Piece of the Week 38: Attitudes for solo guitar

It is often said by composers that the guitar is an instrument that they would be wary of writing for without a guitarist to help them – and it’s perfectly true that working with a skilled performer is a very good spur to creative activity, as I found recently with my ukulele pieces, Shoreline Sketches (see Piece of the Week no. 28).

When I came, over thirty years ago, to write Attitudes for the guitarist Martin Plackett, I found the same, and I have happy memories of working with Martin in a rather cramped and overcrowded front room (due to an extension being built at the time, we only had half a house) and learning a great deal about what the guitar could do.  But I also did my own ‘homework’ as well on guitar technique, and much of that informed the way that I composed the piece.  In particular, I used the tuning of the guitar’s six strings to shape the way that the harmony and melody was developed, by devising a scale of alternating tones and semitones built up from each string. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly how that worked now, but the result gave me an expressive harmonic language which I was happy to use.

For the listener and player though, what might be more interesting is the range of colour that the guitar can produce and which I aimed to make use of.
The first movement, ‘Dramatic’ begins with an improvisatory rising melodic line. I’m particularly fond of using the guitar as a melody instrument, as this gives the player optimum opportunity to colour and vary the sound. Then, later, contrast is provided by using the guitar chordally, and also a section with harmonics. Finally, the opening melody descends to where it started.
The second movement ‘Capricious’ is very fast, in strict time but with no clear time signature, and apart from a few contrasting chords played on the lowest two open strings, and a central pesante section, the melody is played in high position on the upper strings, giving a fleeting and evanescent atmosphere.
The final movement, ‘Pensive’, begins in what is perhaps a more traditional way – melody in the upper strings while the thumb picks out isolated bass notes or chords. Within that texture there is a big range of colour, though, and gradually the melody takes over and develops into a dramatic unaccompanied section moving across all the strings, returning, in the final section, to the opening texture, and moving to a coda which emphasises the pull between major and minor third which characterises the motivic units used in all three movements.

I hope you enjoy it – it’s unpublished and will probably remain so until I have the energy to typeset it. But I’m rather fond of my (I hope perfectly clear) manuscript, which reminds one of those pre-computer days, and you can download it free from my website. And you can listen to the wonderful recording that Martin Plackett made, here, with a scrolling score.