Medieval and Renaissance music might seem worlds apart from the American folk tradition, but New York-based guitarist and composer Charlie Rauh draws from them equally on his latest album, Hiraeth (Destiny Records), a set of solo acoustic pieces. “I love the sound of 12th–15th century music and certainly channel my conception of that,” he says. “At the same time, I feel very connected to Appalachian music, having spent most of my life living in the South.”
The notation here is based on the studio recordings of two selections from Hiraeth—“Fanø” and “Black Sea Dress”—both of which Rauh played when he recently filmed a video for AG’s Sessions series. The former composition was inspired by Rauh’s visit to the small island of Fanø, off the coast of southwestern Denmark, during a European tour; the latter by “The Sentence,” in which the great Ukrainian poet Anna Akhmatova chronicled her personal tragedies during the Stalin regime.
“Fanø” and “Black Sea Dress” evoke decidedly contrasting moods, but they share a similar approach to harmony, in which Rauh pits fretted notes against the ringing open strings to find both peaceful and tense—and often uncommon—voicings. Both compositions are also striking in their brevity (each one is just over a minute long) and unhurriedness. “My preference for slowness and free pacing has a lot to do with the influence of poetry, particularly Emily and Anne Brontë’s work, on my music,” Rauh says. “I try to compose music in the same way I would write a poem: brief but not rushed; distilled but very much complete.”
In terms of technique, Rauh plays both pieces with hybrid picking—using the plectrum and middle and ring fingers—an approach he adopted when living in Nashville and being exposed to the hot pickers on Music Row. “You could say I attempt to combine a country/folk right hand with a sort of early music/classical left hand,” he says.
While hybrid picking lends a certain definition and crispness, especially on the bass notes, straight fingerpicking will work equally well on the two pieces. Whichever technique you use, make sure to bring out the melody, which is seen in the up-stemmed notes, while letting everything ring together as long as possible. But most important, take things slowly and lean into the music.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.