Jazz Improvisation: Collective or Individual?

Throughout the history of jazz several styles were born, all with one element in common: musicians’ interaction. This interplay has developed in different degrees and within several sub-styles, making collective improvisation the common thread of all jazz categories. Yet the term collective improvisation has been coined to refer to early jazz, as this style of music relies on an obvious collaboration between melodic instruments, primarily trumpet, clarinet, and trombone. Unfortunately though, this designation hinders the appreciation of collective improvisation as a form of artistic relatedness, which has appeared throughout jazz history in different degrees regardless of time period or style. Stephen Nachmanovitch explains this phenomenon of artistic interaction between two given persons in his 1990 book Free Play:

The [collective] work comes from neither one artist nor the other… There is a third totally new style that pulls on us. It is as though we have become a group or organism that has its own nature and its own way of being, from a unique and unpredictable place which is the group personality or group brain (94-5).

Additionally, the author identifies collective rhythm as the basic foundation for musical interaction, referring to it as entrainment:

There is a phenomenon called entrainment, which is the synchronization of two or more rhythmic systems into a single pulse. If a group of men is hammering on a building site, after a few minutes they fall into the same rhythm without any explicit communication. In the same way, the body’s physiological rhythms resonate with each other… When improvisers play together they can rely on this natural phenomenon to mesh the music so that they breathe together, pulse together, think together (99-100).

Thus the sole instance of playing in a group can be called collective improvisation, even if the material is completely prearranged, as in a symphonic orchestra, because the collective vibrating pulse is constructed in the moment, and musicians acquaint each other with their pulses as they get to know each other in performance and rehearsal. Yet, all jazz styles go beyond this basic concept of collective improvisation: several jazz sub-categories evidence an overlap between instruments’ roles, as well as musicians’ interaction in the development of motifs, structure, texture, and tempo. These forms of interplay constitute a step further from simply synchronizing pulses, and they are observable not only in early jazz. In this way, jazz music can be identified as having greater and lesser degrees of collective improvisation, regardless of time period or stylistic characteristics.

The lowest degree of collective improvisation in jazz appears in big bands, the closest group configuration to a symphonic orchestra, as the arrangement presets the direction of music. Occasional soloists function as transitions between moods within the piece, so the main form of group improvisation, still existent in this setting, is the collective pulse. Nonetheless, there are exceptions to these restrictions, such as Paul Gonsalves’s solo in “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” with Duke Ellington’s band in the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Gonsalves takes his time to develop his ideas, and his individual improvisation becomes an independently spontaneous excerpt from the arrangement. Additionally, between 9:26 and 9:40 there is an overt interaction between him an Ellington, as the pianist begins a rhythmic figure that inspires the soloist to shape his lines around it, creating an unpremeditated call-and-response effect. This exception shows how collective improvisation can go beyond a collective pulse, even within the context of a big band, where most of the music is prearranged.

Bebop shows a similarly low degree of collective improvisation, as the demanding task of running chord changes burdens a soloist, and thus solos are usually developed without much space for interaction besides sharing a common pulse. Nevertheless, Charlie Parker, the king of bebop, can show his interactive capabilities more freely in a different setting: ballads. In the famous recording of “Lover Man,” from Charlie Parker on Dial, 1946, Parker interacts with trumpeter Howard McGhee. Although the trumpeter seems indifferent to Parker’s responses during the melody in the outhead, the alto saxophone icon creates counterlines to McGhee’s shaping of the tune. This piece evidences a few more aspects of collective improvisation. First, the greater the demands imposed by music, the lower the possibility of interaction with the surroundings, as exemplified by the contrast between ballads and fast bebop tunes: a ballad offers more chances of interaction than a piece requiring frantic run of the chord changes. Second, it is not possible to classify musicians strictly as collective or individual improvisers, because collective improvisation is a form of artistic relatedness that appears in different degrees according to circumstantial factors, and artists can alternatively find themselves in different situations, playing ballads or bebop tunes, that motivate one or another degree of interaction.

Collective improvisation increases as musicians allow themselves to spontaneously play, as Nachmanovitch calls it, the Twenty Questions game: “Unceasingly, the mind plays the old Twenty Questions game, in which one tries to guess what the other person is thinking of by asking a series of yes-or-no questions” (103). Thus, this procedure allows for innumerable musical conversations. Since a vast part of the jazz repertoire exhibits a medium degree of collective improvisation, where this Twenty Questions game is strongly present but not all aspects of music are improvised, it is possible to describe this level of interaction by selecting music from several different jazz styles. John Coltrane’s recording of “Pursuance,” from A Love Supreme, 1965, shows Elvin Jones’s support of McCoy Tyner’s solo, as he increases or decreases the intensity of his drum accompaniment depending on the pianist’s decisions. Taking into account Nachmanovitch’s concept of group brain, we must understand this process of interaction, not as the musicians’ intellectual understanding and preplanning of reactions to each other’s solo in every potential circumstance, but as the emotional motivation that a soloist inspires in his accompanist, who in turn, triggers a response that contributes to the overall texture of the improvisational process. Based on this phenomenon, from 4:13 Tyner constructs three phrases that repeat the same rhythmic pattern, and Jones responds by accenting the pattern’s main structure in the third phrase, supporting the pianist’s expression by his own expression. Coltrane’s solo follows immediately, and to add support and form to it, Tyner and Jones continue accenting the pattern together in every chorus. This improvised decision gives Coltrane a rhythmic underpinning over which to develop his ideas, and when Coltrane shrieks at 4:49 and 6:40 increasing the intensity, the piano and drums accent the rhythmic hits more strongly as a response to Coltrane’s decision. This development is an illustration of the Twenty Questions game, Nachmanovitch’s explanation of unfolding form.

Yet this set of yes-or-no questions can lead not only to meaningful musical support to the soloist but also to an overlap of the roles between soloist and accompanist. A piece that shows this aspect of a successful musical interaction is Chet Baker’s “Just Friends,” from the 1955 album, Chet Baker Sings with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman, and Strings. At 1:33 Baker starts developing a clear motif that pianist Freeman copies at 1:37. The musicians overlap their roles from then until 1:46, as Freeman begins playing lines and developing the motif in collaboration with Baker. The end of this shared section evolves into a spontaneous harmonization of the developed motif, with one voice for each instrument, piano and trumpet. The interaction between Freeman and Baker is so successful that this spontaneous arrangement seems pre-established, but two clues hint at its creation in the moment: the subtle inaccuracy of the phrase’s conclusion, where the trumpet finishes on the end of beat four and the pianist on beat one, and the musicians audible laughs at that moment, indicating a feeling of surprise in both.

“Just Friends” at 1:33

Image of an excerpt of “Just Friends” in staff notation.

Another master at collective improvisation is pianist Keith Jarrett. The Imagica Media DVD of his 1996 Japan concert, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, shows the artists’ attention at each other’s propositions and their capacity to react quickly. During the four-bar trading in “All the Things You Are” at 1:28:50, the drummer develops a rhythmic motif consisting of a triplet and a quarter note. Jarrett picks up this rhythmic figure in the end of his eight-bar section, and DeJohnette repeats it immediately after Jarrett drops it.

Keith Jarrett Trio Japan Concert at 1:28:50—“All the Things You Are”

Image of excerpt of “All the Things You Are” on staff notation.

Image of excerpt of “All the Things You Are” on staff notation.

Image of excerpt of “All the Things You Are” on staff notation.

Image of excerpt of “All the Things You Are” on staff notation.

This phenomenon where musicians overlap their roles, share a musical figure, and develop it as they pass it around, such as the motif shared by DeJohnette and Jarrett in “All the Things You Are” or the spontaneous arrangement shared by Baker and Russell in “Just Friends,” could be referred to as collective motivic development.

In addition to collective motivic development, the Twenty Questions game can lead to the development of a spontaneous structure, which could be called collective structural development. This phenomenon happens in Keith Jarrett Trio’s performance of “Billie’s Bounce”: the three musicians gradually construct the form in Jarrett’s solo as introduction, development, and conclusion, by balancing the music’s activity, intensity, and direction. At first, Peacock and DeJohnette accompany with low volume, and the drummer engages in a polyrhythmic pattern that gives the tempo a feel of vagueness and uncertainty. This accompaniment fits the beginning of Jarrett’s solo, as the pianist also generates musical uncertainty by avoiding definite lines and playing sporadic chords and notes. This introduction recreating indefiniteness is so successful that Jarrett is moved to restate the head of Billie’s Bounce before moving on to the following stage, in which Peacock increases his volume, DeJohnette plays a straighter swing pattern, and Jarrett develops clearer lines. In this way, the group brain decides when the introduction finishes and the body starts, and thus this interaction shows how it is possible to generate structure spontaneously, giving the piece a form with an introduction and development.

Sonny Rollins’s solo in “Without a Song” from The Bridge, 1962, featuring Jim Hall on guitar, also evidences collective structural improvisation. There is a sense of improvised structure, as bassist Bob Cranshaw does not walk in the beginning but plays half-time feel. This feel matches the saxophonist’s initial indefiniteness in his phrases. After the first chorus, Cranshaw starts walking, and Rollins plays lines with a clearer direction. As it happens in Jarrett’s version of “Billie’s Bounce,” the transition from one texture to the next is made by the group personality, with all musicians generating collective structural development.

As the number of yes-or-no questions increases, other aspects of music can be included in the process of collective improvisation, arriving at a stage that could be considered as having a high degree of interaction. Paul Motian’s trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano focuses on tempo and texture. The melodies are played rubato, with all band members attentive to each other’s decisions and moving forward together. Bill Frisell himself explained the trio’s concept of tempo in a masterclass on April 29, 2006, at the Center for Improvisational Music, New York: “a lot of times its just the melody… we all have the melody sort of going at the same time.” This description shows the trio’s improvisation of tempo in its performances.

Regarding texture, Frisell accompanies with simple chords, sometimes only bass notes, and sometimes arpeggios. He alternates these elements to change texture and tone, also using a distortion pedal and a loop box. The loop effect is a clear example of the trio’s (and Frisell’s) focus on texture, as the main function of the device is not to repeat specifically selected melodies but to generate a supporting background. Additionally, Frisell and Lovano overlap their roles, with the saxophone sometimes fulfilling the role of the absent bass, and their melodies often cannot be identified as constructed with traditional cells, but seem to lack that type of meaning. This characteristic hints at their function of mixing with one another to create a color of either smoothness or noise, depending on the circumstances. A clear example of a noisy texture of this trio occurs in “Cosmology,” from Trioism, 2005, in which Frisell’s distortion, Lovano’s shrieks, and Motian’s percussive attacks on his cymbals and toms converge. Paul Motian’s role, far from timekeeping, is to add ornamental sounds with his brushes and sticks. This characteristic shows another possible situation present in collective improvisation. Since all three instruments are contributing to the same texture and melodic instruments do not stand out for their lines but for their tone, it is possible to affirm that drums, guitar, and saxophone are fully overlapping into the same function, creating a texture, and into the same role, generating colors.
Summarizing collective improvisation concepts as presented thus far, we can establish that this interplay may involve a simple collective pulse, rhythmic support to a soloist, call-and-response, motivic development, structural development, development of texture, and collective tempo. In the process of constructing music, instrumentalists overlap their roles, and the number of instruments mixing up varies. Sometimes the entire band overlaps, and sometimes just a few members. In addition, this overlap can occur both in function, the creation of structure or melodic ideas, and in role, whether the instrument assumes a melodic, supporting, or percussive task. For example, Chet Baker’s recording of “Just Friends” shows an overlap between trumpet and piano only, while drums and bass remain relatively constant. At the same time, piano and trumpet overlap fully in the main role of melodic instruments. On the other hand, in Keith Jarrett’s version of “Billie’s Bounce,” all instruments take part in developing a common structure, but neither does the bass take the role of the piano as melodic instrument nor do the piano and bass assume the role of the drums as percussive instruments. Thus in this case all instruments overlap in function but not in role. In contrast to both Baker and Jarrett’s pieces, in Motian’s trio we see that guitar, saxophone, and drums not only overlap in the function of generating a collective texture but also fully share the same role, as their musical focus is the creation of different colors, whether by means of shrieks, distorted notes, or drum hits.

There is another characteristic of collective improvisation that has only been implied thus far. As the preceding analysis attempts to show, different aspects of music can be collectively improvised, such as motifs, textures, tempi, and so on. These aspects, however, are seldom treated in an isolated manner; rather, most often they are integrated into one sound, which is the resulting music. For instance, Jarrett’s trio cannot deal with the collective structural development of “Billie’s Bounce” without generating varying textures: rhythmic vagueness vis-à-vis a straighter swing pattern and clearer direction.

