Connie Crothers, a great mentor and a brilliant pianist, once shared with me a profound insight: “The difference between something being complex and something being complicated is that complexity can be reduced to a foundation of simplicity. Something complicated cannot.” This notion frequently occupies my thoughts when I’m composing for solo guitar, underscoring how easily a simple idea can be dismissed, whether from a technical, conceptual, or intellectual standpoint.
As musicians, it’s often second nature to define ourselves by our technical prowess. While this pursuit isn’t inherently negative, it can sometimes divert our attention away from the essential foundation upon which our most personal creative expressions must rest. I’ve discovered that literature consistently serves as a wellspring of inspiration, offering a pathway to unlock my musical thoughts. Literature, as a medium, demands that we conjure our own imagery and narrate subjects in our unique voices, and it effortlessly guides us toward our individual artistic revelations.
Grounding Your Harmony
My latest album, A Hymn to the Morning (Destiny Records), comprises a collection of nine lullabies for solo acoustic guitar. This project draws its inspiration from the remarkable poet Phillis Wheatley Peters, who made history as the first African American to be published over 250 years ago. Wheatley Peters, who was initially brought to Boston as a slave, mastered the English language within a mere two years. She embarked on a remarkable journey, becoming an internationally acclaimed literary genius and, notably, achieving emancipation following her literary success.
Wheatley Peters’ writings are characterized by their vividness, complexity, and beauty, brimming with rich imagery and an inherent, deeply personal empathy for the world around her. The title track of my album directly derives its name from one of my cherished poems by Wheatley Peters, where these remarkable qualities are on full display.
In my musical interpretation of the delicate yet passionate reflections on the first light of day found in the poem, I chose to employ expansive harmonic voicings that create a sense of weightlessness for the melody, all while interplaying with dissonant lines beneath. As showcased in Example 1, I employ the ringing open G string early in the passage, harnessing its natural sustain to introduce harmonic tension as the melody unfolds, eventually giving way to more closed voicings that lead to resolution. This approach offers a means to establish a broad, sturdy harmonic foundation without the need for full chords to bolster the melody. In doing so, I consciously steer clear of the usual techniques like low drone notes, repetitive rhythmic finger patterns, and ornamental melodic embellishments.
With this method, my primary focus lies entirely on the melody’s movement, complemented by supporting voices, akin to the nuances of a vocal arrangement. The strategic use of silence between phrases and the gradual decay of notes further invites the listeners to immerse themselves in the very scene that inspired this composition—a scene of pure, unadulterated beauty witnessed in the early hours of the day.
Playing to Your Thoughts
One aspect of composition that consistently fuels my inspiration is the act of playing an idea on the guitar while exclusively focusing on the part it complements. This practice serves as a way of unlocking the genuine potential of simplicity in my compositions, all the while challenging myself to maintain a deliberate connection with my thoughts. I harnessed this process in crafting one of the more minimalistic pieces on the album, “Without Measure, Without End.”
This composition drew its inspiration from an elegy penned by Wheatley Peters, dedicated to a child who had tragically passed away in her community. As I contemplated how to convey the depth of empathy and personal significance embedded in Wheatley Peters’ words, I realized that I needed to play a melody that would serve as a counterpoint to these thoughts. Although this element might go unnoticed by the casual listener, it arguably constitutes the most crucial ingredient, providing the melody with unwavering purpose.
In Example 2, you can hear the linear, single-note melody played twice. Performing exposed and unadorned melodies as a soloist can be a daunting task, which underscores the importance of maintaining a solid foundation. When your notes have a clear origin and a well-defined purpose, you deliver music that feels whole, substantial, and fully realized.
“Her Morning Sun”
In Example 3, we delve into a complete solo piece from the album, drawing inspiration from yet another poignant elegy by Wheatley Peters. This particular poem, dedicated to a five-year-old child who has passed away, intimately addresses and consoles the grieving parents. Confronting the profound emotions within this piece of writing, I embarked on a journey to compose a lullaby that would encapsulate a sense of optimism amidst the backdrop of sorrow.
In pursuit of this delicate balance, I intentionally harmonized the melody with chordal structures that eschew sustained resonance. My aim was not to create a composition that relied on the guitar’s sheer power, but rather to harness the instrument’s capacity to evoke rich tones and hues. The concept was to craft a lullaby that tenderly embraces the pain articulated in the poem while leaning on the poet’s response as to why it will ultimately not prevail.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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