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Posts Tagged ‘segovia’

The process of forgetting is sometimes more a matter of adaptation to circumstances than mental decay. There are things I have taken great pleasure in, but which I no longer indulge, and have largely forgotten. Adaptation is the only reason I can come up with for such self denial. Anything else makes no sense at all, and mostly what I tell myself I’m adapting to is lack of time.

Listening to this opening piece (Bach’s Lute Prelude, BWV 1006) by the guitarist John Williams, I’m reminded how much the guitar once meant to me – the colours, the tones, the varied and emotive pacing. The expression here literally catches my breath and brings tears to my eyes, but then the classical guitar was once my greatest love. I was a student of the guitar for many years, but the time to practice became progressively beyond my means as life and work matured into the routine of decades. It is a pleasure I have largely forgotten now.

I never aspired to mastery of this particular piece, though I once made a good fist of Bach’s technically easier Lute Prelude, BWV 999, after hearing it played by Narcisso Yepes on his stupendous ten stringed guitar. I no longer have that recording. I wore the original vinyl out and have searched everywhere for it to no avail. But here it is in the hands of  another master, Julian Bream (a quaintly staged recording from 1962):

It took me a year of practice to grasp even the fundamentals of this piece. There were moments when I fancied I sounded not unlike Bream, or Yepes, but mostly I would fumble my way like any third rank amateur. I only played it fluently the whole way through, once. It was a defining moment, a moment of great satisfaction. I would have been around forty years old. It was about then the process of forgetting set in.

I began my studentship at the age of six with a cheap junior guitar of dubious manufacture, and from then to the age of fourteen learned only how to make a noise with it. The guitar is a difficult instrument and not everyone has the fingers for it, but I loved it for its difficulty, that an instrument of such size and apparent simplicity in construction could enable such beauty in tone and expression. To listen to a piece of classical guitar, is to experience not just the one voice, as with a solo violin, it is to experience an entire ensemble. My love of music is owed to the classical guitar. Here, it says – this is what music can do to you, now go and see what else you can find.

At the age of fourteen, I received my second instrument, a lovely Japanese Moridaria, purchased cheaply from the girl next door, who had given up on it. With this guitar I began to find more harmony around chord improvisation, also some beginners tunes with the help of books. My fingering was nimble enough and quick, but I lacked a good teacher to take me where I wanted to go.

I had been advised by now, however, music was not my forte, at least according to my school music teacher – a miserable, shouty grouch of a man. Intellectually then, music remained an inaccessible mistress, locked away under his tutelage – indeed it was no more than a source of weekly terror. Privately though, and perhaps bloody mindedly, I persevered with the guitar because it was romantic, and I had in mind it would be a sure way to impress a certain girl, should I ever get close enough to her, and have my guitar handy. Oh, the optimism of youth!

I would take lessons, of course, one day, but for now other studies were pressing, squeezing out the time I needed for such an indulgence. As soon as my O Levels were out of the way, as soon as I had done my HNC, my HND, as soon as the nerve shredding years of the Engineering Council Examinations were over – then,… yes, then I would take time to devote to the study of something I loved, rather than something I merely needed.

But by this time I was twenty five, and that’s too late to be doing anything serious with the guitar. I made a start anyway, took myself and my old Moridaria to an evening class, and there met LW, a teacher who was a classical guitarist of mesmerising skill and exquisite tone. She was also of a much sweeter disposition and considerably better looking than my old school music teacher. I signed up with her for private lessons, and discovered music was my forte after all. I had the ear she said, and the rest was just practice. So, I bought another guitar, a serious instrument for a beginner – a Cuenca, from the region of Castilla-La-Mancha in central Spain. It has a beautiful, rich tone,… and between it and my teacher, at last I became a proper student of music!

Thanks to her I could read by now and, with persistence, could work through the beginner’s repertoires of Sor , Giuliani, Dowland, and the collected Estudios of Segovia. I once heard Segovia’s Estudio number 5 – actually Sor Op 35 No 22 – played in the precinct of my local town, a hairy guy in a trench-coat, playing with the power of a God and the expression of an angel. Of all the buskers that day, he was the only one turning heads, and this a northern working class market town, on its late 80’s  uppers.

