One thing I’ve learned from years of teaching is that a person who has information about a composition has a very powerful resource. Information about a piece (imagery, details) allows a performer to jump up to a new level. After all, the imagery that can be expressed though music is part of its magic. Knowing a few things about a piece, knowing some of the thoughts of the composer, can be an important step in the right direction.
Here we are exploring some of the technical and musical elements of the introduction to “Rickoverʼs Dream,” by Michael Hedges. Named after Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, this is one of Hedges’ most expressive compositions. It is a descriptive work which employs many interesting techniques to convey its profound imagery. “Rickoverʼs Dream” is a compelling tune. When you hear it, you know that this is BIG STUFF.
What do you need to know to play this introduction?
A vertical pink line indicates that the right-hand index finger is resting on the 12th fret of the indicated strings in order to either create a harmonic node (when you are pulling off with your left hand) or mute the string (when you are hammering on with your left hand).
On the beat, the left hand is hammering on strings which are being muted by the right hand. This creates a percussive tick. Then it pulls off, which results in a harmonic.
(Notice that the tablature begins with a 2 in parentheses. This simply indicates that the left-hand third finger is placed on the second fret of the first string prior to beginning. This, however, produces no audible result.)
Obviously, in a passage like this, it is important that, when you pull off, your left-hand finger comes out sufficiently that it does not inadvertently strike the next string. But you may be interested to know that Hedges’ left-hand position for this demanding work is not a standard classical position with the thumb on the back of the neck. His left-hand thumb is clearly visible over the edge of the fingerboard on the bass side. To develop the necessary accuracy with this left-hand position simply requires some attention to detail.
The issues of control of volume and tone color make this introduction extremely taxing. It quickly exposes the natural problems which most guitarists face when they need to articulate rhythms with their left hand.
All this perfect control takes a lot of energy. And this has exhausted many well-intentioned guitarists before they were able to produce good results with these measures. Warning: donʼt hurt yourself. Make this a small part of your daily practice regimen until you start building up the strength necessary in your left hand.
Now you may think this is pretty straight forward — one cool new technique and youʼve got it.
But there is something unusual here. Itʼs very tricky to try to play it while tapping your foot on one and three. Initially, the harmonic, because it is louder than the tick, sounds like it is on the beat. The player has to track the beat through this metric ambiguity until the right hand completely releases the harmonic node later in the intro.
(It is interesting to note that in “The Rootwitch,” which Hedges has described as a further extension of ideas which he began to develop in “Rickoverʼs Dream,” he uses a similar technique with the harmonic actually occurring on the downbeat.)
According to Hedges, “I was reading Rickoverʼs biography and I just read a Rolling Stone interview. Rickover was the head of the nuclear navy. He was a genius engineer. He developed the nuclear system to be on submarines. I mean, just think about it: youʼre putting a nuclear reactor on a boat! There were never any accidents during his tenure as head of this fleet. This to me was Rickover’s dream. It wasn’t Rickover and the nuclear navy. It was just like, what a brilliant guy! So this is Rickoverʼs submarine. Rickoverʼs got the safest submarine in the world and its nuclear-powered, and heʼs doing it. He’s doing his thing. I recorded it with his picture on my knee. I had it taped to my knee.”
Click the image for the Rolling Stone interview.
In the intro, “the submarine is submerging.” This introduction is intentionally constructed in such a way that when the harmonic node is lifted the downbeat seems to shift, like the refraction of light waves as they pass into water. This submarine is taking you to a different world, a world that is one-half beat out of sync with the world above. Hedges uses this very special technique for a specific musical expression.
He also uses half-step melodic movement as a prominent motif. You will notice this initially in the tuning (the interval between the first and second strings) and also, for example, in broad outline in the upper treble-clef staff in measures 4-8.
“Rickoverʼs Dream” brings together new techniques, new technology, a fresh conceptual approach to composition, a beautiful melody and much more. It is, in fact, a masterwork of the 20th century. Why not tune your guitar to C2 G2 D3 G3 B3 C4 and take this submarine for a ride? (Note: from standard tuning, the first, fifth, and sixth strings are lowered until they reach the designated pitches.)
Click the image for the full-page example.
The complete transcription of “Rickover’s Dream” is included in the book Michael Hedges/Rhythm, Sonority, Silence, by Michael Hedges and John Stropes. This book is available from Stropes Editions, Ltd.
This article appeared in the November/December 1996 issue of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine.
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