentious stuff like Joe Satriani’s “Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock” or Al Di Meola’s “Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody”. Again, a symptom of trying too hard.
Alright, now let’s look at the music. In general, Piorkowski writes in a quasi-atonal idiom and emphasizes a single melody in a thin texture with sparse, if any, accompaniment. It’s an idiom that plays on the ear’s expectations. Where our ear expects resolution, Piorkowski presents dissonance. Stuff like that. It’s not a bad idiom. Not at all. Brouwer does the same thing. But Piorkowski, unfortunately, is just bad at it.
The first measure of the first prelude “Driven” is indicative of exactly what I was talking about, shape composing. We’ve got four 16th Es on the open bottom string in the first beat, then a quarter note F# on 6th string and a quarter note C# on the 5th string on the second and third beats respectively. This configuration of the F# and C# form the mother of all ubiquitous guitar chords, the powerchord. That the powerchord is easy to form on the guitar is great for any form of basic rock or metal, but horrible for blues, jazz, and classical. To be sure, a powerchord isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself—although avoiding parallel fifths is the single most important contrapuntal rule in music theory—and there’s nothing wrong Piorkowski’s use of it in the first measure. But Piorkowski’s process is to write with his fingers rather than his ear. As the piece goes along, it doesn’t diverge from the basic formula of S.1 (shape 1) plus tweak plus S.2 plus tweak etc. It seems as if the process in composing “Driven” was something like “okay, I know how this shape sounds, let me see what will happen if I tweak it this way. Oh, hey! That sounded cool! I’ll do that next. Now let me see what will happen if I tweak it that way. Oh, hey! That sounded cool too! I’ll throw that in somewhere.” The shapes are clearly the ones talking. Not the musician.
I’ll play a little devil’s advocate. Maybe Piorkowski is writing something purposefully easy or intermediate. Like I said, Prelude No. 1’s shapes are very regular. Well, it also appears that the composer very much
wishes the piece to be played in only one way. In the first four measures alone there are eleven dynamic markings, and considerable practice is needed to sound the music exactly to these markings. It’s silly. He wants to draw grander musicality possible than the phrase contains. This sounds like an opinion, and it would be a bad one if Piorkowski only did this once or twice. But this thread runs throughout the ten. Again and again, Piorkowski shoves dynamic and articulation markings down the throats of primitive, rudimentary, and unsophisticated motives. Motives that are, frankly, juvenilia. And again, he’s trying way too hard. And it’s obvious. And it’s painful. “But it sounds so cool, man!” I know, bud.
But it’s not always the fault of the shape. Sometimes Piorkowski gets cute for the sake of being cute, like in the beginning of Prelude No. 2 “Elusive” where he elongates a descending figure one note a time in each successive measure, or in the first page and a half of Prelude No. 7 “Unfolding” where he shifts the rhythm between 9/8, 7/8, 6/8, 5/8, 3/8, 2/4 and this total B.S. “(3+3+2)/8” rhythm that doesn’t exist and is just a really, really pretentious way of saying 3/4 with triplets on the first two beats. Again, r u fkn srs m8？
With Sentient Preludes
Piorkowski isn’t trying to show off finger virtuosity like a Rusty Cooley or Michael Angelo Batio, he’s trying to show off his fretboard and harmonic savvy, and it’s at the expense of the music. Time and time again the shapes determine the motives, and so time and time again you’ve got guitar stuff speaking at you rather than music speaking to you. And the guitar stuff isn’t even cool! Probably the worst thing about Sentient Preludes
is that it’s kind of just there. It doesn’t say anything or go anywhere. It’s mostly juvenile, tweedle-dee tweedle-dum stuff. I could see where somebody might think that Sentient Preludes
is actually okay to somewhat good at times. But here’s the thing, it’s idiomatic classical guitar music
, and I mean what I said at the beginning of this series; most idiomatic classical guitar music is just bad.