Bending things

My shop time has been spent prepping fixtures and forms; today I actually worked on the guitar sides a bit, thinning them to around 2mm in preparation for bending. The last time I did this, I used a power drum sander – think giant rolling pin covered with sandpaper. That tool ensured uniformity of thickness across length and width.

This time, not having a drum sander handy, I used the old fashioned method of hand planing. The thickness gauge in the photo reveals I’m off by +/- 10% in places – I don’t think that will cause a problem, but who knows? That’s part of the learning curve. The two problems I can imagine are 1) uneven bending when I apply heat, resulting in “lumpy” curves, and/or 2) structural weakness if the wood is much thinner than 2mm. Structural weakness may not show up for years, so this could be a very long term learning project.

File Nov 21, 10 34 53 PM

Sides thinned to 2mm, more or less

I plan on bending the sides tomorrow, and I may wear a GoPro to capture some of the process on video. I don’t know if it will translate to video very well; so much of the sensory feedback is in the hands, feeling the wood relax under heat.

In other learning news, I attended a concert tonight by Denis Azabagic, a rising star in the classical guitar world. He opened his concert by playing all five preludes of Villa-Lobos; coincidentally, I’m working on three of them in various stages of preparation. The first prelude is one of my favorite guitar pieces, so it was a treat to hear it played by a world-class performer. Also gratifying was that he played it fairly romantically, with lots of expression.

I came across a YouTube master class by Julian Bream (an English guitarist) from the 1970’s, and his advice to a student took the interpretation in a different direction. Even while acknowledging the piece should be played with expression, he encouraged the student to keep the rhythm of the accompaniment relatively strict. You can see Bream explaining this in the video below, and his example performance picks up at the 7:40 time mark. In my opinion, the piece is a bit lifeless in his hands.

Here’s Azabagic playing that same section for a student of his (I’m also grateful that Azabagic places lots of his lessons on YouTube for public consumption – talk about an open educational resource!). There are subtle differences that make it come alive; he plays with dynamics and tempo a lot more freely than Bream.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a professional guitar teacher; in many ways I’m learning about musical interpretation on my own. So what to do when two different authorities suggest very different approaches to the same piece? This isn’t merely an issue of “my opinion is as good as your opinion, so I’ll just go with mine” – both of these musicians have spent years – decades – mastering their craft, and I suspect that if pushed, both would be able to justify their interpretations in terms of music theory, local culture, and what we know of the composer’s intent (or performance, since Villa-Lobos was a guitarist himself).

My dissertation research focused on how adolescents make sense of conflicting claims by authority figures, and here I am doing the same thing. Unlike an adolescent, I know there are frameworks that justify aspects of musical performance (in addition to the personal predilections of the performer). My job as an adult is to work on learning those “rules” and when to bend them.

And yet… there’s a difference between, say, simply knowing the rules of logic, and framing a compelling written argument. The latter takes a degree of creativity and artistry. Same with interpretation of music – the point is to bring my own feeling and “take” on the piece into the performance, while at the same time respecting the overall structure and expectations surrounding it (playing it with a country swing rhythm would be a no-no.)

Tomorrow I bend the sides of my new instrument. The wood is not strictly thicknesses – that +/- 10% (or more) may or may not add “color” to the sound. It also might result in a catastrophic structural failure. As with the interpretation of a piece of music, a little variation adds color, but too much destroys the underlying structure. I’m hoping luck is on my side tomorrow.




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