Famous Guitarmaker Internet World Headquarters
July, 1996
Featured Artist

Kurt Rodarmer

Johann Sebastian Bach
"The Goldberg Variations"

A world premiere arrangement of the original work, for the guitar.

On the music...

Bach's Goldberg Variations have become quite popular over the past few decades. They have been played on the harpsichord, piano and other keyboard instruments, by string ensembles and orchestra. They have been presented as exercises and accomplished concert masterpieces. They have been interpreted as austere period works and treated as dry architectural marvels.
Glenn Gould's second and last release of the Goldberg Variations on piano was for me a landmark event. He attempted to connect each of the variations on the basis of rhythmic relationships rather than considering each as simply a variation upon the theme. The work is based upon the opening Aria, which originally appeared in the Klavierbüchen of Anna Magdalena Bach from 1725 as a Sarabande following the song "Bist du bie mir." The thirty variations which follow are based loosely upon the bass or harmonic progression rather than on any melodic theme. An interesting structural element of the overall work is the fact that every third variation takes the form of a canon on increasing intervals, from the unison to the ninth.

I take a humanistic view of Bach's music. In these variations, I hear the daily toil of a one of the most prodigious men in all of history. The initial variations reflect the more conservative style of putting ideas onto paper and watching them unfold. As Bach progressed toward the second half, the music became increasingly introspective, showing emotional moments - joy, sadness, even fatigue.

Nearing the end of this task, Bach appears to have become elated, and the music takes on an exuberant quality. Nowhere is this more evident than in Variation 29, which is essentially a two-fisted succession of alternating chords and melodic snippets, very much in contrast with earlier variations.

As his final offering before recapping with the Aria, Sebastian Bach wrote Variation 30 as a quodlibet -- a style of musical diversion popular in his family from generations before. It is a mirthful mixture of two period folk tunes with entirely incongruous words:

"It's been so long since we've been together, I miss you, come closer.

Cabbage and turnips drive me away. If my mother had cooked some meat, I'd have stayed much longer."

He was obviously completely done, and done in, after Variation 29. Putting down 30 in this fanciful form says to me that he is celebrating and letting his hair down at the end of the work. I imagine him straining toward the finish line and lifting a stein over it. Now to the Aria da Capo. He's spent by this time, after his Variation 30 party, that's how I play it. The labor up to this point is such that one is drained at the end. I sense that Bach is feeling introspective, melancholy, reverent.

While it is notationally identical to the opening aria, the reprise gives me the chance to present a personal perspective that perhaps I share with Bach -- after having undergone the physical and psychological exhaustion of the entire series of variations, the Aria da Capo is the emotional denouement that enables one to gracefully take leave of this consuming work.

On the recording

When I first evaluated the possibility of transcribing the work, it became clear to me that conventional methods would not work well. My goal was to produce a musical offering as valid on guitar as it was on keyboard, not altering the composition to accommodate the instrument. Additionally, my arrangement would have to maintain the homogenous nature of solo performance.

The keyboardist has ten fingers and at least sixty keys to work with, not to mention two independent hands. With only four fingers of the left hand to stop notes, there was no way to transcribe this work for solo guitar without altering it significantly. This was not an acceptable option; therefore, my arrangement requires multiple instruments.

The keyboardist has the challenge of clearly separating the voices in addition to everything else, but is assured of an interpretive integrity because only one artist is playing and the interpretation represents one moment in time. I was confronted with a different set of difficulties. With multiple guitars, separation of voices was assured; capturing the consistency of solo performance became my most daunting challenge. Without it, my recording would end up sounding like an ensemble, and that was not the goal of the project.

So, I have recorded the complete Goldberg Variations on two to four guitars, recording each part separately and later mixing them down. The recording is roughly 75 minutes in length, direct to digital with custom strings and instruments made just for the Goldberg.

A look back

Some time ago, my father -- a Glenn Gould fan -- offered a seemingly innocent suggestion that was to become my obsession: The Goldberg Variations on guitar.

As I thought about it, it was obvious right away that tyring to compress this music from a five-octave, two manual harpsichord down to a three-and-a-half-octave guitar would be a disaster. There are several key differences which make this clear. In the first place, the keyboardist can use up to ten fingers to produce ten simultaneous notes, but the range of notes I can play at any one time is limited by how far I can stretch my four left hand fingers across my six strings. The music was written for two hands moving in opposing directions, at times a great distances. Many of the keyboard passages require strange contortions on the guitar due to differences in physical layout. Lastly, the guitar does not favor scales or close intervals the way the keyboard does -- and Bach made extensive use of these in this work.

It looked impossible without irreparably distorting the music, but I was hooked on the idea. The guitar would bring its warmth and humanity to The Goldberg Variations, and allow us to hear the work in a completely new and exciting way.

Against my better judgement, I began to look for ways around the guitar's natural limitations. I considered commissioning a guitar with a broader range, but the interval distances ere still too great to play with only one hand. It was clear that I needed not only another octave, but also another hand.

the guitars

I approached the renowned American guitar maker Richard Schneider, who was intrigued with the project. The goals were demanding. I needed a guitar with a bass register extending down into the ranges of cello and double bass. The musical quality had to be consistently excellent throughout the extended range. Many attempts to construct guitars with an extended bass register had lacked in musical quality. With some other type of music, perhaps I could have used readily available instruments, but the Goldberg Variations mandated a radically new guitar. As it turned out, I commissioned two. . .

Cassandra (left) and Blanca, the bass guitar, (right)

At last, gaining confidence that the technical problems were solvable, I was able to address the most important element, the music.

I love this music,

When I hear or play The Goldberg Variations, I feel the sublime greatness of mankind running through my veins. They have given me a chance to stand in the light of Bach's genius with my own instrument.
-- Kurt Rodarmer

the Variations
1. Aria (2:50)
2. Variation 1 (2:13)
3. Variation 2 (1:30)
4. Variation 3 (2:00) canon on the unison
5. Variation 4 (1:02)
6. Variation 5 (1:20)
7. Variation 6 (:58) canon on the second
8. Variation 7 (2:45)
9. Variation 8 (1:53)
10. Variation 9 (1:21) canon on the third
11. Variation 10 (1:24) fuguette
12. Variation 11 (2:04)
13. Variation 12 (2:15) canon on the fourth
14. Variation 13 (5:29)
15. Variation 14 (2:21)
16. Variation 15 (4:27) canon on the fifth
17. Variation 16 (2:06) overture
18. Variation 17 (2:04)
19. Variation 18 (1:30) canon on the sixth
20. Variation 19 (2:16)
21. Variation 20 (2:03)
22. Variation 21 (2:58) canon on the seventh
23. Variation 22 (1:26)
24. Variation 23 (2:06)
25. Variation 24 (2:26) canon on the octave
26. Variation 25 (4:40)
27. Variation 26 (2:01)
28. Variation 27 (1:56) canon on the ninth
29. Variation 28 (1:43)
30. Variation 29 (2:15)
31. Variation 30 (1:49) quodlibet
32. Aria da capo (3:29)
total time 73:36

Transcription, arrangement, performance, & production:
Kurt Rodarmer

Richard Schneider

Album concept and design:
Kiki La Porta

Recorded at Highland Studio Studios, Los Gatos, California

® 1996 Pangaea Productions, PO Box 3289 Santa Clara, CA 95055

All Rights reserved
Unauthorized duplication prohibited by law.
Compact Digital Audio
For more information please contact Pangaea@ppr.com

Featured Artist, July 1996, Kurt Rodarmer
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