A clear example of this integration of collectively improvised musical aspects is “Romain,” from Undercurrent, 1962, by Bill Evans and Jim Hall. As David Rosenthal comments on the liner notes, after the piano-solo introduction and first chorus, the trio evolves into “a genuine duet in which one can’t say who’s the soloist and who’s the supporting actor.” Indeed, the two musicians engage in collective motivic development by passing phrases back and forth to each other and transforming them, notably at 1:51 and 2:17, and by engaging in call-and-response, for example at 2:34.

“Romain” at 1:51

Image of an excerpt of “Romain” on staff notation.

“Romain” at 2:17

Image of an excerpt of “Romain” on staff notation.

“Romain” at 2:34

Image of an excerpt of “Romain” on staff notation.

Additionally, this intertwining of motifs constitutes its own texture, which contrasts with the subsequent piano solo, as Hall stops playing to give Evans full exposure. The contrast between both textures is not only that of collective motivic development against solo piano, but also of rhythmic feel and meter changes, as Evans switches from four-four to twelve-eight after hearing the triplets in the end of the preceding section. As the music tension increases, Hall comes back in and relies on other techniques to generate textural effects: first strumming, showing a subtly more aggressive touch accompanying Evans’s graveness, and then a pedal on the open G string clashing against an A flat and A natural. This increase in tension is followed by both musicians’ increase in intensity that gives resolution to the music in the final chords, which at the same time are laid out in rubato tempo. Thus we can perceive a structure made of different textures: one that involves a great degree of motivic development and call-and-response, a piano solo, and a grave section that increases in tension and resolves. Meanwhile, a common pulse that culminates in a collectively directed rubato tempo conducts all these sections.

An alternate take of “Romain” in the same album allows us to infer which musical aspects are improvised and which preexistent. The collective motivic development section is inexistent in the alternate take, so this section is surely improvised. In both tracks, Evans’s solo switches meters and rhythmic feels, but not in the exact same way as in the master take, as in the alternate take he evolves further into medium swing. Hall’s strumming rhythm appears in both tracks, but in the second one he strums more lightly. Finally, although the end of the piece is rubato in both tracks, the tempo remains faster in the master take than in the alternate one. These contrasts suggest that certain aspects of the performance had been arrived at before the recording date, but the difference in the way they unfold, and in their final result, hints at the musicians’ flexibility. This fact is a sign that the established aspects of the performance might have resulted from rehearsal sessions. In this way, Evans and Hall might have arrived at a structure by experiencing one another in the process of collective improvisation, clearing the rough edges of their work by the time of the recording session. Therefore, collective improvisation in Undercurrent involves motivic development, and collective tempo, texture, and structure, all integrated into one main flow of elements fully shared by both musicians.

The foregoing analyses attempt to show several traits of collective improvisation. First, different aspects of music can be collectively improvised: motifs, rhythmic feels, textures, tempi, and structures. Second, these musical aspects are integrated into one broad flow of music. Third, this collaboration causes an overlap between instruments’ tasks in which all or some of the band members may participate. Fourth, this overlap may occur in function and in role, with instruments transcending their traditional characteristics or not. Fifth, musicians may be more or less interactive in different settings, particularly regarding whether they have played together before and how demanding their music material is. Finally, collective improvisation has appeared at different times in jazz, and although its degree and characteristics have varied between period and style, these differences are more attributable to the demands imposed by music and a style’s standard band configuration than to the styles and periods themselves. For example, the relatively low degree of collective improvisation in the swing era and in bebop could be attributable to the big band configuration and the usual approach of running fast chord changes respectively.

Having established these grounds, we are ready to return to the question of early jazz. How much collective improvisation is there in the style commonly known as “collective improvisation”? To answer this question we must consider musicians’ interaction in every aspect of music. Listening to King Oliver’s recording of “Dippermouth Blues” we can notice that the rhythm section, consisting of percussion set and banjo, remains quite constant and unchanged by the activity of the horn lines: the banjo plays one chord on every beat while the woodblocks mark eighth notes and triplets. The common practice of a banjoist was to choose his chords in the moment, but the rest of the band did not affect his decision. The percussion player’s role was similar, as his marking was improvised but unaffected by the band. Thus there is no overlap or interaction between the roles of these two instruments.

When considering the horns, we can perceive that they are all sharing a common role: playing improvised melodies simultaneously. This is indeed the reason why early jazz has been baptized “collective improvisation.” Nevertheless, historian Mark Gridley explains the common practice of this form of performance in his 2009 book Jazz Styles:

Musicians managed to stay out of each others’s [sic] way partly because they tended to fulfill set musical roles similar to those established for their instruments in brass bands. The trumpet often played the melody. The clarinet played busy figures… decorat[ing] the melody played by the trumpet. The trombone would play simpler figures… outlin[ing] the chord notes… fill[ing] in low-pitched harmony notes… [and] creat[ing] motion in a pitch range lower than the clarinet and trumpet.

Based on this explanation we must understand the horns’ roles during the period of early jazz not only as melody improvisers. We must add a more specific concept to this designation that could nowadays make these roles appear sub-roles. It follows from this line of thought that horns in early jazz are not really overlapping but actually have different assignments, and thus the interaction between them is not as high as it initially seems. Furthermore, as explained by Gridley’s quote, these roles arise greatly from the experience of playing in a setting where music had been pre-established, marching bands, and not so much from experiencing the musicality of individual players, as in Undercurrent.

Regarding texture, Gridley explains that “[f]or many listeners, the greatest appeal of early jazz is the activity of several horn lines sounding at the same time without clashing” (61). Thus, it could be argued that the essence of collective improvisation is that of an improvised texture and not of improvised lines. This argument has its merits considering that the lines lose themselves inside a greater fabric. Nevertheless, it has its shortcomings in view that this texture is always constant because of the instruments’ preset roles. Thus, the goal of this kind of improvisation is not to improvise a texture but to generate one that is already known.
Structure in early jazz is also quite predetermined. This is noticeable in the recording of “Dippermouth Blues.” After a four-bar introduction, two choruses of collective improvisation take place, then two choruses of a clarinet solo follow with stop-time accompaniment, which is thus evidently prearranged, and four choruses of collective improvisation continue, leading to the coda. The texture remains constant throughout the piece, except for the stop-time choruses, and thus the only identifiable structural organization in this work is clearly not improvised.

Finally, the tempo remains constant throughout the piece, so in this tune this aspect is not involved in the Twenty Questions game either (and in no other piece within the early jazz style). Still, the tempo, which Nachmanovitch explained as the phenomenon of entrainment, is the common thread of any collective work, acting as the collective pulse.

So we return to our original question, “How much collective improvisation is there in ‘collective improvisation’”? We began our answer by stating how much there is not. Let us now consider what there is. We know that all musicians are improvising and playing together in the same band. Based on Nachmanovitch’s concept of group brain, we can infer that horn players might be feeding of each other, and that each reacts to the others’ phrases, thus altering his own. This form of collective improvisation is analogous to Gonsalves’s solo in “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” previously analyzed, where Ellington feeds the soloist with a rhythmic figure at 9:26 and 9:40. Therefore, this process is akin to the relationship between soloist and accompanist, except that everyone is simultaneously a soloist and an accompanist, one that relies on lines instead of chords for his comping. The only reservation to this assertion to be kept in mind is, as Gridley has described, that horn players are still restricted by their range and role.

Jazz history exhibits several degrees of collective improvisation, which could be roughly classified into low, medium, and high. Collective improvisation has been present in greater or lesser degrees throughout jazz history, and it takes into account every aspect of music, integrating them into one general flow of interaction. Some of these aspects are motivic development, call-and-response, texture, structure, and tempo. Additionally, the main driving forces in this process of interplay are the human phenomena of group personality and entrainment. Collective improvisation may also involve spontaneous overlapping of all or some of the instruments’ roles in a band, and this overlap might take place in different degrees: instruments might share the same function, for example playing a melody or generating a common texture, and the same role, for example, a saxophone or guitar generating non-melodic tones along with a drum set. Based on all these considerations regarding collective improvisation, we can finally conclude that even though the phrase “collective improvisation” has been coined to refer to early jazz, this subcategory presents a relatively low degree of interaction, as instruments’ roles are pre-established, their roles do not overlap, and too many musical aspects are preset and relatively static, such as texture, structure, and tempo. Nonetheless, we have to acknowledge that early jazz players must have made their lines interactive, because the phenomenon of group personality or group brain, explained by Nachmanovitch, takes place in all settings as the natural activity of a spontaneous mind. This may hold true even though horn’s melodies in early jazz were restricted by role and range. Conversely, collective improvisation in its broader sense has been present throughout the history of jazz in several ways, within several styles, and during several periods, and we can add that it will continue to exist. It will certainly stay alive, as long as artists do not overlook their inherent capacities of being in the moment, reacting, and interacting.


  • Gridley, Mark. Jazz Styles. 10th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play. New York: Putnam, 1990.
  • Rosenthal, David. Liner Notes for Bill Evans/Jim Hall: Undercurrent. New York: Blue Note, 1962.


  • Baker, Chet. “Just Friends.” Chet Baker Sings with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman, and Strings. Pacific Jazz, 1955.
  • Coltrane, John. “Pursuance.” A Love Supreme. Impulse!, 1965.
  • Ellington, Edward. “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Ellington at Newport. Sony, 1956.
  • Evans, Bill, and Jim Hall. “Romain.” Undercurrent. Blue Note, 1962.
  • Motian, Paul. “Cosmology.” Trioism. Winter & Winter, 2005.
  • Oliver, Joe. “Dippermouth Blues.” Gennett Records/Fantasy, Inc., 1923
  • Parker, Charlie. “Lover Man.” Charlie Parker on Dial Completed. Disc 1. Jazz Classics, 1946.
  • Rollins, Sonny. “Without a Song.” The Bridge. RCA, 1962.

Other Sources

  • Frisell, Bill. “General Workshop.” Center for Improvisational Music, New York. 29 April 2006.
  • Keith Jarrett Trio Concert 1996. Perf. Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette. Orchard Hall, Bunkamura, Japan. 30 March 1996.

The Guitar from 2500 B. C.

Like all stringed instruments, the guitar evolved from a simple hunting bow to a complex mechanism capable of amplifying sound by resonation. Nowadays, the guitar can also use electric circuitry to amplify its own sound, and guitarists can rely on a wide range of timbers and intensities inconceivable to primitive artists. Few performers, however, are aware of the antiquity of the legacy they hold in their hands.

In The Art and Times of the Guitar, Frederic Grunfeld explains that the guitar descends from the ancient lute, although it took its name from the cithara (Grunfeld, 33). Citharas had been an improvement from the bow, as they increased the number of strings, providing the possibility to play more than one note, and they were built using a turtle carapace as a resonator. However, as Grunfeld says, when the neck appeared in the lute, “it must have represented a major technological breakthrough in its time” (Grunfeld, 45). The cithara and lute were not in the same line of development but must be observed as independent instruments with their individual lines of evolution.

The guitar has been traced back to the year 2500 B.C., when, in Greece, the lute was known as pandoura. Just like the cithara, the harp, and the lyre, the lute had been imported from western Asia. It had an oval body (as derived from a turtle carapace), and as ancient bas-reliefs show, it was used for secular activities—all the religious ceremonies depicted in sculptures include harps and lyres instead.

A Hittite sculpture dated 1500 B.C. shows a man playing a fretted instrument whose top is clearly flat. Although it is very similar to a guitar, there is disagreement on whether it can be considered one. Paul Guy, in the online article “A Brief History of the Guitar,” sustains that this iconographical representation displays “all the essential features of a guitar.” On the other hand, Grunfeld points out that “the sound chest of this instrument is almost certainly covered with skin, and the neck, instead of stopping where it meets the body, pierces it like a spear and forms a small point at the base to which the strings are attached” (Grunfeld, 46). In any case, even Grunfeld admits that this instrument, if not a guitar, is certainly one of its main precursors.

Another type of lute was used in Egypt around 1500 B.C.: the nefer, which judging by wall paintings, was also used for secular activities. Nefers had an oval, long body and either two or three strings. The top of the body was covered with skin, and the neck was attached to it by several stitches.

Nefers were found in Egyptian tombs. It was also in Egypt that archaeologists found an instrument dating from A.D. 300 that reflects quite accurately the characteristics of a guitar: a flat back, a flat top, incurved sides, and a heel resembling that of the Spanish guitar. As Grunfleld explains, the Arabs in their conquest of North Africa might have taken this instrument to the south of Spain (Grunfeld, 51). Thus, the spread of stringed instruments from western Asia into Europe during the middle ages had two focuses: Greece, in conjunction with Rome, and Spain.

