Skip to main content

Culture Music

Cutting the chord

Canadian Guitar Quartet (Handout)

Cutting the chord

2017 is turning into a good year for acoustic-guitar releases

In a recent article titled “Why my guitar gently weeps,” The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers pulled the lid off what he called the “slow, secret death of the six-string electric.”

Apparently, interest in and sales of rock ’n’ roll’s most iconic instrument have been ebbing for at least a decade. And, if the trend continues, the “guitar gods” (Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, et al.) may soon receive an Ozymandian comeuppance.

But the news from the acoustic-guitar front isn’t nearly as dour—that is, if seven 2017 releases featuring acoustic guitars or their ancestor, the lute, are reliable indicators.

The most elaborate of these is Robert Beaser: Guitar Concerto (Linn). Performed by the celebrated guitarist Eliot Fisk and the José Serebrier–conducted Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the recording features the 2010 title piece, which gives Fisk abundant opportunity to demonstrate the classical guitar’s expressive range within a feverishly eloquent orchestral setting.

Two of the three shorter Beaser compositions that comprise the album’s final 33 minutes are guitar-free (the Hungarian-folk-song-based “Evening Prayer” and the 9/11-inspired “Ground O”). But one of them, the orchestra-free “Notes on a Southern Sky,” finds Fisk not only demonstrating his instrument’s expressive capacity but expanding it as well.

On the folk front, The Music of Harry Taussig & Max Ochs (Tompkins Square) juxtaposes two acoustic guitarists who first appeared together 50 years ago (along with the late John Fahey, Bukka White, and Robbie Basho) on the Takoma Records sampler Contemporary Guitar Spring ’67.

Neither guitarist has undergone the “audio gentrification” common to folk musicians who’ve long plied their trades. Whether it’s the bucolic beauty of Taussig’s “The Unlook’d for Sport” or the multifaceted rural ramblings of Ochs’ “Boogie for Barry,” the sound of both musicians remains rooted in the “American primitive” stylings that Takoma Records was founded to advance.

If Beaser represents high culture and Taussig and Ochs represent low (or, at any rate, lower), the Canadian Guitar Quartet’s Mappa Mundi (Atma Classique) bridges the divide.

The program opens in the Baroque era (with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor) and switches to the present (with the Quartet’s own Renaud Côté-Giguère’s Fille de cuivre and Patrick Roux’s “Cafe Gardel” and “En las calles de Buenos Aires”). And although Christine Donkin’s ornate title suite (on which cellist Rachel Mercer joins the Quartet) is contemporary as well, its movements were inspired by the Tower of Babel, a 14th-century map of the world, and mythological creatures.

The selection that most unites the ancient and contemporary is Hans Brüderl’s seven-minute “Octopus.” Beginning with a Turkish melody, it segues into a progression of pop chords and runs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from Steve Howe during a mid-’70s Yes show.

The majority of this year’s acoustic-guitar/lute albums, however, explore older periods exclusively.

Representing the Renaissance is the Italian lutenist Michele Carreca, whose Giacomo Gorzanis: Solo Lute Music (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) includes a number of world-premiere Gorzanis compositions. Representing the Baroque is J.S. Bach: French Suites (Stradivarius) by the American lutenist Paul Beier. And representing the Classical-Romantic are John Schneiderman and Hideki Yamaya’s Beethoven for Two Guitars (Haenssler Classic) and Andrea Dieci’s Sor: Complete Sonatas for Guitar (Brilliant). All four showcase master musicians highly attuned to the timeless vibrancy of their material.

And in so doing, the recordings make the acoustic guitar and the lute seem attractive—attractive enough, in fact, to make young guitarists give serious consideration to unplugging.