2015, guitarist Steven Hancoff released a 3 CD box set entitled
From Tragedy To Transcendence The Six Suites For Cello
Solo By J. Sebastian Bach For Acoustic Guitar. The
3 CD box set is filled with solo guitar transcriptions of Bachs
famous Cello Suites, written by Bach in 1720, when he was 35 years
old. Hancoff has done a remarkable job, vividly bringing to life Bachs
complex music written for cello and has even transcribed it for steel
string acoustic guitar, something unheard of in the more traditional
classical music world. Speaking to mwe3.com about what inspired taking
on a 3 CD box set of Bachs iconic masterpiece, and transcribing
it for acoustic guitar, Hancoff explains, I was working every
day to practice and organize my other recordings, but Id start
each days practice by reading one of the suites. I couldnt
help falling in love with the music. I even remember the first time
I ever played the Prelude to Suite Six which Rostropovich called
a symphony on four strings. When I finished I was overwhelmed
and quaking. I felt like I had entered some metaphysically significant
realm, an entry granted only to a lucky few. Not only has
Hancoff produced an entire 3 CD box set of Bachs Cello Suites
for acoustic guitar but simultaneously, he has created an i-Book all
about Bach, entitled Bach, Casals And The Six Suites For Cello
Solo. Perfect if you have a Mac computer or an Apple
i-Pad, the 4-volume set contains over a thousand images, 25 original
videos and 300 works of contemporary art that animates Hancoffs
Bach experience. So, between the 3 CD box set From Tragedy To
Transcendence and the four volume i-Book, Steven Hancoff
has brought Bachs timeless music and sonic vision back to life
in 2015 with new life and insight. For the final word on the life
and times of Johan Sebastian Bach, check out Steven Hancoffs
superbly recorded 3 CD set From Tragedy To Transcendence and
his impeccably produced four volume i-Book, all in praise of one of
the greatest classical masters in music history. www.StevenHancoff.com
mwe3.com presents an interview
Can you tell us something about where you grew up and when you began
studying music and the guitar? Im presuming you have extensive
understanding of written notation and classical notation. What music
inspired you most early on in your music studies?
Steven Hancoff: Im from Baltimore. I never studied music
with anybody. But I sure sat in my room, with my guitar and record
player a lot! In 1961, when I was thirteen years old, I went to my
first concert by the folk group, The Weavers. I was smitten.
Next day, I got a hold of a $15 genuine plywood Harmony nylon string
guitar, and I got myself a record: The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.
I sat with that record every day, over and over until the grooves
were literally worn out, and I figured out how to play all the songs
on it. Then I got a second record, The Weavers on Tour, and
did the same thing. Then I started hearing about other folk singers.
Id get their records, learned songs, etc. Within about six months,
Id go to two clubs: Le Flambeau and The Blue Dog where they
had weekly hootenannies. I signed up every week at both
clubs, and performed regularly.
When I was 20, I finally scraped together enough pennies to buy a
good guitar. I had no real idea how to go about finding and purchasing
the right guitar for me. There were always rumors about somebody picking
up a vintage Martin D-28, the then-current gold standard for steel
string acoustic guitars, at a pawnshop somewhere for fifty bucks,
but not me.
So, I went into my local music store, Schuberts in Baltimore,
and told the owner, who I thought must be Mr. Schubert, what I wanted.
He ordered a brand new D-35, and I picked it up two weeks later. I
paid full retail. Maybe he felt sorry for my naiveté or something
Ill never know whybut as I was leaving his shop,
Mr. Schubert literally threw the Edmund Wensiecki guitar
transcription of the Complete Lute Music of J. S. Bach at me, and
said, Here. Try this.