Sarcophagus reliefs in Roman tombs from approximately A.D. 200 show women playing the lute: despite the established position of the ancient cithara, the lute began finding its own way into Roman culture as a household instrument. It was here where the string family fidicula was created. Fidicula was the term to refer to any stringed instrument, and it gradually originated the words fiddle and vihuela among others. As Grunfeld argues, “[a]t what point the Spaniards arrived at the name and style of their famous guitarra is quite imposible to say; its beginnings might have appeared… sometime before the thirteenth century.” Grunfeld adds that Moorish culture certainly motivated art development in Spanish society and that there was a need for instruments and music. It was under Arabic influence that the Spanish adopted the term lute, which derives from al’ud, literally “the wood” (52-5). Another Arab contribution to the instrument were the frets, which as Harvey Turnbull points out in The Guitar: From the Renaissance to the Present Day, “were made of gut and tied round the neck” (Turnbull, 15).

By A.D. 1300, a wide variety of plucked string instruments were in use in Europe, all of different sizes and shapes: lutes, vihuelas, latin guitars, Moorish guitars, and the English guittern and citern. The lack of volume of the guittern and citern made them disappear gradually, and the instrument that became prominent was the vihuela. At first, the vihuela could have had anywhere from four to seven courses (either pairs of strings or single ones), and there was no standard tuning for it. There were also vihuelas of different sizes, and adding to the confusion, the term vihuela referred to both the family of stringed instruments and a specific instrument. However, by the end of the fifteenth century a standard was established. The vihuela adopted six courses (five double strings and one single string, the soprano), and its tuning was G, C, F, A, D, G, with the lowest pair of strings tuned at an octave. Turnbull relies on several paintings of that time to research on the vihuela’s shape, also quoting composer Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435 – 1511) describing the instrument. The historian certainly established that the vihuela was flat, curved inwards on its sides, smaller than the lute, and with a central rose on the hole, in other words, very similar to a current guitar but smaller.

The vihuela was very well established in Spain throughout the sixteenth century. The first musicians who composed for the instrument, creating its own idiom rather than using it for vocal accompaniment, were Narváez, Milán, Fuen Llana, and Mudarra. In 1535 Milán published the first work for vihuela, a series of short pieces entitled The Teacher, and Narváez, who used to improvise complex counterpoint, followed him with his Variations. In turn Mudarra published Tres libros de musica en cifras para vihuela (Three Music Books for Vihuela), written on tablature, and he was also the teacher of several nobles—a sign of the instrument’s high status.

Meanwhile, another instrument was becoming standard: the four-course guitar, whose tuning was the same as that of the vihuela but without the sixth and first courses: C, F, A, D. Grunfeld explains that eventually the courses were transposed up a major second, to D, G, B, and E respectively, creating the tuning for the four highest strings on the modern guitar (Grunfeld, 75). The four-course guitar was considered inferior to the vihuela; however, it became the popular instrument among the masses. Grunfeld says that “it was customary to keep a guitar hanging in a barber shop so that a costumer waiting to be shaved could strum away the time until his turn came” (Grunfeld, 78).

The instrument that spread throughout Europe was the four-course guitar, not the six-course vihuela. Offering considerably fewer challenges than music for eleven-course lute, the guitar was quickly adopted in France and subsequently Germany and Italy, where the lute had been prevalent. In fact, the first music publication for guitar appeared in 1552 in France, not in Spain, and it was entitled Le Premier Livre de Chansons, Gaillardes, Pavannes, Branfles, Almandes, Fantaifies, reduitz en tablature de Guiterne, by Guillame Morlaye. The lute, Grunfeld reports, “had become overloaded with strings—up to two dozen in extreme cases—which had the annoying tendency to go limp at the slightest provocation. As one French wag put it, ‘One can always see the lutenists tuning up, but one never hears them play’” (109). In addition, Grunfeld points out the guitar’s attractive effect on women as another reason for its success. This effect, according to him, is due to the guitar’s shape: “its outline is simply the classic admiring gesture of a man delineating the form of woman” (Grunfeld, 6). A sex symbol or not, the guitar gradually bacome a noble instrument in Europe by the middle of the seventeenth century.

The next stage in the evolution of the guitar was the addition of the fifth course tuned to A. This innovation has been attributed to the Spanish poet Vicente Espinel (1551 – 1624) by several sources quoted by both Turnbull and Grunfeld: Lope de Vega (1562 – 1635), Nicolas Doizi de Velazco (1590-1659), and Juan Bermudo (c. 1510 – 1565). Since guitarist Juan Bermudo had written about five-course guitars before Espinel was born, Grunfeld discredits these sources, asserting that “Espinel no more originated the idea than Elvis Presley invented the electric guitar,” giving him credit only for popularizing the invention (Grunfeld, 98). Furthermore, the sources quoted by the historians referred to Espinel’s addition of the prima (first string), not the quinta (fifth string), and the addition in question is that of a lower course.

However, Turnbull found a solution to these contradictions. He admitted that five-course guitars existed before Espinel, but he points out that the tuning to A was not standard until later during the sixteenth century. (It is important to remember that stringed instruments were not as standard as now, and that there were several variations of each one.) Besides, Turnbull observed that in an Italian manuscript in the British Museum (Sloane 2686), the courses of a guitar are numbered from the lowest to the highest pitch, as in the inverse of modern practice. This observation ratifies that Espinel might well have been responsible for the tuning A, D, G, B, E. Turnbull also demonstrated that Bermudo was referring to a second type of five-course guitar, which was tuned G, C, E, A, D, a configuration very similar to a vihuela’s tuning (Turnbull, 12-14). Additionally, Turnbull comments that “[t]he association of Espinel with a form of accompanied monody, Spanish sonatas, lends further support, as the quinta instrument was ideal for this” (Turnbull, 14). Espinel’s standard was what became known in Italy as “the Spanish Guitar,” and paintings from approximately the end of the sixteenth century evidence that, even in Spain, it rose to incredible popularity, replacing the vihuela.

The guitar still had to undergo further changes, and the next step was the addition of the sixth course. The first publication for six-course guitar appeared in 1780: Obra para guitarra de seis órdenes (Music for Six-Course Guitar), by Antonio Ballesteros. Turnball identifies several publications from the early nineteenth century that hint at an overlap between the addition of the sixth string and the abandonment of double courses, unable to find out which came first. However, he establishes that the reasons for these developments were both musical and practical. Quoting Federico Moretti’s 1799 work, Principios para tocar la guitarra de seis órdenes (Principles to Play the Six-Course Guitar), he summarizes the reasons for the preference of single strings:

With this method [double courses], it is rare to play accurately (juste) and to hear the harmony in all its purity, as (the sounds of) the two strings [of the lower courses, tuned at an octave] strike the ear in such a way that the higher sounds are heard before the lower… Besides… one can rarely find strings for the unison g’s and b’s that are of the same size and perfectly true (Turnbull, 63).

Thomas Heck’s comments on the advantages of a sixth string are also quoted:

Was this not the minimum improvement necessary to achieve the roots I, IV, and V in the lowest three strings (in several keys), while at the same time allowing for triadic, melodic, and ornamental use of the upper three strings? The low E completed the double octave with the first string, e’, as well, thereby giving the classic guitar a kind of perfection which the five-course guitar resisted for about 200 years (Turnbull, 64).

Another constructional improvement of this period is the fan-strutting, a set of wood stripes strategically placed on the inner side of the guitar’s top to improve resonation.

The classical guitar, as known today, was first designed by luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817 – 1892). His main contributions were an increase in the size of the body, the widening of the fingerboard to 5 centimeters, the lengthening of the strings to 65 centimeters, and a relocation of the wood stripes of the fan-strutting system to a diagonal position, which allowed the board to vibrate more freely. Finally, the latest major improvement in classical guitar construction happened in 1946, when nylon was first used in the manufacture of strings.

Of the transitional guitars that appeared in the nineteenth century, one deserves mention for its uniqueness. Frustrated at the impossibility to tune the guitar properly, and attempting to free the guitar from tempered tuning, General T. Perronet Thompson, a British Parliamentary also involved in music, designed the enharmonic guitar. The frets for this instrument are moveable, and they are short, affecting one string only. They can be placed on any of the fingerboard’s holes, whose positions divide the octave into fifty-three equal parts for every string. This arrangement enables a musician to prepare the fingerboard for a given key and play in perfect tuning. The enharmonic guitar is also designed to add a few frets that do not belong to the selected key, to take a piece’s modulations into account.

The obvious disadvantage of this guitar, and the reason why it did not survive, is its impracticality. Playing on the enharmonic guitar would have required planning in advance, limitation in modulations, and a long setup time. However, considering current technological advancements, nowadays it is possible to devise a guitar whose fret configuration could be changed by electronic pedals. As the piece modulates, the performer could select a new key much in the same manner in which he selects timbres.

This envision would not be possible without the well-known applications that electricity has had in music and guitar—a breakthrough that occurred in America. Grunfeld has traced the American guitar to its earliest days, and as he reports, it was being imported into the new world already in the sixteenth century. Missionaries who converted Native Americans to Christianity also spread the guitar among them, and by the middle of the seventeenth century the guitar was ubiquitous in Spanish American colonies (Grunfeld, 242). At the same time, “[c]olonial and revolutionary America was well supplied with English-made guitars,” (Grunfeld, 238) and after New Mexico became part of the United States, many of its traditions, including the use of Spanish guitars, maintained themselves (Grunfeld, 248).

On the other hand, American music has been influenced by African traditions. African slaves were not allowed to build their percussion instruments but were permitted to construct their stringed instruments, and their customs included playing on the banjar, whose name was later transformed into banjo, an instrument that followed its own line of evolution since the beginning of stringed instruments in Western Asia. As European and African traditions met, they influenced one another. Homemade guitars and banjoes, sometimes built from soapboxes, began appearing within the popular masses. These improvised instruments, which would play an important role in cultural crosspollination, would vary in shapes and sizes without any standards, and since they offered the possibility to articulate and emulate a human voice, they became popular among the Negroes: by using a bottle as a slide or bending the strings, it is possible to cover the microtones, thus avoiding the rigid alternative between major and minor modes, which plays no part in African traditions. Eventually, “[t]he guitar, being easier to make and manage, gradually superseded the banjo among Southern Negroes” (Grunfeld, 235), who brought the guitar into the hills sometime after 1900.

Two of the most renowned blues guitarists of the early twentieth century were Robert Johnson and Huddie Ledbetter. Early jazz did not feature guitarists too much because wind and percussion instruments would be considerably louder. Nonetheless, Eddie Lang deserves being mentioned as an unamplified guitar player, as he managed to find a sustainable role within a combo: he would accompany a soloist with lines instead of chords, creating a counter-melody for an improvised melody. Listening to saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer’s 1927 recording of “Singing the Blues,” we can recognize Lang’s ability to improvise an accompanying line without disrupting the soloist’s creation.

In jazz, the guitar came to the fore mainly after the invention of its electric version. The first electric guitar, called The Frying Pan, was built in 1931 by George Beauchamp. However, as National Public Radio reports on its website, Beauchamp did not obtain his patent until 1937, when other companies were already manufacturing the instrument.

Electric guitars need steel strings to work, as metal pieces and magnets affect each other by physical laws. The motion of the guitar’s steel strings alters the magnetic field of a nearby magnet called the pick-up, and the variations of the magnetic field, in turn, induce electrical current in a metallic cable connected to the magnet. Thus, the current going through the cable is an exact representation of the strings’ vibrations, and therefore of the sound. The other end of the cable is connected to another circular magnet, called the speaker, that has a metallic piece suspended in its center. Affected by the current in the cable, the speaker’s magnetic field varies, so the central metallic piece is pushed back and forth according to the magnet’s varying force. This process translates the electric representation of the strings’ vibration, the current, back into motion. Finally, a cone is attached to the metal piece, moving along with it and pushing the air back and forth. Thus, the cone generates sound waves identical to those of the original source. Additionally, between both ends, the electric signal goes through a circuit specifically designed to amplify it, called an amplifier, making the speaker’s sound waves more intense than they originally were.

The electric guitar was first adopted by Hawaiian music performers, as its tone was suitable for their style, and slowly, electric guitars found their way into jazz and rock and roll. With the assistance of electric devices that would increase the instrument’s volume, jazz guitarists no longer needed to struggle to be heard in the bandstand. This change had two main consequences. First, the guitar began assuming the role of the soloist. Up until then, guitarists had mostly been assigned the role of time-keepers, as there was little else they could have done competing against loud horns. On the other hand, guitarists’ technique evolved. Without the need to pluck a string for every single note, guitar players were able to sound loud enough while playing more legato lines. Gradually, thus, the guitar was able to adopt jazz vocabulary form other instruments, articulating in a similar way to a saxophone’s flexible phrasing. The first prominent electric guitar soloist in jazz was Charlie Christian, one of the creators of be-bop along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and mainly, Charlie Parker. Still, during the swing era, many electric guitar players would continue to perform primarily as time-keepers, such as the famous Freddie Green, whose name defines an accompaniment in which one chord is played on every beat.

