The Transcriber's Art
In conversation with Chris Dumigan
By Tim Panting
Readers will be familiar with the name of Chris Dumigan: his indefatigable reviews of music and CDs provide depth, humour and insight to the pages of Classical Guitar Magazine and his own compositions and arrangements meet with universal acclaim. He also possesses the rare skill of being able to notate faithful representations of guitar recordings of virtuoso performances by such luminaries, often South American, as Cacho Tirao, Eduardo Falú and Paulinho Nogueira, to name but three. Most famous are his transcriptions of Barrios's own 78 rpm recordings, a three-year project eventually published under the banner 'The Barrios Anniversary Edition'. It is this skill that is in high demand by discerning connoisseurs and aficionados, and something I wanted to talk with Chris about.
TP: I've often felt that arranging and transcribing get confused. Can you describe the difference between the two?
CD: Arranging is 'arranging' music from a different instrument, or instruments onto the guitar and transcribing is writing something down, or from a guitar, onto paper, to be played still on a guitar. If I'm arranging something, I'm arranging something from piano or string quartet or whatever. But if I'm transcribing I'm taking a guitar performance and writing it down.
TP: Would that be from a recording?
CD: Oh yes, it would have to be a recording. (laughs) I might be quite good at it but not while someone's actually playing! I always have to have a recording because I have to keep going backwards and forwards. So yes, it's a long process.
TP: What are your criteria for choosing a piece? What attracts you?
CD: Well, there are two different answers to that: a transcription; I do occasionally get the urgent need to write something down that I would like to play. The very first ones I did were Ponce recordings, probably the late 70s, when there were these recordings of Ponce pieces that at the time weren't in print. I can remember a John Williams recording, there were three arrangements of songs by Ponce; two of which came out in print and the third one, called something like the Spanish version of 'I love my Mother' (Ed. Indeed: three songs arranged by Roland Harker: Marchita el alma (Faded, the Soul), Hache occo meses (Eight Months Ago) and Yo adoro a mi madre (I love my Mother) recorded by John Williams; 'John Williams plays Manuel Ponce' CBS 76730, 1978). For some reason that one never came out, the other two came out as a pair. I thought 'oh, I quite like that piece', so I wrote it down.
And there were various solo pieces that people were recording; there were the Segovia ones at the time, like the Postlude, which I think people were saying was one of the missing variations from La Folias, I'm not sure if that's apocryphal or not; it does sound a bit like them. Oh, and the Mazurka, of course, at the time wasn't in print. I remember an LP by a Latin American player, whose name escapes me right now (Baltazar Benítez's debut LP, which included the first recording of Theme, Variations and Fughetta on a Theme by Cabezón). Again not in print, all were subsequently put in print later on. I wrote these down because I wanted to. I listened to John Williams. He did a late night TV programme; he sat there with various manuscripts and played the Barrios. Then he came out with the album and then out came Stover's editions.
So, doing what I normally do, of course, I sat there putting on such-and-such a piece and looking at the manuscript thinking it was going to be identical and found to my horror they were utterly different and that there were lots of things I could hear that weren't on the manuscripts. I thought 'what's really going on here' and at the time nobody knew what was really going on. Then somebody pointed me towards an American set of cassettes, that's how far back I'm going; must be late 70s. What was then purported to be the complete Barrios, which was on three cassettes. So I sent my dollars off for those and then realised that there were loads of pieces that weren't in the book (Stover's) and the ones that were in the book were utterly different and I could hear they were different and why were they different?, because Stover Editions stated 'where there is a recording we have treated it as the preferred and final form' and I'm listening going, 'that's not right', I couldn't understand it. So I decided in a moment of madness to do it myself.
I couldn't decide how to do what first, so I literally started on cassette one, track one, no matter whether it was the hardest piece I was going to have to do; it was going to be that one. And then went all the way through all six sides of the cassettes, and it took me three years of my spare time. After that, when they eventually came out in print I started to be known as someone who could do it. So the question now is 'how do I pick a piece?' Well very often they're picked for me. Because people do send me stuff they'd like to have written down. It's fun to do. I've done all sorts of stuff I would never have come across, like Cacho Tirao. I was transcribing his arrangements of popular songs from his country, for a number of years for one particular guy. And lately I've finished pieces by the Brazilian guitarist Paulinho Nogueira, who I must be honest was a name I'd not come across. His arrangements don't appear to have been written down: a medley of Beatles numbers; Nat king Cole's When I Fall in Love, plus a piece by Jobim. And it's full of jazz rhythms, semi-improvised bits. I'd never heard of him until I was sent these three MP3s. These days I'm doing them because somebody's asked me to do it. The arrangements are different.
