ANONYMOUS Scottish Lute Manuscripts
JS BACH Suite in E Minor BWV 996 (15’)
EASTMAN Buddha (10’)
REICH Electric Counterpoint (15’)
WOLFE Lad (17’)
Sean Shibe was the first guitarist to be selected as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and his breath-taking rise to acclaim has been acknowledged with major awards from the Royal Philharmonic Society and Gramophone magazine. His recent disc of Bach has been described as the finest ever recorded on guitar, and his performance of Steve Reich’s classic work, Electric Counterpoint, astonished the composer. Incomparably gifted and blessed with a spirit of adventure, Sean Shibe is a guitarist like no other.
BACH Johann Sebastian, Suite in E minor BWV 996
There are four suites by Bach which in the 20th century became commonly known as ‘Lute Suites’. They were adapted for classical guitar and popularised in best-selling recordings by Julian Bream and John Williams. But were they even written for the lute? Bach certainly knew Sylvius Leopold Weiss, the great German lutenist who once challenged him to an improvisation duel – Weiss at the lute, Bach at the organ. Bach also included beautiful continuo parts for lute in works like the St Matthew Passion and some of his cantatas. But four suites for solo lute? That seems increasingly unlikely, and modern scholarship demonstrates that Bach almost certainly composed these suites for the lautenwerck, a harpsichord with gut strings. Although none of those instruments has survived, there is evidence that Bach owned two at the time of his death.
Nevertheless, with some modification, they work wonderfully well on both lute and guitar, and the Suite in E minor is the earliest of the suites having been composed by at least 1712. Like so much of Bach’s keyboard music from the time, the six movements are in the French style, with many similarities to the Toccatas he was writing for harpsichord.
© Tom McKinney 2022
EASTMAN Julius, Buddha
Until very recently, the brilliant and tragic life of Julius Eastman and his seminally iconoclastic music, had been almost entirely forgotten after his death in New York at the age of 49. But a surge in performances of his music is now taking place, along with a re-evaluation of the considerable importance of his work.
Eastman was an exceptional pianist who studied with the legendary Mieczysław Horszowski, but his interest in experimental music led to him becoming a central figure in the more radical styles of music during the 1960s and 70s. Eastman was also blessed with a fine baritone voice, and in America he became the go-to performer of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, even performing the work when it was conducted by Pierre Boulez at the Lincoln Centre.
By the 1980s, Eastman had cut ties with many academic institutions and was unable to secure regular employment. His music was considered far too extreme for performances in any mainstream venues, and he gradually became isolated and despondent to a point where drug addiction took control of his life. For a period he was homeless, and after a heart attack, he died alone in a New York hospital – it took eight months after his death for any type of modest obituary to appear in print.
Eastman’s deliberately provocative works tackled political and social issues, centred around the prejudice he experienced being black and gay. Often obsessively repetitive, he combined a minimalist style with a certain flavour of pop and jazz, but the score for Buddha, composed in 1984, is simply a single page of manuscript paper in which notes and motifs are hinted at within an oval boundary. And so the piece is open to a considerable amount of free choice, improvisation and duration.
©Tom McKinney 2022
REICH Steve, Electric Counterpoint
Electric Counterpoint (1987) was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival for guitarist Pat Metheny. It was composed during the summer of 1987. The duration is about 15 minutes. It is the third in a series of pieces (first Vermont Counterpoint in 1982 for flutist Ransom Wilson followed by New York Counterpoint in 1985 for clarinettist Richard Stolzman) all dealing with a soloist playing against a pre-recorded tape of themselves. In Electric Counterpoint the soloist pre-records as many as 10 guitars and 2 electric bass parts and then plays the final 11th guitar part live against the tape. I would like to thank Pat Metheny for showing me how to improve the piece in terms of making it more idiomatic for the guitar.
Electric Counterpoint is in three movements; fast, slow, fast, played one after the other without pause. The first movement, after an introductory pulsing section where the harmonies of the movement are stated, uses a theme derived from Central African horn music that I became aware of through the ethnomusicologist Simha Arom. That theme is built up in eight voice canon and while the remaining two guitars and bass play pulsing harmonies the soloist plays melodic patterns that result from the contrapuntal interlocking of those eight pre-recorded guitars.
The second movement cuts the tempo in half, changes key and introduces a new theme, which is then slowly built up in nine guitars in canon. Once again two other guitars and bass supply harmony while the soloist brings out melodic patterns that result from the overall contrapuntal web.
The third movement returns to the original tempo and key and introduces a new pattern in triple meter. After building up a four guitar canon two bass guitars enter suddenly to further stress the triple meter. The soloist then introduces a new series of strummed chords that are then built up in three guitar canon. When these are complete the soloist returns to melodic patterns that result from the overall counterpoint when suddenly the basses begin to change both key and meter back and forth between E minor and C minor and between 3/2 and 12/8 so that one hears first 3 groups of 4 eighth notes and then 4 groups of 3 eighth notes. These rhythmic and tonal changes speed up more and more rapidly until at the end the basses slowly fade out and the ambiguities are finally resolved in 12/8 and E minor.
© Steve Reich
WOLFE Julia, LAD for 9 bagpipes (arr. for electric guitar by Sean Shibe)
Julia Wolfe studied at Yale School of Music where she became associated with fellow composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, and in 1987 they formed the Bang on a Can collective. The trio soon attracted considerable attention for their Bang of a Can Marathon festivals of new music in Lower Manhattan, with single performances lasting almost a full day, where the audience was instructed to dress and act informally and to come and go as they pleased. Wolfe’s music is rooted in the American minimalist style of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but laced with the aggressive drive and energy of rock music.
LAD, for 9 bagpipes, was composed for the 2007 Bang on a Can Festival and first performed by a bagpipe ensemble led by Matthew Welch. It was Welch who introduced Wolfe to a variety of techniques on the bagpipes, most notably the long crying glissandi which Wolfe describes as “a crazy siren-like sound”, and “animal sounds” that recall a heavily distorted electric guitar.
Welch later performed a version for eight pre-recorded bagpipes with himself playing the ninth part live, an arrangement recalling the series of Counterpoint works by Steve Reich. In 2018, Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe adapted LAD for live electric guitar accompanied by a backing track. In Shibe’s words “there’s something really destructive and terrible about it [LAD], but it also has a redemptive element too.”
© Tom McKinney 2022