Since electricity became greatly responsible for the guitar’s volume level, the guitar’s resonant hollow body stopped being essential, and the solid-body version of the electric guitar was born. In fact, The Frying Pan was already a solid-body guitar. The difference in tone, however, between a solid-body and a hollow-body guitar would be considerable, and thus solid-body guitars did not replace hollow-body ones but simply became an alternative, mostly used in rock.

Nowadays, most guitar aficionados and professionals take for granted that they can enjoy six strings sounding in a jazz standard by Duke Ellington, a baroque piece by Bach, or Jimmy Hendrix’s best licks. However, these privileges would not be possible had history not evolved in the direction it took. Certainly, guitarists will have to be attentive at new possibilities that might arise, as they expand and continue to explore a heritage four thousand years old.


  • Grunfeld, Frederic. The Art and Times of the Guitar: An Illustrated History. 1969. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.
  • Guy, Paul. “A Brief History of the Guitar.” Guitar Handbook. 16 December 2009. 9 May 2010. http://www.guyguitars.com/eng/handbook/BriefHistory.html
  • National Public Radio. “The Electric Guitar, Present at the Creation.” National Public Radio: News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts. 12 August 2002. 14 May 2010. http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/electricguitar/
  • Turnbull, Harvey. The Guitar: From the Renaissance to the Present Day. 1974. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.


  • Trumbauer, Frank. “Singing the Blues.” 1927. Pearson Education, 2009.

Stylistic Crossover in Duke Ellington’s The Liberian Suite

In 1947, Duke Ellington composed a suite to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Republic of Liberia, whose independence was declared after thousands of freed American slaves had arrived in the African region. The Liberian Suite, which comprises six contrasting movements, was recorded on December 24 of that year, premiered at Carnegie Hall two days later, and released in October of 1949.

The first movement of the work, “I Like the Sunrise,” is a swing ballad in thirty-two bar AABA format with vocals. According to Ellington’s own words, as they appear in Patricia Willard’s liner notes, “‘I Like the Sunrise’ depicts the spirit of the people who left America to settle in Africa in 1847 from the perspective of man beaten down by the mail fist of slavery… The sunrise symbolizes hope. If you have another day, you have another chance.”

This depiction is also recreated in the outline and texture of the movement. The melody and chords of the introduction are built mostly with the octatonic scale, whose symmetrical structure involves intervals that are difficult to aurally relate to each other and thus sound dissonant and conflicting. Ellington uses these musical qualities to represent the pain and darkness of slavery. In contrast, the head of the tune is peaceful. The orchestration is consonant; the rhythmic phrasing is even; Al Hibbler’s vocals sound clean and pure; and the texture of the accompaniment is soft and relaxed. Supporting the lyrics, the calmer sonority represents the hope and optimism that arises from freedom.

Ellington has disregarded musical categories in order to compose freely and find his own artistry throughout his life. In the 1962 interview “The Art Is in the Cooking,” conducted by Stanley Dance, Ellington declared that “A listener who has first to decide whether this is proper form when a musician plays or writes something – that’s not good. It’s a matter of ‘how does it sound?’” (333).

He has also explained that the fusion of styles yields the process of art evolution, in which artists inspire one another, incorporate different forms of expression into their own musicality, and blend the idioms subconsciously, creating new vocabulary:

Yes, just about every musician has been inspired by another musician, has adopted characteristics of his style and clothed them in his own personality. Some people have done it very skillfully and deliberately. Others have done it, you might say, grabbing at a straw. It may surprise you, but I think those who have done it grabbing at a straw are the ones who have come up with the nearest thing to something new (335).

The Liberian Suite is not an exception to that notion, and it combines elements from several styles: jazz, impressionism, latin-bolero, romanticism, contemporary music, and Stravinsky’s music.

The theme of the introduction to “I Like the Sunrise” stems from the octatonic scale, comprising three descending intervals: a tone, a minor third, and a half-tone:

Image: main motif for “I Like the Sunrise” on staff notation.

It is played and developed by different horns, such as the baritone saxophone, which expands it on the third beat of measure eight, or the trumpet, which transforms it to create a tonal variation in bar three.

The octatonic scale does not come from jazz. Igor Stravinsky frequently used it for his compositions, notably in Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). Both became widely known, especially the latter one, and Ellington, following the conception of enriching the musical spirit ignoring artificial categorizations, did not hesitate in adopting language that he judged appropriate for his purposes.

The second movement, “Dance No. 1,” has a similar structure to the first one: while the rubato introduction is dissonant and strident, the head is clear harmonically and rhythmically.

Again, Ellington uses vocabulary not related to jazz. At 0:50, in the introduction, the clarinet plays the whole-tone scale, another symmetrical scale whose intervals sound clashing. This element appears also at the very beginning of the piece in the bass line. The whole-tone scale has become popular in western music in the impressionism period, mainly developed by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Six years before The Liberian Suite, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s arranger since 1939, had already combined impressionistic language with jazz in his composition “Chelsea Bridge.” As Walter van de Leur explains in Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, “The main compositional idea of Chelsea Bridge… as well as its subdued orchestral colors, allude to some of Debussy’s orchestral works” (51).

Besides using impressionistic language, Ellington echoes Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. At 1:06 and 1:26, with a dissonant, rough, and loud quality, intermittent sforzati evoke the last number of the famous ballet, “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One),” in which the chords’ notes are clustered so tightly that the resulting effect is almost purely percussive:

“Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).” The Rite of Spring.

Image: Measure 83 of Stravinsky’s “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)” on staff notation.

Finally, improvisation, the signature of jazz, also takes place, in this case performed by the tenor saxophonist during the head.

The introductions of the first two movements share the same motif as a theme: the above-mentioned descending sequence of a tone, a minor third, and a half-tone. The juncture reveals how Ellington economized resources recycling ideas to compose an extended piece. This is the method whereby long works, such as symphonies, are created. Two excerpts in which counterpoint is used are particularly related: the horn lines starting at 0:21 in “I Like the Sunrise” and the section from 1:15 to 1:51 in “Dance No. 1”:

“I Like the Sunrise” at 0:21

Image: “I Like the Sunrise” at 0:21 on staff notation.

“Dance No. 1” at 1:35

Image: “Dance No. 1” at 1:35 on staff notation.

“Dance No. 1” evolves into the head, a medium tempo jazz tune that starts with a walking bass line. The tenor saxophone plays the melody in a call and response arrangement with the brass section, and as soon as it comes in, the melody shows another theme connection, this time between the heads of both movements.

In the head of “I Like the Sunrise,” the antecedent of the A theme comprises two cells. The first one consists of the tonic note repeated twice, the major third, and the fifth. Hibbler allows certain flexibility in the rhythm, but the last two notes of the melody are always an eighth note followed by a dotted quarter note.

Similarly, the first cell of the theme in the monothematic head of “Dance No. 1” consists of the tonic note repeated four times, and its last two notes are an eighth note and a quarter note. Furthermore, at 2:15, the last two notes of the motif are the third and the fifth instead of the tonic. This adjustment turns the cell into an exact reiteration of the first movement motif. The only difference is the mode of the third, which in the second movement appears as minor. This variation is particularly comparable to Hibbler’s vocals at 3:53 in “I Like the Sunrise.”

“I Like the Sunrise” at 3:53 “Dance No. 1” at 2:15
Image: “I Like the Sunrise” at 3:53 on staff notation. Image: “Dance No. 1” at 2:15 on staff notation.

“Dance No. 1” segues into the third movement, “Dance No. 2,” speeding up the tempo, going into fast swing. This section features the clarinet and the celesta. Continuing with the recycling of ideas, the A theme of the third movement has been composed using the introduction of “I Like the Sunrise,” too: its second cell contains all the intervals in the descending sequence, with the addition of a perfect fourth between the minor third and the half tone:

Image: “Dance No. 2” motif on staff notation.

In “Dance No. 2,” the bass walks and the drum set marks the swing rhythm on the ride cymbal. But although the movement has mainly jazz characteristics, including also the improvisation of both soloists, the participation of the celesta adds a classical touch. More remarkably, during the coda, the bowed bass and the timpani roll, while supporting the strident brass, generate a texture that resembles a symphonic orchestra.

The introduction of “Dance No. 3” features two soloists: the piano, accompanied by a timpani roll, and the violin. In his solo, Duke plays notes on both extremes of the piano simultaneously. The resultant wide range is characteristic of Arnold Schönberg’s dodecaphony, although in this case Ellington doesn’t use atonality, Schönberg’s most distinctive aspect. “The Clothed Woman,” written in the same year, reveals yet more of the influence of the German composer on Ellington.

Soon, the piano solo evolves into romanticism. The excerpt starting at 0:19 is particularly similar in content and quality to measure 138 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “Pathétique.” In both passages, the fifth note of the key and diverse chord inversions alternated at regular intervals are played delicately.

“Dance No. 3” at 0:19 “Pathétique”
Image: “Dance No. 3” at 0:19 on staff notation. Image: Measure 183 of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” on staff notation.

After the piano solo, Ray Nance plays one chorus of the melody on violin, and the orchestra stops and gives him space for a cadenza. In a romantic style resembling that of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor, Nance shows his virtuosity playing chords, notes of the violin’s highest register, and thrills; then, the orchestra comes in. The rhythm section accompanies the baritone sax first and then the rest of the violin solo in cha-cha style, with the drummer hitting on the wooden side of the toms, creating a sound similar to the clave and percussion set. The melody is then re-introduced by the trumpet and accompanied in the same manner.

“Dance No. 4” follows next. It is a fast swing piece in which the timpani, a classical instrument set, replace the drums taking a solo and accompanying the many saxophone solis full of jazz-style vibratos and glissandos. Adding variety, the lead trombone brings the whole-tone scale back to life within a soli at 0:46.

The sixth and last movement, “Dance No. 5,” is a medium-slow tempo tune. It starts with a bass ostinato that is maintained throughout and supports the ubiquitous plunger-style brass passages. This contrasting combination is typical of the compositional style of Ellington’s earliest works. One example is “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” (1920) which involves legendary plunger-style trumpeter Bubber Miley. As Gunther Schuller describes in Early Jazz, for this piece “Ellington… has arranged a moaning, sustaining passage for the saxophones and tuba that provides both framework and contrast to Miley’s line…. Here we find a dramatic example of what has been called the ‘Ellington effect’” (327). By this means, the Duke closes the suite echoing classic Negro jazz.

Duke Ellington’s philosophy that categorization is artificial has been his means for expanding his artistry all his life. It is not to be understood that the Duke had not recognized the differences between styles of music and that his musical fusion process is a consequence of his ignorance. His rejection of categories reveals his effort in fostering his individual evolution, instead of labeling art. Ellington has been very aware that “[e]verybody who’s had anything to say in music –all the way back– has been an individualist,” as he says in Nat Hentoff’s 1965 article “This Cat Needs No Pulitzer Prize” (364).

Categories provide a certain idea of what can be expected from a given object, process, or form of expression. When an object of analysis does not fall under any category, such as a new musical style or a fusion of styles, the listener feels the anguishing discomfort that arises from unpredictability.

The same phenomenon occurs when people interact. By categorizing people into different labels—races—and belonging to one of them, human being feels more secure, living under the illusion that he can predict how his fellow man will behave—at least within certain boundaries. Also, race categorization provides the false notion that whites have more in common with themselves than with blacks. This is an innocent misconception. Although cultural differences exist, regardless of race, people behave according to their own feelings and personality.

Ironically, the rejection of musical categories does not reside in ignoring the differences in styles, but in allowing the free usage of elements of different type. Parallel, racial integration does not consist in eliminating disparity, but in celebrating diversity. What Duke is proving through music, perhaps even unintentionally, is that blacks and whites can work towards the same end, because the differences are only superficial, and even though people can still be radically different, they still share the same essence: humanity.

The fusion of different styles of music (particularly the fusion of jazz with European music styles) and Ellington’s freedom in combining musical elements represent the process of integration of human races (mainly blacks and whites). One hundred years after Liberia’s foundation, the Duke reminds all races that the striving towards a world wher man lives under the principles of mutual dignity, equality, and respect is possible.

Works Cited

  • Dance, Stanley. “The Art Is in the Cooking.” The Duke Ellington Reader. Ed. Tucker, Mark. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Ellington, Duke. The Liberian Suite. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Columbia, 2004 (1949).
  • Hentoff, Nat. “This Cat Needs No Pulitzer Prize.” The Duke Ellington Reader. Ed. Tucker, Mark. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986 (1968).
  • Stravinsky, Igor. The Rite of Spring.
  • van Beethoven, Ludwig. Piano Sonata No 8 “Pathétique” in C minor.
  • van de Leur, Walter. Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002
  • Willard, Patricia. Liner Notes. Ellington Uptown. Columbia 87066, 2003.

