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The Inviting and Inclusive Classical Guitar

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Guitarra clásica Arturo Castro
Guitar Magazine is grateful to Arturo Castro Nogueras for accepting the invitation to publish the first post on our blog.

The Caribbean, for me personally,
has been good to think with,
my world was creolized from the start.

—Stuart Hall

Certainly, Jamaican/English cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s words greatly resonate with my own experiences and interactions with the guitar. Since I started playing the guitar, the sound world of my instrument was rather composed of an assortment of styles, genres, and socially localized musical practices: the academic, religious, and popular music for the lute, the Spanish vihuela, and the baroque/romantic guitar, the jazz, and rock guitar, and the many popular traditions I experienced growing up in which the instrument was at the center. I believe that in the vast realm of musical expressions, familiar to us as life and death, there is currently no other instrument that enjoys the recognition and versatility of the guitar. This instrument is so prevalent in some geographical regions such as southern Europe and the Americas that it is not difficult to find one in every second home. In the art-music tradition, it was an integral part of the stylistic idiosyncrasy of non-guitarist composers such as Domenico Scarlatti, Manuel de Falla, Alberto Ginastera, Manuel Ponce, among others, and central to guitarist composers such Antonio Lauro, Ernesto Cordero, Leo Brouwer, Agustín Barrios, and Francisco Tárrega, just to name a few. It is no surprise, then, that by the time musical nationalist discourses gained impetus in Iberia and Ibero-America, composers and cultural scholars took as inspiration guitar-based styles and traditions ranging from the Flamenco music of southern Spain, the music of the high Andes, to the gaucho culture in the Argentinean Pampas.

Every influential musical tradition has a representative instrument. For instance, one can argue for the violin within the Italian (and later, Central European) music of the 17th and 18th centuries or the modern piano within the 19th-century salon music. In the same vein, I like to think of the classical guitar as the instrument for the 20th and 21st centuries, in part due to the titanic effort of performers such as Andrés Segovia, Agustín Barrios Mangoré, Julian Bream, John Williams, among others, in disseminating the repertoire and legitimacy of the instrument in a piano-dominated recital culture. Perhaps because of this, almost all prominent European and Latin American composers created music for our beloved instrument. For instance, Webern, Mahler, Britten, Falla, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Rodrigo, Ponce, Henze, Walton, Berio, Carter, Ginastera, Chávez, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla, Fariñas, Sierra, just to name a few. However, despite all of this creative input, we, guitarists, continuously struggle to find a place in the symphonic and chamber music cannon that could sell the big European and North/South American Halls and Festivals. Now, based on what I have commented on, a question remains: Why is that so?

While I do not offer a definite answer, I do believe that places like Europe and the Americas already have the conditions to effectively improve the outreach of the so-called “academic music” using the guitar as what it is: an instrument, a very widely recognizable and friendly instrument ideal for cross-cultural interactions, easy to transport, and perfect for the further development of our modes of articulation as society and individuals. As I write, it immediately comes to my mind the project my friend and colleague, Mircea Gogoncea, have been doing in Nigeria since 2018. In November 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in its second edition in Lagos by offering masterclasses on canonic guitar etudes by Dionisio Aguado and Fernando Sor. However, it was also our interest to motivate young and enthusiastic classical guitar students to find ways to engage, through the instrument, with other musical traditions in the region (what had happened in the Americas for centuries). In the end, our goal, as musicians trained in the inevitably hegemonic, European art-music tradition, was to frame our work as a reciprocal transaction. In other words, to position ourselves not as mere authorities but as nodes in a much broader and more inclusive instrumental network.

A friend and guitar colleague once told me that the “classical guitar,” as an institution, counted on an excellent infrastructure of festivals, competitions, and series that allowed guitarists to earn a living as performers. I certainly agree with his remarks. However, I want to pose another angle. Once, while waiting for my flight at an airport in Mexico, I took out my classical guitar to practice some Latin American short pieces. At some point, a middle-aged man, astonished, came to me and told me how much he loved the guitar but that he had never heard it being played as I was playing it. Trying to hide my amazement, I told him about I could probably come up with a list of performers, even from México (for instance, Manuel López Ramos, Julio César Oliva, Cecilio Perera or Pablo Garibay, among others) that have been playing “art music” in the guitar for decades. In the end, what I found enlightening, at the very least, was that someone who “loved” the guitar as he seemingly did could be completely unaware of the art-music tradition for that instrument. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with that. However, and again alluding to the classical guitar world as a broad and inclusive network, I believe there is much we, classical guitarists, can still do to establish more fruitful artistic and social exchanges with an eager audience that is still waiting to be welcomed. In other words, we can undoubtedly reach audiences that may not be familiar or interested in classical music at all through our beloved instrument and simultaneously make substantial efforts in broadening our own conceptions of what the music world should be. In the end, music should be part of a broader social and discursive field, and a versatile and inviting instrument like the guitar could be a useful tool for it.

Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Mexican guitarist Arturo Castro Nogueras draws on a rich cultural background that spans his diverse heritage. Born into a family of musicians, he has performed extensively across Europe, Africa, and the Americas, including recent sold-out performances at the Düsseldorf Festival and Niederrhein Musikfestival in Germany, Reading Fringe Festival in the UK, Mexico’s National Art Museum, Iberoamerican Institute in Berlin, among others. He is also a passionate motivational speaker reaching younger generations of musicians in several Latin American countries, Nigeria, Albania, and Germany. During the 2020 pandemic, he stayed active, playing socially-distanced open-air concerts and organizing short recitals for one or two persons at a time. You can follow him, watch his latest performances and get the latest news on his website (arturoguitar.com), on his YouTube channel (Art Guitar), on Instagram (@arturo.castro.nogueras), and on Facebook (Arturo Castro Nogueras).

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