TP: You've answered many things there. How do people approach you with things?
CD: They somehow get my email address. Very infrequently somebody will send me a letter. More often than not it arrives via the computer. Often preceded by 'I know you've done all the Barrios stuff, this stuff can't possibly be as difficult as that..can it?' And then I get the three Nogueira pieces which took me nearly six months; because of the nature of the beast, and the nature of his playing. Not that I couldn't hear what was being played, but they were just so improvisational. Wondering how to physically tap it out and write it down; what was a 4/4 piece and I could hear seven beats and all this sort of stuff going on. Strange.
TP: What has been the most difficult to transcribe?
CD: These have got to be some of the most difficult. One or two of the Barrios, were certainly horrendous, if you are listening to a piece of music, from a 78, never been 'mastered' in any way. I know people say the CD recordings of Barrios have been 'cleaned up', but not really. You listen to Caruso, and then listen to a 'cleaned up' Caruso and suddenly all the hiss has gone and you can hear it. The Barrios is still full of what I call 'chip fat frying'. Some of his later recordings were quite good, quite clear, you could hear what he was actually doing. Some of the earlier ones it was an E chord, but where was it? Was in first position, or was he on fret 7? Sometimes, well he was here before, he was there afterwards, common sense tells you he's got to be here, in the middle. Years later when the CDs came out I played them all again and found there were notes I'd missed, things I thought were there that weren't and things I didn't know were there that were, and I tidied up all the manuscripts again.
TP: Can you quickly describe you process of transcribing?
CD: I would start and listen to the piece all the way through, two, three or four times, so I know vaguely the things that are going on. Then I will play the first couple of bars and sit there with computer in hand and start putting it down. But it's very intense, so that I find after half-an-hour or possibly a little bit more, I find I need to do something else. So that maybe in a session I might end up just doing seven or eight bars, especially if it's really tricky.
Certain pieces are quite easy to do. I don't really know why I can do it when others can't. I can just sit there and go 'well he's on a D chord there and he's on fret 5, yes, and he's playing a bass A there and not a bass D', I can hear what they're doing, whereas others would ask, 'is that a D chord?' It took me a long time to realise that not a lot of people could do it; that it wasn't natural because I could do it and surely everybody else could do it, if they just took the time. One of my old compatriots said a long time ago: 'if I sat in front of that piece for the rest of the year I couldn't work it out.' I insisted he could and he replied that he really couldn't. I've always been very grateful that I can do it, I put it down to the fact that very early on when I was starting to learn properly, with a teacher, I was also going home and putting on the old Shadows records and trying to learn what Hank Marvin was doing. So while I was learning to read and therefore knew what I was seeing on the paper sounded like, a lot of people didn't necessarily try to play from records. I can put the record on and then in my mind know where it was going on the guitar and so I can do any sort of permutation. I know how it sounds and therefore know where it goes on the guitar. And if you don't go through that process, doing that really early on, probably you won't be able to do it.
TP: That's hit the nail on the head. Describe the process of arranging.
CD: Well, that comes much more on your hands before you realise you're doing it. Most of the arranging that I do falls under two camps: number one - arranging modern songs, pop songs, you name it, the functions I do, weddings and things like that, literally started out because I was very early on, playing at the local restaurant and somebody would come up and say 'do you know Yesterday, by The Beatles?' for instance. Now this all comes into the same area as the transcribing, because I can hear the tune in my head, providing I don't go stupid and pick a stupid key and sometimes the key is surprisingly crucial. I know for instance if I'm starting it in G, that tune is going to start on an A and go into a G chord and then it's going to be F sharp minor, then it's going to be a B seven and then E minor and all I have to do there is put the tune on the top and a decent bass and I'm off.
