An Exercise in Musical Discernment

Joseph ColomboMy son Joseph Colombo writes classical music. (In his online bio, he describes himself as a “San Francisco-based composer and noise maker.” The bio also notes that “he’s written music for orchestras, chamber ensembles, electronics, stage, film, installations, and everything in between.”) He and I got into an interesting email exchange the other day when I sent him a note expressing my enthusiasm for the Chapman Stick, a string-based musical instrument that was developed in the 1970s. (I’m the first one to admit that my tastes are somewhat pedestrian. As always, he was patient.)

Joseph’s reply made it clear that he didn’t share my enthusiasm for the relatively new instrument and its capabilities. He made some specific points of criticism though I won’t try to explain them here because I’m not sure I could do them justice. (He can do so on his blog if he’s so inclined.) Apart from the conclusion about the Chapman Stick that he reached, though, it was the way he made his case that struck me.

Joseph teaches composition music theory at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, a gig for which he’s well suited because, like many composers, he has the heart of a teacher. When he explained his points to me, he did so in a way that was so instructive that I thought I’d share it here. (And, to tell the truth, finding fodder for interesting blog posts can be difficult; it occurred to me that when someone just plops something worthwhile in my lap—and does all the attendant research!—I might as well take advantage of it.)

Basically, Joseph provided me with performances of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) on four different instruments. The idea was to compare and contrast the instruments’ properties. The process of giving each performance a close listen and then comparing and contrasting the attributes of each instrument was more than a little interesting.

The first performance was by Bob Culverson and featured his outstanding work on the Chapman Stick:

Next up is a guitarist names George Sakellariou playing the same Bach piece on a 2013 Annette Stephany maple and spruce guitar:

The third rendition featured Amy Turk playing the piece on a traditional harp:

And, finally there’s organist Hans-André Stamm with the most traditional interpretation:

This “compare and contrast” gave me a context listening—really listening—to each version of the music at a deeper level and to think about the tradeoffs that are always present whenever an artist makes musical choices… which happens, of course, all the time.

What do you think? Which instrument works best for you? What are each instrument’s strengths and weaknesses? How do you think the musical selection interacts with the instrumental choices? And, of course, there’s the most important question of all: What do you think of the Chapman Stick?

One thought on “An Exercise in Musical Discernment”

  1. But you didn’t share any of his “so instructive” points, which I’d love to hear! On my admittedly quick listen, I was mostly struck by the mood and context created by each instrument, For example, the acoustic guitar version (my favorite) takes me to late 19th century sunny Andalucia, whereas the traditional organ version feels like a dark, threatening, almost sinister scene in an old castle or something like that. I wasn’t all that keen on the Chapman stick, though I can’t really say why. It didn’t seem to have much personality to me.

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