It was from that book that I learned to read music, and where I was
introduced to Bach. I absolutely loved stumbling my way through those
Jump forward to after college, I got a job teaching guitar at a studio
in Vancouver, B.C. I played whatever gigs I could land. I played folk
clubs in Gastown (the music district); lead guitar for a folk duo
Dale and Kathy (Kathy had a gorgeous voice!); accompanied
an Hungarian accordion player going table-to-table taking requests
at a fancy restaurant playing standards like Misty, I
Left My Heart in San Francisco, etc. thats where
I began to learn jazz chords; lead in a country & western band
at a bar downtown called The Barn; several dance bands both in clubs
and for weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. More venues than I can remember.
Because I play finger style which sounds syncopated when accompanying
a song people who didnt know any better said my style
sounded like ragtime. So, I got curious about ragtime.
I got a hold of Joshua Rifkins great Nonesuch Scott Joplin album,
and wore that out. Then, one day in Omaha I happened to see a book
of piano music The Complete Classic Piano Rags of
Scott Joplin. I bought it, and started to transcribe complete
pieces note-for-note, including paying attention to the left-hand
chord inversions. I was very, very accurate in transcribing and arranging
these for guitar.
In 1975, about a year after I started my romance with Ragtime, I heard
about the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, where
Joplin lived, and composed. I went, entered the contest, and won.
The judges were a Whos Who of the Ragtime world. And
they encouraged me to keep doing this. One thing led to another so
that I ended up recording two LPs of complete classic piano rags on
guitar. Last I saw, one of the LPs was for sale on E-Bay for actual
You may notice that I dont mention studying or teachers. And
the reason for that is that I never had any teachers. I did, however,
sit hour after hour, day after day, year after year, practicing, listening,
figuring out, being moved in short, immersing myself in the
music and instrument with which I have had this, thus far, 54 year
long love affair.
I was reading you were an Artistic Ambassador for the U.S. Government
touring the world. Can you elaborate somewhat on your Artistic Ambassador
role and when did that happen in your life? What was involved with
that? Sounds like an amazing experience!
Steven Hancoff: Indeed it was an extraordinary life experience.
As far as performing is concerned, I didnt really pursue that
so much. But another thing I love to do is white-water rafting. There
was this river in Chile that was legendary called the Bio-Bio.
The Chilean government was about to dam it, meaning it wouldnt
be worth running anymore because the rapids would be washed out. So,
people in the boating community sought another river in Chile to run,
and they found the Futuleufu. So, in 1993, I went down there, and
we ran both of them. By the way, we were only the second group to
do the Fu, as we affectionately came to call it. And the
week I left home to go down there, there was an article in the paper
about how some people in the first group drowned doing it!
It turned out to be a great trip. Besides the whitewater, I did a
lot of hiking, boating through spectacular iceberg-filled water, and
much more. It was my first time in South America. So, when I came
home, I was filled with stories of the wonder of the scenery, the
sweetness of the people, the great local wine sold in boxes, and what
a great place it was to visit.
One of my closest friends here was Buddy Wachter, who to me is still
the greatest four-string banjo player of them all. We like to say,
Hes so good that nobody ever heard of him! To give
you an idea: I first met Buddy at a jazz jam. We were seated next
to one another the string section. We got along,
and made a date to get lunch down the road. In the meantime, I had
decided I wanted to transcribe some music by the great 1920s
banjo legend, Harry Reser. So, I walked into Buds apartment,
and asked if he knew Lollipops, one of Resers signatures.
Damn if Bud didnt sit down, and write it down then and there,
note-for-sixteenth-note! I was mightily impressed!
I mention all this because not a couple of weeks after I got back
from Chile, here I am singing the praises of South America to Bud,
the phone rings, and the US Information Agency wants us to do a tour
in South America on behalf of the US. Talk about serendipity! On the
tour we did two cities in Brazil, three in Argentina, and then three
in Ecuador. In fact, we were the first Americans to ever play a concert
in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, the southern most place in the world
and the home of the most delicious seafood -- centolla -- in
the world too.
When we got back, we were told, You guys were a hit. And
this began our fifteen year association with USIA, and then the Arts
America program of the US State Department.
