Classical Guitar, September 1994

A Study In Contrasts:

John Williams At The Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, California

The Guitar Summit:  Leo Kottke, Joe Pass, Paco Peña and Pepe Romero
At The Wadsworth Theatre, Los Angeles, California

By Stephen Dick

      There are certain advantages to being married to an ethnologist.  Once of them is learning how to look at a cultural event in its entirety, stepping back from the event itself to look at how it is being presented.  I recently accompanied my dance ethnologist wife to a couple of guitar concerts which made me step back and think about how the guitar is commonly present[ed] in concert and what effect that manner of presentation has on how the guitar is perceived.

      Once of the reasons for stepping back was Colin Cooper's recent editorial in which he wondered aloud why is seems so difficult to get people to attend guitar recitals (Classical Guitar, November 1993).  Is it something we said?  Is it our tradition of eating vast quantities of onions and kippers before going on stage?  Are our collective flies undone?

      In looking for an answer, I've decided to look at these two concerts as an ethnologist, examining the ways in which they were presented for clues to the mysterious customs of the guitar tribe.

      The first of these concerts was the Los Angeles stop on a tour known as [the] Guitar Summit, featuring Pepe Romero, Joe Pass, Leo Kottke and Paco Peña.  The second was a recital given by John Williams at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

      Even before a note was played in either concert, there was an obvious difference in the way the two concerts were staged.  The stage of the Ambassador was set in the standard manner for a guitar recital, a piano bench close to the front of the stage and a single microphone set below the level of the soundhole.  The stage for the Guitar Summit was set with a small, black portable stage against a black background.

      These two approaches to staging had subtle, but significant differences.  A solo guitarist always seems a little smaller than life on a stage built for a symphony orchestra.  It is impossible for someone playing such an intimate instrument to command such a large space.  The portable stage used in the Guitar Summit, however, subtly enhanced the intimacy of the instrument.

      First, by raising players up above the level of the stage, the portable stage made them seem a little larger than life, in the same ways actors in ancient Greece wore platform shoes to appear larger than mere mortals.  The size of the portable stage had a similar effect.  Instead of the vast area of an orchestral stage to command, the performers played in an intimate space.

      There was also a noticeable difference in the way the two stages were lit.  The stage of the Ambassador is a standard wooden stage with wooden walls and wood-tone acoustical panels above.  The lighting on Williams came from the front and bled onto the stage, the walls, and the acoustical panels.  Without any sidelight or backlight, Williams was visually flat.  There was little visual contract [sic] between player, instrument, floor, walls and ceiling.

      The lighting on the Guitar Summiteers came from the front and from the sides.  The black portable stage and backdrop provided a strong visual contrast between the players and the stage.

      How the players dressed also affected the audience's ability to see them clearly.  Williams wore medium blue trousers and a horizontally striped blue and brown knit shirt.  Those muted colours tended to blend in with the wood tones of the surrounding stage area  Pass and Romero wore black tuxedos and white shirts.  Peña wore black trousers and a black turtleneck sweater.  Kottke wore a dark suit and a white shirt.  The Summiteers' black clothing served to emphasize their hands and faces.

      Once the performers came out to play, there was another obvious difference in the manner the music was being presented.  Joe Pass, the first performer in the Guitar Summit, plugged his electric guitar into an input specifically built for his guitar into the portable stage.  His playing came to us through large speakers mounted on either side of the stage.  Kottke, also playing an amplified instrument, had a separate input in the stage for his guitar.  Peña and Romero each chose to play into a microphone mounted on the main stage floor and routed through the same sound system.  Williams used a microphone, but the amplification was slight.

      Williams's playing was difficult to hear.  Only the upper range of the guitar's dynamic range was audible.  One could hear the attack on each note, but it was very difficult to hear the sustain or decay.  The amplification used at the Guitar Summit allowed the audience to hear the full life of every note.  Even when Romero used notoriously quite sounds such as harmonics, it was possible to hear the full decay of each note.  

      What do staging, lighting, costumes, sound systems have to do with classical guitar playing?  Everything.  The guitar is, above all else, an intimate instrument.  Communicating that intimacy in public spaces is a problem that all guitarists need to address.  Everything about how a concert is presented can either help of hinder that communication.

      Everything about the way the Guitar Summit was presented communicated intimacy.  The lighting, staging, and manner of dress all helped to bring the guitarists to the audience visually. The intimate and unique relationship each guitarist had with his instrument came across to the audience.  In contrast, the presentation of Williams's recital provided a barrier between Williams and the audience.  

      The staging for Williams's recital reflects a legacy to which we are all heirs.  I remember being taught to avoid using amplification at all costs.  I was told my goal was to be able to play loud enough to be heard in the back row of a 3,000 seat hall while maintaining a round, warm tone.   There was never any discussion of how insurmountable this goal was in terms of basic physics or what effect it had on narrowing the dynamic range available.

      This is partly a question of pride.  Guitarists believe that their instrument has just as much right to be in a concert hall as a grand piano.  A grand piano is specifically built to be heard in a large recital hall while a guitar is not.   We should acknowledge this fact and be willing to address it.  There is also the notion that amplification will excessively colour the natural sound of the guitar.

      Amplification serves two purposes.  It makes sounds louder and it increases their volume.   Volume and loudness aren't the same thing.  Volume refers to the size of the three-dimensional space in which a sound can be heard at a given energy level.  Loudness refers to the energy level or decibels at which a given sound is being heard.  A good amplification system can increase the volume in which a sound is heard without making its average level throughout the space any louder.

      This is the role the amplification at the Guitar Summit served.  Everyone in the hall was able to hear the same dynamic range the guitarists heard.  Amplification, far from taking away from the natural sound of the guitar, allowed the guitarists to be guitarists by allowing them to take advantage of the full dynamic range of the instrument.

      One point Colin Cooper raised in his editorial was that a listener always has the option of listening to a CD in the comfort of his own home rather than braving the elements to go to a live concert.  The live concert experience has to have something special to offer to compete with recorded music.

      The obvious advantage of a live concert is that it offers a visual experience which can heighten the aural experience.  The staging and sound system used in the Guitar Summit amplified the visual and aural aspects of the event, allowing the audience to really see and hear the performers.   Each audience member was able to enjoy an intimate experience of the most intimate instrument, the guitar.

      Cooper suggested that guitarists must find that extra dimension that turns players into performers.  Although presentation alone isn't the answer, it is important to understand how every aspect of the concert experience shapes the way the listener feels about the experience.

      I believe that attendance at guitar concerts has been poor because the experience offered listeners has been hindered by the traditional manner in which guitar concerts have been presented.  If we can focus on the essential intimacy of the guitar and use ever means possible to share that intimacy with audiences, we will being to receive the adulation and respect we so richly desire.

      We'll also eat better.

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