By Eliot Fisk
It is a great pleasure to return to the stage with my dear friend and revered colleague, Paco Pena. Paco and I first met in September 1983, when we performed separate solo recitals at a now-defunct guitar festival in Mettman, Germany. This was also the first time I had the chance to hear Paco live, and even now, more than three decades later, I can still recall many moments from that concert.
Paco and I became friends at once, but it was not until about six years later that we began to perform as a duo. Since that time I count Paco as one of my great musical inspirations. Due to the fullness of our individual careers we have only occasionally toured together, yet the result has always been memorable.
In teaching me by ear the flamenco pieces heard tonight, Paco not only gave me an introduction into the fascinating universe of flamenco but changed and expanded my conception of music as a whole. Many of the techniques I first learned from Paco found their way into compositions composed for me afterward by leading contemporary composers such as Beaser, Berio, Rochberg, Maw, Balada, Schwertsik and others. Those same techniques also came in handy when I turned to transcribe virtuosic solo violin music by Cristobal Halffter, George Rochberg and John Corigliano.
The classical guitar is a famously tricky instrument. Many of the great composers are actually apprehensive to approach an instrument when they’re so unfamiliar with its nuances, and even the most skillful of those willing to do so are often grateful for the suggestions, sometimes quite extensive (!), of a proficient interpreter.
Sensational as it is, flamenco guitar is never un-idiomatic. Like the impeccable sense of rhythm that even amateur flamenco players typically possess, this natural way with the instrument is a great source of inspiration for classical guitarists. Much as he sometimes railed against flamenco, Andres Segovia’s solutions to guitar fingering owed a lot to the flamenco tradition that he absorbed by osmosis as a child in Spain.
For me, working with Paco has also reminded me of the age-old crosspollination of popular and classical styles, of the impulse that led Bach to throw two folk songs into the final Quodlibet of the Goldberg Variations, Beethoven to develop Russian tunes in the “Razumovsky” Quartets, or Bartok to write down and later transform in his own works Hungarian and Romanian folk music. We classical guitarists feel the pull of flamenco not only in original guitar music but just as strongly in the music we like to transcribe by masters of the past like Domenico Scarlatti, Isaac Albeniz or Manuel de Falla.
After a first half of solo playing, Paco and I come together in the second half outside of our comfort zones. We begin with two of the Spanish–sounding sonatas (years unknown; 4 minutes each) by Domenico Scarlatti (born in Naples, October 26, 1685; died in Madrid, July 23, 1757). Neapolitan by birth, Scarlatti famously settled in Spain with his patron, Maria Barbara of Portugal, who had married the King of Spain. Scarlatti spent the rest of his life in Spain where he fused the lyricism of Italian opera with the fiery rhythms and daring harmonies of Spanish folk music. As the great harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick (source of the Scarlatti catalogue “K” numbers) once explained, in so doing Scarlatti endowed the binary form with unsurpassed beauty, variety and eloquence.
Felix Mendelssohn (born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847) composed dozens of Songs without Words (Lieder ohne Worte) for solo piano. The one heard here is the first of a set of six dedicated to Clara Schumann (composed in 1844; 4 minutes). Here Paco takes the melody to my accompaniment. We conclude the classical segment with two contrasting Preludes (composed c. 1740; 3 minutes/ composed after 1720; 1 minute) by the greatest and most universal of all composers, J. S. Bach (born in Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died in Leipzig, July 28, 1750). As Paco does not like to read music and is accustomed to play by ear, he learned his part in the classical selections by ear from informal recordings that I made for him.
A similar process enabled me to learn my part for our flamenco selections. Paco learned the Farrucas by ear from Sabicas’s recording and sent me a cassette of himself playing both parts separately. From this informal recording I wrote down my part. The Colombianas is one of the flamenco forms influenced by the breezy rhythms of the Caribbean and fuses New World swing with the inevitability of the Spanish compás.
During our early tours Paco often taught me still other flamenco numbers and falsetas by ear. We recall the variety of these informal sessions, which happened spontaneously in various hotel rooms of the world, by adding little personal touches of our own in both the classical and flamenco parts of tonight’s program.
© 2014 Eliot Fisk
Back to Top