The Sensuous Strings (Part Three)

Close Encounters with Genius

Whether you are a dedicated amateur (like me), or a trained professional musician, at some point you have wished to stand upon the shoulders of a giant.  There was someone you knew (or knew of) who played in a way you wished you could play.  Their playing was part of what drove you to practice, that yearning feeling of, “if only…”.  Your genius may not have been famous for their playing.  It may have been a classmate, or someone who seemed perfectly ordinary in other ways, but who had this one marvelous ability that awed and inspired you.

Ron was a troubled kid in the third grade.  He was one of those they whispered about having “emotional problems”.  He had no friends.  We thought he was creepy.  He was physically large, had a big nose and wore thick glasses.  Our teacher assigned a day for each of us to display “a hidden talent”.  Most students recited a poem, did a little dance or sang something.  It was charming and fun and not that difficult.  Ron showed up late, with a guitar case.  He went last.  This odd, sulky 8yr. old hulk turned out to be a genius of the Flamenco guitar!  He could do it all; rasgueado, golpe, tremolo-triplets.  He sounded every bit as good as Carlos Montoya, the Flamenco legend I knew from records.  Maybe he wasn’t THAT good, but he was doing it two feet away from us, and we had never seen anything like it.  It was a revelation for every student, and a clever way for our teacher to have broadened our view of someone different from the group.  After the tremendous applause subsided, Ron showed us the parts of the guitar and passed it around, all the while smiling with a look of great surprise because we actually LIKED something about him.  Ron had friends after that.  That guy’s performance was still clear in my memory all the way to high school, when I began playing.  He was the first person I saw play guitar in person, at a professional level.

When I was 19, I went to a concert given by the man who elevated classical guitar from being considered a folk instrument to a solo instrument fit to play in concert with orchestras.  Andres Segovia (1893-1987) was self-taught from age 6, but he later sought the advice and guidance of the best players and composers available to him, including Fransico Tarrega, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Joaquin Rodrigo.  He learned from the geniuses he was inspired by, and went on to transcribe Bach’s lute pieces for guitar.  By the 1950s he was the most famous classical guitarist alive, and composers wrote specifically for him.  Maestro Segovia was in his seventies when I saw him perform, but he was still playing with vigor and precision as he would continue to do until age 90.  He wore an old, comfortable tuxedo and played without amplification, though the hall seated more than 2,000.  He did not speak at all, but merely paused between pieces for the applause.  The playing spoke for him, and spoke volumes.

Segovia’s round, beautiful, seductive tone was unique.  He had been the first guitarist to champion the use of nylon strings instead of gut, and it made a big difference in timbral stability and consistency.  He played to the quietest large audience I have ever sat in, at least until some idiot began coughing loudly enough to interrupt the spell.  The tubercular culprit kept coughing, apparently unwilling to go outside and miss any of the playing.  Segovia stopped playing twice during a piece, and then did something unexpected.  He gently drew a white handkerchief from inside his jacket, and coughed into it, demonstrating the proper way to muffle the obnoxious noise.  The audience laughed and applauded, and we all learned something about having respect for an artist.

Here is a link to a video of Segovia playing at his home:

My favorite guitarist is Leo Kottke.  Since the 1960s, Kottke has been one of the most well-regarded geniuses of what was first termed American Fingerstyle by his mentor John Fahey.  He plays 12-string guitar using a variety of tunings, but also tuning the strings several steps below concert pitch to produce a deeper chordal frequency effect.  Kottke also plays 6-string guitars, both steel and nylon.  He played such rapid, complex patterns that some listeners denied it was only one guitar that was being played.  He pushed his hand muscles so hard that he eventually got tendonitis and had to re-learn a better technique.  When I first saw him in person, he was in the transition from his early machine-gun style to one just as complex, but also subtle.

I was given the opportunity to drive Leo from his hotel to a concert hall, talk with him a bit, assist with loading his guitars and hang around backstage.  He was gracious, forthcoming and quite humble, though the level of his conversation made it clear he was a reader and thinker and had many interests besides music.  There was a copy of I, Claudius sticking out of his coat pocket, and we talked a bit about literature too.  The house was full, and along with his better-known flashy 12-string pieces he also played some new, quiet works on classical guitar.  Though he will sometimes play songs by others, Kottke usually writes his own pieces.  Something you can’t get from his recordings is that he is an engaging humorist and storyteller, in the style of Mark Twain.  His tale of how difficult it was to learn to kill a chicken when he was a boy brought down the house.  Kottke often tells these stories with no connection to the songs he’s playing, which makes them even funnier.  No one knows where he will go next, musically or verbally.  Leo performs in casual shirts, jeans and sneakers, and reaches down every so often to stop his foot from wiggling during his playing.  He will be 65 this September, but Leo Kottke will always be a twenty-something.

Here are two links to Leo videos, first at the age he was when I met him, and a current one demonstrating his bent for storytelling:

When I first moved to California I used to hang out at a movie theater complex that had a restaurant upstairs.  A man with long, long braided hair played there every week.  He was doing things to his guitars I had never seen before, like tapping them and playing over the top of the neck, and fingering with both hands at the same time instead of picking with the right hand.  He would hop and dance while playing to add foot taps and kinetic energy to his performance.  It looked a bit insane, but it was grandly musical.  Some nights I was the only person there watching him.  His name was Michael Hedges, and he had one record out on a tiny label called Windham Hill.  We bonded over a love of Leo Kottke.  Hedges considered himself a composer first and a player second.  He was exploring unusual playing techniques in order to be able to express the things he wished to say musically.  Throughout his career he continued to experiment with different pick-ups, effects, and amp combinations to achieve a different and unique sound for every song.  Hedges went on to tour with Leo and become a friend and influence upon other guitar geniuses like Michael Gulezian, and Preston Reed.  He accidentally drove off a mountain and died in 1997.  Kaki King did an arrangement of one of his songs, “Ritual Dance”, which was used in the film August Rush as a song made up by the boy genius.  I think people will be studying his work for many years to come.

Here’s a link to a video of Michael Hedges:


Have you had close encounters with genius?


Filed under Music

4 responses to “The Sensuous Strings (Part Three)

  1. Loved this. What wonderful experiences you have had! And I didn’t need to click the video to hear the music.

  2. Phil Monk

    Wow! I almost didn’t find my way back here after getting sucked into a youtube maze. Being a Byrds fan I had to watch Kottke cover “Eight Miles High”. Then later, I caught him and Hedges cover it as a duet. Interesting that my cousin just mentioned Michael last week in one of her facebook comments. Thanks for the vids.

    I’ll just share one “close encounter”. DeVere Adamson used to host steel guitar clinics in Indianola, Iowa. The band I was with at the time had a steel player so I got invited to attend one of these intimate (few people and small room) clinics that featured Buddy Emmons. He was very personable and put on one heck of a show. Here’s a link to a video of him playing “Once Upon a Time in the West” (one of my favorite westerns)

    Oh my, I just had a flashback of Claudia Cardinale. Think it’s time for popcorn and a movie!

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