We created a concert program that told the story of the history and
development of American music from Stephan Foster through Gershwin
and Ellington. Folk songs of the Civil War, cowboys, railroads, Sousa,
Joplin, Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, and on and on. Telling the stories
of the times, and the extremely interesting lives of the men and women
who created our musical heritage.
In the end, we played in about 45 countries all over South
America, India, Africa, the Arab world we even played in Saudi
Arabia where concerts are actually illegal! Asia, China twice!
And I cant count how many cities, how many radio/newspaper/magazine/TV
interviews. We also taught master classes. I have stories galore
but they are best told verbally rather than written down. It has been
a vast and enriching pleasure getting to meet and befriend some of
the great painters, poets, dancers, novelists
you name it
You should see my address book! And what a singular honor representing
America in the world. Theres plenty of more-than-interesting
info about this on my website.
mwe3: After years of doing the Ambassador work, you recorded
some albums prior to your new Bach work. How did making your other
albums pave the way so to speak to Bach, Back to Bach to coin a phrase?
Hancoff: At some point my wife and I traveled around a lot. We
called it dirtbagging. We ended up for about a year in
Hawaii. There was a guitar playing contest there too, which I won.
I was named Hawaii Guitar Champion, whatever that means!
This led to my doing my first concert tour six concerts on
the Big Island of Hawaii. That gave me the bug. So, I came back to
the mainland, sat and practiced A LOT, went into the studio, and recorded
Steel-String Guitar, my first CD.
Because of my reputation in the Ragtime world, and then the good reviews
of the album, I started getting invitations to a lot of traditional
jazz festivals where I had solo sets, but was also typically invited
to sit in with the bands. This was my introduction to playing traditional
New Orleans jazz. So, Id sit in, and had to play music on stage
that I did not know. This was great ear training, and this was how
I learned to hear chord changes just before they happened. I got a
reputation with the guys in the bands. And they would play their most
sophisticated charts just to see if they could mess me up. I was later
told that some of the guys would occasionally bet a beer on whether
Id get a particular change or not! It was huge fun and
At one of the festivals, on the Goldenrod Showboat on the Mississippi
River in St. Louis, an old man came up to me after I played a set.
He said, Kid, you got it. I was 41 years old, and no one
had called me Kid for a very long time! The man was Al
Rose. Al invited me to New Orleans.
Now, Al was a grand old man of jazz. He had had the very first jazz
radio show in the world. He had also produced the very first jazz
concerts in the 1930s called Journeys into Jazz.
Before that, jazz bands played for dances. He also wrote books about
jazz and about New Orleans, one of which was called Storyville,
the name of the legal red-light district in New Orleans in the early
20th century, and the book that was turned into the movie Pretty
Baby, Brooke Shields break out hit.
I spent a year living in New Orleans, on Governor Nichols St. in the
Quarter, playing with jazz bands, and hanging out with musicians there.
I also spent many, many hours with Al in his den as he regaled me
with tales of the early days of jazz. He was a great storyteller.
In fact, his autobiography, I Remember Jazz
is just a bunch of stories, many of which Id bet are tall tales.
The man could spin a yarn!
I also sat with him at the Tulane Jazz Archives, much of which was
his donation. He smiled when he mentioned what a great tax write off
that had been like the cat that ate the canary! Hed instruct
me by saying things like: Now, listen to the clarinet obbligato
here, or Listen to how the trombone supports the trumpet
solo. Things like that. I learned lot from Al.
Thats when I recorded my second CD, New Orleans Guitar Solos.
