No survey of fingerstyle guitar can ignore the enormous contribution made by Michael Hedges. Like Leo Kottke a decade earlier, Hedges’ creative genius has taken the guitar a giant step forward.
His composition “Aerial Boundaries,” which was released in 1984 (Windham Hill Records, WD-1032), is a good example of his departure from preexisting molds. In a 1992 lecture analyzing “Aerial Boundaries,” composer Roberto Sierra observed, “You know, it starts and it ends. It’s an organic entity. It’s a unique specimen, a creature — a strange creature. It’s justifiable in its own terms. Why is it justifiable? Because it sounds damn good. And eventually, if there is a whole school of composition or music like this, then this will be the one that we will refer to. I mean, in a way, this might be exaggerating, because it is not absolutely out of this planet or absolutely new, yet there is a high degree of freshness in it and something that breaks with many rules that we know.”
This refreshing approach is part of what makes “Aerial Boundaries” engaging to the listener. And it also demands new thinking on the part of the performer. In my private teaching, I find myself talking about lines — melody lines, bass lines — and counseling students to imagine the lines that they are playing in their mind’s ear. By imagining a line, by earnestly desiring to hear it, by looking forward to it, by paying attention to it, the physical details usually fall into place to make the line come alive musically. Or as Pierre Bensusan has put it, “It’s important to really be attentive to what you do. Nothing can be taken for granted. If you are going to play it, everybody has to hear it, and you’re the first.”
Because of the unique characteristics of the composition “Aerial Boundaries,” this idea of hearing the lines takes on additional dimensions. In this composition, one of the developmental concepts was that it might be interesting if the left and right hands each played independent parts. As a result, you have issues of balance and right-to-left-hand coordination. And in this composition you have as many as four, independent lines played simultaneously, which really pushes the limits of six strings and two hands. And you have, in a minimalistic fashion, lines that evolve, which demands the performer’s attention to interpretation. And so the stage is set for some fascinating developments.
Measure 45 is a great example of all of these factors in operation. Why don’t you take a chance, grab your guitar, retune to C2 C3 D3 G3 A3 D4, and plumb the depths of this archetypal composition? (Note: From standard tuning, the first, second and sixth strings are lowered until they reach the designated pitches. The fifth string is raised until it reaches the designated pitch.) In the following examples, I have just written out one measure. When you play each example, repeat it a few times so that you get the feeling of the line looping back into itself.
With his left hand, Hedges actually plays two separate lines. The first consists of notes on the first string:
And the second consists of notes on the second string:
Try playing these two lines separately so that you can understand the identity of each.
Now, try playing the two left-hand lines together:
With his right-hand index, middle and ring finger, Hedges plays a third line on the third, fourth, and fifth strings:
And with his right-hand thumb playing both down and up, Hedges plays a fourth line:
The two right-hand lines each incorporate right-hand string-stopping. (A pink horizontal line in the tablature indicates right-hand string-stopping. Your right-hand finger should be resting on the string from the time the gray line begins until it ends. In other words, the length of the line indicates the duration of your finger resting on the string.) If you are not already familiar with right-hand string-stopping, it may take a while to be able to execute these lines. But without it, they would be reduced to a cross-string muddle. Once you get these two right-hand lines down technically, then think about them musically.
Try playing the two right-hand lines together:
Try playing each of these four lines separately. Then try to play any two or any three of them together.
Here is how measure 45 looks with all four lines brought together:
Try playing all four lines together and then stop playing one of them and keep the other three going. Listen.
(In a 1986 presentation on “Aerial Boundaries” Hedges stopped after playing measure 45 and said, “OK. So now I’ve got everything I can possibly imagine going except for dancing.” If you have seen Hedges in performances, you probably realize that this comment was prescient. See if you can dance while you’re playing measure 45!)
Technically, there is so much to think about here that musical considerations are usually postponed. But if your only goal is to play the notes, all you wind up with is a pile of notes. You need to invest yourself in musical expression. You need to think about the piece from a composer’s perspective. “Aerial Boundaries” is an organic, minimalistic piece. When you think of a line, you can’t just be thinking, “Man, that’s hard to play!” You need to think about where that line came from, what it means, how it fits into the overall development of the piece.
If you analyze the lines individually and practice them separately, it can not only help you to play this measure with more grace, but it will help you understand how these lines are used in the development of this composition—one more example of how musical development recapitulates technical development.
The complete transcription of “Aerial Boundaries” is included in the book Michael Hedges/Rhythm, Sonority, Silence, by Michael Hedges and John Stropes. This book is available from Stropes Editions, Ltd.
All music examples © 1984 Naked Ear Music (BMI) and Imaginary Road Music (BMI)/Administered by Imaginary Road Music (BMI). Used by permission.
Transcription © 1995 Stropes Editions, Ltd. Used by permission.
This article appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine.