UN TOUT PETIT TROMPE-L'OREILLE (1992)
for Solo Guitar
Duration: 4 Minutes
A little note about the guitar and me
by Stephen Hartke -- reprinted from Guitar Review No. 124 (2002)
I'm sure I'm not the first, and equally sure I won't be the last, non-guitarist composer to
confess to an almost irrational fear of writing for the guitar. This phobia strikes me as
especially odd since I do not play any of the bowed string instruments either (though, to
misparaphrase Berlioz, I do know which end you're supposed to blow in), and yet I have
no problem at all composing quite demanding but playable parts for violins, violas, and
cellos. Even the harp with its pedals, pulleys and cranks, not unlike a medieval torturer's
workstation, is quite manageable. So what is it about the guitar that seems so forbidding?
Perhaps it's the width of the fingerboard , and the clawlike contortions which – at least,
to the layperson – it seems to force upon the player even for the simplest of chords.
Further, the few times I've ever tried my hand at strumming a note or two, I've had to
quickly abandon the effort in order to rush off and soak my fingertips. And yet it is one
of the most beautiful and intimate of instruments: lovingly cradled in the arms, it
becomes an exquisite chamber ensemble of one, singing, dancing, discoursing, raging,
whatever the music may move it to do, and always with supreme elegance and grace.
And from that standpoint, the real question is how could a composer choose not to write
for the guitar?
Despite all the foregoing business about fears and phobias, one of the pleasant ironies in
connection with my writing the piece reprinted here, Un tout petit trompe-l'oreille, is that
not only was it my very first attempt to compose for the guitar but it also stands to this
day as the only piece that I have ever composed at a single sitting, taking a little over an
hour and a half one Sunday morning in April 1992 in Rome.
The motivation to write the piece was quite simple. My wife and I had just spent several
days in a farmhouse outside of Siena as guests of our friends the novelist Robert Littell
and painter Victoria Salvy. The time we spent there was idyllic, with splendid weather,
wonderful daytrips to Siena itself, and equally wonderful meals accompanied by clear,
crisp, red wine made from grapes grown in the fields just outside the house itself. Upon
returning to Rome, where we were living at the time, I decided I wanted to send some
sort of thank you gift, and on the next Sunday morning an idea came to me. Bob Littell is
an amateur guitarist, and, in the armed forces, had been a cryptographer. Victoria
specializes as a painter of trompe-l'oeil. So I hit upon the notion of writing Bob a piece that
he could play and to honor the trompe-l'oeil tradition by encrypting in the music the
melody of a national anthem that might be familiar to both of them. Now as to which
national anthem that would be, I won't say, though I will go so far as to offer the clue
that it resonates with one of Bob's most recent books.
Of course, as these things will turn out, the piece isn't quite as easy as I had hoped it
might be, and Bob had some trouble with it (and at one point, he asked for some
coaching from a neighbor, none other than Harrison Birtwistle), but I do think that my
basic intention to keep things simple is what made it emerge so quickly and what helped
me overcome my fear of the instrument.
Since writing this piece, I have done two other pieces with guitar. One is a new version of
a pair of songs in Portuguese entitled Canções modernistas, now scored for soprano, guitar
and cello. The other is another vocal work, though considerably more epic in nature: a
dramatic cantata for soprano, four flutes, four guitars and four bassoons called Sons of
Noah (Three Lost Chapters of the Bible), with text by Philip Littell after a short story by the
great Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis. This half-hour long work has been recorded
by the Los Angeles-based group Xtet, with Lisa Stidham, soprano, conducted by Donald
Crockett, for New World Records.
Un tout petit trompe-l’oreille