By BRUCE DENNILL
Guitar Wizards, running at Joburg Theatre from 28 Feb to 2 March, features genre-busting classical guitar duo CH2 and Polish sensation Marcin Patrzalek playing their intricate and explosive brands of fingerstyle guitar. Book here.
Fingerstyle guitar, stereotypically speaking, is a skill appreciated by more knowledgeable audiences – listeners who are either guitarists themselves or who have taken the time, once encountering the genre, to seek out more of this type of music, which isn’t generally available on Top 40 charts or similar. You include instrumental covers of well-known hits (Billie Jean, Mission Impossible, etc) in the show, but in a day to day sense, how would you explain fingerstyle to a newcomer in a way that aroused their interest?
Corneille Hutten (CH2): Interesting you should mention that. Yes, fingerstyle is not necessarily a Top 40 style or genre, but re-arranging some of the biggest hits of Beethoven, Metallica, Ed Sheeran and others gives a brand new spin on those hits, and helps introduce the style to a much broader audience. Funny enough, audiences have moved away from the mundane, same-chord nonsense that’s been circulating for decades. This has been noticed among artists , especially when tough economic times push audiences to spend their buck wisely and make them reflect more, searching for something with more substance. That is where we come in…
Marcin Patrzalek (MP): Fingerstyle is a modern, dynamic and unique approach to guitar that basically fits the drums, melody, bass – and obviously guitar – lines into one instrument. Because it is so new, there is a lot of room to experiment and think of completely new techniques that have never been done before. Often, audiences have never seen or heard the guitar being played like this. The visual aspect is very important, as the body of the guitar is utilised for percussive effects that require a lot of flair. The guitar becomes a completely new instrument and it is inspiring to write compositions for, as well as playing arrangements such as my Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which gathered over 24 million views online, because there’s a full orchestra in one instrument!
How do the mainstreams spikes in awareness of the genre (the film August Rush, or perhaps a hit from Rodrigo y Gabriela) help in spreading the message?
CH2: Making the style “cool” and accessible is the key. Basic hits, melodies and easy to sing, with the songs re-arranged in a special way. In fact, my logic tells me that this type of genre can reach an even bigger audience than pop music in the near future, capturing the imagination of the average listener with basic melodies, but also catering for the more serious music lovers. This is what we are yearning for; something with more substance – especially as listeners become more educated in music, genres and styles through the internet. I believe this style of playing – on any instrument – is the future. Especially combined with singing here and there, like Jon Gomm does.
MP: The genre has been exploding in popularity in recent years and the most important thing that led to this “boom” is viral videos on the internet. Whether it’s original compositions or arrangements, people love experiencing the crazy nature of a fingerstyle performance – both visually and sonically. I believe that in the near future there is a lot of potential to make fingerstyle a huge genre. I am blessed to have received a great following online – over 80 million views – and I can see how big of an impact that has. Fingerstyle is on its way to become a part of the mainstream.
How did each of you discover fingerstyle guitar, and what was it specifically that made you choose that as a direction rather than focusing on more traditional lead or rhythm guitar playing, or joining a jazz band or orchestra?
CH2: CH2 plays flamenco and Latin-based styles, with both of us having classical guitar training backgrounds. Joining a band makes you a session musician in a way. The idea behind CH2 has always been to create a brand – an exciting band with a fusion of sounds showcasing the true ability of the guitar. We’ve been developing our own unique sound and stamp in the music industry worldwide.
MP: I started playing the guitar when I was 10. But in the beginning, it was purely classical music. I managed to achieve some successes in that field, and soon I progressed onto flamenco guitar, being taught by a Spanish virtuoso Carlos Pinana. Flamenco built my technique immensely and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to study it in depth. However, when I was 14, I got my first acoustic guitar for Christmas. I had no teacher for acoustic guitar so I started experimenting on my own. I would combine techniques from completely contrasting genres, play the guitar body as a drum, and start to expand the sounds I could produce from my instrument. It was a difficult process, having no teacher, but it was, and still is, super fun as well! Eventually I started composing and arranging pieces. I have always been a soloist and I feel the most comfortable in that way – to perform on stage alone is an emotional experience and I’ve always worked to perform this way.
CH2, you’ve had considerable success here and abroad. How would you say the traditions behind fingerstyle playing differ (for instance, Zulu street guitar might qualify as a local interpretation) in different countries? And Marcin, can you give insight into the culture or history behind this kind of music in Poland?
CH2: Fingerstyle as a genre is very new indeed. It’s still developing every day and new ideas pop up everywhere. Yes, in Africa, we’ve been using finger-style on guitar-like instruments for hundreds of years, plucking the strings rather than strumming. In fact, the guitar originated from North Africa and was taken over the water by the Spanish and developed into the modern shape of the instrument we all know. The sitar is the Indian version of the guitar. And so every country and culture has developed the stringed instrument in their own way. But the Torres shape has stuck to the Western world and that’s probably be the main reason the modern shape has become the norm.
MP: Poland doesn’t exactly have a lot of history that involves the guitar. It’s not a traditional instrument there, and we’ve never had composers as remarkable as Chopin, who would utilise the guitar. For me, the choice came accidentally. I was just trying out new things when I was young and the guitar drew me in. I try not to limit myself to just the guitar, especially not in the traditional sense. I create electronic music as well as orchestral music, which you can hear on my album Hush. During my concerts, among the solo guitar arrangements, I also play compositions involving ambient electronic music – you will be able to hear that during the South African concerts. So it wasn’t just the guitar that inspired me, but the instrument is a natural way to express my love for music.
In staging terms, what will the Guitar Wizards shows be offering audiences? Specifically, where people are used to music shows with different elements – vocalists upfront, drums, bass, horn sections and so on – how are drama, dynamics and a narrative arc (if there is one) introduced here?
CH2: Guitar playing, done at a certain level, is an absolute art form. The audiences are simply mesmerised by the movements of the hands and fingers and the interesting way the different styles are approached. Instrumental music has no language boundaries. It appeals to the broadest audiences possible worldwide. Some of the highest selling artists in history were instrumentalists. The narrative is conjured up in the mind of every person listening and watching us play. They each decide in their own way how they want to interpret the message we convey through the sounds we make. Their life experiences becomes their own narrative and journey through the notes. Apart from that, I am quite a funny guy on stage – ha!
MP: It is usually a big shock to audiences to see the guitar being played that way – I am always super happy to hear that somebody “has never seen this sort of thing before”. It is a style that appeals to musicians, but most importantly, it appeals to non-musicians as well, because it is an audio-visual show that is unique and dynamic. The guitar will be used as drums, bass, vocals, full orchestra – and, in case of my compositions, even as the main part of ambient electronic and orchestral music. The dynamic range of this sort of performance is limitless, and it is our job to showcase that!