#25 The Paganini of guitar

The guitar in the picture: early romantic guitar (Paris around 1830) by Jean-Nicolas Grobert (1794-1869). Instrument top shows signatures of Paganini and Berlioz. The guitar was loaned to Paganini by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1838 and later given by Vuillaume to Berlioz, who later donated it to the Musée du Conservatoire de musique in 1866. Today the guitar is displayed at the Museum Cité de la Musique in Paris.

– from Wikipedia

I played this Fantasy afterwards for Guillieu of the Paris Conservatory and the first flute soloist of the Grand Opera, who said to me: “Is it possible that you have never had any lessons in composition or guitar playing!”

“Never,” said I.

“In this case.” he declared “you must have some rare musical ‘bump,’ and if you continue at the same rate you will some day become a Paganini of the guitar.”

The above is taken from the The Memoirs of Makaroff, written by the 19th century Russian guitar enthusiast, Nicolai Petrovich Makaroff (1810-1890), of his encounters of many classical guitarists. His story of having the potential to be “a Paganini of the guitar” is a bit… sad – Paganini was so highly esteemed, such that guitarists would be proud and worthy when they became a “Paganini of the guitar”. The guitar was such a lowly instrument in the 19th century (and maybe now?) that its worth had to be defined by another instrument.

To be honest, I am not really upset when a guitarist is labelled as a “Paganini”. All guitarists being called “the Paganini of Guitar” really deserved it. What I found funny is the number of guitarists that were assigned such honor: Mauro Giuliani, Trinidad Francisco Huerta y Caturla, Luigi, Legnani, Giulio Regondi, Antonio Jiménez Manjón, and Pasquale Taraffo. Agustin Barrios called himself “the Paganini of the guitar from the jungles of Paraguay“. There might be more. I just got lazy with the internet search. Everyone needed a marketing claim, and it doesn’t matter that everyone used the same one. It just had to be a good one.

Quite a few discussions on the internet actually mentioned Paganini was the real Paganini of guitar, as he was a fine guitarist himself and the guitar was the constant companion in all his travels. I remember checking out the complete works for solo guitar of Paganini from the Sibley Music Library and playing through the three volumes. I love these pieces – sonatas, ghiribizzi, and a various assortment of pieces. All of them are short, with a few arrangements of opera tunes.

From the intro section of the Complete Works for Solo Guitar: The 43 Ghiribizzis (“whims” or “fancies”) are delightful miniatures in the mould of childrens’ literature… in another letter (January 7, 1824) he writes: “The guitar Ghiribizzi were composed for a little girl in Naples, I did not want to compose but more to scribble; but some of the themes are not unappealing and to pass the time, if you have a copy, you would not do badly to show them to Sig. Botto’s charming daughter”.

(More info on these pieces here)

Paganini’s solo guitar works are very enjoyable. The compositions are quite “straight forward” – they seem easy to play. But the way Pavel Steidl played these “simple” pieces completely changed my world – the way he phrased, the subtlty and drama he portrayed, and all the added ornaments. Maybe he should be called the Paganini of guitar, as he unveiled to me how Paganini conceived his guitar music?

#24 The failed hip hop DJ

A birthday card from IU, celebrating my 21st, and reminding me to act wisely.

The legal drinking age in Hong Kong is 18, so it felt quite strange that I was not allowed to drink when I came to the States at 19. It didn’t matter too much though, as I am not a heavy drinker anyways. But turning 21 was still a happy event, because I started going out a lot more to see live shows at different bars and venues. I was really into hip hop at the time, and I still remember seeing performances of DJ Mike Relm, Yuri Lane, and Del the Funky Homosapien. It sounds a bit “wrong”, but I took a class on hip hop offered by the anthropology department. I ended up writing my final paper about bboys in Bloomington.

Although rap might be the most direct link to hip hop for most people, it seemed so distant to me. Writing good Chinese was already tough, and I couldn’t imagine how would I ever be able to write cool lines and rhymes in English, let alone rapping with a flow. No talent in visual arts either, so grafitti was out too. Break dance was too physical. Dj-ing, on the other hand, was enticing: sampling is economic (create new music from the old) and efficient (picking out the coolest/catchiest/most groovy part of a record); beat juggling and scratching just sounded so cool; and a DJ must know a lot of songs (always in search of the most unique/obscure record and breaks that no one else have heard).

