Today I put the finishing touches to my latest opus, a short guitar piece for my friend and dedicated new music advocate Sam Cave, commissioned with the support of the Bliss Trust (in association with the PRS) and Sound and Music’s Francis Chagrin Award. As many a composer has learnt to their cost, it is notoriously difficult to write for the classical guitar without being a player oneself. Luckily, it was my instrument as a teenager – I became decent enough to get some letters after my name, but I was always a nervous performer. It’s an instrument that makes the player feel quite exposed, being both very fiddly, with even the more straightforward bits of polyphonic writing demanding the negotiation of considerable technical hurdles, and very quiet, meaning that the assorted squeaks and buzzes that inevitably occur cannot so easily be hidden. Sweaty palms don’t help matters. I still play from time to time in new music groups and the like, but very rarely solo. A shame, because there’s some fabulous and unjustly neglected repertoire out there. And I maintain that the Chaconne sounds better on the guitar than on the violin: sacrilegious to many, I know, but the greater capacity for polyphony and the fact that it’s transposed down an octave lends it a wondrously dark resonance. It’s still the only piece I can (more or less) play from memory.
Being attuned to the guitar’s idiosyncrasies doesn’t make composing for it plain sailing, of course. The main problem lies in trying to avoid cliché, especially the Spanish tropes that loom large over the instrument. My initial idea was to explore a substantially altered scordatura tuning, but I decided that would be a cop-out and that I should, for this piece at least, confront the standard tuning head on. Inevitably, those familiar fourths ring out from time to time, not least because the piece’s main technical focus is on left-hand pull-offs onto open strings. But I like to think I’ve come up with some interesting harmonies and textures. The Spanish (!) title, incidentally, translates as ‘strings’, but has a variety of subsidiary meanings including ‘clockwork mechanisms’, the imagery of which is apt for the piece. Always love a good double meaning. I’ll post the score once the dedicatee has had time to look at it (and, no doubt, scribbled red pen all over it).