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Monday, December 16, 2013

PHILIPPINE MEDLEY - an experience in guitar ensemble music

Lately, I took the time to record Maestro Jose Valdez' composition, Philippine Medley. This work is a string of various Philippine traditional music arranged for four guitars. I considered it a pipe dream to play it the minute I saw the arrangement because not only was it long (about 20 pages), it also required advanced guitar skills. Of course there's that minor detail wherein I needed three other guitar players to play it :-) With no luck in finding others who can help, I decided to designate myself the task of playing all guitar parts. It was a herculean endeavor and I didn't know at the time if I could finish it if I started it. When I finally recorded the first medley piece, it lit up a spark in me that I could not extinguish until I've completed the entire arrangement.

The first and foremost challenge for me is that ensemble music is meant to be played WITH other people. It's a social experience that reinforces not just our ability to play, but our skills in taking cues from other players and feeling the music as the other players do. As it was, I played with imaginary guitarists and was primarily a slave to the mechanical beat of a metronome. Technically, I played ensemble music but I didn't play in an ensemble.

The second challenge was the fact that I had to learn all four parts and play them consistently and in-time. The only way I could manage this was to learn one medley piece at a time, while learning all four guitar parts. As I indicated earlier, I played using a metronome in order to achieve a consistent and common tempo. This made it very easy to assemble the guitar parts later on. However, if I needed to slow down or speed up certain parts, forget it. I could slow down or retard the last few bars of a particular piece but the metronome's set tempo was still ticking in my ears. Imagine trying to slow down a car while the engine is stuck revving at a high rate - it's possible, but very distracting.

Thirdly, there are guitar techniques in this arrangement that I have seldom or never tried before. I therefore had to learn and execute them well enough. These include not-so-often-used techniques such as tambor, snare, trombone, trumpet and pizzicato. These and the dynamics (which are absent from the written piece) are very difficult to play owing to the fact that playing a guitar part by itself sounds somewhat random and unintelligible...until of course I put all parts together. 


Lastly, I thought about the potential differences in recording quality and ambiance that would result from varied recording locations, mic placement and audio processing effects whenever I recorded each medley piece. Depending on whichever part of the house was quiet, I would record in the kitchen or upstairs in the bedroom. My audio recorder, a Tascam DR-07, suddenly quit on me in the midst of completing the last two medley pieces. I ended up using another audio recorder, a DR-40, to finish the job. These variances would have disastrous effects to a professional recording session, but in my case, the end product was all within my personal tolerance for recording quality (i.e. my bar is set quite low).

It really helped that there were already several recorded renditions of this piece. I would watch these renditions as a whole or in parts in order for me to grasp the music and how it should be played. In certain instances, in spite of the tempo being indicated in the piece, I ended up playing at a slightly faster tempo to liven up the piece and to approximate the spirit of the live version.

It took me 25 days of learning the guitar parts, recording with as much as 20 takes per guitar part and editing both audio and video in order to come up with this final version. I don't know how much time guitarists normally put into mastering each guitar part in an ensemble and how much practice time they invest in putting the parts together, but my respect goes out to those who do this. Solo guitar playing is a real challenge, but you are mostly working with or against yourself. In an ensemble, the quality of the music depends on the group playing together as one cohesive unit. The two cannot really be compared, but it is very much advisable to try both if one wants to grow musically.


Without further ado, here's my rendition of Philippine Medley:






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