I can’t remember what year it was (2009?), but not knowing what to expect, I went to the DMC World DJ Championship in Chicago and saw C2C. I started making a few DJ friends, mostly moving records and equipment for them at parties. I quickly learned that being a DJ would be quite impossible too, because I could not afford the gear and the constant need of acquiring new records (most DJs probably don’t mix vinyls, but a vinyl DJ is still my ideal of a “real DJ” to this day). I still started buying records anyways, thinking they might become useful some day.

The coolest thing I learned from this period was The 45 King, who mixes 45s! And naturally so I started buying lots and lots of RnB 45s on ebay. As I seriously began my classical guitar studies, I put my DJ dream aside, and slowly forgot about these 45s…

Last year, a good friend of mine asked to see my 45 collection. She got into Djing, and started doing her own shows. She would like to see if there were any 45s she could borrow for one of her upcoming shows. We started digging through these forgotten discs, which included many Motown, soul, disco, and RnB tunes. But embbeded in the collection was a small stack of Ranchera records that I didn’t even realize were part of the collection. I must have not paid attention to them back then, since they were not something I could use for a hip hop set (or maybe I could have?). We put these records on, and they were just THE BEST MUSIC. I wish I understand Spanish to know the songs even better, but one can feel the passion and emotions even if you were listening to the expressions of the singers alone.

My purchase of 45s has since then been resumed, and mostly ranchera produced by Bego Records! (oh well, with some reggae and dancehall too) When things get back to normal, I hope to ask my Dj friend to spin these Ranchera records, maybe at a local Mexician restaurant, and maybe a benefit show of some sort?

#23 A brief chat with Hector about the mandolin


(K was led to see B in his study room. K was reminded that B might just kick him right out. They knocked on the door, and greeted B courteously. Disturbed from his work, B stood up and walked toward the table for water and snacks.)

B: Let’s get started. I don’t have a lot of time.

K: Certainly. So… I know the guitar is your main instrument. You gave, lessons, composed solos (variations on Mozart’s La ci darem la mano), and songs. What do you think of its relative in the pluck string family, the mandolin?

B: The mandolin has almost fallen into disuse at present; and this is a pity, for its quality of tone – thin and nasal though it be – has something piquant and original about it which might occasionally be made of effective use.

K: You seem to know a lot about the mandolin?

B: There are several kinds of mandolins; the best known has four double strings; that is to say, four times two strings in unison, and tuned in fifths, like the violin. It is written for on the G clef: –

(B took a small bite of his snack, and continued)

B: The E strings are of catguy; the A strings, of steel; the D strings, of copper; and the G strings, of cargut covered with silver wire. The compass of the mandolin is about three octaves: –

It is an instrument more for melody than for harmony; though its strings, being put in vibration with a quill or plectrum, which the player holds in the left hand, may certainly allow chords of four notes to be heard, such as these –

which are obtained by passing the quill rapidly over the four double notes; but the effect of these groups of simultaneous notes is rather poor, and the mandolin has its real character and effect only in such melodious accompaniments as the one written by Mozart in the second act of Don Giovanni: –

K: I cannot agree more. Just like his simple yet delightful setting of Komm, liebe Zither komm.

(B sat down, took another snack before continuing the conversation.)

B: The mandolin is at present so neglected, that, in theatres where Don Giovanni is played, there is always a difficulty in performing this serenade piece. Although a few days’ study would enable a guitar-player, or even an ordinary violin-player, to acquire sufficient knowledge of the mandolin for the purpose, so little respect is entertained for the intentions of the great masters, whenever it is a question of breaking through old habits, that almost everywhere, even at the Opera (the last place in the world where such liberties should be taken), they venture to play the mandolin part of Don Giovanni on violins pizzacati, or on guitars. The timbre of these instruments has not the keen delicacy of that for which they are substituted; and Mozart knew quite well what he was about in choosing the mandolin for accompanying the amorous lay of his hero.

