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Colin McAllister, one of America’s most active contemporary music guitarists, has concertized and lectured throughout the United States and Mexico, and performs frequently both as a soloist and in ensemble. He is the Executive Director of San Diego New Music and a founding member of NOISE, the resident ensemble. With flutist Cathy Blickenstaff, he directs the Synergy@Home concert series in La Jolla, California. His acclaimed recording Solos and Duos for Guitar (with Derek Keller) contains music by Steve Reich, Franco Donatoni, Tristan Murail, and Helmut Lachenmann. His new arrangements for solo guitar, Fourteenth Century Counterpoint: Music of the Chantilly Codex, will be released this summer, also by Productions d’Oz. McAllister earned the Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of California, San Diego, where he is currently a Lecturer in Music.
For over ten years, the majority of my activities in both performance and research has centered on the vanguard classical guitar repertoire composed in the last half-century. Naturally, my own experiences and insights in this arena have informed my teaching. Reflecting upon my own musical journey has led me to contemplate the nascent pedagogy of this repertoire.

I was introduced to contemporary concert music as a freshman in college, and was soon captivated by the new and unusual sounds that I heard. When I began searching for scores, I soon discovered that most of the repertoire was difficult to locate or beyond my musical and technical skills. I was frustrated because I could find little information on how to approach this music, and my guitar teachers were generally unfamiliar with the repertoire. I desired a logical path of progress and could not find suitable pedagogical works in this genre.

A frequently held belief of instrumental pedagogy in general, and that of the classical guitar in particular, is that if a student desires to play contemporary repertoire, he or she must first become a skilled performer of traditional music, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Only then will he or she be ready to undertake more recent scores and develop the skills necessary for the performance of contemporary concert music.

Issues of technique for both the right and left hands are inculcated in the classical guitar student from the earliest levels of training. Specific topics include: playing block chords and arpeggios, scales, the barré, slurs, horizontal and vertical left-hand extensions, shifting, rasgueado, tremolo, and the development of a good tone. Many sets of etudes from Carcassi to Villa-Lobos and 19th-century repertoire from guitarist/composers including Giuliani, Sor, and Aguado are studied that further develop and refine these idiomatic techniques. Transcriptions of lute and vihuela music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods introduce the student to the art of counterpoint. However, the specific performance challenges germane to the contemporary repertoire - a non-tonal harmonic language, heightened rhythmic challenges, a vast array of expressive markings, extended techniques, and new systems of notation - are left untouched. As a result of never confronting these issues, most guitarists are unable to approach the contemporary repertoire. The amount of time and energy required to realize the sounds requested in a complex contemporary score becomes overwhelming and frustrating.

As artists, I believe that part of our vocation consists of being creative and active exponents of the music of our time, since it reflects the world in which we live. I have observed that players will go much further in the realm of contemporary music, be more exploratory in their interpretations of all music, and become better musicians if they are taught to assimilate these specific performance difficulties at an earlier level in their training.

As part of the research for my recent book, I corresponded with many guitarists worldwide who are involved in contemporary music. I asked them to cite solo and ensemble pieces in the repertoire of the last 50 years, emphasizing works that have made a significant contribution to the evolution of the instrument: taking it in new directions, posing hitherto unexplored challenges, and creating new sound worlds. In examining these scores (and many others), I noted specific performance obstacles common to many. I did not include difficulties that would also be found in traditional repertoire, i.e. issues of technique mentioned above.

These performance issues are:

  • use of non-tonal harmonic language
  • frequently changing meters
  • frequently changing (especially irregular) subdivisions of the beat
  • polyrhythms
  • frequent use of accelerando/ritardando
  • rhythmically fragmented texture
  • metric modulations
  • frequently changing timbre
  • frequent use of crescendo/diminuendo
  • frequently changing dynamics
  • frequent use of pizzicato, especially when rapid changes are necessary
  • frequent use of harmonics, especially higher partials, and when rapid changes are required
  • use of extended techniques
  • use of new or unusual systems of notation

  • Extended techniques (e.g. percussive effects, unusual rasgueados, novel use of the bottleneck slide) and alternative systems of notation were encountered in several of these pieces. However, because both of these areas are largely unique to each specific work, I chose not to address them. The remaining difficulties can be grouped into three broad categories:

  • non-tonal melodic and harmonic language
  • increased rhythmic complexity
  • an expanded use of expressive devices (timbre and dynamics).

  • My book, The Vanguard Guitar: Etudes and Exercises for the Study of Contemporary Music (Québec: Les Productions d’Oz, 2004), is a collection of etudes and exercises that focuses on these three areas common to most contemporary concert music. It is designed for guitarists who are interested in exploring this repertoire, but are uncertain where to begin. In each etude, I have focused on the particular musical issue which is featured, while leaving other aspects of performance relatively unchallenging. Thus, the etudes are: short, mostly monophonic with occasional chords, usually situated in the lower positions of the fingerboard, and gymnastically undemanding for both hands. What follows are four examples from the book.

