Easy-listening guitar


Michelle Nelson

Move Records MCD 531


This is a short (41 minutes) disc consisting of some homages, pastiches, imitations, take-offs – apply whichever term you like – and several original compositions.   Melbourne guitarist Michelle Nelson has constructed and recorded a set of six works (well, five: the first and last tracks employ the same material in different guises) that are intended to link the old and the new as well as to bring art-music back into the popular domain.  The results make for soothing sounds but nothing to challenge or excite the intellect.

Nelson’s creations vary in their persuasiveness.  While the debt to other composers presents as obvious in the specified cases, Nelson’s melodic and harmonic material can be sledge-hammer in impact.   For instance, for the CD’s title (and opening track) we are referred to Gaspar Sanz and Santiago de Murcia; the former became more familiar than Murcia because of Rodrigo’s use of six dances from the Baroque composer’s Instruccion as the basis for the Fantasia para un gentilhombre concerto of 1954.  Even dipping a toe into the treasury of guitar music that both writers have left gives you a pretty good idea of the basis on which this sequence of three pieces – Danza, Minuet, Return – was constructed: harmonic orthodoxy, simplicity of melodic elements, a steady rhythm in each (reinforced by bongos with occasional bar chimes for extra colour from Mark Murphy).  Nelson uses these tropes in fairly basic adaptations; her imitations tend to be lacking in interest, deficient in bite and lyrical appeal.

The Return is a rephrasing of the main melody from the opening Danza, but it eventually gives up on melody as a contributing element and simply alternates a dominant/tonic sequence.  The first two parts have suggestions of the two Spanish masters but Nelson’s variants sound pretty tame by comparison with those of her forebears.

Like many before her, Nelson heads for the summit with The Guitarist’s Bach: Hommage a J.S. Bach.   This is a five-movement suite, starting with a clear reference to the E Major Violin Partita’s opening Preludio; but, where the master uses the two semiquavers-quaver as the kick-off for an invigorating moto perpetuo, Nelson settles in for a more moderate. ambling progression with a simple underpinning that alternates between A and E, while some awkward figuration passages dawdle on top.   The Courante that follows holds more harmonic interest at the outset with some gentle early 20th-century key switches – but these are very quickly passed through.   Too little interest blights the Sarabande which gets stuck in a repetitious groove far longer than Bach would have allowed himself.   The Bouree has some odd touches, like an asymmetrical two beats added on to the first half  that make the dance’s internal balance questionable, because these extras don’t appear in the dance’s second half.   As for the Gigue conclusion, the tune is fluent enough but any supporting notes are functional at best and the harmonising structure that is provided remains unadventurous.

Ice Crystals, five individual vignettes, acknowledge no obvious ancestry and strike a quietly original note.   Nelson sticks to her last with a predictable framework of operations and, once she puts her focus onto a particular gesture, she exploits it relentlessly, as in the spread-eagled chord of the first piece, and the Villa-Lobos-suggestive harmonics of the second crystal.   Then comes a piece that succeeds because Nelson uses her descending arpeggio figure in modulations and shapes the piece’s movement with a finesse suggestive of a post-impressionist prelude.   Although No. 4 maintains its three-chord rhythm for most of the time, it impresses for its limpidity and the atmospheric echo provided by the CD’s engineers, while the final member of this bracket seems to revert back to the disc’s opening track although the melodic trajectory has changed.

Platypus Rag involves Nelson’s guitar with a ‘taropatch’ played by Lesley Gentilin.  This latter is a ukulele commonly found in Hawaii; from what I can glean, the taropatch nomenclature refers more to its slack-key tuning than to the instrument itself.  The rag itself is amiable but short – less than 2 minutes.

Dances for the New World begins with New Volta, an updating of Elizabeth I’s favourite choreographic exercise involving a partner.   I’m not sure whether the revision offers much advance on the older style, chiefly because Nelson’s updating lacks even the small variety of divisions that a volta aficionado like Byrd provided.   Rock ‘n Rolan: Hommage a Marc Bolan puts a sedately stepping tune into the bass with an inverted pedal note (progressing after a while to a chord) to provide a petty superfluous root function.   As for its relationship to the British rock musician, I can’t make any worthwhile comment, knowing only two Bolan songs.   Mirage offers a pleasantly euphonious series of chords above a cantus firmus of one rhythmic motif; however, it serves the purpose of giving the New World target audience a reassuring outcome   –   there’ll be no change to the expected and predictable.

Finally, Return to the Dance IV involves electronics alongside a normal classical guitar and one of Yamaha’s silent guitars.   The work refers back to the opening track but is as static as much of the rest of the disc: happy to keep the bass constant and proposing little above it except repeated chord patterns which are subjected to synthesizer manipulation.  In the end, the track turned into tedium.  Yes, you found plenty of easy listening in this album, which is at its most appealing in the Ice Crystals tracks.  But the overall effect is to put your receptors into neutral; the CD is pleasant, but there’s not much going on.