(B kept rambling on, but slowly lost focus of his speech. K did not dare to interrupt, and B suddenly collapsed on his table. K quickly called for help, and to K’s relief, he was told that this was quite a routine.)

(The above dialogue was edited from here)

#22 First tremolo piece for classical guitar? – #1

Tremolo on classical guitar is a special technique. It creates a “continuous” sound by repeating a particular right hand fingering pattern:

thumb (p) -> ring finger (a) -> middle finger (m) -> index finger (i).

The thumb arpeggiates notes in the bass register, and the other three fingers repeat on the same note. Recuerdos de la Alhambra (composed in 1896) by Francisco Tarrega (dedicated to Alfred Cottin) is probably the most famous tremolo piece.

I had a discussion once with my teacher Nicholas Goluses about which was the first tremolo guitar piece. He thought Reverie, Op. 19 by Giulio Regondi might be the first one. With some free time on my hand now, I have given this topic another thought. There is a Classical Guitar Delcamp thread on this very topic and provided me with a great starting place. But after much digging around (on the internet), there is still no definite answer, and everything I discuss below are speculations. At least this put my brain in “thinking mode” for a good few days…

Since Tarrega composed Recuerdos de la Alhambra in 1896, and guitar methods after him (such as those by Pascual Roch and Emlio Pujol) contain exercises that drill the p-a-m-i pattern, my goal is to find a tremolo piece prior to 1896.

What is a “tremolo piece”? To me, a tremolo piece should have the following features:

1) an entire piece of music (e.g. Tarrega’s Alhambra), or a piece of music that has (a) devoted section(s) (e.g. Regondi’s Reverie) that utilize the repeating right hand p-a-m-i pattern. Using the tremolo technique intermittently does not count;

2) a “1 + 3” tremolo pattern, in which the thumb plays a bass note, follow by the a, m, i finger playing three repeated notes in a higher register. This would exclude “sextuplet” tremolo, such as those found in Fernando Sor’s Grand Solo (first published 1810);

3) the thumb notes should form an arpeggiation that outlines the underlying harmonies of the music.

Therefore, a piece such as Etude #7 from Carcassi’s op. 60 (first published 1836) would not be a tremolo piece, since measure 2 and 3 would break the p-a-m-i pattern. The “tremolo-looking” pattern of measure 1 occurs only sporadically throughout the etude.

One thing to consider is the usage of right hand fingers in the early to mid 19th century guitar tradition: many guitarists (Sor, Carulli, Carcassi) would play mostly with p, i, and m (makes perfect sense for the Carcassi etude above), and only use the a finger for “chords and arpeggios which contain four, five or six notes” (see the introduction to Carcassi’s Op.60, written by Brian Jeffery). I don’t consider tremolo as a type of arpeggio (although Dr. Goluses did suggest me to conceive of the tremolo as a weird p-a-m-i arpeggiation). When I think of “19th century arpeggios”, the generic patterns come to mind – p-i-m-a, p-a-m-i, and other iterations. Each of the right hand finger would be resposible for playing one string, instead of having a, m, i plucking the same string.

Even though I don’t think of the tremolo as an arpeggio, it seems wrong to not check if the 120 arpeggio studies from Mauro Giuliani’s op.1 (first published 1812) would provide any insights. Sure enough, there are two “tremolo” exercises: Ex. 100 is very close to what I definied as tremolo above, except the right hand arpeggio pattern – a repeating pattern of p-a-m-i-p-i-m-a instead of just p-a-m-i. Ex. 110 does not involve the ring finger at all, conforming to the typical way of playing guitar in the 19th century with only p, i, and m.

the pointy sign = RH thumb, 1 dot = RH index finger, 2 dots = RH middle finger, 3 dots = RH ring finger

But did Giuliani employ “tremolo” in his actual compositions? With much shame, I have to admit I don’t know all of Giuliani’s works. I just quickly check his “big” pieces – Grand Overture, 6 Rossinianas, and 3 Concerti. Two excerpts from Rossiniana #6 reveal the two ways Giuliani employed “tremolo” in his works, both of which don’t fit my definition mentioned earlier: the “sextuplet tremolo” is not a “1+3” pattern and doesn’t use the ring finger, and when a “1+3” pattern is employed, the bass is merely playing the same note an octave lower than the 3 repeated notes that follow. The bass is not forming an arpeggiation that outlines the underlying harmonies.