When it was done, I remember handing it to Al. He looks at it, and
in a deep guttural voice just said, Yeah. He was definitely
Anyway, I realized that the next step in terms of the development
of American music was swing. A little history: Jazz was a New Orleans
phenomenon. When Storyville was shut down, by edict of the US Navy
during WWI because it was forbidden to have a brothel within a certain
distance from a Navy base, gigs for jazz musicians dried up. This
drove many to leave the laid-back city, and head to where the action
was which meant Kansas City, St. Louis, and then Chicago, and
of course New York. So, swing developed as a citified response to
the New Orleans sound. Rhythms became more complicated. And of course
harmonies were far more complex. Charts had to be written down, and
were much more specific because sections had to play tight and often
in unison. And add to that the new city sound of saxophone taking
the place of clarinet, and just the intensity of the north versus
the Big-Easiness of NAwlins and that gave
rise to swing. And so I listened to lots and lots of swing. And it
did not take long to become apparent to me why Duke Ellington was
the grand master.
So, I got into transcribing Ellington, and I recorded my first Ellington
CD Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar. But by the time I
finished that, I still had about half a dozen more pieces I wanted
to record. So, I kept working on it, until I had a second CD
The Single Petal of a Rose.
By the way, we found the album cover painting for Single Petal
a lovely young woman holding a rose at a street market
in Lijiang, China after we played a ten-city tour through the western
Uyghur region of the country. Talk about an amazing adventure!
I also toured in quite a few American cities, including in 1985 in
California. That trip turned out to be beyond significant. I had a
couple of days between performances and called Michael Lorimer. Michael
had been Segovias student. Thats when he told me that
I ought to check out the Cello Suites.
When did the idea come to you to record the Six Suites For Cello
Solo? Was the catalyst Bach and how does Pablo Casals fit into
that equation? I forgot Casals played for JFK in 1961. That must have
been something to see.
Steven Hancoff: Well, after Michael suggested them, I got a
hold of his transcriptions. I was working every day to practice and
organize my other recordings, but Id start each days practice
by reading one of the suites. I couldnt help falling in love
with the music. I even remember the first time I ever played the Prelude
to Suite Six which Rostropovich called a symphony
on four strings. When I finished I was overwhelmed and quaking.
I felt like I had entered some metaphysically significant realm, an
entry granted only to a lucky few. Over time I vaguely thought about
that Id like to devote myself to Bach and to the Suites.
Then in the mid-1990s, I was staying over at the apartment of
my friend Ruth in New York. Her boyfriend at the time was a record
producer. And he came home one night with a new record: it was John
Lewis (the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet) playing Well-Tempered
Clavier. I put on the headphones, and decided that night that
I was going to devote myself to delving into Bach at some point.
But then the Artistic Ambassadorial gig came along. So, years passed.
But I never did lose sight of the intention. Finally, I cut the State
Department cord, and I dove in.
By the way, now that you mention Casals and JFK, Casals played a concert
at the White House, November, 1961. The elegant pictures of him, Marta
Casals and the Kennedys appear in the
i-Book. In 1963, President Kennedy named Casals a recipient of the
US Presidential Medal of Freedom, our countrys highest civilian
award. But before he presented it, Kennedy was assassinated. The medal
was subequently presented to Casals in December by President Johnson.
That picture is also in the book, along with about 1,000 other great
mwe3: The 3 CD Bach Cello Suite album is entitled From Tragedy
To Transcendence? In your liner notes, you make us feel genuinely
moved by Bachs tragedies and how he triumphed over them. The
3 CD set is an incredible tribute to Bachs enduring legacy as
the God Of Music. How long did it take to put the whole project together?
Steven Hancoff: Well, first, I take creating the liner notes
booklet very, very seriously. I intend for them to be beautiful and
meaningful, and to help to render the music on the discs more intelligible.
So, Im very glad you feel that way.. because the entire saga
is inherently and profoundly moving.
And second, I dont know if Id say God of Music.
But Casals, in his incredibly poetic manner, once said: The miracle
of Bach has not appeared in any other art. To strip human nature until
its Divine attributes are made clear, to inform ordinary activities
with spiritual fervor, to give wings of eternity to that which is
most ephemeral; to make Divine things human and human things Divine;
such is Bach, the greatest and purest music of all time.
Id say thats pretty good!