I paused to listen, felt different for the experience, felt inspired. My teacher added that piece to my repertoire, bless her, and it remains among my favourites. But the lessons petered out. My teacher and I were by now engaged to be married,… to other people. Her teaching was replaced by babies, my studentship by the slow erosion of the mundane. I have not seen her in a quarter of a century, but have only to close my eyes to hear her play.

I persevered in private, trying to maintain fluency in those pieces I knew, but without time, without practice, first the fluency, then the shape memory falls apart. Few pieces remain now. I still have the guitar, still treasure it as a symbol, a talisman, but it gathers dust. It’s years since I had the courage to pick it up and relive those days.

I would never have been able to play like Williams, or Bream, or Yepes, or my own teacher – was never even competent to play for an audience of family or friends, nor yet still that particular young lady, had I ever been granted the opportunity – the music would go, robbed by self consciousness.

I close with Julian Bream and another transcription from Bach:

Listening to Bream, I think my favourite among all the greats, I am reminded the masters are there, not to be copied, or lived up to in the competitive sense. They possess something most of us do not, a divine gift to which few can ever aspire. But what they do is grant the rest of us the inspiration, that such beauty is still within the scope of human expression, that so long as some of us at least are capable of attaining such sublime heights as these, there is sufficient hope and meaning in life that, even amid its darkest of days, makes it worth the carrying on.

One day I shall dust off the guitar, and see what I remember of it.

One day, when I find the time.

Meanwhile my thanks to John Williams, to Julian Bream, to Narcisso Yepes, for their their mastery, and their continuing inspiration, and to LW for her life changing tutelage, brief though it was.

I can only hope her guitar is not as dusty as mine.

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Segovia and me

Segovia and me, circa 1984

My art teacher, Miss T, was, to a young man, his veins coursing with the unfamiliar and quite heady zing of freshly squeezed hormones, something of a paradox. She was a very beautiful woman and, to a budding romantic, in thrall to the earliest manifestations of his well beloved, quite a promising candidate for an early muse. And all beautiful women are kind and nurturing, are they not?

Unfortunately Miss T was not.

I chose art because the alternatives – sociology and economics – sounded grim, and I liked to draw. But to my dismay, Miss T did not like my drawings. She was for ever criticising them for this or that reason. Careful, she called them, but lacking depth. C+ was a high score for my homeworks, which always seemed to require more than I could divine. Often I disappointed her. I remember she once told me, and in a tone of exasperation, in response to yet another homework over which I’d laboured long and lovingly, that if I continued to draw purely from imagination I would find my work stagnating, going nowhere. This came as a shock to me. Yes, I drew mainly from imagination, but then I’d always valued the inner world, never finding it dull, or stagnant, but always dynamic, reflective of the currents within me.

julia

Julia

In the end I managed to scrape a somewhat inglorious pass at Art, but was left feeling that an ability to draw would not open many doors in the art world for me. A scrappy, hastily scrawled notebook detail by Leonardo, or Tischen was to die for of course, but there was no point trying to emulate the old masters any more. It seemed they had already said everything that could be said with pencil and paper, or that master of old masters’ tool, the silverpoint.

Fortunately, drawing still opened some doors into the world of Engineering Design, at least it did in the late 1970’s, the days when design offices were still filled with white shirted men bent over drawing boards with chisel edged H and 2H pencils. Yes those pencils were more hard headed than I was used to, the lines more precise, and generally inked over afterwards by a much shaken Rotring pen for longevity, and there were rules one had to abide by, rules laid down in British Standards BS308, which I came to know by heart.