Ted Greene: The Legacy Lives On

Many jazz masters left their footprints in their audiences’ hearts during the century that jazz has been alive, and their names resound loudly in the music of their followers: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. These and many others have earned their roles as ambassadors of the New Orleanian style, and they can be found on diverse types of media, from CDs to magazines and history textbooks. Nonetheless, below the tip of the iceberg, hidden figures have developed innovative ways to create music that lie dormant waiting to be discovered: the music of the neglected jazz masters.

One of these masters is the late Californian guitar hero Ted Greene, who stands out for several traits: a unique conception of solo-guitar arranging linked to baroque music, technical ability that allows him to play contrapuntal passages easily on guitar, a modernistic style in harmonizations, a wide timbral palette, his educational capabilities, and above all, a welcoming and humble personality that earned him the status of role model for some of the best guitar players in the world.

As a lead artist, Greene released only one album in his entire career, Solo Guitar (1977), a collection of arrangements of jazz songs and traditional tunes. Each arrangement shows how Greene weaves several melodies into a smooth fabric, as for example, in “Danny Boy.” The following excerpt shows how each of the melodies can be independent and at the same time how they all fuse to create harmony.

“Danny Boy” at 1:07.  Guitar tuned a half step down (pitches sound a half step lower than written) with 6th String = D flat.

Image of "Danny Boy" excerpt in staff notation.

Taking this technique further, Greene plays walking bass lines, chords, and melodies, all at the same time, applying this technique to both the head of jazz standards and solo sections.

“Just Friends” and “They Can’t Take that Away from Me” illustrate Greene’s level of mastery on the instrument regarding this technique. Yet the guitarist does not settle for an arrangement in which many independent voices are simply present. He also shapes the character of each line according to its role. The walking bass line sounds as played on a double bass, and the soprano voice stands out as having a main role. Greene achieves this effect by considering mannerisms that stem from other instruments’ characteristics. Because the strings of the double bass are harder and thicker than those of the guitar, they offer more resistance to the left fingers. As a consequence, on a bass, a string might start vibrating after a finger leaves it, as it suddenly returns to its original position in the absence of a pressing force, and the sudden movement of the string results in the beginning of a vibration cycle. This phenomenon results in the brief unintentional sound of the open string while the bassist changes the position of a left finger to a new note, and the outcome is a percussive effect in between beats, which the bass player may intentionally regulate into a triplet subdivision to make it part of a jazz tune’s groove. Although guitar strings do not offer such a strong resistance to a performer’s fingers, knowing that the bass’s percussive effect has become part of the jazz style and not only a consequence of a physical impediment, Greene imitates the effect by intentionally letting the lower open strings sound in between notes. This consideration allows Greene’s arrangement to convey the illusion of a bass-guitar duet. On the other hand, notes of the soprano voice are carefully sustained while lower voices are played. While this is standard practice in an ensemble setting or a piano solo arrangement, guitar limitations make this approach a non-idiomatic resource.

Probably the greatest influence on Greene’s capacity to deal with many voices and treat them independently was his study on baroque and neo-baroque music, two styles that reside in polyphony. Ted Greene’s knowledge of baroque and neo-baroque has been widely reported on several media, including TedGreene.com: The Legacy Lives On, a central source of information where Greene’s own students regularly receive, collect, and post private lesson material dealing with many guitar topics. Greene directly talks about the connection between his solo arranging approach and baroque music in his 1993 master class, available on Youtube as “Ted Greene 1993 GIT Seminar pt. 3,” which took place at the Guitar Institute of Technology, an affiliate of Music Institute of California: “the root movements of Bach… those are just like those old standard tunes…. These kinds of progressions… have been around for a long time. It’s still the same stuff,” he says as he improvises a walking bass line, solo line, and chords on “Autumn Leaves” (6:25). Greene also explains his conception of Bach’s music: “Implied chords. That’s what Bach did. Bach teaches us that his music is about chord tones that are stitched together with either scale tones or chromatics, and the genius is that there are motifs binding it all together, themes… but if somebody wrote in a similar style but didn’t use actual themes, they could still get the effect of the harmonic environment of a Bach, if they knew his harmonic vocabulary” (2:41). Based on all these accounts, it is possible to establish that Greene’s interest in and knowledge of baroque music aided him in the development of his solo arranging style capable of polyphony. Additionally, the incidental connection between jazz and baroque music through similar chord progressions (cycle of fifths) and moving bass lines (the baroque basso continuo and jazz walking bass line) made the music of Bach a practical model whereby Greene could develop mature arranging and performing techniques.

Another of Greene’s musical incorporations in his style, taken most likely from jazz pianists, can be seen in his voicing choice. The introduction to “They Can’t Take that Away from Me” on Solo Guitar shows how Greene moves far away from typical guitar voicings. The progression constitutes a chromatic cycle of fifths that supports a soprano voice moving independently. Greene strategically selects rootless altered dominants of four or five notes, creating a dissonant texture by using the tritone and two of the dominant’s alterations or far extensions, such as the sharp ninth or the thirteenth.

“They Can’t Take that Away from Me” at 0:00. Guitar tuned a half step down (pitches sound a half step lower than written).

Image of "They Can’t Take that Away from Me" excerpt in staff notation.

These quartal dissonant chords resemble Bill Evans’s voicings and are played within the uppermost frets of the guitar, a usually neglected area. Thus this approach addresses the need to incorporate universal jazz vocabulary beyond the resources that the instrument offers.

Ted Greene stands out as a solo arranger and performer by achieving polyphony on the guitar, giving different voices independent treatment simultaneously, and incorporating piano and bass resources into guitar playing. These accomplishments are all the more admirable when observed in the context of the year Solo Guitar came out, when nobody was doing anything similar at that time or before. Wes Montgomery had incredible command of the fretboard on chord soloing and captured a wide range of audiences with his particular touch, but he never established polyphonic textures, much less develop such an unusual stylistic crossover. A similar comparison could be made between Ted Greene and Joe Pass, who was a pioneer on progressions with walking bass lines but did not achieve the voice independence present in Greene’s style. Furthermore, Pass did not develop a technique that would allow him to play walking bass, chords, and melodies at the same time, although he was able to stand alone solidly and improvise on jazz standards with his own accompaniment. Pass and Montgomery’s music was significant in and of itself, and Greene’s development does not invalidate or diminish either performer’s accomplishments. Measuring artists against each other is like comparing apples and oranges, and competition is not the point of this observation, as all music has its own right to be enjoyed and preferred. Nevertheless, these contrasts point out that Ted Greene was indeed one of the greatest jazz masters of all times, as we can perceive in Greene a high degree of musicality development and unique innovative contributions to music and jazz guitar in particular.

Six months after Ted Greene passed away, Guitar Player published the article “Vibrant Voicings: Ted Greene’s Tips and Examples” in the November 2005 issue, to honor the late master. Steve Vai, one of the greatest rock stars in the world, famous for his dexterity on the instrument, comments on Greene’s capacities: “Ted’s command of the instrument was supreme, and it was clear he had the deepest ears that music could flow through. He was not only defying the technical physics of jazz chord-melody voicings by playing melodies, chord changes, and bass lines all at the same time, he was making them all flow together organically. I would invite my friends over to listen to [Solo Guitar] and tell them that it was just one guy playing the guitar. They thought I was lying to them” (104).

Innumerable Youtube videos show Greene developing arrangements while comfortably discussing music principles. Because of the great variety of circumstances in which the guitarist was playing, and considering each arrangement’s freshness and originality, it is clear that Greene had not only mastered solo performance skills. Ted Greene was able to improvise three-part arrangements. Beth Marlis, instructor at GIT, comments on this aspect of his technique in “Vibrant Voicings”: “along with two other GIT instructors, we found [Greene] crammed in the corner next to the desert tray [at a local restaurant] playing the most amazing improvised counterpoint medley—a solo guitar tour the force that spanned multiple styles and stretched for 45 minutes in an unbroken stream” (107). Vai also recalls Ted Greene playing “The Star Spangled Banner”: “He went through it about four times completely, brilliantly reharmonizing the melody differently each time. Each rendition was unique, and probably would have taken the most accomplished of guitar players hours if not days… of work to master, but Ted improvised it all on the spot. He did this repeatedly and with casual ease” (104).

In the quest to master his solo performance style, Ted Greene developed additional innovations in left and right hand guitar techniques. He trained his left hand to play double stops, a procedure in which a finger falls perpendicularly on the fretboard in the middle of two strings and stops both. Double-stop differs from semi-barre, a left hand technique that requires bending the phalanx backwards and flattening the fingertip parallel to the fretboard. In semi-barre, as a result of the finger’s length, the finger must depress at least three strings. With double stops, it is possible to depress only two adjacent strings while letting the ones below and above vibrate freely. This allows the guitar more flexibility in handling several voices, as the production of independent sounds on the guitar depends on the number of available strings.

On the other hand (literally), Greene did not rely on a plectrum, so his right index was free to play an extra note. Typically, jazz guitarists hold a pick between the index and thumb, even when comping, although they can involve the other three fingers in the execution of chords. Thus, they can normally sound up to four notes simultaneously, but Green was able to sound five, a resource that gave him more freedom in voiceleading. This technique is common in classical guitar execution, but it is infrequent in the electric one.

Greene’s facility on the instrument did not blind him from other aspects of music. An expressive artist, Greene handled a wide palette of tones. In the words of renowned guitarist Pino Marrone, one of Greene’s own students, the late master had “a gorgeous tone, and the delicate touch that made… notes ring like bells” (106). At the request of one student at the 1993 master class, Greene begins an improvised arrangement on “Autumn Leaves” alternating baroque and jazz vocabulary. For the baroque section, Greene switches from a warm, rounded sound, with emphasis on the low end of the sound spectrum, to a crystal quality, high-end timbre that resembles a harpsichord, suitable for the clarity of contrapuntal lines.

Ted Greene’s ability for sound production is based on his awareness of two of its most important aspects: sound setup and performing technique. Regarding the former, in “Ted Greene – Telecaster Setup & Sound,” by Youtube user TedGreeneArchives, Greene explains how he customized his own telecaster to achieve his desired sound. The video shows a private lesson with student Nick Stasinos, where Greene elaborates on his setup: “the pick up is dropped… really low; the screws are out. That’s what we did to [John Pisano’s] guitar, to make it better. It gets rid of the mud, if you don’t want the mud. But it leaves some sparkle, because the bolt pieces are not [there]… I was doing this [in the 70s]” (2:01). Greene goes on to play an excerpt demonstrating the “crystally, glassy” quality of the sound, calling it a “Fenderish” tone, demonstrating his familiarity with several types of guitars and their sounds. Additionally, he gives advice to the student regarding the interaction between different types of pickups and strings: “the old [telecaster model’s] pickup with thick strings gives you a steel guitar tone… This [other option] is giving me some of the tele’s bang right now, ‘cause I got the thin, later [model’s] pickup with the raised magnets, with these big strings. So I use it to get that juice upstairs, that kind of thin air, but not obnoxious,” referring to the higher end of the sound spectrum (4:21).

Additionally, in the workshop of December 14, 2003 hosted by California Vintage Guitar, Greene plays a variety of arrangements, each on a different guitar. Unfortunately Youtube videos of this workshop focus mainly on Greene’s performance, and so selected clips leave the guitarist’s explanations somewhat incomplete. Nevertheless, viewers of different videos of that same clinic can appreciate that Greene’s procedure in the class is to demonstrate different timbral possibilities with each instrument. Furthermore, he explains why a particular instrument enhances the sound of a particular selection. Referring to the guitars he has brought to the workshop, he says, for example in “Ted Greene–Playing the Blues–December 2003” by deparko: “The Gibson guitar is very polite, well mannered… not really suited for the blues. This [other] one’s a little unruly” (0:05).

During the same video, Greene adds that the guitar is tuned lower than the standard configuration. Tuning is another factor that affects tone production, and lowering it enforces the low end. Greene’s album, as a matter of fact, uses alternate tuning. On the forum “Ted’s Tunings on Solo Guitar,” from Greene’s website, a writer registered as Jerome, taking the information from Jim Hilmer, writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine, lists three different tuning sets used in the album, all lower than standard tuning and one of them a minor third lower.

