The Yamashita Chronicles

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

(updated version III. Final.)

By Matanya Ophee

With the methodical routine of a Punch-and-Judy show, Yamashita detractors seem to pop up at predictable intervals, usually during a full moon, fulminating at the mouth about his transcriptions of orchestral music for guitar solo. It does not seem to matter to these hate mongers that the young boy who so astounded the music world in the early 80s is no longer a boy, but a father to three beautiful children, a devoted husband who is more interested in promoting the music of his wife, the noted Japanese composer Keiko Fujiie, then in trying to push the envelope of guitar technique to where it had never been before. Kazuhito Yamashita today, is a mature musician who is very active in the promotion of music by Asian composers, by exploring new music from many different sources, some of it, I am happy to confirm, music which I published, by engaging in large recording projects such as the Complete Sor, the Complete Bach, the Complete Ponce, the Complete Tansman, the Complete Castelnuovo-Tedesco (still in progress). He has not performed the transcriptions that still get people so overwrought in years. He is also my close personal friend.

Honestly, it really bugs me to have to deal with this issue now, but it seems to me that some of the people who are now actively pursuing this profane campaign against him, are not cognizant of what he had done so many years ago to polarize the guitar community in such a violent manner, and how he has developed over the last two decades.

What I propose to do here is republish several documents, some that were published, some that were not. If nothing else, it might give the younger generation a more equitable view of what had transpired in the early 1980s, and perhaps a more realistic perspective on the reasons why some people take such extreme views, for or against a fellow who happens to be a guitarist.

I will begin with an article I wrote in 1984, almost 17 years ago when many of you were still in diapers. After the 1984 Toronto Festival, I wrote a rather extensive review of the event which was published in the English magazine Guitar International. At the time, I was a regular contributor to that magazine. I was even the titular History Editor (whatever that means!) of the publication and my name appeared in that capacity on the masthead. I actually wrote two separate reviews: one of the festival as a whole and another separate review of Kazuhito Yamashita’s stunning appearance there. The Yamashita article was published in Gitarre & Laute in German translation (“Yamashita hören . . . und staunen”, Gitarre & Laute VI/6 , Nov/Dec, 1984) and in Gendai Guitar in Japanese translation (“On Hearing Yamashita” Gendai Guitar XVIII/226, Dec. 1984) . George Clinton, the editor of GI, refused to publish the Yamashita review, but did publish the general one. My general review of Guitar ’84 was stated in rather strong terms and expectedly, it ruffled a few feathers among the organizers of the festival in Toronto and generated a storm of LTTE’s to the magazine. The Yamashita review was never published in English, though I did express in various forums, since then, some of the ideas contained therein. Click here it is, to go to that review.

Perhaps I should mention here that another specialized review of Yamashita’s 1984 Toronto appearance was published in the guitar press. This was an article titled “The Typhoon from the East” by Larry Snitzler, published in the Guitar Review (issue No. 60, Winter 1985). Quite obviously, Mr. Snitzler impressions of the very same performance were diametrically opposed to my own. His main complaint was that in spite of his awesome technique, Yamashita lacked musicality. It is a bit late to argue the issue fifteen years later, but it is interesting to note that my views did not register, since they were only published in German and in Japanese, while Mr. Snitzler’s views became entrenched in the guitar’s conventional wisdom and adopted by many who had never heard Yamashita alive. The main problem I had with Snitzler’s review was that his assessment of Yamashita’s musicality in regard to Modest Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” was based on a view of the Ravel orchestration that by 1984 was completely abandoned by musicologists who specialized in Russian music in general and in the music of Musorgsky in particular. That unfortunate yardstick was akin to saying that Segovia’s Bach Chaconne was unmusical, because it did not compare well with the Busoni transcription. On the other hand, some opinions expressed by Snitzler regarding the importance of Yamashita’s appearance on the scene were almost the same as my own. For example:

. . . I walked out to the foyer [intermission time]. Among 700-odd people I ran across a friend, an American guitarist who, in a conscientious and devoted manner, has been building a performing career for some years and recently given New York and London debuts. He was close to tears.

“Did you hear that audience?” he said. “They are crazy about him! It’s all over for me. Even if I could play like that, I wouldn’t; it’s not a world I want to live in. That’s not why I took up the guitar!”

I hastened to reassure him. First, while for that moment it seemed obvious that Kazuhiko [sic!] Yamashita was obsessed with his mind-boggling technical capacities, he is still very young and there is every reason to hope that he will mature, both intellectually and musically. Second, there is certainly room in the guitar world for more than one approach to guitar playing . . .

