Amongst – concerto for extremely amplified guitar and orchestra

I always felt a bit sorry for guitar players – especially, when I was one myself. When they go on stage, my palms get sweaty. It is as if they always balance on a fine edge. The instrument can radiate an almost aggressive fragility, which – in spite of all the sympathy and good will this arouses in me – gives me the feeling that everything could suddenly break down at any time. And it can get almost embarrassing when the guitar pompously or in desperation anyway tries to break through its physical limitations, trying to be extrovert, powerful and sonorous – especially caricatured in combination with other instruments.

In other words: An instrument very much like us humans! And an instrument that because of all these qualities not only has given me musical experiences of unique intensity and intimacy when I least expected it, but has also influenced the very foundation of my musical search.

Amongst for guitar and orchestra is actually for two guitars. The first guitar is the one that normally hides or is being hidden behind the shiny surface and that can only be seen with a large microscope: The completely naked guitar that melts together with its player – the microscopic dynamic levels watched through extreme amplification.
The second guitar is the in advance unsuccessful one that in stubborn desperation fights against its handicap to be heard – the unamplified cardboard box made into a caricature in the meeting with the orchestra and the large hall. (The player uses a volume pedal to change between the two instruments).

To hold the microscope to the ear (in form of extreme amplification) gives you the opportunity to fully use, what one could call the “backside” of the guitar. When you damp the strings with the right hand (the hand that normally plucks the strings) and only play with the left hand, only the “backside” of the string will sound (the part of the string between the left hand on the fretboard and the “head” where the tuning pegs are). Besides the special sound of this backside – a combination of a very thin tone and a percussive attack within an extremely soft dynamic – it also offers a large repertoire of very small intervals that have nothing to do with the normal tuning of the guitar. In some areas there is up to six different tones within one halftone step (which means intervals six times smaller than on the piano!).

The orchestra has two dynamic states that correspond to the two faces of the guitar: The one is the extreme pianissimo – where the tone is not yet well defined and secure – only made audible because played or “whispered” in unison by a larger group of 10 to 45 instruments; a pianissimo that invites the listener to stretch the ears all the way to the stage, and that colors the surrounding pauses and silences.
The other dynamic state is the failed solistic fortissimo; the maximum energy put into an instrument, that is hampered or “disabled” through special playing techniques or mutes (for example a trumpet with a practice mute playing through the spit vault). In other words situations, where the maximum burst of energy results in nothing more than a tame mezzo-forte. One could say that the instruments of the orchestra one by one are condemned to the normal situation and frustration of the guitar...

These two opposite types of “inverse dynamics” (the dampened attempt to make a fortissimo and the extreme pianissimo “amplified” by the large amount of players) in this way work as a parallel to the two dynamics of the guitar, which is most obvious in the division of the strings into eight solo strings in the front damped with metal practice mutes (that gives the instrument the sound of a cardboard box and a maximum dynamic around mezzo-piano) and the rest of the strings treated as one instrument. Almost a concerto-grosso situation, where the dampened instruments play together with the unamplified guitar and the large groups play together with the amplified guitar. Both dynamic states are suggestions for the almost paradoxical expression that I have been looking for a long time: Intimate and fragile orchestra music!

The concerto is one long sequence of almost 35 minutes. Apparently it can be divided into three or four parts, but several of these parts don’t have an explicit beginning or ending and other tendencies indicate either none or other formal divisions. A composed, yet open form.

The music is mostly thought “horizontal”, often in several lines fighting for the attention, suggesting conflicting directions. In the first half part, this polyphonic music is often contrasted by a “vertical” music. This vertical music is horizontal or linear, though, in the physical aspects of the guitar play – choreography for guitar and player. Characteristic for the whole piece is a constant interactive communication between soloist and orchestra and between individual orchestra groupings. Often in form of a “relay polyphony” or “ping pong fortspinnung” – as if the orchestra was nothing more than a media for more or less focused particles of energy moving through the hall.

The title Amongst both refers to the co-existences or many-layerings in the music (like for example to be amongst conflicting directions – a position where one might be forced to choose a local focus at the expense of the global view), and it refers to the co-existing in the social aspect, where the soloist is often absorbed by the orchestra and becomes part of the joint movement – amongst equals.  

Simon Steen-Andersen, September 2005