But a good engineering drawing still had something of the draughtsman’s soul about it – the weight of the line, the uniform slant of the text conveying much to the receptive mind, and instilling also a confidence in the quality of the designs it depicted. And these were not drawings of a thing already existing, but of thing that was yet to be. Miss T was wrong then, surely? Imagination was the life blood of creation, but I had had to serve my time at a highly objective grindstone in order to realise it. It was a skill I admired and acquired to some degree, but the drawing boards had all gone by the early nineties, the white shirted men by then all sitting at computer terminals which had erased the imaginative lens and all the humanness even from engineering. It was an economic necessity, but also a great loss. Alas nowhere now it seemed was there a place for the humble art of drawing.

pre raphelite jane morris

Pre Raphelite period. Jane Morris

My private sketchbooks petered out for a while about this time, their chronologies dying like extinct geneological lines. I moved into pen and ink, and occasional illustrative work, strictly as a hobby, my tin of treasured Derwent drawing pencils, grades HB to 9B, went unused so long I lost them down the back of the settee. Yet I remember fondly the nights I would sit in the long ago with that tin and a blank sheet of paper. A drawing was like a story – you might have a vague idea how you intended to proceed, but once you made the first marks the drawing took over and finished itself somewhere else entirely.

I enjoyed portraiture for a while. Miss T would have been pleased, I think, to find me working from observation at last, though I doubt she would have awarded me much above a C. No matter. My subjects were culled from photographs in the Radio and TV Times, but again you never knew how things were going to work out. A simple and apparently insignificant mark on the paper could bring a portrait to life in unexpected ways, while others refused to live no matter how hard you tried. And then again one might begin a portrait of an imaginary subject to find it taking on the identity of someone in real life.

cate blanchet

Cate

But now I realise, Miss T was not wrong, that we are better to work from life, to observe life; but in doing so one inevitably views it through the lens of one’s own imagining, and it is this that gives a drawing its value. She was doing her job, which was to nurture a latent artistic talent in young hearts that went beyond mere drawing, at least sufficient to pass muster at GCSE level. She did this by severe criticism, not by fawning over the inferior, fiddly drawings of an adolescent boy. I was an insecure youth, a little bruised, and needed more the approval of a beautiful woman than her scorn. Or so I thought. But I am still drawing, Miss T, or rather I am still contemplating life, at times, through this particular monochromic medium, so our time together was not entirely wasted though in truth, I own, it is a while since I actually drew anything.

There are two kinds of art – that which is  carried out with the aim of making a living, and a very precarious business that must be too. And the other? I discovered this around the turn of the century, by a return to drawing and observation, but by viewing it through a darker lens than I was used to, and thereby discovered in reality a deeper layer that has led beyond to other things. I found the first fingerposts in my dreams and in conversation with the unconscious mind. It’s a technique used in Jungian analysis. An often overlooked fact is that Carl Jung was an accomplished artist, as well as a leading psychoanalyst, and he encouraged all his patients to seek themselves in imaginative art.

unknown woman

Unknown woman circa 2010

My later drawings from this period certainly show a marked difference to those I once presented to Miss T, the main difference being I think, I no longer sought her nod of approval, let alone her admiring smile. The well beloved can be reached through art, and better that way than projected uselessly into the world. The harder and the longer you try the more her image comes through, and the more pointed her expression becomes, and once released she brings up other forces from the unconscious with her, some of them welcome, some not. Their exploration I found more difficult, the images dissolving into vague abstractions – a face in a tree, a man emerging from a pattern of dark leaves, drawing, another in the shadows, writing, pen poised – myself perhaps, or the self I was or might yet be, set free from the need to seek himself in the first place. Creepy, my sons say. Unsettling. I agree. I think that’s why I stopped.

portrait of the artist as an old man

Portrait of the artist as an old man?

I saw you, you know, Miss T? Oh, it’s many years ago now, though also many years after I had left your tutelage. You were no longer my muse, but an ordinary woman pushing a pram. You were leaving the art shop in town, as I was entering – in the days when our little town still boasted an art shop.  I looked at you in mute astonishment for a moment, that you had become so obviously human. I stepped back for you, held the door then you might pass. Our eyes met, but you didn’t recognise me.

My tin of drawing pencils has now turned up intact, and my drawing books are suddenly of interest again.

I wonder,…

What do you think, Miss T? Should I?

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