The project of which there are four distinct elements
took, or I should say is still taking eight years. But that was kind
of an accident. I expected to take 2- 3 years to do the transcriptions
and recordings. And that is about how long that process actually did
take. As the project evolved, five elements emerged:
1. The Recording: From Tragedy to Transcendence
2. The four Volume iBook: Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for
3. Fourteen promotional You-Tube Videos
4. The dissemination of the printed transcriptions themselves.
5. A concert-length, multi-media presentation of the entire phenomenal
legend. The first performances will be in Vancouver at the end of
Early on I decided that the transcriptions and recording would be
deepened and just made much better if I knew more about the man himself
and what the circumstances of his life were when he composed this
So, I started reading biographies. And then talking to people. Id
get up early, and do a lot of Googling for articles, talking on the
phone, thinking about things, dipping my toes into the waters of writing.
Certain things became apparent: a lot of Bach biographers are geniuses
whose use of language is downright masterful (so reading was a pleasure);
Bach himself essentially wrote nothing down except the music itself
(i.e. he did not commit his thoughts, intellectual or creative processes
to paper); no-one really knows for whom he may have written them;
nobody that I encountered actually wrote anything about why he might
have composed the cello suites, or why he composed them when he did.
If you look up Cello Suites in the index of the books,
you get at most one page, sometimes one paragraph, and sometimes nothing
But what struck me as most significant was the circumstance of his
life when he composed this music. My take is way too much to articulate
in an interview after all, I spent years pondering and writing
about all this. But in short, for the first 32 years of his life,
eight of the people closest to him died (parents, siblings and three
children). And every job he held is riddled with angst, intrigue,
trouble, nobody likes him or appreciates his music. He is in trouble
with his bosses and the authorities most of the time. The very definition
of frustration. The one fulfilling aspect of his life is that he meets
and marries Maria Barbara about whom we know almost nothing other
than she was very musical, she bore seven children, and in Bachs
obituary, Carl Philipp Emanuel (Sebastian and Barbaras second
son) wrote that Sebastian Bach enjoyed:
of blissful married life.
Then, he gets the gig of a lifetime writing music for a Prince
who is musical himself and who becomes his best friend. For three
years things are looking up. He and the Prince (as they did each year)
go away on holiday to a fancy spa for a month. He comes home, and
as he enters the house, he discovers that Maria Barbara is dead and
buried, and no one can tell him what killed her. Just put yourself
in his place for a moment. Imagine
He then goes to visit his old high-school organ mentor, Adam Reincken,
performs the grief-filled By the Waters of Babylon We Wept,
and a song he composed, I Had Great Distress in My Heart. In
other words, Sebastian Bach is publicly expressing intimate grief
and bitterness. He returns home, and he composes The Six Sonatas
and Partitas for Violin Solo and the Six Suites for Cello Solo,
basically the very first of his iconic masterpieces.
At this point he is 35 years old. And from here on out, the torrent
of immortal music flows from him until the end of his life in spite
of the fact that, starting three years after Maria Barbaras
death, he held a low paying, subservient position, a day job teaching
Latin and leading a boys choir.
Putting these events together struck me as extraordinary. And I felt
that I had to write about it, because I had to seek to fathom how
the man metabolized his agony in such a way that he turned himself
into BACH, the great genius of Western music. The bedrock of Western
harmony, for goodness sakes!, and he did not allow himself to let
his tragedies define his life or, indeed, who he was.
Tell us about the complexities of figuring out how to transcribe Bachs
cello music for guitar. How long did it take to put the notes for
cello into form to play on the guitar? Did you have other parameters
to help guide you? I know John Williams recorded Bachs Lute
Suites for guitar.
Steven Hancoff: In order to perform the Cello Suites
for guitar, it is necessary to take into account that the timbre of
the cello is of a very different temperament more deep, less
bright than that of a guitar, classical or acoustic. Since this
music will never sound the same on my instrument as it does on the
cello, I concluded that merely transporting the notes from one instrument
to the other can and should not be the point. The point is to create
as-great-as-I-can guitar pieces.
