A frequent contributing writer for CG, Massachusetts-based Mark Small is a longtime guitarist and composer, as well as editor of the Berklee College of Music’s alumni magazine, Berklee today. Below, he shares a bit about himself and the piece we are featuring this issue, “January.”
Like many baby boomers, I started playing the guitar soon after hearing the Beatles. By the time I was 18, I was paying my tuition at Berklee College of Music playing rock, country, folk, and jazz gigs. When a friend played me Christopher Parkening’s album Parkening Plays Bach, I was deeply affected by the guitarist’s expressive take on the music, and his virtuosity. I bought the album, the sheet music, and a classical guitar, and started studying. After another friend introduced me to the orchestral music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, I transferred to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) and immersed myself in classical music. I earned my bachelor’s degree there in classical guitar performance and my master’s from California State University Fullerton.
I went on to record six CDs with fellow guitarist Robert Torres as the Small-Torres Guitar Duo. The albums showcased our original settings of folk tunes and hymns plus classical repertoire. A high point for our duo was a commission to write original choral music for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with guitar accompaniment, and perform it with them on television. For me, penning an arrangement that the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet recorded on their Grammy-winning Guitar Heroes album represented another summit.
In 2011 I released Scenes, an album of original solo guitar compositions. Scenes from a New England Calendar from that album was inspired, as the title indicates, by the changing New England seasons. Each of the work’s four movements explores a different texture.
The first movement, “January,” is taken at a brisk tempo, with pulsing eighth-note chords, a melody on top, and a bass line below, moving smoothly through shifting meters. It begins in E minor, modulates to E major for the B section, and then returns to E minor for a C section. An expanded A section returns in bar 34, leading to the coda at bar 53. The energy dissipates with a “largo” tempo marking at bar 57 for a sprinkle of harmonics and the final enigmatic E minor 9th chord with a raised seventh degree. As with New England weather, you never know what to expect when January ends.