Rolling your own

Another topic that came up in my master class with Petra Poláčková at the Cleveland festival was the question of how to play chords. The Chaconne, like any piece of music, demands that the performer make a lot of interpretive decisions; indeed, it is the making and executing of those decisions that is the core of performing. Some of these decisions are broad and affect large stretches of the piece. What will the tempo be? What about the basic dynamic level? Other decisions are smaller in scale, like the shaping of a phrase.  And some decisions have to be made about how to play individual notes or chords.

With chords, a basic decision has to be made about each and every one: do I play all the notes at the same time or do I “roll” the chord, playing each note in rapid succession? The latter technique is called arpeggio—literally, in the manner of the harp. Classical guitarists in general (and this one in particular) tend to overuse arpeggio and employ it in a seemingly haphazard way. Segovia, famously, never seemed to find a chord he couldn’t roll and it became one of the signatures of his style. But to change it from a stylistic tic into an expressive device requires conscious decision.

To begin with, let’s look at what exactly is involved in rolling a chord. Here is the very first thing in the Chaconne:

The opening chord of the Chaconne

It’s the most basic chord, a three-note triad in root position. Play it exactly as written, with all three notes sounded at the same time on the second beat, and you get this:

 

Easy enough to do on the guitar. The violin, though, is another story. A modern violin with a modern bow cannot play these three notes at the exact same time. So the violinist has to decide not whether to roll the chord, but how. Some performers, like Hilary Hahn, play the d and then hold the f and a together:

Hilary Hahn’s opening chord

 

while others, like Rachel Podger, play the three pitches in succession, holding only the top pitch:

Rachel Podger’s opening chord. (Notice the lower tuning favored by some early music specialists.)

 

If you were to notate these two different versions they might look like this:

Note that both performers aim to arrive at the top note or notes right on the second beat; in effect, they start early. It’s possible, of course, to start the arpeggio on the beat—and there are cases in music where that might be the right approach—but in general, an arpeggio tends to anticipate the beat so that the metrical integrity of the melody (assuming it is uppermost note) is preserved. Where to begin and end the arpeggio is something the performer must decide.

Another decision that has to be made is how quickly to roll the chord. In the examples above, Hahn makes it a fairly assertive gesture, moving through the d quickly and emphasizing the second pair of notes. Podger takes a more languid approach.

So, in playing the very first sonority in the Chaconne I have a number of options. I can play it like this:

Or like this:

Or even like this:

Okay, I cheated on the last one and added an additional pitch–the lower D.

Of course, I could play this first chord without thinking it through, and simply do what feels right in the moment. But then, what to do when the same chord comes up four measures later? Shouldn’t the two chords relate to each other in some way? How can I convey that if I haven’t thought about it beforehand and decided? In addition, the arpeggio can be a very important expressive device when used thoughtfully. It adds emphasis, subtly changes the rhythmic flow, and can isolate and emphasize a particular voice in the chord to help make a melody emerge more clearly.

Over the last few years, thanks to my studies with Jason Vieaux, classes and encounters at the Cleveland festival, and an expanding circle of guitar friends in the New York area, I have had the chance to talk with and learn from a number of professional guitarists of the highest artistic calibre. One thing has become clear: they all think about, and decide, everything in their interpretation of a piece. Certainly emotions and feelings play a role, particularly in the moment of performance, but the preparation for that moment is extremely detailed and deliberate. That is how guitarists at that level are able to sound the way that they do.

I’m not at that level and never have been; my playing—for better or worse—was always guided almost entirely by the combination of what my ears could hear, what my fingers could do, and how the music made me feel. But my respect for the Chaconne, and for the project, demands a more thoughtful approach.

Petra’s advice was to use arpeggios if it serves an expressive purpose or helps to highlight one pitch in the chord. At the same time, she cautioned me to be careful in two voice textures to keep both notes together. Otherwise the metrical feeling can get completely lost.

3 thoughts on “Rolling your own

  1. Chris, in the Podger example, I hear both the F and A held together. Please listen to it again and let me know what you think.

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    • Quite right. Both Hahn and Podger hold the F. For some reason I hear it less prominently in the Podger recording, perhaps because the “passes through” the F more deliberately on her way to the A. Where as Hahn moves off the D very quickly and bows the F and A at the same time, and with more nearly equal weight. Thanks for pointing this out.

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