Greene’s knowledge of sound and technology propelled his development of tone. Yet, Ted Greene was aware of and used performance techniques involved in tone production, as well. One of them has already been mentioned: using the right hand fingers without a plectrum. Apart from sounding five notes at the same time, Greene was able to use his thumb to generate a warmer sound. This resource enabled him to play walking bass lines with a more rounded tone, a sound reflecting the lower end of the spectrum, because the human skin delivers less attack than a pointy plectrum when playing a note. In addition, in his method book, Modern Chord Progressions, Greene instructs students to pay attention to the position of the right hand for tone production: “Holding your right wrist up away from the guitar puts your fingers into a position where it is easier to achieve good tone… [J]ust start out with a moderate high (about 2 to 3 inches… Incidentally, if you play with a thumb pick, you won’t be able to hold your wrist up as far and, in fact, you may not find it desirable to hold your wrist up at all” (6).
A subtle clue in “Ted Greene – Telecaster Setup & Sound” hints at Greene’s awareness of the difference between plucking the strings on the neck position, to produce a warm sound, or on the bridge position, to emphasize the high end: during the video, Greene says that the sound is influenced by a guitarist’s gear “as much as the touch,” and as he says “touch,” he alternates the position of his right wrist between both the neck and the bridge positions. While for classical guitarists, who do not rely on electric amplification or equalization, taking this difference into account is daily routine, for electric guitar players this awareness is quite uncommon.

Greene’s devotion to tone production is clearly illustrated in the following passage, from “Ted’s Tunings on Solo Guitar,” by Dan Sawyer, one of the writers in TedGreene.com:

[o]ne of the first things Ted did when [trying out] a guitar… was figuring out in which register it sounded the best. So, he would play progressions all over the neck, noting things like, “triads on the middle strings sound really fat around the 9th fret” or “listen to the harpsichord-type tone above the 12th fret”. While doing this, he would also try all the various pickup combinations. It was an almost scientific way of evaluating tone… Ted would often realize that a guitar would sound better in a different pitch [tuning system].

A restless explorer of timbral possibilities, Ted Greene was a master at the execution of artificial harmonics. As Larry Coryell noted in “Vibrant Voicings,” Greene “was one of the first to use artificial harmonics in an advanced way” (110). In the technique to play artificial harmonics, while a left hand finger depresses a string, the right index is laid softly twelve frets above that note (one octave higher), on the same string. Then the right thumb plucks the string, and the resulting sound is the first harmonic in the overtone series, the pitch one octave above the fundamental note. Because harmonics are sine waves, these notes sound like bells. Nevertheless, Greene does not play artificial harmonics in an isolated manner. He mixes both harmonics and regular notes into musical phrases, either in arrangements or improvisations. Furthermore, Greene generates an even texture by bringing both harmonics and regular notes together into a balance of articulation and volume, and he handles the regular notes flexibly by the legato articulations hammer-on and pull-off. The combination of rapid flexibility of regular notes and sine-wave purity of harmonics results in phrases with a tone as delicate as a harp’s.

Ted Greene was an accomplished and innovative musician, and perhaps his musical development makes it more surprising that in his profession he was mainly a teacher. In the California Vintage Guitar master class of May 18 of 2003, he says: “when I see my name in printed cases, they always call me a jazz player, and I definitely like jazz a lot, but it seems that when I look at my background, most of my time… has been spent on research… I didn’t mean to be a guitar teacher, I just fell in love with it” (9:30). Indeed, as an instructor Greene could convey the same humanity as he did as a performer. Ted Greene’s master classes show his interaction with groups of students. Greene is humble and natural, taking every one of the crowd’s ovations with a humility that is close to shyness, expressing the same attitude by his body language. These traits present him as an approachable person, and thus the students are able to trust him and communicate with him. Greene shows himself as a very open minded person, and rather than centering his discussions on topics and concepts, which he also transmits clearly, he focuses on empowering students to go their own way and challenge established tendencies. In the “GIT master class of 1993, part 2”, Green discusses tonal centers while vamping on an A minor Dorian progression: “if we vamp to a chord like this,” he says while playing a specific voicing, “our ears say that we are in the key [of A minor Dorian] still… Now, the one note that we’d be really surprised to be playing… would be, what?… C sharp… right… but here [it] is,” he says showing the major third hidden in the middle of the voicing. Then he goes on to tell his students that concepts and knowledge are “all good stuff” but “can inhibit you sometimes from seeing the big picture… Don’t think any notes are bad… Everything’s in the key; everything’s in every key… It’s just an effect” (0:30).

Ted Greene wrote three method books in his life, Chord Chemistry, Modern Chord Progressions, and Jazz Guitar Single Note Soloing, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. A great number of Greene’s lessons have been well documented on TedGreene.com, under the subjects blues/jazz, chords, single note, baroque, harmony, tunes, fundamental, comping, and others by his own students, the creators of the site. The amount of material available shows Greene’s capabilities as an instructor, but more importantly, the students’ affective reaction to Greene’s unexpected death, their preservation of his legacy by starting a website, shows the strong connection between the guitarist and his community, the high value that the educator represented for his students, and how much they identified with him. In “Vibrant Voicings,” Pino Marrone says:

Above all, Ted is one of the very few musicians I met who was a living example of the dignity and beauty of the teaching career as a way of life, not just as a means of making a living. This played a huge part in my becoming a guitar instructor (106).

Steve Lukather adds:

The wealth of info and technique in [Greene’s] books will always be the standard escape route for any player who wants to break out of ‘the box’ on guitar. Chord Chemistry is a book that will live forever (107).

Beth Marlis speaks to the same effect:

For the last couple of years I invited the ever-humble Ted to GIT to teach. He was hesitant at first, because, believe it or not, he was concerned that nobody would be interested in what he was doing! Quite the contrary… he would hold court with students limitlessly for hours on end (107).

Finally, Eric Johnson illustrates how Greene was truthful to the principles he taught to his students:

Ted was an ocean to learn from. One thing that made his playing especially beautiful was his humility and his pure love for music… He was the eternal student, forever inspired and never feeling like he had mastered the guitar (110).

Ted Greene achieved a unique approach to guitar playing. He was able to play jazz standards using complex voiceleading by applying baroque music’s general principles to solo guitar arranging. This route led him to develop the unusual left and right hand techniques that came to serve his purposes. Additionally, Greene incorporated universal musical vocabulary more common to piano and bass performance and small ensemble settings into his guitar playing, and he developed a perception and knowledge of tone that led him to construct a wide expressive palette and master the artificial harmonics technique. All aspects of his musicality became integrated into his playing flow in a manner that humbled some of the greatest guitar players in the world who heard him play. To top it all off, Greene was humble and objective, an essential condition to be, not only a competent instructor, but also an educator capable of transmitting the love of music and empower students to become the best they can be. This is the treasure that has moved his community to preserve Greene’s music and spread it into the hearts of future generations, as they say, “The Legacy of Ted Greene Lives On.”

Works Cited

TedGreene.com: The Legacy Lives On. July, 2005. Contributors: Franklin, Barbara, Dan Sawyer, Adam Tyler, Bob Rissman, Doug Miers, Dan Sindel, Paul Vachon, Mark Levy, Leon White, William Perry, Jeff Brown, Brent Block, Rick Katz, John Walmsley, Lisa Walmsley, John Pisano, Mark Thornbury, Jay Graydon, Nick Stasinos, Bob Holt. November 1, 2011. http://www.tedgreene.com

Greene, Ted. Modern Chord Progressions. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Pub. Co., 1985.

—. Solo Guitar. Art of Life Records, 1977, 2005.

—. “Vibrant Voicings.” Guitar Player. Ed. Adam Levy. Nov. 2005: 104-110.

Youtube user ClubsAndWedge. “Ted Greene 1993 GIT Seminar pt. 2.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. August 21, 2008. November 1, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_NIuYotHJY

—. “Ted Greene 1993 GIT Seminar pt. 3.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. August 21, 2008. November 1, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyZ_0ByMNpY

Youtube user deparko. “Ted Greene – Playing the Blues – December 2003.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. November 7, 2006. November 1, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJSABbXwKxU

Youtube user TedGreeneArchives. “Ted Greene – Telecaster Setup & Sound.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. August 29, 2010. November 1, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_nkUSKPJeU

—. “Ted Greene Seminar – California Vintage Guitar 5-18-03 part 1.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. January 28, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaddZmtvhdQ

Inside The Wall: Roger Water’s Inner Experience

Roger Waters’s 1979 album The Wall, along with Alan Parker’s 1982 movie of the same title, recreates Waters’s abandonment of his protecting motherly bonds. As psychologist Erich Fromm explains in The Art of Loving, when a person fails in this process, he tends to escape the awareness of separateness to recreate the illusion of dependence. One of the means to attain this end is a psychic symbiotic union:

Symbiotic union has its biological pattern in the relationship between the pregnant mother and the foetus. They are two, and yet one. They live “together,” (sym-biosis), they need each other… In the psychic symbiotic union, the two bodies are independent, but the same kind of attachment exists psychologically (Fromm, 1956. 19).

Additionally, another means of escaping separateness lies in orgiastic states: “In a transitory state of exaltation the outside world disappears, and with it the feeling of separateness from it” (11).

In Waters’s case, his liberation from his motherly bonds was challenged by his situation. The combination of an over-protecting mother and fear of the external world, caused by the absence of his father and an intimidating childhood environment, led him to choose between the lesser of two evils: to avoid separateness by psychic dependence on a mother figure. Waters himself is aware of this phenomenon. As he says in the overlay commentary of the 2005 edition of The Wall, “[t]hose of us whose spirit and sexual identity have been crushed by our circumstances in early life tend to define our beings in terms of the relationships we develop, rather than individuals in our own rights” (49:11). Thus, Waters, as well as the main character in The Wall Pink, will search for mother substitutes in the form of symbiotic relationships to audiences, women, and himself and of orgiastic states, such as consumerism and violence. This expression is externalized through lyrics, music, film, and animation.

The work, both movie and album having minor differences, presents a story as a sequence of songs. The first two pieces present a subconscious problem: “In the Flesh?” says, “[i]f you wanna find out what’s behind these cold eyes/you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise,” and “The Thin Ice” introduces the idea of a thin layer of “modern life” covering a deeper chaos. Then several pieces express one component of Waters’s problem, the intimidating childhood environment: “Another Brick in the Wall Part 1” alludes to the absence of his father; “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Brick 2” refer to his frightening teachers; and “Goodbye Blue Sky” depicts war, the context in which his father died. At the same time, “Mother” illustrates the other component of Waters’s dilemma: an overbearing mother. In the song, Roger describes how all his life takes place under her supervision. Mother will “check all [his] girlfriends,” protect him, or “make all [his] nightmares come true,” and the culmination of the song, is “of course mother’s gonna help build the wall.” Drawing a biographical parallel, a dialogue between Waters and the animator Scarfe points at an absorbing mother as well:

Waters: Do you think there is something fundamental about the kinds of mothers who insist that you are hideously embarrassed by wearing short trousers until you are fourteen?…
Scarfe: I think they are trying to keep their little boy as long as possible (14:43).

Reading between the lines, we can infer that Waters’s mother had her own identity problems and promoted her own symbiotic relationship to Roger. In these terms we can understand the wall as a symbol for a mother that simultaneously protects and isolates him. Conversely, every negative experience in Roger’s childhood constitutes, as the song states, “another brick in the wall”; with every intimidation, young Roger is pushed further back to his protecting mother, the only available alternative to overcome a threatening world.

The next song in the sequence, either “What Shall We Do Now” in the movie or “Empty Spaces” in the album, marks the beginning of Pink’s and Roger’s searches for mother substitutes, as it asks “what shall we use to fill the empty spaces?” By referring to emptiness, this sentence shows the artist’s intolerance to being alone and his need to be attached to anything that can deny his individuality. The song in the movie offers several alternatives that will appear in the plot: applause, consumerism, romantic relationships, music, violence, and necrophilia. An animation complements the song as Pink transforms into symbols of those alternatives: a woman, ice cream representing female sexuality or a mother’s sweetness, a machinegun, a guitar, and a BMW (39:36). Thus the protagonist sets out to find and adequate substitute that can absorb his identity.
The next song shows that he starts with romantic relationships. In “Young Lust” the singer introduces himself as “just a new boy/stranger in this town,” asking for a girl to “show this stranger around.” Thus the protagonist asks a woman to take responsibility for him. In addition, an animation in the movie shows flowers having sex evolving into pseudo-human creatures fighting each other until the female devours—a way to absorb—the male (36:36).
Another sign of Waters’s need for a girlfriend as a mother substitute can be inferred from the similarity between “Mother” and “Pigs on the Wings,” one of Waters’s love songs, whose lyrics show his need for protection from pigs on the wing rather than love:

“Mother” at 3:41

Image of an excerpt of “Mother” on staff notation

“Pigs on the Wing1” at 0:29

Image of an excerpt of “Pigs on the Wing1” on staff notation

The harmony, the key, the melody’s rhythm and contour, the tempo, and the guitar accompaniment are quite similar. Apparently for Waters there is little difference between singing to his mother and singing to his girlfriend, a characteristic that shows his interest in women primarily as mother substitutes.

