On September 18th, fifteen students from the California Conservatory had the chance to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to perform large ensemble pieces by two Pulitzer Prize-winning composers. Over 100 guitarists from the Bay Area collaborated at this event, and it was all put together with one rehearsal led by SFCM guitar department chair, David Tanenbaum. We brought students from ages 10 to 21 and who are all at different levels. The two pieces performed were “Rosewood” by Henry Brant and “Questionnaire” by David Lang. Both pieces are nontraditional and took the students out of their usual comfort zone. A majority of the students who participated in the performance had never improvised or worked from a graphic score before.
Rosewood is a piece that depicts the cutting down of rain forests in South America. According to Brant, he made this piece to “protest how the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest was affecting guitar construction. That's why you hear sounds such as the cutting of the forest amid nostalgic memories from the guitar repertoire.” Brant achieves this by creating various sound effects with the guitar such as scraping the strings with the right-hand nails, tapping the back and sides of the guitar, using a slide (which is traditionally for blues guitar) to create rapid glissandi, and attaching a capo on different frets while strumming. The music is largely improvised with only short instructions throughout guiding the performers. Players sat in multiple areas around the concert hall, some with the audience, on the stage, and on the balcony to surround the audience and immerse them in the music.
The second piece, Questionnaire uses almost no notation at all. Each performer received a worksheet ahead of time, full of personal questions which according to Lang, should be answered truthfully. The narrator/questioner for this performance was the San Francisco Conservatory’s president, David Stull who asked the questions out loud and all the performers answered the questions not with words, but with specific notes given to them on the sheet music. The students used the pitch given, in the rhythm and speed that they would speak.
When the students first received the sheet music, they were baffled, confused and even frustrated. By the end of the performance, everyone excitedly asked when we would do something like it again. It can be fun and stimulating to put away the Suzuki books, or sheet music and try something entirely new. Thank you to David Tanenbaum and the San Francisco Conservatory for inviting CCG to take part in this fantastic event, and we look forward to the next collaboration in the Bay Area and beyond.