Rightly or not, music played on nylon-string, or classical, guitar has frequently been dubbed “Spanish guitar.” It’s true that the modern acoustic guitar’s roots are in Spain, and that the instrument’s most famous exponent, Andrés Segovia, was Spanish. And though classical guitar repertoire has come to encompass everything from Bach to the Beatles (along with avant-garde and virtually every other style imaginable), much of the most popular material was also written by Spanish composers in the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century, including Isaac Albéniz, Francisco Tárrega, Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina, Federico Moreno Torroba, Enrique Granados, and Joaquín Rodrigo. Even if their names are not instantly familiar to you, chances are you’ve heard pieces by them. Taken together their work helped define the Spanish nationalist style, with its nods to Iberian folk music, flamenco, and various other regional strains.
In part because classical guitar has become so eclectic and widely played during the past 50 years—more than ever it’s a truly worldwide phenomenon—Spain has not exerted as much influence on guitar repertoire as it once did. There are still many fine players emerging from Spanish conservatories, but not many contemporary Spanish composers have gotten much international exposure via the guitar in recent decades. During the last few years, however, an unlikely advocate for modern Spanish composers has emerged: American classical guitarist Adam Levin has put out three volumes (with a fourth due in early 2019) of a remarkable series on the Naxos label called 21st Century Spanish Guitar, consisting of 30 previously unrecorded pieces for solo guitar by Spanish composers spanning four generations, 29 of them commissioned by Levin, encompassing multiple genres.
A native of Chicago, Levin has been among the top echelon of American classical guitarists for a while now, having studied with such renowned instructors as Eliot Fisk (at the New England Conservatory), Oscar Ghiglia (the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy), and Gabriel Estarellas (at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid), toured internationally, released CDs, and been a teacher himself (currently at the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts). He credits Fisk (“my dear teacher, life coach, and friend”) for initially turning him on to three contemporary Spanish composers—Leonardo Balada, Cristobal Halffter, and Xavier Montsalvatge—but it was landing a much-coveted Fulbright scholarship in 2008 to go to Spain to study already-written contemporary Spanish music for guitar with Estarellas that set the wheels in motion for what became an obsessive quest to commission and then document the new modern works that found their way to 21st Century Spanish Guitar—though it would be five years before the first volume would appear. “Estarellas was particularly generous with me,” Levin says, “often passing along personal emails and phone numbers of composers I would otherwise never have been able to contact. Meanwhile I spent a great deal of time listening to music, going to new music recitals, and querying composers for new referrals. Between iTunes bills and wining and dining Spanish composers, I wound up with enough willing candidates to fill my living room with sheet music.
“My selection criteria was really quite simple,” he continues. “Did I like their non-guitar music; followed by, did I like their guitar music? And for those that had not written for the guitar, was I confident that their compositional language would effectively translate to the guitar? With such a strong guitar imprinting in Spain, it is easy for composers to write run-of-the-mill Spanish music. The composers with whom I developed a special affection and affinity were those whose music was intrinsically ‘Spanish,’ but whose voice was distinct and unlike anything we have ever heard before. For the most part, I think this is true of all the pieces in the collection. There were works that I rejected in the end because they struck me as clichéd, didn’t follow a clear narrative, or were just plain weird, amorphous, or abstract to the point of being either or both unlistenable and/or unplayable as written on the guitar. It’s never easy saying no to a composer, especially after there was a significant time and financial investment, but the project’s mission of reimagining the landscape of Spanish guitar music in the 21st century took priority over all else; quality control was of the utmost importance.”
Because they were new pieces, Levin had his work cut out for him just to be able to evaluate them for the project, much less get them under his fingers to the point where they could be recorded. As he notes, “It’s one thing to just sit down and learn a familiar piece—one you’ve more or less grown up listening to. It’s a whole other operation to receive a piece never before heard, analyze it for playability—several of these composers had written little or nothing for the guitar previously—make adjustments/edits, add fingerings, get the hang of it roughly speaking, further edit and adjust, learn the final revision, play it for the composer, adjust the piece again to align with his or her interpretive vision, and finally take the stage and attempt to give a convincing performance.”