Prophetic words, as this turned out to be! Some years went by. Kazuhito began a touring career which brought him to the States several times. He was now appearing regularly with some of the biggest names in the business: James Galway, Michala Petrie, the Tokyo String Quartet. In short, he was getting the kind of attention from the major presenters and concert promoters that other guitarists would kill for. This was big time. He still found time in his busy concert schedule to appear in strictly guitaristic venues. One such appearance, sponsored by Tecla Editions of London, was his appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on September 23, 1985. By this time, Yamashita’s “Pictures” was at the center of attention world wide. The late George Clinton, the editor of Guitar International magazine, had already read my review of the 1984 live performance, and for whatever reasons of his own, decided to reject it. Now that Yamashita was appearing in his own back yard, he had to go and see this for himself. His review of the London concert was published in Guitar International, November 1985:

Kazuhito Yamashita
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23 September
Giuliani: Grande Ouverture, Op. 61
Rodrigo: Invocation et Dance (Hommage a Manuel de Falla).
Takemitsu: Folios I -III
Britten: Nocturnal,Op.70.
Mussorgsky, arr. Yamashita: Pictures at an Exhibition.

We were there primarily to hear Yamashita play Pictures at an Exhibition. in its entirety. There’s nothing too remarkable about this work. It’s one of a very many great works of music, and most people have an acquaintance with it as with any of the others. ‘The Old Castle’ has long been in the guitarists’ repertoire, and those who play it are assumed to have adhered to the good practice of listening to the original version. The difference between this and other performances, is that whereas a pianist would be received, and reviewed, in the normal way—there’s no question of the work’s suitability to the instrument—the great attraction and publicity connected with Yamashita’s appearance is precisely his arrangement’s questionable credibility.

Even so, the arrangement together with Yamashita’s astonishing, and, let it be said enjoyable recording, is sufficient to draw an audience, even if only on the basis of let’s see if he can do this live? After all, today’s recording techniques make most things possible. Of course, how Yamashita played the rest of his programme would, in a way, ‘prove’ the merits of his fame, and his celebrated achievement. Let’s see how he fared. But first some observations to do with interpretation common to everything Yamashita plays, whatever its character.

First thing, Yamashita’s left and right hand dexterity is such that nothing is beyond him. Also, probably more than any player, he applies the widest possible range of dynamics, tonal colours and textures . . . 

Like me, Clinton had gone to hear Yamashita for one specific reason: to listen first hand to his performance of the “Pictures.” With one difference: I was motivated by George Warren’s enthusiastic recommendation, Clinton, as he stated himself above, went to see “if he can do this live?”

Do what live?

Clinton tells us:

. . . After the interval Yamashita undertook his Herculean Labor, Pictures at an Exhibition. A description of this work is not attempted here, and familiarity with the original version is assumed. John Duarte, in has review of Yamashita’s recording (March 1983), discussed the technical demands of the work, and 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, and the illusion has to be created by ultra rapid shifting. Indeed, the various movements provide ‘studies’ in what the 19th century called ‘transcendental technique’ . . . ”

The above passage comes in Gnomus  . . .

. . . and though Yamashita in concert was observed to indulge in lightning-swift shifts—like a one arm paper hanger with hives, as one keen eyed observer put it—the result didn’t sound as the score. . .

I would need to look up this “one arm paper hanger with hives” in a dictionary of Britishisms. In the meantime, it is obvious that Clinton was engaging here in an outright fraudulent misrepresentation. The issue, as stated at the beginning of his review, was to compare the live performance to the recording, to see if he can do on stage, live, that which was recorded. Here, he avoided the question altogether and accused the artist that his performance on stage did not follow the score! As you recall, in my own review of the 1984 Toronto concert, I stated that:

. . . As for his performance: please rest assured that whatever he notated in the printed edition, is precisely what he does live on stage. There are no hidden gimmicks. Everything is spelled out in detail, and the live performance follows the text letter perfect . . .

In retrospect, I should probably withdraw that statement. I did not make such a detailed analysis of the score as was obviously done by Jack Duarte. I certainly did not have the score in front of me when I listened to the live performance. My statement was based on an emotional reaction to a live performance in which both myself and my wife were presented with a reading of Musorgsky’s masterpiece which we could whole-heartedly embrace as an authentic representation of the spirit of Musorgsky. We had no need to put this under the Holmsian magnifying glass, something that would be done by those who assume a crime has been committed. Clinton obviously was convinced, even before he went to the concert, that some awful crime has been committed here and he set out to prove it.