Some of the early 19th century guitarists also played with a pinky (lightly) anchored on the top of the guitar, which limits the movement of the ring finger. That does seem to make p-a-m-i pattern a technique of a later generation.

In his Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration (1844), Berlioz mentioned “reiterated notes, two, three, four, and even six or eight times repeated, are easily done; prolonged reiterations (roulements) on the same note are rarely good excepting on the first string, or at the utmost on the three high strings.” He then provided us with the right hand tremolo fingering: p-i-m-i.

Was there a particular tremolo piece Berlioz had in mind?

The Classical Guitar Delcamp thread also mentioned the usage of tremolo in Mertz’s Potpourri on Verdi’s Ernami (op.8, #14). The musical features do fit the criteria of tremolo defined above – a substantial section that consistently uses a “1+3” pattern, with bass notes arpeggiating the underlying harmonic changes. But Mertz’s method (published 1848) suggests the tremolo to be played with the pattern p-m-i-m:

I checked a few more 19th century guitar methods and didactic works that came to mind: Napoleon Coste edition of Sor’s method (published 1851) and his 25 etudes (published 1873), Luigi Legnani’s method (published 1849), Madame Sidney Pratten’s Guitar School (published 1881) – all of them seem to not have included any p-a-m-i pattern exercises or music.

So I go back to Reverie by Regondi – is it the first tremolo piece? I don’t know. It fits all my criteria of being a tremolo piece, but of all the scores I could find online, none of them included any right hand fingering. And Regondi left us with a Rudimenti del Concertina, a New Method for the Concertina, and the “Golden Exercises“, but not a guitar method.

And then I stumble upon one source, which presented many more questions to be answered…

(to be continued on First Tremolo Piece For Classical Guitar #2)

#21 How it all started – 5

Although I didn’t join the the school orchestra in secondary school (approximately middle school and high school in US?), I continued violin lessons through my secondary school, until I was 19. I often had my violin with me, so that I could go to my teacher’s home after school for lessons.

I recall being scolded by a teacher while I was in grade 8 (or 9…?). She said the violin was too loud, and I shouldn’t be playing in between classes. Of course that didn’t stop me from playing. I just turned my violin sideways, and continued to play by plucking instead of bowing the strings (I also remember doing that in a class grade 7 class when we were given free time to study). Where did I pick up that from?

Seeing me plucking away, my best friend at the time told me he had a guitar sitting in the closet that I could use. And that’s how I got into playing the guitar. I really wanted a steel string guitar at the time. That’s what all the popular songs used. Of course, my friend’s guitar is a classical style, nylon string guitar. I gladly took up the offer anyways. Who can say no to a free guitar? And who knew I would end up studying classical guitar?

It was not terribly difficult to pick up the guitar – playing the violin helped the left hand much. Open chords were easy to pick up, but barred chords were tough. The F chord was a bitch. I was playing a lot of cantopop tunes, J-rock, Brit rock, and American pop/rock. I remember having picked out the intro to a pop song, and immediately asked my parents to listen to me play. They must have thought it was strange? There was no youtube back then, and i would put a mp3 track on repeat to slowly figure out the notes. I also looked up a lot of tabs, and learned that tabs (on anything online) were not to be trusted.

There were a few (rich?) kids one grade higher, and I remember them mocking me as I didn’t know much back them. They were all taking lessons and playing electric guitars for their CP (class performance). How cool was that?! One thing I did learn from them was that many Japanese rock bands released full scores with tabs of their albums. These scores were (they still are) the best thing on earth. Whoever transcribed them note for note are saints. I hope my Luna Sea and L’Arc-en-ciel scores are still at home in HK. And I have just purchased a few X-Japan scores off Ebay.

