His new solo guitar recording of the Six Suites for Cello is just the beginning…
A CG online exclusive by Blair Jackson
I first encountered the guitar artistry of Steven Hancoffa dozen years ago, when I reviewed a fine CD he made called The Single Petal of a Rose: Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar, Vol. 2 for Mix magazine. I was intrigued enough by it that I went out and bought the first volume, Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar, also excellent. However, when Hancoff’s three-CD Bach set, From Tragedy to Transcendence: The Six Suites for ’Cello Solo for Acoustic Guitar arrived here at Classical Guitar’s office, I didn’t initially make the connection that these incredibly disparate projects came from the same guy. And as the newly minted editor of Classical Guitar magazine, I raised a somewhat skeptical eyebrow over the notion that a fingerpicking acoustic guitarist—rather than a nylon-string classical player—was taking on the Cello Suites.
But then a curious thing happened. I went onto YouTube and watched a series of short videosHancoff made promoting his project. Over a backdrop of him playing a movement from one of the Cello Suites, he laid out a fascinating biography of Bach accompanied by hundreds of images—paintings old and modern, sculptures, 17th and 18th century documents, drawings and engravings of people and places from Bach’s world, etc.—that I found utterly engrossing. Independently, I started going through the CDs and I enjoyed them immensely; I don’t know if it helped that I’ve been a huge fan of solo steel-string guitar music since I first discovered John Fahey in the late 1960s.
It turns out those YouTube teaser videos were just the tip of the iceberg—as is the CD set. (The music is also available through iTunes.) For what Hancoff has ultimately produced is an incredibly rich multimedia exploration of the Cello Suites, Bach’s universe, and his influence through the centuries, expressed through the CDs and also a four-volume iBook that blends music, videos, and well over a thousand still images—like a Ken Burns documentary gone wild!—into a vivid and compelling tapestry of history, stories, ruminations, and fascinating tangents that grow like vines off the main Bach saga. It goes in directions you’d never expect, which is part of the fun of it.
The iBook is divided into four parts: Volume 1 is on the life of Bach; Vol. 2 deals with his legacy; the jumping-off point for Vol. 3 is Pablo Casals, the great Catalonian cellist who “discovered” the Cello Suites at the age of 13 (in 1889) and is wholly responsible for bringing Bach’s forgotten masterpieces to light; and Vol. 4 is called From Tragedy to Transcendence, which is, Hancoff says, an attempt to “articulate the mystery of the greatness of Bach.”
Working alone and with a gifted Chinese exchange student named Jiayi Lu, who was getting her Master’s degree in audio-visual technology from American University in Washington, D.C., Hancoff spent years unearthing the mountains of images that populate his book, drawing as much as possible from the copyright-free public domain, and also approaching more than 300 contemporary artists about using their works inspired by Bach or Casals in his grand opus. He speaks excitedly about stumbling upon the work of “a genius named Matthaüs Merian who, before 1650, published a book of copper-plate engravings of something like 2,500 villages and towns, including the town where Bach was born, Eisenach,” but he was equally moved by the modern masterworks that he uses throughout. For Hancoff, Bach is an artist for all times.
In the steel-string acoustic guitar world, Hancoff is best known for his skillful and heartfelt interpretations of different strains of 19th and early 20th century American music, from ragtime to jazz and other forms. Indeed, it was his mastery of those idioms that allowed him to become an Artistic Ambassador, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, playing American music (often in tandem with banjo virtuoso Buddy Wachter) all over the world for 15 years.
When Hancoff and I spoke in mid-October 2015, our conversation centered primarily on the musical side of his enormous Bach undertaking.
How does the Bach project dovetail from other projects you’ve been involved with? Is there a musical link or some spiritual connection that takes you from Scott Joplin and Ellington and those other Americana people and ties it to the Bach? Or was it just immersing yourself into something new and different? It wasn’t about new and different. Here’s the story: I bought my first “expensive” guitar when I was around 20 years old—this is maybe 1968, ’69. I used to get Sing Out! magazine and I wanted a Martin [acoustic] guitar, so I went to my local music store in Baltimore [Maryland, USA], called Schubert’s and the guy behind the counter said, “I’ll order you one.” I came back in two weeks and that’s how I got that guitar. As I was leaving, the guy, who I thought must be “Mr. Schubert,” said, ‘Here try this,’ and he handed me a guitar transcription of the Bach Lute Suites, rather than a Beatles or Bob Dylan songbook or something. So that that’s the music I actually learned to read music from. I used to struggle and stumble through them—they’re very difficult. I didn’t know anything—I didn’t have a teacher. I was into Dylan, like everybody else. Many years later, in the mid-’80s, I was playing in southern California and I had two days off, and I knew that Michael Lorimer, who had been Segovia’s student, lived down there, so I called him up and asked if I could spend a couple of days talking to him about stuff and getting a couple of lessons. He asked about my background and I mentioned the Lute Suites and he said, “Well, the Cello Suites are more ‘guitaristic,’” as he put it. So after that tour I got a hold of [Lorimer’s] transcriptions of the Cello Suites. At that point, I think I was working on my New Orleans album [New Orleans Guitar Solos], and to warm my hands up every day, I would play one of the Cello Suites, and I just fell in love with the music, and at some point I decided I’d like to do my own transcriptions.