Additionally, this trait of Roger’s had already been laid out in Animals, the album before The Wall. In Animals, “Dogs,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” and “Sheep,” depict stereotypes of differently corrupted human characters, and they are placed between “Pigs on the Wing,” parts 1 and 2, in which Roger expresses the need for a woman to protect him from the threats illustrated by the animals: “a dog needs a home/a shelter from pigs on the wing.” As quoted by Nicholas Schaffner in Saucerful of Secrets, Waters declared to be “something of a ‘dog,’” and that “he was in love” (Schaffner, 214). Reading between the lines we can establish that Waters perceives the world as a dangerous place and looks for a woman for shelter instead of love.

The first attempt at a mother substitute is romance; however, “One of My Turns” and “Don’t Leave Me Now” both express disappointment at love affairs, which fail because they stem from the wrong foundation: the need for protection and alienation rather than actual love. With “Don’t Leave Me Now” in the background, the film shows Pink’s ex-wife making love with a second man, with whom she left. This scene is parallel to Waters’s experience of losing his partner Joan, who as he recalls in the movie’s overlay commentary, told him over the phone that she had fallen in love with somebody else (36:00). Although it is hard to establish the circumstances of Waters’s break up, a dialogue between the musician and the animator hints at Joan’s frustration at lack of love in her relationship due to Waters’s mother-fixation:

Scarfe: He’s smuggling up his mom with his girlfriend
Waters: Which can happen, if you haven’t had the right therapy (31:56).

The animation at 50:10 supports this idea: as Pink watches TV, the shadow of his ex-wife appears on the wall, turns into a monster (the phantasm of his absorbing mother) and chases him around the room. The cartoon implies that Roger is simultaneously looking for and running away from romantic relationships. Although they protect him, he can only conceive them as a total denial of his individuality and integrity, which he consequently fears losing.

Since the first attempt at replacing mother fails, Pink expands his quest for mother substitutes, as shown in the next song in the sequence, “Brick 3.” The song denies the need of love by stating that his relationship was “just another brick in the wall” and that he doesn’t “need anything at all.” Next, the song “Goodbye Cruel World” shows total withdrawal, indicating a growth in his need to avoid separateness, so from here on, Pink will pursue more radical forms of attachment to mother: necrophilia, self-withdrawal, orderliness, sadism, and violence.

To understand why they can play the role of mother it is necessary to examine what Fromm called “the anal-hoarding character.” As he explains in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, mother has a symbolic “double role… as goddess of creation and goddess of destruction… The same earth from which man is made… is the place to which the body is returned; the womb of mother becomes the tomb” (Fromm, 1973. 363). In this way, there are benign and malignant forms of psychical incest, and according to Fromm, mother fixated “children in whom no affective bonds emerge” tend to develop malignant incestuousness:

For them, mother is a symbol: a phantom rather than a real person. She is a symbol of earth… she is… the ground in which [the individual] wants to be buried. The reason for this development seems to be that the state of unmitigated aloneness is intolerable; if there is no way to be related to mother or her substitute by warm, enjoyable bonds, the relatedness to her and to the whole world must become one in final union in death (Fromm, 1973. 363).

As a consequence of the attraction to death, this type of individual develops necrophilia, which in a clinical sense does not necessarily mean sexual relationships with corpses but the attraction to whatever is dead, putrid, or decaying, including the attraction to feces and bowels.

Based on this reasoning we can understand that the song “Hey You” shows necrophilia as another alternative to a mother substitute: “the worms ate into his brain.” Worms are a fitting symbol for malignant incest, as their function is to decompose a body and unite it again with mother Earth. Waters himself is subtly aware of the connection between mother and necrophilia, although it is harder for the musician to put it in words. As Schaffner quotes him, “[t]he worms are symbols of negative forces within ourselves, [of] decay. The worms can only get at us because there isn’t any light or whatever in our lives” (Schaffner, 226). In this way, Waters associates necrophilous tendencies, the worms, or “negative forces within ourselves,” with the lack of benign mother substitutes, the absence of light. He does not manage to articulate, though, that both fulfill the same function: absorbing his personality.

In “Is There Anybody out There?” Pink moves on to self-withdrawal and orderliness, which as Fromm explains, are part of the anal-hoarding character as much as necrophilia and thus are also forms of mother substitutes: “the anal interest has to be understood as another, but symbolic expression of the anal[-hoarding] character.” Because of his necrophilous tendencies, the anal-hoarding character “cannot understand the self-replenishing function of all living substance,” so he “has only one way to feel safe in his relatedness to the world: by possessing and controlling it, since he is incapable of relating himself by love and productivity.” As a consequence, he “cannot endure things to be out of place and has to put them in order; in this way he controls space…” (Fromm, 1973. 293-4). Thus, the controlling attitude of irrational orderliness is a manifestation of a necrophilous attachment to mother, or anal-hoarding character.

Irrational orderliness is thus the next point in the film. With “Is There Anybody out There?” in the background, the movie portrays Pink after an outbreak of violence in his room, where he is lining up broken guitars, TVs, pieces of furniture, and other objects that remained after the destruction of the place. In the movie’s commentary, Scarfe tells Waters, “[t]his scene came of talking, I think, of what you do when you are going off your head. You get very meticulous.” (55:23). Thus, the artists are subtly aware of the connection between the hoarding syndrome, in Scarfe’s words “going off your head,” and orderliness, or “meticulousness.”

The following song, “Nobody Home,” depicts the idea of self-withdrawal, complemented in the movie, as the protagonist is completely absorbed in his activity—or rather passivity—of watching TV. Regarding this hobby, Roger Waters recalls in the movie’s commentary that “whenever [he] arrived at a hotel, the first thing [he] would do was switch the TV on” (44:07).
These failed quests for mother substitutes are followed in the album by the song “The Show Must Go on,” which establishes the need to continue the search. The next stage is violent domination, an expression of both an orgiastic state and the active form of a symbiotic relationship. To this purpose, the song “In the Flesh” portrays Pink as a dictator discriminating audience members for being different from him. The lyrics say “we are gonna find out where you fans really stand!,” referring to whether audience and leader can be one by a symbiosis based on obedience. Thus, the differences, and any individual found to be different, must be eliminated to achieve the union. This is why Pink’s audience is wearing masks: everybody loses his integrity in a symbiotic union. Domination is related to Waters leading great audiences and his stardom, and it is akin to his spitting on one of his fans, the event that triggered his motivation to produce The Wall. Thus, a biographical parallel is drawn between Pink the dictator and Waters the idol, and both situations are potential mother substitutes because they have in common the domination of large crowds as a symbiosis and as an orgiastic state. Aware of this connection, Waters compares dictatorships to music stardom: big concerts “owe more to Nuremberg rallies… than to art… hence [Pink’s] transformation” from star to dictator (1:12:36).

This violent form of mother substitution might take place upon a strong need for a symbiotic union, as it happens to Pink after his total retraction in “Goodbye Cruel World.” In this way, Pink’s development is parallel to Waters’s. Schaffner notices that a period of self-withdrawal set in after The Dark Side of the Moon: “the pressures inherent in following up such a blockbuster were so intense… that [Pink Floyd’s members] found themselves locked in a state of creative paralysis” (Schaffner, 187). In this way, we can consider the pressures from the music business on Roger Waters after Dark Side “just another brick in the wall.” Following that period of pressure when producing Wish You Were Here, whose lyrics also show self-withdrawal, Waters seems to have had domineering attitudes. As Schaffner puts it, in Wish You Were Here, “Roger got his way” (Schaffner, 199). More remarkably, during the production of The Wall, Roger attempted to dominate the band and his environment. As Schaffner says, “[s]everal published reports hinted at Dave, Nick, and Rick’s restlessness under Roger’s domination” (Schaffner, 233). Additionally, the author reports, “Roger had banished Bob Ezrin from the Floyd for the crime of shooting his mouth to the press” after “working [with him] cheek to cheek for a year.” In the author’s words, “[i]t was almost as if the fascistic impulses that The Wall ostensibly deplored were asserting themselves willy-nilly” (Schaffner, 243). Thus it is possible to observe that Roger underwent roughly the same stages as Pink: from total self-withdrawal to domination. Waters shows his partial degree of consciousness regarding this evolution, although he is not able to explain it thoroughly: “[t]he idea of a metamorphosis from [Pink’s] weakened condition into a Nazi demagogue… I suppose it’s my description of… something that can happen internally if you don’t externalize any of this stuff” (1:09:19).
“Run Like Hell” recreates both aspects of this stage of dictatorship, symbioses and violent orgiastic states, by a powerful symbolic allusion. The lyrics say, “[w]e’re gonna send you back to mother in a cardboard box.” The message is that individuality will not be accepted. Consequently, an individual will be sent back to a place where a symbiotic union is established: the mother’s womb, represented by the cardboard box. The significance of this symbolic ritual—cutting people into pieces, putting them in boxes and mailing them to their mothers—might be present in both the fiction in The Wall and the reality of dictatorial institutions.

After “Waiting for the Worms,” which deals with necrophilia by an invitation to “follow the worms,” the sequence goes on to “Stop,” in which the protagonist takes a moment to reassess his life, and “The Trial” follows. The first part of “The Trial” shows Pink’s life in perspective: on one hand, his schoolteacher representing the inadequacy of father figures who would attempt to correct an individual by mistreatment, on the other, absorbing mother figures. The animation contributes to the recollections of his mother, as she appears as a plane that swallows Pink, turns into his mother, and whose arms finally extend and become the wall itself (1:26:40).

The second part of the song is the verdict and sentence. Although the judge seems to stand for society, Waters does not know the population’s opinion about his case—the spitting incident—nor are his charges representative of all legal cases. Additionally, he did not have any traumas arising from being on trial. Since Waters cannot construct social criticism on rational grounds, we must understand the judge as Waters’s projection of his own feelings about himself and the trial as a symbolic representation of his internal mental process: his individuation and abandonment of symbiotic unions. As the lyrics say, the accused “was caught red-handed showing feelings,” with a musical emphasis on feelings. As the lyrics in “Run Like Hell” remind us, it is wrong for the necrophilous character not to “keep your dirty feelings deep inside,” as they show individuality. The wife’s question, “have you broken any homes up lately?,” the only possible allusion in the trial to his crimes, is preceded by, “you had to go your own way,” which seems to be the main accusation. In addition, the judge condemns “the way [he] made them suffer, [his] exquisite wife and mother,” whose unfulfilled wish was, as Scarfe says, to “keep [her] little boy as long as possible.”

On these grounds we can understand that Pink and Roger’s crime is to betray their mother figures by becoming individuals, by acquiring self-awareness—and not the sadism in fiction or the spitting in real life per se. Roger’s self-awareness in real life comes from his shock at the spitting incident, and Pink’s from his feelings in “Stop.” Once they become aware of themselves, their prior equilibrium with the world is broken; hence, the judge’s sentence is not a real punishment but a symbolization of the impossibility to return to the state of dependence on a symbiosis: the irreversibility of the individuation process.

Thus, “The Trial” is analogous to the old biblical myth of Adam’s fall: Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, symbolizing humans acquiring self-awareness and reason, and God banishes them from paradise, which represents pre-human instinctive harmony with nature, or humans’ symbiotic union with the world. In “The Trial,” Pink’s feelings play the role of the tree of knowledge, the judge replaces God, and the confinement within the wall is akin to paradise.

For Waters, the eating of the apple is his reflection on the spitting incident, but the outcome of this reflection is a bit unclear. Individuation has a positive and a negative aspect. On one hand the person acquires independence and freedom; on the other, he loses security. The movie shows the negative aspect to Roger’s independence. Since the judge is portrayed as an ass or a worm, Waters’s own self-assessment is made from the perspective of the necrophilous character by his own malignant motherly conscience. Besides, the last song in the work, “Outside the Wall,” describes the external world once the wall has been torn down without dealing with Pink’s adaptation to his new situation. Regarding the interpretation of his own work, in Waters’s interview included in the 2005 edition of the movie, the artist is merely able to pronounce a few vague words: “It’s kind of open-ended… I guess… I’m fucking confused” (23:40). Since Roger’s self-assessment is an irrational punishment, a reasonable interpretation seems to be that Waters is trying to change, but he is attempting to force a change by blaming himself for who he is rather than developing a rational independence from the image and role of mother—a significant life change that would require great effort and time. Therefore this attempt fails, as he continues to treat himself like a little boy with a motherly conscience that dwells on the loss of dependence rather than valuing freedom—in other words, Waters does not know any better than relating to the world by symbiotic unions. These are the reasons why tearing down the wall appears not as a success achieved by Pink, the accomplishment of his independence, but as a self-imposed punishment, while he still remains a passive puppet. If these considerations are correct, it is irrelevant that in a 1979 interview with Tommy Vance Waters said that de-isolation “is a very good thing,” because the artist might intellectually understand the process as positive while not resolving his emotions correspondingly, thus rationalizing them.

