Guitar, Music

Wild Mountain Thyme

Here’s my latest piece for fingerstyle electric guitar, an interpretation of the folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme:

It’s a small miracle that this recording got made.

The piece took about a month to compose; that was the easy part. In early October, when I was finally ready to record it, I broke a fingernail during a jam session with a friend, and shortly after that I had to take a work trip to Montreal. During the trip I experienced a health scare. No worries, everything turned out to be OK, but by the time I was home again and feeling settled, with my nail almost regrown, I was out of practice and had forgotten some important parts of the piece. Since I hadn’t yet gotten around to notating the music, I had to relearn the parts I’d forgotten from recordings I’d made with my mobile phone during the composing process. Once I had fully resurrected the piece, I tried to record it but had to stop because some muscles in my right shoulder were in pain. I had been stressing my shoulder by 1) carrying a heavy camera bag, 2) spending hours and hours at the computer typing and mousing, 3) spending hours and hours playing guitar, 4) not doing yoga or other things to keep in shape. I realized that before I could record the piece I’d need to let my shoulder heal and get in better shape overall. I got back into my morning yoga routine, stopped carrying my camera bag over my shoulder (switched to a backpack), cut down on my typing and mousing time, and tried to sit less and take more walks. After a few weeks my shoulder started feeling better, but when I tried to record the piece I still felt I was putting to much stress on it. I realized that this piece is demanding enough that I need to play it in the secure classical position, using a footstool and placing the guitar on my left knee. (I had so far been playing in the more casual position with the guitar over my right knee.) I also found a more comfortable place to sit while making the recording, which required moving some equipment around in my house. With a better playing posture and recording setup, I could finally move forward, but now I noticed I was making the same mistakes all the time in specific places. I realized I’d need to simplify some awkward fingerings and I’d have to work out some rhythmic kinks by returning to practicing with a metronome, which I hadn’t done in a while. After all these adjustments and preparations, I was finally able to get a decent recording with several errors that I could edit out. It’s still above my current skill as a performer to play this piece in one take without errors.

I keep setting out to write simple pieces that are easy and fun to play, but I keep ending up with virtuoso pieces that seem more appropriate for an alternate version of myself who is a full-time guitarist than the current version who’s not. This piece was supposed to be easy in that it’s an arrangement of a simple tune, it’s written in E major and E minor and uses lots of open strings, and it employs repetitive right-hand fingering patterns that are the bread and butter of any guitarist with a classical background. What makes it hard is that it’s got lots of very wide stretches for the left hand and it sounds best at a fast tempo, much faster than what I had in mind than when I started composing it.

As for the structure of the piece, I wanted to present a bright and upbeat version of the tune in the opening and closing sections, with a middle section that would be dark and brooding. How to take a generally bright tune and darken it for the middle section? One possibility was to keep the tune the same but alter the harmony. I didn’t find a reharmonization that I liked, so I tried altering the tune itself, transposing it from E major to E minor. This proved thoroughly unsatisfying, and it was interesting to figure out why. Yes the tune is in E major, but more specifically it’s in E major pentatonic and uses only the notes notes E, F#, G#, B, and C#. If you flatten some of the notes of the tune so it falls in E minor and uses E, F#, G, B, and C, the sound indeed becomes darker but it loses its characteristic sense of “space” and “openness” because now there are semitones in play: F#-G and B-C. A similar thing happens if instead of transposing the tune to the parallel minor key you try to transpose it to C# minor, the relative minor. What I realized I wanted to do was to make the tune darker but preserve its sense of space and freedom. A way to do that is to actually transform the tune from E major pentatonic to E minor pentatonic: E, G, A, B, D. In this kind of rewrite, some of the notes change (F# becomes G, G becomes A, and C becomes D) but they maintain their positions within the pentatonic scale (for example, the second note of E major pentatonic becomes the second note of E minor pentatonic). So that’s what’s happening in the middle section of the arrangement, you’re hearing a rewritten version of Wild Mountain Thyme as a minor pentatonic tune.

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