About ten years after that, I was at my old friend Ruth’s place in Greenwich Village [NY], and her boyfriend at the time was a producer, and he’d just produced an album by John Lewis, the pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, playing Bach. He brought it home and I listened to it, lying on the floor, and it just blew my mind. I said to myself, “I’ve got to immerse myself in Bach sometime.” It was heavenly—literally.
But then Buddy Wachter and I got the gig with the State Department to be Artistic Ambassadors and travel the world, so I never had time after that. We did something like 45 countries, some more than once, doing this program of Americana. So I’d start with Stephen Foster and do songs of the cowboys and the Civil War and the railroads and all that, and go up through to about Ellington and Gershwin and all the guys we could think of in between.
So, when you finally did get around to the Cello Suites project, what was the appeal of doing the transcriptions yourself? Did you go through other people’s versions and find things that were either not to your liking or not suited to your playing? To my knowledge, there are five publications of the complete Cello Suites, including Michael Lorimer’s. Some of them have changed the notes because it makes it ‘more guitaristic,’ some of them only add an occasional bass note to ground your ear to the center, or whatever. Michael’s and the one by French guitarist Michel Sadanowsky who did it, are more in keeping with how I conceptualize it, which is pretty full of harmony and makes it sound like it was written for guitar—that’s the main thing. You’re not just transporting these notes to a different instrument, although people have done that with Bach—including Bach did that with Bach. The idea for me was to make it into a guitar piece, and to be more specific, if I was going to spend my hours focusing on this with my attention and my energies, I wanted it to express me, too. To stay true to Bach’s intention, but to express me, and to do that took completely immersing myself in these melodies—because that’s what they are. I concluded ultimately that the Cello Suites are the voice of Bach in a dialogue with his wife who had just died.
To give you just a very basic outline, Bach wrote them when he was 35 years old, and up until the age of 32 his life was nothing but tragedy. Everybody close to him had died—he was an orphan at nine—and the gigs he got were horrible. He was working for drunkard dukes and heavy-handed church people who didn’t care a whit about what he was doing. And, significantly, by that he hadn’t written any of his great masterpieces.
At 32 he finally gets a job writing music for a prince who loves music and is a good musician, and he’s finally contented. He and his wife move to this little town and after he’s been there for three years, he and the prince go away for a month to a fancy spa; Bach is 35 years old. He comes back and his wife is dead and buried. That’s when he writes the Violin Sonatas and Partitas [which have also been arranged for guitar] and the Cello Suites; his first real masterpieces. I concluded that the violin is her voice and the cello is his voice. So I felt doing the Cello Suites was taking the voice of Bach and putting them onto a stringed instrument.
Now, the cello is a one-note-at-a-time instrument, but a guitar is idiomatically suited to play chords and bass lines and harmonies. So the challenge was to harmonize Bach’s Cello Suites—get every one of Bach’s notes and keep true to the profundity of his musical and emotional content, but to harmonize it according to sort of what he implied by what he did on just four strings [of the cello].
It was such a gift to be able to jump into that, because one of the qualities of playing the Cello Suites is you never ever get to a note where you say, “He should have used a different note.” They’re all the right notes. Mischa Maisky, one of the great the cellists, called [the Cellos Suites] “dictation from God,” and yeah, I could go along with that!
There has never been and never will be another Bach. The quality of mind and thought and the music he made—no one is ever going to do that again. Casals called it “The Miracle of Bach.” It is so beyond what our comprehension can fathom, and to me, what made this such a profound experience was the question, “How in the world did he do it?” His wife dies, and that’s when he starts writing this torrent of iconic, immortal masterpieces. He didn’t say “I hate life. I’m a victim.” None of that. Instead it deepened his experience of who he is.
Not that many people have recorded or played all six of the Cello Suites. A lot of people have played Suite No. 1 because it’s gorgeous, it’s perfect, and technically it’s probably the least demanding of the six. Segovia recorded Suite No. 3. But it’s true, not many have done all six. There’s an Austrian guitarist [Andreas von Wangenheim] who did it, and another by Kazuhito Yamashita, who to my ears is the greatest guitarist who ever lived. In fact, when I got Kazuhito Yamashita’s recording, I almost decided not to do mine! Cellist and playwright Harry Clark once called him “the Franz Liszt of the guitar.” There’s also a guitarist named Michael Nicolella did it recently. In fact, Michael and I just exchanged recordings. His came in yesterday’s mail. But mine’s very different. No one will do it the way I do it, because it’s me, and of course because on it’s on acoustic guitar.
