Albeniz: Suite Espanola

People, in general, have a knack for filing clutter away in strange places, hidden cabinets that we may not open for years. My bedroom closet in Virginia houses my first guitar which is actually my second guitar, exchanged for the first after a screw popped off and I panicked. Mom has her “cedar chest.” She keeps photos, old albums, Christmas decorations, and other oddities inside the stale wooden trunk. I haven’t seen it opened in a decade, though I know she opens it around Christmas. My head is packed with curiosities, drawers and curtains I tend not to open. Everyone’s head is similarly overstuffed. It’s a fact – not compartmentalization or repression of trauma; simply the storage of trivial things that weren’t always trivial. Not skeletons in closets, but shoeboxes and old shopping bags.

I’m listening to Jean Sibelius for maybe the first time since Taylor was preparing for her junior recital. His name came up a dozen times in third-semester music history. I answered questions and got them right, but never listened deeply to his music. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the realization, after his first essays were picked up by The Atlantic, that he nodded along with conversations even when he didn’t understand an obscure or esoteric reference. He was cheating himself out of knowledge. I do that shit all the time, but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, Jean Sibelius is a receipt in a shoebox I forgot about until a few moments ago – one among many. I listened recently to a Bach Cantata that I hadn’t encountered since my first semester of music school. My friend Clay wanted to be studious so, at 9:00 on the first morning of our freshman year, he sat in the front row. For the next week, Dr. Hines paced the front, spitting flecks of saliva into Clay's hair each time he yelped the title of our first score study in his dramatized German accent: Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme!!! Several weeks ago I recorded myself humming into my phone and sent it to Will in Nashville.

“What the hell am I humming, Will? It’s driving me absolutely insane.”

“Um. Sounds like Albeniz.”

I admire people that repurpose old things. Some of my sisters’ friends live in a cabin in the next county over from our parents. Their dad owns a salvage company, commissioned to raze old structures and save as much material as possible. He stocks antique doors and period lumber, supplies builders and restores historic properties. My sister Becca has a similar eye, perhaps on a smaller scale. She salvages more frangible antiques, pulls together newspaper clippings, dried basil leaves, polaroids, drawings on scrap paper, and recyclables and assembles something new. Even that which seems superfluous can be spared outright desuetude, it can all be saved for something. That I can’t name that something, even a hypothetical and fictional something, says as much about me.

I’m not one for repairing or restoring. Used books stack on my shelves, shabbily elegant with creased covers and hard lines of dogears past, but that’s about it. What clothes I buy, I generally buy new and don’t decorate or alter. We don’t decorate our apartment aside from photographs of our wedding and family. It’s a shame. Everything decays eventually, disintegrates and returns its components to earth, but not always in a way that’s immediately useful. Recycling something doesn’t return as much of its usefulness to the world as does turning it inside out, cutting stitches loose, and using it for a different purpose entirely. I don’t have the skills or put in the time to give baubles and knick-knacks new life. To that end, I was glad in those years of music school to play a relatively young classical instrument.

Pianists, violinists, trumpeters, cellists, and singers each have a massive canon from which to choose music. Percussionists and guitarists have less variety, but innovation is born of limitation. I learned more of the American Songbook in my first year in New York than in four years of college, not because I had more time, but because I had less. I soared along 9th Street in Brooklyn singing the words to “Days of Wine and Roses” and “I Could Write a Book,” with the breath of a hundred people fogging up the windows and blotting out the silhouette of the Williamsburg Savings Bank tower on Hanson Place. I’d never done that before because I had hours in practice rooms to scour chord changes and play melodies a thousand times over.

Until Fernando Sor published his method in 1830, the guitar was a folk instrument with almost no classical repertoire. At that point, there were two centuries of literature for violin, three for keyboard, and even more for voice. Because of that youth, guitarists stick to music from a very narrow period or habitually pilfer that of other instruments. In college, I played the music of Telemann, Bach, Bernstein, Scarlatti, Mozart, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky, all stripped of original instrumentation and molded for guitars. But there were always a handful of composers that worked better than others: Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, and Isaac Albeniz. Collectively, the three most important Spanish composers of the turn-of-the-century, their music was typically written for piano. But they each worked with Spanish folk dance and song and, in the hands of arrangers like Miguel Llobet, their music seemed destined for guitar.

More important, perhaps, than the arrangers or the music itself was that, in his heyday, Andres Segovia took a particular shine to Granados and Albeniz. Segovia played two movements from Albeniz’s Suite Espanola – III. Sevilla (Sevillana) and V. Asturias (Leyenda) – on a regular basis. Several decades later Will and I played “Sevilla,” and “Granada” along with “Cordoba” from his Cantos de Espagna. Our professor regularly played “Asturias,” and we played several of Granados’s Danzas Spagnola as duets, trios, and ensembles. I accompanied my wife’s performance of de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas. Pianists will disagree, but Albeniz and the rest are no more piano pieces than an old door converted into a means of displaying photographs is still the entrance to a house. The range and voicing of the piano provide the challenge but the music is phrased for an instrument with the subtlety and warmth of guitar. Albeniz died the same year that Andres Segovia made his first public performance, but I wonder what he would’ve thought of the circulation of his music amongst classical guitarists.

Change comes in ways we don’t anticipate: I think of it in extremes. Sometimes change is a matter merely of perception, of the same sonorities with different timbre, the same frequencies bouncing off a different soundboard. I stand in the kitchen by the threshold where the fluorescent bulb swirls against the auburn of the overhead lamp in the living room. When I drop a dish into the sink and turn around, I find myself staring into a mixing bowl, polished to a shine and perched atop the refrigerator. My shoulder is swollen against the curve of metal, hair shrinking with a skull that races back into the pointed end of a teardrop, nose bulbous at the crest of my face. I turn and shift in the convex mirror, differently warped – turn away and warp not at all, but fade in anonymously hazy pastels on the gritty window. I choose it like clothes but it’s never solid like cloth, a reflection is unreal, infinitely changeable with perspective.

Other times change is substantial, even irreversible. Something old can be carved and molded into an entirely different form. I admire those who repurpose old things, curiosities and clutter that we stuff and store away, but sometimes the old purpose is lost in the revolution. That’s to be expected. Albeniz has changed into something permanently. I can’t imagine the Suite Espanola as anything but guitar music. It sounds cold to me off the hammered strings of a piano but drips with warmth under the fingers of Jason Vieaux or Manuel Barrueco. It’s a different music than it was, not modified or revitalized but given new life, quite literally. And new life isn’t something one sheds easily for the old one.

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