Speaking of X-Japan… internet hit the household when I was around 16 years old. Those were the days of Geocities, Yahoo mail, Netscape, 14.4K modem (hearing white noise if you picked up the phone), ICQ, Winamp, Xanga. How many of these still exist today? But anyhow, one of the first things I looked up were official websites of my favorite bands, and I remember trying xjapan.com. It brings you to the band’s homepage now, but back then, it would bring you to a naughty site.

(To be continued in How it all started #6)

#20 How it all started – 4

My brother and I began our violin lessons when we were 6 and 7 years old. We did two years of after-school group violin classes, and were suggested to take private lessons with the head violin teacher. I was intimidated at first, as my teacher seemed strict. We were so young, so at first our parents would arrange our maid to take us to our teacher’s home for back-to-back lessons. I remember waiting for an hour outside our teachers apartment for our first lessons – either him or us have messed up the lesson time.

As we grew older, our teacher offered to drive us to his place if we could wait for him to finish teaching his after-school group class. Those were really fun times. My brother and I got to hang out with other kids at school for a few hours, and then we would hop on our teacher’s BMW, and take an “unusual” route (not the familiar route to go home). My teacher drove fast too.

As we advanced to secondary school, the school day ended later in the afternoon, so I would get to my teacher’s place by taking the school bus (what did my brother go? I don’t remember us taking the school bus together. Maybe he had other extra curricular activities?) The school bus experience was strange, as I had to share the ride in a packed school bus with kids I see only once a week. I remember going to the library a lot before and after violin lessons, borrowing many wuxia novels and books on Hong Kong crime cases. Was I too young to read those brutal crime cases? It had to start somewhere…

During my high school years, I would take public transport to my lessons. Such a sense of independence and being a growin up (but never mature): should I take the bus? #1? #5? #5A? Or #10? All had slightly different routes and prices. What about the tram? Maybe check out a music store before hopping on a bus? Snacks and drinks from Park N Shop? The latest comic books or magazines before or after lesson?

I forgot when it was, but wandering around my teacher’s neighborhood gave me a chance to see the drummer of my favorite band from Hong Kong. I was star struck. He was talking to a friend, so he didn’t see me. I wouldn’t have interrupted and said hi anyways.

(To be continued in How it all started – 5.)

#19 Stage Fright

After many years of performing, I still can’t get over the nerves. I don’t feel as nervous in a band setting. But it still gets me when I perform solo on classical guitar. In a way, I like it. It gives me a hyper sense of focus. It’s just that my hands shake a bit and my fingers don’t move as swiftly as I was practicing. The lucky part is that I don’t usually show much facial expression, and my friends always told me after my performances that I didn’t look nervous at all.

I miss going to studio class, to play for others and to hear others play, to see how everyone is progressing and building their repertoire. Playing in studio was always the worst though. I got very pressured because I wouldn’t want to suck in front of my fellow guitarists. These days, I am grateful for a few friends who would take their time to listen to my run-throughs for any upcoming performances. A guitarist friend suggested me to do a few push ups before I play a piece, to simulate the kind of adrenaline rush I would get from a performance. It sort of works, but I would get tired too quickly before I can practice more…

At Eastman, guitarists tend to play their degree recitals in Hatch Hall. Hatch is indeed perfect for guitar. I have done that for my masters recital, but I have done all my DMA recitals in Kilbourn. I get distracted so easily, and I felt like I could hear every little sound the audience would make. As a bigger hall, audience in Kilbourn tend to be farther away from the stage, which made me feel more secure. But I hate to admit that I enjoy the separation of performer and audience, as I always liked that the classical guitar is the most intimate of all instrument.

I always dream of playing in a setting just like Tarrega did in the above picture. Everyone up close, paying attention, listening to the nuances. I don’t have to worry about producing volume for a big hall. But I also can’t imagine the pressure with people watching/listening over my shoulders!

(Btw, I don’t play with a foot stool, but I want Tarrega’s foot stool!)

In a similar picture, Llobet was playing (also with an awesome footstool). And Segovia was watching him up close. I wonder if Llobet’s got nervous?

Someday I will fulfill this dream – get a couple friends, all dressed up, and sneak into the 19th century-looking Ranlet Lounge, to recreate the “Tarrega picture” above. I would need get a good looking beard or mustache first though.