Well, let’s talk about that for a minute, since that’s the elephant in the room—the fact that it’s on steel-string rather than nylon-string guitar, unlike most of what get billed as “classical guitar.” Is everything you do on the Suites translatable to classical guitar? Sure. The transcriptions are the same notes, the same fingers.
Then what does the steel-string bring to it for you? Well, the reality is it’s my instrument, and to play it I use picks, and if you try to use picks on a nylon-string it sounds horrible. Of course there are differences. The tone of the classical guitar is warmer than mine, but on the other hand, mine rings more brightly. There are other differences that are technical in nature, and also the acoustic guitar is louder and the unwound strings—my B and E—are brighter and less sweet; less fat. One of the drawbacks of steel-strings is they’re not as influenced by vibrato as a classical guitar. My bass strings, the wound strings, of which there are four, are maybe more brash than on a nylon-string.
But to me, they’re both guitars. Over the years I’ve probably listened to a little more classical guitar than acoustic guitar—though I love flatpicked acoustic guitar. Tony Rice is a genius. I love Doc Watson, too.
What’s the guitar you play on the Suites? It’s not the old Martin… No, no. I was playing in California in the 1980s and when I got to San Francisco I visited [pioneering Windham Hill steel-string guitarist] Alex de Grassi. I’d been looking for a guitar-maker for myself. I played one chord on [de Grassi’s] guitar and I said, “Who made this?” And that was it! It was Ervin Somogyi in Berkeley, and he built me the guitar I used for my other four CDs. When I was getting ready to do the Bach—nine years before I started, as it turned out—I said, “Ervin, I need a guitar that’s a jumbo, not a modified dreadnought.” Because I wanted a sweeter, deeper bass. So he built me [another] guitar.
Some people said to me, “That sounds like a harpsichord!”—which totally mystifies me. But they have pointed out that steel-strings might be more in keeping with what Bach may have heard in his inner ear, because that what the claviers of his day were strung with.
What can a cello do that a guitar can’t do? Here’s the most essential difference: With a guitar, you get the most volume the instant you pluck the string, and thereafter the note decays. With a cello, you can start soft and make it loud and you can hold that note almost forever. You can do a tremolo on a guitar and pretend you’re doing that, but it’s not the same thing. Fortunately in the Cello Suites there’s not that much of that. It’s single-note melodies and as a bunch of cellists have pointed out, what Bach had in mind was to take those four strings and, without chords, with only melody and arpeggiated passages, be harmonically clear.
Another reason why these pieces of music feel so intimate is the way you hold a guitar and a cello is, in a sense, you’re embracing it. You’re holding a curvy figure right next to your body; they have that in common. That’s not true with the violin. There’s a great two-CD set of [Bach’s] Violin Sonatas and Partitas by Paul Galbraith, who plays an eight-string guitar and holds it like a cello—his has an end-tailpiece but he plucks it like a guitar. It’s truly gorgeous.
Have you played the partitas and the sonatas? I’ve stumbled through. In fact, I have had in mind maybe that will be my next project. On the other hand, I’ve thought I’d like to do an album in honor of [great country guitar picker] Merle Travis. I know that sounds like the extreme ends of a very big spectrum—
Well, that’s one reason people love to play guitar. That’s right. Music is music. I’ve played a lot of the classical repertoire in the privacy of my own room. Many, many years ago, when I was literally broke and staying with a friend in San Francisco, as a gift he bought me the guitar part for the Concierto de Aranjuez, and that was when I found out how wide the spectrum is.
I notice you’ve given subtitles, in a sense, to each of the Cello Suites: “Ecstasy and Optimism” for No. 1, “Introspection and Sorrow” for No. 2, “Extrospection and Excitement” for No. 3, and so on. Is it treading on dangerous ground to, in effect, impose your own views about what the music “means”? No, it’s not dangerous. Here’s the deal. Every cellist is sort of compelled in his or her own way to write down or articulate what each of the suites expresses. The last chapter of the iBook is on the meaning of the suites, because Casals called the first one “Optimistic,” the second “Tragic,” the third “Heroic,” the fourth “Grandiose,” the fifth “Tempestuous” and the sixth “Bucolic.” [Cellists] Yo-Yo Ma and [Janos] Starker, and [Mstislav] Rostropovich say what they say about it. Nigel North, the magnificent lutenist who recorded these, gave me his list.
And Volume Four is literally a video exposition—my unique take—on how Bach metabolized his agony in such a way that he turned himself into BACH, the great genius of Western music. The bedrock of Western harmony, for goodness sakes, and he did not allow himself to let his tragedies define his life or, indeed, who he was. For me, each Suite is a stepping stone in that process, a process I want to be able to do for myself.
So it’s a tradition. Right.
And of course, every listener will come up with his or her own interpretation anyway. I’m impressed you’re providing your transcriptions for free. Well, the best thing I can imagine is that after I’m dead and gone, guitar players will be trying to play these things. I can’t tell you how many times I went through records trying to figure out what the guitar players were doing—that’s how you learned, right? So this is just a little gift to the world.
(The free transcriptions can be requested from Steven Hancoff’s website.)