Diary of a Seducer – Guitar Music of Martin, Wuorinen, Babbitt and Carter

Guitar Music of Robert Martin, Babbitt, Carter, Wuorinen

A hand speaks. The guitar gives that hand a voice, a mode of speech, and
so makes possible a kind of sign language for the hearing. Robert
Martin's Diary of a Seducer
is a sequence of statements delivered by
one or more of these speaking hands.

The title of the work is taken from that of a painting by Arshile
Gorky, but Martin's interest was apparently not so much in the subject
matter of that particular picture as in the general notion of what
gives an abstract image wholeness and presence. How can the speaking
hand be felt to have said something meaningful, to have said it
completely, and to have said nothing redundant along the way? Here are
thirty-six answers to that question.

They come in three books, the first comprising fifteen solo pieces,
the second fifteen duets, the third six trios. How these answers are
phrased, and what they say, is for the listener to discover. But we
can all agree on the variety of expressive tones here. Wholeness and
presence, for Martin, seem to bespeak particularity of mood and
character. Each of these pieces is saying one thing (though it may be
a complex and polyphonic thing), and saying it strongly.

Quasi-vocal melody is important to the effect of speech: the guitar
is understood American-style, as associated with song, rather than
Spanish-style, as having to do with dance. But, particularly in the
duos and trios, the music begins to speak also in momentary effects of
texture: in the use of harmonics, for example, or in the extraordinary
chords that surface in the last two duos and, wildest of all, the
penultimate trio. The duos and trios also explore the interplay of
similarities slightly out of synchrony, as if the two or three hands
were getting in the way of each other as each tried to say the same
thing. Right at the end comes the most obvious example of this, in
Escher-like multiple staircases of scale patterns getting faster and

Here the music is starting to become public, but the essence of the
set is intimate and private, and the title seems no accident. The
speaking hand seduces the instrument and thereby the listening ear.
And the pieces unfold like entries in a diary, given a general
wholeness by the personality of the writer and the simple fact of
succession. This diary was written, though, over a period of many more
than thirty-six days. Each book carries the dateline "1981-1995 in
hotels and on planes."

Charles Wuorinen's Sonata for guitar and piano chimes in at the end
of that period, having been written in 1995—and written for the
musicians who perform it in this recording. Matching of timbres, which
is not a problem when two or three guitars are in play, now becomes a
compositional issue, and Wuorinen, by his choices of pattern, rhythm,
dynamic and harmony, creates music full of blendings or of passages
where the guitar sounds almost like a piano, the piano almost like a
guitar. Nevertheless, the friction between the instruments—as much as
any contrast of thematic type—seems to provide the impetus that
presses the piece strongly forward. The argument is suspended for a
while, or differently engaged, in a central slow section, where the
lines are more vocal in quality and the tempo more flexible, but for
the most part this is active music, music with goals in the form of
focal pitches (however brief the focus may be) and with clear
strategies about how to get there and away again. At the same time,
the guitar's history in dance begins to come to the fore.

In Milton Babbitt's Sheer Pluck for solo guitar (1984, also known
more soberly as Composition for Guitar), the instrument seems almost
to have no history at all: it is re-invented. As is often his way,
Babbitt uses the full register available to him, and his music skips
in agile fashion between extremes. Moreover, it soon becomes restless
too in terms of color, switching, often rapidly, between notes played
normally and others that are plucked rather than strummed, or played
near the bridge, or given a tremolo (which never sounds like a normal
guitar tremolo). Virtuosity and control are at a premium: the hand is
moving so quickly that it rarely gets a chance to speak at all—or
rather, it speaks through its movement. But not always. As the piece
proceeds, so it passes through different nets of tones, and sometimes
those nets are so simple that stray echoes of folksong begin to
emerge, especially when the durations are also increased so that the
tempo is felt to slacken. Many stories, and many kinds of story, are
being told here with and about notes, and William Anderson's delivery
of those stories shades them in a little by sustaining resultant
harmonies. The end is a sort of clarification of the beginning, as the
music keeps returning to a high E-flat, which eventually is all that
is left.

Curiously enough, this same note is emphasized at the very start of
Elliott Carter's Changes for solo guitar(1983), where, as much as in
Babbitt or Wuorinen, the music is concerned with creating harmonic
stations and surges in a twelve-tone world, with moments of
familiarity and continuity—moments which can only be moments. The
difference in Carter is that there are prevailing entities. What
changes in Changes is the particular form, length and strength—but not
the essential character—of various interwoven ideas: strummed chords
that develop from a hint in the opening measure into fully fledged
memories of the mark left on the guitar by flamenco; a kind or
murmuring toccata in more or less even values; slow high melody, using
mostly the ethereal tones of harmonics. In the coda it is as if these
different characters had been masks that have now been taken off, so
that we can see the faces—the harmonies—beneath. The guitar, one might
recall, had accompanied the baritone voice of Greek poetry in Carter's
Syringa of 1978. What it delivers now, by itself, is both dance and
—Paul Griffiths

WILLIAM ANDERSON has attained a unique position in the music world,
reached through highly acclaimed performances, through his work as a
composer, and also through his work with the pioneering chamber
ensemble, Cygnus, which he founded in 1985. David Denton in Fanfare
exclaims: "Anderson's playing is of a very high order of dexterity,
virtuosity and brilliance, and is indicative of the tremendous
advances made in guitar technique over the past four decades." Thomas
May states in the Washington Post: "The mirror-paneled recital room
provided an apt visual metaphor for how such seemingly modest
dimensions can trick the ear into an impression of vaster scale.
Guitarist William Anderson brought both technical and expressive
virtuosity to his accounts...a quasi-orchestral pallete of coloristic
effects...deftly realized by Anderson as he shaped each entry with
epigrammatic concentration."

At age 19 he began playing chamber music at the Tanglewood Music
Festival, where he performed from 1981 through 1988. In 1982 he began
studying with America's premiere guitar pioneer David Starobin, who
introduced him to the music community in New York City. His first solo
recital was presented by the League of Composers/ISCM at Weill Hall,
New York City (1990). He was also presented in recital by Music From
Japan at the Asia Society (1993). He regularly appears in Washington
D.C. with the Theater Chamber Players at the Kennedy Center,
performing both solo guitar and chamber music repertoire. Mr. Anderson
has been a soloist in festivals and ensembles such as the Bang on the
Can Festival, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and Modern Works.
He is heard on radio broadcasts on WNYC, WKCR, WGBH, and National
Public Radio. Mr. Anderson appears on numerous recordings, and has
given recitals and radio broadcasts in ten European countries, Mexico,
Japan and the U.S. With Cygnus, he has performed in Denmark, Holland,
Poland, Russia, Mexico and California. Cygnus also offers a series of
three concerts each season at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City,
presenting important new works by America's best composers. Paul
Griffiths, in the New York Times, recently praised Cygnus for its
"excellent concert". In the New Music Connoisseur, Leo Kraft wrote a
review of a Cygnus performance in New York, saying, "If Mr. Anderson's
aim was to show how the guitar can play a significant role in chamber music,
he certainly succeeded.” He teaches guitar at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.