The 21st Century Spanish Guitar releases that have come out to date were produced and recorded/edited for Naxos by the husband-and-wife team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver at their preferred venue—St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket, Ontario—with Levin using three different classical guitars made by Massachusetts luthier Stephan Connor. “Volume One was recorded on a cedar-and-Brazilian rosewood guitar,” says Levin, “Volume Two on a spruce- and-Brazilian-rosewood guitar, and finally, Volume Three on a spruce-and-maple guitar. I’ve been performing on Connor guitars for 13 years. They are colorful, versatile, and powerful, allowing me to achieve the towering fortissimos or, conversely, the subtle and delicate pianissimos.
“I’m a real sucker for guitars,” he continues. “I’ll talk to you all day about woods, bracing patterns, tuners, and the correlation between tonewoods and sound. And while Connor guitars were my go-to for these recordings and my current recitals, I don’t shy away from modern guitars with a more traditional sound in mind. The traditional designs invented by Torres, perfected by the likes of Hauser, Ramirez, Bouchet, and Santos Hernandez, then improvised upon and refined by Friederich, Romanillos, Brune, Elliot, and Marin, to name but a few modern masters, are appealing to me in so many ways. Theirs are the voices I grew up with. Off stage I play guitars by each of them.”
Not surprisingly, the series covers a very broad range of styles, though it leans heavily towards modern sonorities—which in the classical guitar world often translates as occasionally dissonant, rhythmically unpredictable, perhaps a bit dark in character, sometimes atonal. But there are also pieces that display a sort of neo-romanticism steeped in Spanish tradition but recast in more contemporary settings. For instance, Antón García Abril’s “Trimountain,” (from 2017’s third volume) is redolent with wisps of Iberian flavor—traditional-sounding in parts, but still new. But then there are the Leonardo Balada “abstractions” (as he calls them) that appear on every release: each explicitly references famous works by Albéniz, Granados, and Falla, with Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez slated for deconstruction on the fourth and final volume in the series—yet they feel far removed from those inspirations; unconventional in the extreme. As Levin notes, Balada has “his own very personal and distinct language.”
But listeners who take the time to really dig into the series’ wide-ranging and challenging timbral palette and appreciate Levin’s expressive virtuosity will discover a rich new world of Spanish guitar music, and encounter works by composers who merit further exploration, such as Eduardo Morales-Caso, Salvador Brotons, David del Puerto, Cristobal Halffter, Octavio Vazquez, Marc López Godoy, and others.
“The evolution of the traditional Spanish voice as it encompasses the guitar styles of the 21st century is striking, and that’s what’s on display in this four-part series,” Levin says. “Spanish creativity, pre-Franco [the dictator who dominated and culturally isolated Spain for much of the 20th century], flourished when composers departed Spain to further their studies, exchanged ideas, and absorbed the rich European musical traditions and cultures around them, which, in turn, encouraged them to cultivate music that had a distinct Spanish sound. This was, in many ways, a proto-type for cultural globalization. It wasn’t until 1975, when democracy was restored, that Spain could begin la movida [the movement] toward freely sharing ideas, paving the way for fresh musical expression.
“The Spanish tradition—the fusion of aire flamenco, Gypsy folk music, and cante jondo, with impressionism from neighboring France—remains potent in some of today’s composers, but a majority of them have explored a variety of other musical languages, including serial, 12-tone, folk, neo-classic, Baroque, Romantic, jazz, pop, minimalist, avant-garde, electronic, and even crossover music. Spanish music remains loyal to traditions of the past while progressively blending new styles, traditions, themes, and genres from around the world. This series showcases the variety in new Spanish music, creates access points to new music for guitarists of all musical tastes, and establishes a body of serious and virtuosic new works, some of which will hopefully take their place in the standard repertoire.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.