. . . Later, we tried to play this part from the score but gave up and enlisted the help of a concert player. He told us that as far as the score was concerned there was no way of playing this passage without recording it, using double tracking. As this suggested a direction of enquiry we experimented with the variable speed controls of our cassette recorder and turntable, isolating the two parts with the speaker balance. The result to our ears showed clearly that the trill was unbroken and synchronized with the chordal passage referred to. Readers are invited to send us their own solutions to these odd bars from the score. . .

Clinton did not say who was that expert witness concert player. Obviously, these types come in various shades of competence. Some are good, some are mediocre, some are wise and knowledgeable, some are downright moronic. The main issue here, is that Clinton claimed that it was this unnamed expert who suggested the idea that the recording was done by double tracking. Actually, the idea that this may or may not have been by double tracking was already touched upon by George Warren in his 1982 review, so there was nothing new here. George was careful to dismiss the idea outright, because the recording carried a detailed production statement which did not mention overdubbing, which is American for double-tracking. To do otherwise, is to suggest that not only the artist, but also the recording engineer and the record label were party to a fraudulent production. Of course, this is nothing new and we have seen before, many times in fact, unbelievable recordings which could only be achieved by manipulations made by the recording engineer, and not mentioned on the liner notes. I am not surprised that Clinton had never made an issue of such events in commercial recordings by Segovia. But his single-minded devotion to track down this one down to its colloidal level, suggest to me that his motivation was somehow based on notions that have nothing to do with music. Consider this: here is an experiment in which the two voices were separated showing that one part, the trill on the bass, is uninterrupted. That is sufficient proof for Clinton and his cohorts to come out and denounce Yamashita as a fraud for having made the recording in double tracking. There is only one little problem with this experiment: the continuity of the top voice, the series of triadic chords in the treble, is not reported on. Did this voice, too, continued uninterrupted with all chords receiving their full rhythmic value? If it did, then of course the claim of fraud might have some measure of justification. But if in fact the chords in the treble do not sustain for their full value but are rather chopped off staccato fashion, then there would be enough time for this one armed paper hanger with hives to go back and forth in ultra-rapid shifting as suggested by Jack Duarte and do this without double tracking. Clinton did not stop to consider the possibility, because by this time, he was not concerned with the performance, on either the record or on stage, but in the edition and its lack of precise instructions on how to do this. His invitation to his readers did not go unheeded. One letter, published in the January 1986 issue, suggested that perhaps Yamashita was trilling with his nose, a remark which contributed exactly nothing to the discussion at hand. Another reader who signed his letter S. Yates, Liverpool, found a solution on how to perform this passage:

Pictures: a solution

As a believer in the possibility of any technical improbability, no matter how remote, I have some thoughts to offer on the Yamashita ‘Pictures’ improbability.

One is led naturally to the conclusion that the passage is impossible due to the idea that once the chords are played, the trill becomes unreachable. If this is reversed and one assumes the trill to be playable, we only need to solve the problem of playing the chords:-(i) L.H. 1st finger, 1st fret (E flat) in preparation to play the trill. (ii) R.H. – forearm above the guitar, finger pointing towards the floor. Make a barre of 4 strings with the R.H.index finger (the 4 string barre makes the treble strings secure) at the 10th fret. Place the R.H. middle finger on the E natural, 12th fret. (iii) Simultaneously, start the trill by slurring off the L. H. lst finger, and pluck the chord with the R.H. annular finger, similarly, continuing the trill, pluck the second chord. Play the sextuplets with L. H. 1st finger gliss., plucking with the R.H.thumb tremolando – plectrum fashion, up and down strokes.

The trill A/G sharp is easy as a cross-string on 5th and 6th strings, whilst fingering the chords in the normal fashion with the L.H.Indeed. Yamashita would manage this, playing the chords with R.H. m, a and pinkey, leaving i and p free to play the trill. Play the final bar as above.

Of course, no problem exists if the tr is treated as a tremolando on string 6 with p – plectrum fashion as above. However, the piano score indicates trills and evidently Yamashita plays trills on the disc. The above, although difficult, is possible. The real difficulty lies in producing a decent sound when plucking the chords with the its unorthodox position, with the plucking point being very close to the fretted notes.

Another possibility is to play the first chords with the normal, 2nd finger on the E natural, leaving 3 or 4 free to pluck the strings, whilst at the same time trilling on 6 with the R.H. index finger.

Having said all this, I doubt that in reality Yamashita plays it this way, leaving one with the meritable conclusion that the easier method of multitracking was used on the record, whilst in concert, either playing the aforementioned thumb tremolando, or creating the illusion of simultaneous trill and chords by using rapid L.H. shifts.

