Letter to the Editor
by George Clinton
However irksome it may be to Matanya Ophee to have to face the reality that not everyone shares his uncritical assessment of his hero Kazuhito Yamashita’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition, this does not excuse his attempt to invalidate adverse opinion to his own end by pulling wool over the eyes of his readers (Soundboard IV/3). As an English writer in guitar circles, I do not know of any English writer on guitar matters who has written about Yamashita’s Pictures “without having heard the recording of the performance.
I do suggest, however, that Mr. Ophee, although hearing the performance, has not listened to it. Neither has he attempted to play the score of Yamashita’s arrangement. Had he done so, he would have noticed that the arrangement fails in its essential requirement: that all of its music should be possible on the instrument for which it was arranged. Quite apart from aesthetic considerations, Pictures fails in this prerequisite.
Guitar International’s reviews Editor, John Duarte, in his review of Yamashita’s recording (GI, March 1983) drew attention to the credibility of Yamashita’s published arrangement: “…at another there is a (quasi) continuous trill on the low-tuned string (D/E) below three-note chords in the tenth position. The latter is physically improbable if not impossible ….
When I attended Yamashita’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on the 23rd of September 1985,1 naturally listened for this part and though the performer was observed to indulge in lightening-swift shifts, the result didn’t sound like the printed score—naturally, since it was impossible to play! Careful listening to the recording showed no break in the trill and suggested double-tracking, and, as I said in my review (GI, November 1985), “…what is certain is that in his live performance (in this and his famous Toronto concert) Yamashita appeared to muff phrases in precisely these ’improbable’ places. Also, this particular part being so uniquely difficult and requiring extra special techniques, it is reasonable to expect the arrangement to have at least a note about it in his long list of instructions to the work. There is none.
Some days after the concert, I had the opportunity to interview Yamashita at the flat of Brian Jeffery. Yamashita’s English was not good; however, seeing the score, he exclaimed, “Ah, my music!” I asked him about the particular passage in “Gnomus” (referred to above) and whether he had used double-tracking in his recording. He denied using double-tracking saying “I am a solo guitarist.” Drawing his attention to the score, I pointed to the bars in question and asked him to help me understand how to play the part—the first bar, for example.
After asking me to switch off the recorder, Yamashita said he didn’t understand the question. I explained that these particular bars had been described as impossible to play. To which Yamashita replied that he now understood the question, but did not understand the reason behind it. I said that his famous arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition had been claimed by many a guitar writer as an important addition to the guitar’s repertory. For this reason many people had bought it, but had put it aside when reaching this part because they found it impossible to play. Yamashita replied saying that the part was not difficult. Other Japanese guitarists had played it apart from himself. Had I not heard him play the part at his concert? “Yes,” I said. “How was it?” Yamashita asked. “Not clear at all,” I replied, which is why I was asking him about it now, because I was worried that the credibility of his arrangement may very well rest on these few bars on this single bar.
[The Soundboard LTTE also carried a picture of this quotation, stating that this is the passage referred to in the letter].
At this point, I asked Jeffery for a guitar, and he got out an old French instrument for me that was sufficient for the purpose. I asked Yamashita to show me how to execute the trill. Yamashita refused to do so saying that he did not give lessons. (He afterwards told me he refused to conduct a master class in Toronto because he was not a teacher, but a player.) I insisted that I did not want a lesson, but a demonstration of his good faith in connection with the credibility of his arrangement. I again asked him for his help with that single bar, saying, “Here I am playing the chord; how do I play the trill? By letting go of the chord? Using my right hand? Or what? If you show me, I can tell our readers there is no problem with this arrangement. After all, if there is, something not clear about a score from Rak or Koshkin or anyone, I am sure they would be only too pleased to explain it. Also, this passage being evidently very complicated, it is surprising that it is not fingered in any way, nor referred to in your own “Explanation for Performance printed in English and Japanese at the end of the score.”
Yamashita considered this for a long time and then said that this was the first time such a question had been asked. He couldn’t talk about it himself he would have to ask his father about it. He then thanked me for my advice about this part of the arrangement and, since it was obviously an important point he would take up the matter with the publishers, Gendai Guitar, because if the part was as difficult as I was suggesting, then there may have to be some alternation to the score.
Finally, because there is a danger of Mr. Ophee stretching his reference to writers derision of Yamashita’s arrangement to include Yamashita himseff, I would like to add that I regard Yamashita as an extraordinary virtuoso who would do well to shake off those commercial interest that could ruin his career and refuse to be taken in by sycophantic and idolatrous rhetoric written about him by such commentators as Mr. Ophee.
Copyright © 1987 by George Clinton.