Creating Living Language

Jason Vieaux is the classical guitarist who goes beyond the classical--performing incredible arrangements of Pat Metheny and Duke Ellington along with works from many traditions, past and present. Not a crossover artist but a fully-conscious 21st-century musician, Jason's sensitivity to nuance and rock-solid technique lead NPR to describe this 2015 Grammy-winner as "perhaps the most precise and soulful guitarist of his generation." I've known Jason since my college days, when I attended the Cleveland Institute of Music when Jason was a young faculty member, and I continue to work with him to this day as laureate of Astral Artists, a career-development organization where I serve as Artistic Director, and where Jason's Curtis student Jordan Dodson is now one of the young artists on my roster.

Things have a way of coming full circle, so it seems, and this likewise became apparent in our music projects together. The first work I wrote for Jason, Devil's Strum (2010), is a solo work inspired by a uniquely American spin on Faustian ruin.

One of the defining myths surrounding American blues guitar playing is about a pact with the supernatural, as portrayed in Robert Johnson's Cross Road Blues and countless other songs and legends. In one such account, a man meets the Devil at the lonely crossroads in the dead of night, and strikes a bargain: in exchange for inhuman ability and charisma as a guitarist, the man need only sign over his eternal soul. At the outset this arrangement leads to sex, money, and fame; but it's not long before greed, license, and arrogance follow suit and hasten the foolish soul's inevitable demise. The central moment in several versions of the myth is when the Devil tunes up the doomed man's guitar—the moment when the strings become awakened with unseen power and the man's fate is sealed. The piece begins at just this moment—the moment of the Devil's long fingers strumming the jangly strings—and proceeds as the instrument is literally tuned up, until ever faster and more virtuosic riffs drive the piece to its conclusion.

More recently, my new concerto for Jason took our collaboration to a new level, going from a 5-minute encore to a 25-minute odyssey; I knew I wanted to dive deeper, and Jason noted the dearth of contemporary guitar concerti int he repertoire. Inspired by the special scales, expressive ornaments, and playing techniques of indigenous music from across the globe, the concerto explores the idea of music as a kind of "living language", with a simple introductory idea on the guitar expanding and evolving in a series of conversations between soloist and orchestra. The classical guitar has its analogues in the music of many cultures around the world, and so this concerto is something of a tour through world music history, beginning with plainchant, Carnatic music, and folk dances and ending up in our present day world of jazz, rock, and funk.


In taking Living Language as the centerpiece for this program for Jason and Fifth House Ensemble, I wanted these two above works to frame trip to faroff places and across centuries, from Epitaph of Seikolos (the earliest notated composition of Western music) through the Renaissance, Romanian folk dances by Bartok, Appalachian mountain songs wonderfully set by American composer Robert Beaser, a jazz trio, and a piece by Schubert that includes the guitar (betcha you didn't know it existed!) It's a diverse and vivid program in itself, and one that features archival audio oetiocframing and frequently overlapping with the musical selections, providing a historical tour that is poetic rather than pedantic.

In an era where many find a kind of cynical solace in belting the mantra "classical music is dead!", what does the is of music as a living language mean to me? Perhaps philopher Arthur Schopenhauer said it best:

Music is a living language, it is a universal language, it pictures every shade of sentiment, and does so far more powerfully than does the language of words. Yet, when it portrays joy, sorrow, or love, it does not depict any particular joy, sorrow, or love, but it gives us simply these states of mind in general. In this particular direction, music reveals to us the quintessence of life itself, and the heart, therefore, understands this language and it’s emotions without seeking to know the motives that produced them. Our emotions are aroused and we forget, as it were, the real world without, with all its griefs and sorrows, and we exist for the time being in a world without sorrow. Good music expresses pure emotions, and for this reason it will eventually pass around the world and remain true forever.

- Dan Visconti

Get tickets to the premiere performance on 12/7 of Living Language at Old Town School of Folk Music here!