When I was playing at these restaurants I had my little battery of pieces that I'd bought arrangements for. Many of which I'd bought blind, got home played them and thought that they were awful, played them again then threw the books away! So people were coming up asking for pieces, then I was thinking 'Beatles' numbers, what else would work?' Thinking of all the ballads like Here, There and Everywhere, And I Love Her and trying them out. Again the fact that I could hear them in my head, know what chord it was going to be, usually, before I sat down and played it, meant that I could do a decent version of something that wasn't too spectacularly hard on the spot and then it was just a case of playing and playing it and honing it, and over time I'd suddenly think there's a great little twiddle I could put in there and great little bass run I can put in there, filling out the arrangements that make them more guitaristic. A lot of the time now, the arrangements that I do, it's sort of, somebody just saying something. Like, 'I bet so-and-so would work.' 'Oh, would it? Let me have a look'.
TP: I know you've done some bigger scale arrangements of classical pieces, such as Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose Suite) for two guitars.
CD: I've also done Borodin's piano pieces, the Petite Suite, which is in seven movements. And various other pieces that aren't in print. I've done some Lennox Berkeley pieces for piano and taking a serious look at some Grieg piano pieces; I'm convinced they would fit really well. The Ravel happened simply because it's not extremely pianistic; I looked at the score and thought a lot of it would really work. Obviously the things I find that don't work are where your left or right hand is sweeping up and down in broad arpeggios, no matter how hard you try those things just sound stupid, but the Borodin, is full of gorgeous tunes and it's very much within the space of a couple of octaves in the middle. And he's not sweeping up and down like Rachmaninov; all nice little dance tunes, block chords and nothing very, dare I say it, pianistic.
TP: Stronger melodies, really, that fit.
CD: Yes, that's it. And if you've got a fighting chance of not having to sweep up and down like a thing possessed and trying to make a wide arpeggio sound guitaristic. I've seen arrangements like that and they don't work. The Lennox Berkeley, again, all in the middle, nice chords going from one to the other. Nothing too wide-sweeping.
TP: And the Ravel?
CD: It's very much like that; dainty little things; all little part-writing, the odd bits that were up-and-down arpeggios. For instance the third movement Laideronette, Imperatrice des Pagodas (Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas): if you pick the right key it fits on three or four strings and works really well so you're not flying up and down doing two-octave arpeggios. A lot of Mother Goose really just fitted under your hands.
TP: Both the Ravel and Borodin are for two guitars. A guitar duo is the ideal combination to arrange piano pieces for.
CD: Most of the arrangements in that vein have been for two guitars. I don't plan on doing the Grieg for one guitar, although Richard Yates did a nice book for solo guitar. There are pieces there which I think will spread really nicely for two guitars, although I haven't put pen to paper yet. If they're going to fit, the pieces will fit more nicely on two guitars than one; where you might be down on fret two, when you want fret ten. Too many places where you have to make the decision: do I change the bass, do I change the top? With two guitars very often you don't have to change either of them.
TP: Finally can you pass on the readers, or potential transcribers or arrangers, who maybe considering attempting to do what you do, any tips? Transcribing?
CD: I think that's something you've really got to have an ear to do. Unfortunately for a player who's just played from the music and can't play by ear in any shape or form I think they're going to struggle. Providing that people can play by ear a little bit, I think a lot of it is being able to visualise it in your head. Tips for doing it? You've got to be patient. If you haven't got the patience to do that, don't try. It's not a quick fix. When I do it for people I always say don't pin me down for how long it will take because it really isn't something you can say 'well if I get it over with I can do it in a couple of days.' It's very time consuming and mentally heavy. So that you can't do it for five hours in one go and get the whole thing done in a day. Well, I can't. I really have to do it in short bursts. There really isn't a 'How to Transcribe in 10 Easy Lessons', if there was I'd have written the book years ago. I think you have to be able to sight-read well, and play by ear first; I think that people who can't do those things wouldn't be able to transcribe off records very well.
TP: It's a combination of skills.
CD: I'm sure it is. I'd be happy to hear from people who've never done any sort of playing by ear, who've only ever had a classical training, and can do nothing else but play really well, but are great at transcribing. If that's the case, then I don't know how they've done it. With me it's being able to hear what I'm doing before I begin to write it down.
TP: And there my phone battery expired and so did my conversation with one of our most naturally gifted musicians whose finely-tuned ears are revealing previously unplayable music to those of us with lesser transcribing skills. If anything is to be gained from the preceding pages it should be the ability to internalise the music; to take it off the page and let it breathe naturally within ourselves. A tune a day, as they say.