Beyond Six Strings – From Sor to Hendrix

Last October I had a chance to conduct a Sor Symposium and debut a new show “Beyond Six Strings – from Sor to Hendrix” at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon. Months before I had an opportunity to talk with Peter Zisa who conducts the guitar program there about my research in the life and music of Sor, and he suggested that Marylhurst University host a Sor Symposium. Peter is not only a great player and elegant human being, he has such a great imagination and he coordinated with several teacher/performers in the area to have students come to a master class and themselves participate in the Symposium. Both the class and the Symposium went incredibly well.

Peter reviewed the event as follows:

“Marylhurst hosted an historic performance by John Doan on three beautiful and historic instruments. John’s blend of remarkable skills as a storyteller and masterful performer proved to be the highlight of the two-day Sor Symposium. John, who began his performance with his own music and arrangements on harp guitar, concluded the program with a historic premier performance of Sor’s music for the three-necked harpolyre. The pieces, which varied in level of technical difficulty from intermediate to virtuosic, charmed and moved the spellbound audience.”

Fan, Shannon J. Murphy, had this to say about the concert:

I was present at the concert at Marylhurst and was able to relive it as I read your account here. It was a beautiful presentation and I know your future audiences at this concert are going to love it as much as I did. Your description of Sor and his musical technique struck me as being just what I could say of you and yours. You are the instrument that makes the music flow. Continue to walk in the light.

In short, it was a kick!! It seemed crazy to combine in the same show the music of Fernando Sor – the “Father of the classical guitar” with the music of Jimi Hendrix and other contemporary guitar innovators but as the show evolved it flowed beautifully into an event that reached across time, generations, and cultures.

The show features my playing on an original 1819 copy of Sor’s personal guitar, an extremely rare 1829 three-necked Harpolyre, and a twenty-string harp guitar built in Portland in 1986 by John Sullivan with Jeffrey Elliott – designer, an instrument being heralded as the “First Modern Harp Guitar.” With these last instruments I explore the guitar world beyond the contemporary six strings which is a direction the guitar appears to be evolving given it was a four string instrument in the 1500’s, a five string instrument in the 1600-1700’s, a six string in the early 1800’s and from the 1840’s through the 1920’s guitars with more then six strings became more popular. It appears to be taking off in our own times and thus this concert helps to address this trend.

The program debuted music from my recent recording “The Lost Music of Fernando Sor” that is, according to Gitarr och Luta (Sweden) “an important cultural achievement” as well as a revelation to the guitar world of music not heard by this guitar master since it was published in Paris, France in 1830. The instrument is stunning to see played with it’s twenty-one strings and three necks bordered by in excess of two hundred inlaid stars! Although extremely rare today – perhaps twenty instruments survive into our own times, in its time was considered the “Guitar of the Future.”

The concert begins with my own music for the twenty-string harp guitar (this month featured on the cover of the “American Lutherie Magazine”, the quarterly Journal of the Guild of American Luthiers). This music explores both the expanded range and resonance of the instrument compared to the contemporary six-string guitar popular today.

Beyond the instrument itself, I drew parallels to Sor and his music of two centuries ago with aspects of my own music and the music of various musicians I pay tribute to. For example, I pointed out that Sor redefined the guitar in the Classical era not unlike Jimi Hendrix did to the electric guitar in our own times. Although their place in history deferred, they both wrote songs of love and songs of protest to war. Hendrix questioned the Viet Nam war while Sor’s songs were sung by people throughout Spain protesting the French invasion.

On a more personal note, Sor lost his father when he was young, Jimi his mother. Their artistic journey’s both began from such a loss, however, Jimi’s turned out to be much more prematurely self destructive.

Jimi said on a number of occasions that he missed his mother and imagined her in the sky. He wanted to join her there someday. In Purple Haze Jimi sings, “Cuz me while I kiss the sky”. Could this be a call for his mother? Did he, given his personal pain, become one of the leaders of the “Love Generation” only to look for love in all the wrong places? What a shame to lose such a creative person at the age of 27. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones died at 27 as well, pursuing the same unsustainable lifestyle of alcohol, drugs, recreational sex, etc. Although Sor’s life journey turned out much differently, his restlessness and journey may have had some similarities.

I went on to debut for the first time Sor’s complete works for the harpolyre on an original instrument built in Paris in 1829. There is no record of Sor playing this music in public so this may have been the first time on the planet that this has happened.

I begin with an introduction to Sor on an instrument that is thought to be an exact copy of Sor’s personal guitar made by the Panormo family.

I shared with the audience how he lived at a time when people were exploring revolutionary ideas of democracy that were changing the ways that we live, our government, our society, even our music!

The high art of music was adapting to this shift of thinking and people began to look to music as entertainment not just art as a spiritual expression of one’s soul. Sor was caught in the middle of this and still wanted to keep the bar high. Basically he still wanted music to be something you muse about and not just something to be amused by.

He believed music to be intimate and personal as he was used to performing it in a parlor but the world around him was getting louder as concert venues became bigger and bigger. He had no idea that people would someday go to “hear” music and be entertained in a stadium!

He saw the guitar as an instrument of harmony with melody expressing itself in multiple voices. Many guitarists of his day wanted to dazzle the audience with fast scales but Sor held out for substance over flash. The fast scales of his day have passed away but Sor’s stand for quality, depth of feeling, and music as an expression of the human spirit has remained. It is this integrity in his music that I have been attracted to over the years and have influenced my own compositions.

My goal for this concert was to capture his celebration of intimate music. After having played Sor’s music over the years I was impressed with his lyricism and how he understood the guitar as an instrument that could play several parts at once or play a singing melody with harmonic support. Granted, others had done so before him but Sor’s music (along with music of John Dowland) has impressed me the most.

There is also a strong element of drama in some of Sor’s music and even programmatic elements. He often imitated choral and string arranging in his guitar compositions, exhibited a generous use of harmonics (bell-like tones), explored altered tunings (especially in the bass), defined what the guitar could do formally within the style of his day, and even wrote songs of love and protest. My music touches upon all these elements in my own compositions and arrangements for the harp guitar in the program.

I will be giving this concert both in the US and in Europe this year. Check my listings for a concert near you.