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A Musical Transformation

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A Musical Transformation

I went through three stages of musical involvement when I was younger and it occurred to me the other day that this might be of interest to others. So here goes.

As I have mentioned before, my mother was what in Canada we call an "old time fiddler," which means she played a lot of traditional  kinds of fiddle music loosely related to Celtic traditions. For example, this is Andy DeJarlis, a particularly good fiddler:

Hard as it may be to believe, this kind of music didn't interest me when I was young. I had a few piano lessons when I was ten or eleven, but they didn't take. It wasn't until I was well into my teens that I developed an interest in music and it mostly focussed on the rock music of the middle and late 60s. Particular favorites were the Rolling Stones, Eric Burden and the Animals and the Beatles, though I also went through a phase of admiration of Bob Dylan. I even performed "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" a couple of times in local folk venues.

But one day a musician friend played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for me:

At first it was just the virtuosity of the violin part that caught my attention. But then I started to notice a lot of other stuff: harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. Within a year or so I had discovered Bach. I don't recall the first Bach I heard. It might have been Glenn Gould on CBC television playing some preludes and fugues, or it might have been a recording of the Mass in B minor on vinyl. But at some point I heard the Chaconne:

The significance of this is that I soon discovered that this piece was very often played on guitar. This was the recording I had in the early days, by Christopher Parkening:

That pretty much did it. My whole ambition in life was to learn to play this piece. Over a couple of years I switched from steel string and electric guitar to nylon string and taught myself to read music. Without so much as a single lesson from a classical guitarist I set out to learn the Chaconnne! I actually memorized the first page before I realized how much work I had to do on the basics. There followed about ten years of study in various places with various teachers which included an undergraduate degree in performance and a diplôme de concert and, ironically, even though I did learn two other pieces that were a great inspiration for me, the Asturias by Albéniz and the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, I never actually got back to the Chaconne even though I played a lot of other music by Bach.

What happened to me to cause this transformation? I was in high school when the great cultural upheaval of the 60 sluiced through society so my devotion to rock music (and psychedelic drugs) was certainly typical. What was less typical was the fairly rapid giving up of the drugs and the rock music. What I really wanted was not freedom and psychedelic hallucinations but discipline and transcendence and I found both in the classical guitar and Bach. The two most transformative years for me were first year university where I must have spent about half my time in the listening library trying to absorb simply everything in classical music. At the same time I was reading Dante and the history of philosophy.

The other big transformative year was spent in Spain studying with a true master of the guitar, José Tomás. The rest really just followed from there. I'm still not sure exactly what happened in my mind. But when I heard Tchaikovsky, and Bach, and then Debussy and Beethoven and Mozart and Dvořák that was the musical path for me. Extensive reading acquainted me with people like Schoenberg and Boulez and many others. This was my path. It was the intensity and rigor of it that attracted me. The 60s I came to feel were a cultural misstep, a descent into things best not descended into.

There have been many musical adjustments in my life. I spent several years training to be a musicologist without finally pursuing it as a career. And now, though I play the guitar nearly every day, I think of myself more as a composer. But the important transformation happened around my 19th year when I was struck, maybe not instantly, perhaps over the course of six months or a year, by classical music and that for me became a kind of truth.

But no, it didn't make me a better person!

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