A rather inventive idea which, if one wanted to invest in it, could work very well. Considering that at this point, January 1986. Master S. Yates from Liverpool had not yet seen or heard Yamashita in a live concert, it is remarkable that he was willing to concede that perhaps his elaborate Rube Goldbergesque solution was not the one used by the artist. What remained was either the poisonous idea of double tracking implanted by the Editor-in-Chief in his readers’ minds, or the more sensible idea of rapid L.H. shifts suggested by Jack Duarte, and actually used by the artist as I personally observed him do. A careful listening to the record in this passage, will confirm that the chords in the treble are not given their full rhythmic values.

By January 1986, I was no longer associated with Guitar International magazine. I got into a serious spat with Clinton on a totally unrelated matter and I resigned. My name was removed from the masthead of the magazine and was replaced by that of John Roberts. By this time, I acquired the top position on George Clinton’s hit-list, a position previously occupied by Colin Cooper, Alice Artzt, Jack Duarte, Maurice Summerfield and others. I am told it is not nice to speak ill of the dead. George Clinton died of a brain tumor several years ago. But the man, when he was alive, was not exactly a paragon of good manners and genteel conversation. The Pages of his magazine are an ample source for his colorful malevolence.

As for Yamashita, his career was indeed going great, in spite of Clinton’s dire predictions. He came to visit with us a few times, stayed for a few days, a couple of weeks on one occasion, and though his English was still rather rudimentary, we managed to communicate quite well through the music. He went through my extensive library like a shark in a feeding frenzy. Then, in the beginning of 1987, he sent me a fax with a detailed itinerary for his forthcoming US tour with James Galway, and asked that I come to one of these concerts. He had a favor to ask of me. The one in Pittsburgh was closest to us, so that is the one we went to. We stayed overnight and in the morning we had breakfast together. What was on his mind was that he had a contract to appear again at the Toronto Festival in 1987, but for some unknown reason, the contract was cancelled with no explanation. He knew that I would be attending Toronto again. So would I please make some discreet inquiries and find out, if possible, why was he dis-invited so suddenly. I agreed. I then wrote this review of the Pittsburgh concert, one which I never submitted to any magazine. Or did I?

No. I did not. I went to the Toronto Festival, and then I wrote a review of it under the same title as I have given the review of the Pittsburgh concert:

Who Is Afraid of Kazuhito Yamashita?

The review was published in German translation in Gitarre & Laute magazine (September/Oktober 5/1987) using this very title, in English. I also submitted the review to Soundboard. As it turned out, two other reviewers, Richard Long and Alison Bert, had submitted reviews of the festival. All three were published (Soundboard, Fall 1987, XIV/3). Mine, alas was edited to some degree, the provocative title replaced by a generic Toronto Report heading that was given to all three reports and even my question, in the body of the article “Who Is Afraid of Kazuhito Yamashita?” was softened, without my consent, to the innocuous Why was Kazuhito Yamashita not there?

Here is that portion of the Soundboard review which dealt with Yamashita. The text is presented here mainly as it was edited by Soundboard. However, I have included in here those passages of mine that were completely removed by the editor without my consent, and those passages whose entire meaning was changed by the editor. They are marked in red and the latter are also placed in square brackets. Bear in mine that these sentences were not deleted by the editor of Gitarre & Laute magazine who translated my submitted text verbatim.

When this review appeared, George Clinton was not amused. He understood of course that my hardly-obscure reference to “English Writers” was directed at him and he retaliated. In a Letter to the Editor published in Soundboard, (Winter 1987-88 XIV/4), he recycled the major parts of his review of the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, including a verbatim account of the “interview” he conducted with Yamashita after the concert in Brian Jeffery’s apartment.

I was furious. My main cause of anguish was that my piece was printed in Soundboard as a contribution to the magazine. It is customary in journalistic circles to give authors a chance to respond to critical remarks regarding their piece, in the same issue. This was not done here. So I sat down and wrote a rather lengthy article, 6500 words long, and rushed it to the magazine. Peter Danner, Soundboard’s editor at the time, responded by suggesting a few changes in my response. This is a private letter I wrote to him at the time. Some more correspondence ensued and finally I submitted a revised version of my Response to Clinton which was published in Soundboard (Summer 1988, XV/2).

The version posted here is a concatenation of the published Response into which I interpolated those passages from the original submission that, so it seems to me now, are relevant to the subject at hand and that should have been published at the time.

I am done.

Copyright © 2001 by Editions Orphée, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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