The Caribbean, for me personally,Stuart Hall
has been good to think with,
my world was creolized from the start.
Certainly, Jamaican/English cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s words greatly resonate with my own experiences and interactions with the guitar. Since I started playing the guitar, the sound world of my instrument was rather composed of an assortment of styles, genres, and socially localized musical practices: the academic, religious, and popular music for the lute, the Spanish vihuela, and the baroque/romantic guitar, the jazz, and rock guitar, and the many popular traditions I experienced growing up in which the instrument was at the center. I believe that in the vast realm of musical expressions, familiar to us as life and death, there is currently no other instrument that enjoys the recognition and versatility of the guitar. This instrument is so prevalent in some geographical regions such as southern Europe and the Americas that it is not difficult to find one in every second home. In the art-music tradition, it was an integral part of the stylistic idiosyncrasy of non-guitarist composers such as Domenico Scarlatti, Manuel de Falla, Alberto Ginastera, Manuel Ponce, among others, and central to guitarist composers such Antonio Lauro, Ernesto Cordero, Leo Brouwer, Agustín Barrios, and Francisco Tárrega, just to name a few. It is no surprise, then, that by the time musical nationalist discourses gained impetus in Iberia and Ibero-America, composers and cultural scholars took as inspiration guitar-based styles and traditions ranging from the Flamenco music of southern Spain, the music of the high Andes, to the gaucho culture in the Argentinean Pampas.
Every influential musical tradition has a representative instrument. For instance, one can argue for the violin within the Italian (and later, Central European) music of the 17th and 18th centuries or the modern piano within the 19th-century salon music. In the same vein, I like to think of the classical guitar as the instrument for the 20th and 21st centuries, in part due to the titanic effort of performers such as Andrés Segovia, Agustín Barrios Mangoré, Julian Bream, John Williams, among others, in disseminating the repertoire and legitimacy of the instrument in a piano-dominated recital culture. Perhaps because of this, almost all prominent European and Latin American composers created music for our beloved instrument. For instance, Webern, Mahler, Britten, Falla, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Rodrigo, Ponce, Henze, Walton, Berio, Carter, Ginastera, Chávez, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla, Fariñas, Sierra, just to name a few. However, despite all of this creative input, we, guitarists, continuously struggle to find a place in the symphonic and chamber music cannon that could sell the big European and North/South American Halls and Festivals. Now, based on what I have commented on, a question remains: Why is that so?
While I do not offer a definite answer, I do believe that places like Europe and the Americas already have the conditions to effectively improve the outreach of the so-called “academic music” using the guitar as what it is: an instrument, a very widely recognizable and friendly instrument ideal for cross-cultural interactions, easy to transport, and perfect for the further development of our modes of articulation as society and individuals. As I write, it immediately comes to my mind the project my friend and colleague, Mircea Gogoncea, have been doing in Nigeria since 2018. In November 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in its second edition in Lagos by offering masterclasses on canonic guitar etudes by Dionisio Aguado and Fernando Sor. However, it was also our interest to motivate young and enthusiastic classical guitar students to find ways to engage, through the instrument, with other musical traditions in the region (what had happened in the Americas for centuries). In the end, our goal, as musicians trained in the inevitably hegemonic, European art-music tradition, was to frame our work as a reciprocal transaction. In other words, to position ourselves not as mere authorities but as nodes in a much broader and more inclusive instrumental network.
A friend and guitar colleague once told me that the “classical guitar,” as an institution, counted on an excellent infrastructure of festivals, competitions, and series that allowed guitarists to earn a living as performers. I certainly agree with his remarks. However, I want to pose another angle. Once, while waiting for my flight at an airport in Mexico, I took out my classical guitar to practice some Latin American short pieces. At some point, a middle-aged man, astonished, came to me and told me how much he loved the guitar but that he had never heard it being played as I was playing it. Trying to hide my amazement, I told him about I could probably come up with a list of performers, even from México (for instance, Manuel López Ramos, Julio César Oliva, Cecilio Perera or Pablo Garibay, among others) that have been playing “art music” in the guitar for decades. In the end, what I found enlightening, at the very least, was that someone who “loved” the guitar as he seemingly did could be completely unaware of the art-music tradition for that instrument. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with that. However, and again alluding to the classical guitar world as a broad and inclusive network, I believe there is much we, classical guitarists, can still do to establish more fruitful artistic and social exchanges with an eager audience that is still waiting to be welcomed. In other words, we can undoubtedly reach audiences that may not be familiar or interested in classical music at all through our beloved instrument and simultaneously make substantial efforts in broadening our own conceptions of what the music world should be. In the end, music should be part of a broader social and discursive field, and a versatile and inviting instrument like the guitar could be a useful tool for it.
In conclusion, the classical guitar emerges not only as a musical instrument but as a powerful bridge connecting diverse cultural landscapes. This essay has explored the instrument’s historical significance, acknowledging its prevalence in various traditions and its integral role in the compositions of renowned musicians spanning different continents and eras. Despite the guitar’s ubiquity, the author notes a persistent struggle for recognition in mainstream symphonic and chamber music settings.
While the essay refrains from providing a definitive answer to the question of the guitar’s marginalization in certain musical spheres, it advocates for a paradigm shift. The author emphasizes the guitar’s potential as a catalyst for cross-cultural interactions and societal development. Drawing on personal experiences and citing initiatives like the one in Nigeria, the author underscores the need for classical guitarists to engage with audiences beyond traditional boundaries.
The essay encourages a more inclusive approach within the classical guitar community, challenging practitioners to see themselves not merely as authorities but as nodes in a broader network. By narrating an encounter at an airport, the author highlights the disconnection between the guitar’s popularity and its representation in art music. This disjunction serves as a call to action for classical guitarists to extend their outreach, inviting diverse audiences into the rich tapestry of classical music.
Ultimately, the essay calls for a reevaluation of the classical guitar’s role, envisioning it not only as an institution with established festivals and competitions but as a versatile and inviting instrument capable of fostering meaningful artistic and social exchanges. The author posits that classical guitarists have the potential to reach untapped audiences, introducing them to the beauty of classical music through a familiar and accessible medium. In embracing this mission, the classical guitar can become a dynamic tool for expanding the boundaries of the music world and contributing to a more inclusive and vibrant cultural discourse.