In conclusion, The Wall portrays Waters’s need for mother substitutes. This need arose in his real life from biographical circumstances, particularly the combination of an absorbing mother and an intimidating environment, including an absent father, and the expression of his character had precedents in Animals and Wish You Were Here, as well as in Roger’s behavior after Dark Side of the Moon. This search for mother substitutes found its objects in symbiotic unions and orgiastic states of different kinds: romance, self-withdrawals, necrophilia, orderliness, sadism, and violence, and it culminated in Waters’s self-awareness, which rather than promoting self-improvement, dwells in self-punishment for not being a good boy, as he betrayed his self-retentive motherly conscience.

Works Cited

  • Fromm, Erich. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1973.
  • —. The Art of Loving. Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York, 1956.
  • Pink Floyd. Animals. EMI Records, 1977.
  • Pink Floyd. The Wall. EMI Records, 1979.
  • Schaffner, Nicholas. Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey. Dell Publishing: New York, 1991.
  • The Wall. Dir: Alan Parker. Perf. Bob Geldof, Christine Hargreaves, Eleanor David, Kevin McKeon. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1982. Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005.
  • Vance, Tommy. Interview. Roger Waters. BBC. Radio One, London. 1979.

The Transcription Process in the Music of Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has transcended the instruments for which it was composed. Bach’s organ works have been played by lutenists and guitarists; the violin partitas have been played on cello and even on woodwinds. Since different instruments offer different technical challenges and possibilities, transcriptions require adaptations to maintain coherence in the music, and this process affects both writer and performer. In the case of Bach’s suite BWV 1011 originally for cello, we find adaptations to lute and classical guitar. As part of the adaptation process, Bach has modified the piece in the lute score, and performers have reworked their own technique, adjusting it to the intent of a piece that has not been designed for their instrument.

To understand the adaptation process it is necessary to compare the instruments involved. The most notable difference between bowed string instruments, like the cello, and plucked string instruments, like the guitar or lute, is their control and scope of intensity levels. The guitar and lute are quite soft, whereas the cello can be much louder. This difference can be perceived clearly by comparing pizzicato notes with bowed notes on the same instrument, as pizzicato notes are much softer. In addition, bowing makes crescendos possible, whereas once a plectrum or finger has left a string nothing can increase its fading volume.

Another difference between the cello and the lute or guitar is their potential to play chords. Whereas cellists can play only two notes at the same time, guitarists and lutenists can play five, one for every finger of the right hand. However, the effect of simultaneous notes can be expanded by techniques on either instrument. Bowed string instruments can play broken chords of up to four notes by sounding the lowest pair of notes immediately followed by the highest pair. On plucked string instruments, performers can use the strumming technique, in which the right thumb can sweep all of the instrument’s strings and sound them in a fast cascade.

Other technical considerations are leaps, tuning, and timbre. Leaps are difficult on cello, as they require repositioning the bow by a broad movement of the right arm, whereas they are easily played on a lute or guitar, as the plucking technique allows the fingers to control the strings independently. On the other hand, because the guitar and lute have frets, lutenists and guitarists do not consider tuning an issue beyond performance preparation. However, for cellists, higher notes require greater accuracy in the left hand, and thus high passages become more dramatic, as they demand more of the performer. In addition, the cello has been designed to resonate on low notes; thus high notes sound harsher. Finally, the variety of achievable timbers in both groups of instruments is quite similar. By playing closer to the bridge, performers on a cello, guitar, or lute can generate a harsher tone, and conversely, it is possible to attain a sweeter texture by moving farther away from it.

Bach’s cello suite number five in C minor, composed approximately in 1720 and catalogued as BWV 1011, was re-arranged for lute by Bach himself between 1727 and 1731. The lute and guitar version, both catalogued as BWV 995, are in G minor and A minor respectively. The piece has seven movements: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte I, Gavotte II, and Gigue, and the Prelude can be taken as an example of the adaptation process. Structurally, this movement can be divided into two main sections, an adagio and a presto (or Trés Viste, as indicated on the score), and additionally, it is possible to subdivide the adagio into three parts according to the piece’s phrasing: measures 1 through 9, 9 through 15, and 15 through 27.

Since volume capacity and control are the most different musical aspects between the cello and both the lute and the guitar, the intense passages in the cello version will require the greatest attention in the adaptation process. During the first nine measures, Bach takes the listener through the chords I, V, and IV of the C minor key (cello key), concluding on the V chord. The first statement is quite intense, as it culminates on a G dominant seventh chord with a diminished ninth and the bass on C, a chord with many internal dissonances:

BWV 1011 Measure 1

Image: First measure of Bach’s BWV 1011

The second subsection begins with a restatement of the first motif in G minor, a fifth above the original key, thus bringing this dissonant chord back even more intensely. In measure 13, Bach introduces the D flat note, the diminished fifth of G minor, making the chord a G half-diminished. This D flat is sustained while a C dominant seventh chord with a flat ninth appears. This is certainly one of the most intense moments in the piece, as the D flat appearing for the first time in the music, acting first as a diminished fifth and then as a diminished ninth, is very dissonant:

BWV 1011 Measure 13

Image: Measure 13 of Bach’s BWV 1011

A cellist, having a greater dynamic range than a guitarist, can easily control the volume to increase the intensity of these passages, as Rostropovich, Yo-Yo-Ma, and Maisky do in their performances of Bach’s cello suites, from 1995, 1998, and 1999 respectively. Plucked string instruments, much more limited in volume, have to rely on interpretation and writing adjustments to deliver this effect. Bach, having considered the differences between both instruments for the adaptation to lute, added more notes into the C seventh chord with a flat ninth (transposed to G on the lute) to increase its sound: it has only three notes on the cello version and five notes in the lute version. This adjustment has remained in the guitar version as well, and as Frank Koonce’s guitar edition shows, not all chords have undergone this modification but mostly the ones in which intense dissonances are present.

BWV 1011 Measure 14 (cello version)

Image: measure 14 in BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 14 (guitar version)

Image: measure 14 in BWV 995

On the other hand, guitarist Jason Vieaux’s video performance on the website youtube shows him using the strumming technique to play this chord, the most intense moment in the piece. Not only does Vieaux set off the chord by playing it with a distinct articulation, but he also delays the execution of its highest note, adding tension to the music by postponing the melody’s appearance. Also, he gives the whole passage a harsher tone by playing closer to the bridge and using vibrato. All these technical adjustments compensate for the guitar’s lack of volume and its impossibility to swell notes.

These moments of intensity are balanced by a short sweet subsection starting on measure 15, going from F minor to B flat seventh and resolving on an E flat perfect major chord. Going back to C minor in measure 18, Bach brings the intensity back into the music by writing a high E flat, the highest note in the piece—a challenging and therefore naturally dramatic note. Furthermore, the fingering on the cello corresponds to a high F, as the piece uses scordatura, a tuning in which string 1 on the cello is tuned to G, one whole tone lower than normal. The intensity continues with a D seventh chord in first inversion and remains throughout a series of leaps, which on the cello require great effort in moving the bow at different angles.

BWV 1011 Measure 17

Image: Measure 17 of BWV 1011

In the excerpts where the intensity is due to the technical challenges offered by the cello, Vieaux uses considerable vibrato, especially on the piece’s highest note. Guitarists, playing on a fretted instrument, do not have to struggle at all to play high notes, yet additionally Vieaux delays it, as if it were difficult for him to play something that on the guitar is quite straightforward. In the next measure, he relies on the same effect to play the leaps, which on the guitar can be easily achieved—since each finger of the right hand is assigned to a different string, no effort is needed to play this passage.

The piece moves on to the second section, which is in a three-eighth metric form at a fast tempo. The motif for this section consists of three eighth notes ascending diatonically followed by four sixteenth notes and an eighth note.

BWV 1011 Measure 27

Image: Measure 27 of BWV 1011

We can subdivide the Trés Viste section by identifying six great dramatic cadences, on measures 79, 109, 137, 183, and 209. The first one comes after the motif has made several twists and turns, as it usually happens with Bach, arriving at a majestic closing in E flat major on measure 79. This majesty is interpreted by Yo-Yo-Ma, Rostropovich, and Maisky in almost the same way: the volume increases; the phrase is slightly delayed; and the chord is broken, allowing a small interval between its lower and higher pairs of notes.

In arranging the piece for lute, Bach considered the instrument’s great range and its potential for counterpoint to deliver the intensity: two measures before the appearance of the E flat major chord (B flat major for lute), the bass voice comes in, forming widely open chords with the soprano voice. Again, these resources compensate for the impossibility of the lute to play as loudly as a cello.

BWV 1011 Measure 77

Image: Measure 77 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 77

Image: Measure 77 of Bach’s BWV 995

Similarly, the same effect anticipates the next big cadence in measure 109, where there is a hemiola. In this case, the bass repeating itself is particularly effective to this purpose, as it adds up to the tension:

BWV 1011 Measure 106

Image: Measure 106 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 106

Image: Measure 106 of Bach’s BWV 995

This rearrangement recurs in measures 134 through 137.

BWV 1011 Measure 134

Image: Measure 134 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 134

Image: Measure 134 of Bach’s BWV 995

The next noteworthy musical event, in measure 183, is a greatly deceptive cadence. Bach sets up the listener for a huge closure in C minor, avoiding it and resolving to A flat major. The tension begins building up in measure 166, where a one-measure motif repeats itself identically and goes through the implied chords D minor, E flat major, F minor, and D dominant seventh. By the end of this sequence the tension is great, as the chords increase in dissonance and the obsessive phrase becomes intolerable.

BWV 1011 Measure 166

Image: Measure 166 of Bach’s BWV 1011

Yet this tension is further maintained by a two-measure phrase that also repeats itself and is supported by a persistent G pedal (measure 171). Then the main motif of the piece is restated (measures 176 through 180), and the tension continues, leading to the deceptive cadence on measure 183.

Both means of recreating this tension on a plucked string instrument are used: rewriting and interpretation. Bach has taken care of the former by repeating the G pedal, in a similar way to the effect on measures 106 and 134. In the original, the cello does not need the repetition, as the instrument’s bow sustains the pedal, but since the lute’s sound fades shortly after it starts, the lute version certainly needs it.

BWV 1011 Measure 171

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 171

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 995

Yet another of Bach’s rearrangements is the addition of three- and four-note chords on the main motif. Four-note chords are commonly used at slow tempos. However, within highly active melodies, they are the exception rather than the rule, as they add great intensity to the music, which becomes loaded with notes as much as it can be:

BWV 1011 Measure 176

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 176

Image: Measure 171 of Bach’s BWV 995

Contributing to the rearrangement, Vieaux recreates this effect in his interpretation, as he creates suspense by pausing in two moments: after the intolerably self-repeated one-measure sequence and during the motif with the four-note chords.

Finally, the big cadence leading to the coda, in measure 209, has also undergone a rearrangement analogous to the one in measure 171:

BWV 1011 Measure 209

Image: Measure 209 of Bach’s BWV 1011

BWV 995 Measure 209

Image: Measure 209 of Bach’s BWV 995

The BWV 1011 has been rearranged for lute and for guitar, yet the piece’s original intent has been preserved. Every instrument offers its possibilities and challenges, and over the course of time, developments in instruments’ designs make new musical devices available. Yet above all, recognizing the music’s meaning, as well as making decisions to deliver it, is a musician’s responsibility. The awareness of a work’s intent empowers music and realizes its full potential, and this is especially true in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music has often been described as infinity of passions. These emotions are dormant on Bach’s manuscripts, yet they are waiting to be unleashed by keen performers, performers who are able to see beyond written notes and chords.

  • Bach, Johann Sebastian. The Solo Lute Works: Edited for Guitar by Frank Koonce. c. 1727 – 1731. Ed. Koonce, Frank. 2nd Ed. Neil A. Kjos Music Company: San Diego, CA, 1989.
  • —. The Cello Suites. c. 1720. Ed. Werner, Icking. Werner Icking Music Archive: Siegburg, Germany, 1997.
  • Maisky, Mischa. “Prelude.” BWV 1011. Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 Cello Suites. Dg Imports, 2000.
  • Rostropovich, Mstislav. “Prelude.” BWV 1011. J. S. Bach: Cello Suites. EMI Classics, 1995.
  • Youtube user AzikaMarketing. “Jason Vieaux: Bach BWV 995 Prelude.” Youtube: Broadcast Yourself. 29 December 2008. 18 May 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXUxD-Z7w18
  • Yo-Yo-Ma. “Prelude.” BWV 1011. The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach, from the Six-Part Film Series. Sony, 1998.