    Example 1: Excerpt from Etude 2 – Bitonality & Chromaticism (mm. 1-8), from Chapter One: Expanding the Tonal Frame

    In the late nineteenth century, the western system of heirarchical pitch relationships known as tonality had become weakened by ever increasing levels of chromaticism. No longer merely an expressive device, these chromatic tones became predominant, making tonal relationships increasingly untenable. By the first decade of the twentieth century, some composers decided to do away altogether with the concept of tonality, which had been the principle unifying element in music for more than 200 years. The pitch material of much concert music of the twentieth century can be classified as atonal, that is, music without a tonal center.

    Etude 2 is one of three in the book that introduces the ears and fingers to a more contemporary harmonic and melodic language. This etude, with its Alberti bass accompaniment, uses Fernando Sor’s Estudio Op.35, No.13 (#2 in Segovia’s collection) as a model. Bitonality (the superimposition of two different tonal centers), tritone substitutions, and other chromatic devices obscure the harmonic movement.

    Example 2: Exercise C - Metric Modulation, from Chapter Two: Developing the Sense of Time

    The metric modulation (also called tempo modulation) is a device that figures prominently in the music of the American composer Elliott Carter (b.1908), and also George Perle (b.1915). Just as harmonic modulation in the classical usage involves a common or pivotal chord that exists in both the old and new keys, metric modulation utilizes a note value that proceeds at the same speed in both the old and new tempi. It makes instantaneous and accurate tempo changes possible. The modulation is usually notated in the following manner:

    This indicates that “the new triplet eighth note equals (will be the same speed as) the old eighth note. If the original tempo is Quarter Note = 90 (90 beats / minute), the eighth note has a pulse of 180 beats / minute (since there are two eighth notes in a quarter). The new triplet eighth note also has a pulse of 180 beats / minute which, when divided by three, yields a new tempo of Quarter Note = 60. Although this is a trivial example, a wide variety of tempo changes are possible using this technique.

    Practice Approach for Exercise C

  • sing the rhythms while tapping the beat with your hand.
  • play the rhythms while counting the beat out loud.
  • use a metronome to check your accuracy.

  • I have previously mentioned the dissolution of the tonal armature that occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, pitch (melody and harmony) was the focal point around which compositions were built, while other musical parameters (rhythm, dynamic, and timbre) remained relatively unexplored or were simply taken for granted. In the absence of tonality as a unifying element, some composers turned to these other musical parameters as areas of exploration and structural importance. This next two examples focus on timbre (or tone color) and dynamics.

    Example 3: Excerpt from Expressive Warmups – from Chapter Three: Expanding the Expressive Palette

    In what I call “expressive warmups”, I challenge the student to apply dynamic and timbral variation to any technique exercise that might already be in their practice routine. For example, one can work with dynamics on a standard three-octave major scale.

    Example 4: Excerpt from Etude 11 – Serialized Dynamics (mm. 1-6), from Chapter Three: Expanding the Expressive Palette

    In the early 1920s, the German composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), searching for a way to formally organize music in the absence of tonality, formulated a “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.” The basis of a composition using this technique is a row (or series) of the twelve tones (or pitch classes) arranged in an order of the composer’s choosing. The tones of this series may appear in any octave and can be used either successively (as melody) or simultaneously (as harmony and counterpoint). The series may be used in retrograde (backwards), inversion, or retrograde inversion, and can be transposed to any pitch level. This idea is known as twelve-tone or serial composition.

    In the years immediately following World War II, several young composers (including Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Pierre Boulez (1925), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928), Karel Goeyvaerts (1923-93), and Milton Babbitt (1916)) extended the idea of serialism to encompass other elements of musical composition including rhythm, dynamics, and timbre. This approach is called total or integral serialism.
    The etude which follows uses a “row” of six dynamic indications:

    p – f – ff – mf – pp – mp
    Each note or chord in the etude receives its own dynamic value, as if it were a complete event in itself, rather than part of a larger idea. Stockhausen compared the points of sound in his piece Kreuzspiel (one of the earliest integral serial works, composed 1951) to "stars in the night sky, each of them an individual". As with much serial music, the melody is characterized by wide leaps. The wide intervals and constantly changing dynamics can make serial music initially seem awkward and disjointed. Even when not serialized, frequently changing dynamics are a challenge often found in the contemporary repertoire. This etude focuses on these issues.

    One of my goals in writing The Vanguard Guitar was to create a reference for further exploration of this repertoire. To that end, I assembled a bibliography of over 250 entries (books, methods, and both solo and ensemble pieces). A recording of the twelve etudes is also included. The book can be ordered directly from the publisher at or in the United States, from Guitar Solo Productions.

    1-Kurtz, Michael. 1988. Stockhausen: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, p.41.