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D. J. Sparr on Guitar

Cross-genre arts creations are proliferating. So it was on January 6, 2012, that the Dresser heard composer-guitarist D. J. Sparr at Washington, DC's Atlas Performing Arts Center. Sparr mixes electric guitar with a contemporary classical base of music.

DJSparr.jpgSparr who has the looks and hair to be a rock star of the new music scene played his program of Steve Reich, Paul Lansky, Derek Bermel, and Sparr with such understatement that the Dresser wondered if he was too shy to be on stage or didn't care much that there was a sizeable audience eager to share his well-thought-out program.

What the Dresser loved best in this six-part program was Sparr's "Superstring Serenade," a composition that included CounterPoint, an ensemble of five string players whose credentials come from well known organizations such as the National Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, and Washington National Opera. "Superstring" opens passionately, moderates into a peaceful lullaby that breaks into grandeur and authority and ends whimsically in a fizzle. The strings enhance the riffs of the electric guitar in a confident marriage of sound.

Sparr's program began with two compositions played by the charming Levine Advanced Guitar Ensemble, a group of five 13-15 year-old acoustic guitarists under the guidance of the Risa Carlson, the Levine School of Music Guitar Department Chair. They played Sparr's "Mare arpeggi di Mauro," a difficult counterpoint composition that required careful counting, and Gilbert Clamens "Tango Amigo," a milonga piece which the group was more at ease with.

Showing a video interview with Steve Reich, Sparr introduced Reich's "Electric Counterpoint," a piece which features harmonic stasis or what the Dresser would call a "Gertrude Stein guitar composition" (very subtle changes that sound like repetition). As the piece was performed, it was historically interesting to think about what Reich explained to Sparr, and by extension the Atlas audience, that Reich drew on such influences as Ravi Shankar and Bob Dylan and without this rich environment there would not have been Terry Riley's "In C" or Reich's "Electric Counterpoint." The Dresser has actually heard Riley live taking credit for influencing Reich. Riley's "In C," said to be the first Minimalist composition, was composed in 1964. Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" was first recorded in 1987.

Paul Lansky's "Dance Tracks" was the piece in which the Dresser thought Sparr should have shaken loose. While playing in front of a psychedelic video where fragments floated and ribbons of color spiraled, Sparr's improvisation took on a Jimi Hendrix soundscape. It was a trance-inducing production where the light show-like video only served to make the Dresser zone out. Perhaps the Dresser is jaded because she saw an early light show in the fall of 1966 done by the Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick at the unlikely place of Franklin & Marshall College. Nothing wrong with the video, Sparr just needed to move a little and connect with the audience.

Derek Bermel made a live introduction to Sparr's performance of Bermel's "Ritornello." The Dresser loved this composition that included the CounterPoint strings. Especially engaging was the counter play between strings and electric guitar in a passage that Bermel said was Corelli-Vivaldi meets King Crimson. This passage also made the Dresser think of the Argentine milonga--slow at points and moody.

Sparr adapted his last offering "Folio" to include the strings. It is a four-movement piece originally orchestrated for electric guitar and drums. To play this piece, Sparr exchanged his blue guitar for a silver one. Need the Dresser say, and as the composer pointed out, it better matched the sparkling tops worn by the female string players: Catherine Miller (violin), Tiffany Richardson (viola) and Danielle Cho (cello). (The men wore basic black: Regino Madrid (violin) and Fred Dole (Bass). Sound-wise, "Folio" was also sexy with its dominant drum beat and occasional swishing brushes and its touches of sound that called to mind bird trills and whirly gigs. The Dresser particularly like the last movement, which had a bluesy accent.

In Meredith Davies Hadaway's poem "Afterthought," the reader is asked to consider the vibration music leaves in the room after the bow leaves the strings of the violin and then one step further, the silence. This is about impressions marked in the brain after the concert ends and how to extend those impressions without letting everyday noise of birdcall and traffic interfere. The Dresser will apply Hadaway's stream of thought to hold onto Sparr's "Superstring Serenade" and the thought he invested in shaping his Atlas program.


Like the ringing after cadence
when the bow lifts off the violin

and the room holds one last
breath of spruce and rosin--

silence makes its own music, louder
than the brush of fingertips, a sudden swell.

"Longing," in its origin means "to make long."

Turn out the light, and let us see
if we can stretch the dark until the morning din of

bird call and traffic fails
to wake us.

Meredith Davies Hadaway
from The River Is a Reason

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Davies Hadaway


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 7, 2012 9:08 PM.

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