The cello is essentially a single-note-at-a-time instrument. In contrast,
while the guitar can certainly be played as a single-note instrument,
accompanying bass lines and chords are readily available, and more
to the point, are inherent to the nature and structure of the instrument.
Also, on a cello, a note can start soft and grow louder and be played
for as long as the musician wants by virtue of the cello being a bowed
instrument. With a guitar, on the other hand, the note is always loudest
the first instant it sounds. Then it immediately begins to decay until
it vanishes or until it is intentionally stopped.
So, the creative juice is in harmonizing the Cello Suites while
still playing all of Bachs notes, and staying true to the profundity
of his musical and emotional intent, while contending with the limitations
of the instrument.
mwe3: What about the other project you simultaneously created,
the four volume Bach i-Book Bach Casals and the Six Suites
for Cello Solo? I watched the videos, which are brilliant and it almost
seems like an overwhelming concept to put Bachs life into a
21st century perspective. After all, we are talking about a composer
who was born in 1685! What were the challenges in creating the i-book?
Steven Hancoff: Well, I like to say the i-Book was an accident
because it was. It started as liner notes. But the more I read, learned,
talked with people, thought about things
the more the story
revealed itself. I began to realize that this is maybe the most grand
story of inspiration and serendipity in the entire canon of Western
culture. Dont forget I didnt know any of this when
I started. And at the same time, electronic books, and the doo-dads
associated with them, were just being invented.
About four years ago, Beth (my other half) and I were on a bus in
Harlem. We noticed that not a single person not one
was looking at a piece of paper. No newspapers, no books, no magazines
But literally everybody was staring at an electronic device of one
kind or another. So, that got our attention thats really
when the light bulb went on. I call it Guttenburg 2.0
My writing is anecdotal rather than technical, describing the lives
of these great men in the context of their times as I have come to
fathom themas fascinating, illuminating, and inspiring artists,
and as human beings challenged, like all of us, by the demands of
life. Raising kids, paying rent, dealing with unsatisfiable bosses
same as we all have. Its just that they were somehow able to
rise above everything. I want to be able do that.
You mention the videos. There are 25 embedded in the book. There are
nine elements of interactivity. For example, if you read somebodys
name, you can click on it, and a pop-up with a picture and description
of who the person was appears. And thats only one of the elements.
And you can do the same thing with musical terms.
In addition to the storytelling, the book is illustrated, with about
1,000 (!) period pictures a cornucopia of portraits, oils,
watercolors, stained glass, photographs, etchings and engravings,
documents, sculptures, statues and monuments. These pictures illustrate
the text, and make the i-book very colorful and accessible.
Also, when I started I wanted to have a few Bach-inspired pieces of
art. I knew about the Bach masterpieces by Georges Braque. But when
I found out how much it would cost to publish them, I gave up on the
idea. One day it finally dawned on me that lots and lots of contemporary
artists have created passionate and glorious art inspired by Bach,
and Pablo Casals. So, I went to artists websites, wrote letters
asking for permission in exchange for the i-Book when it came out.
One thing led to another, and to my utter delight, fewer than a dozen
people turned me down. And in the end, more than 300 artists gave
me art for the book. So, when I say accident, I mean it:
this became the single largest collection of Bach-inspired art ever
collected in one place. I call it Bachiana.
I can tell everybody all about it, but when they see it, thats
when the jaws drop. Even calling it a book is misleading,
really a misnomer. This really is something new under the sun. It
seems to me that the establishment media are still asleep at the wheel.
Even they are going to have to wake up to this phenomenon one of these
I think Roxane Assaf, who wrote about it in Huffington Post, put it
better than I can. She wrote: The experience of the i-book contrasts
Hancoff's natural, even folksy, delivery with slickly produced graphics
and video, gliding so smoothly from one turn to the next that total
immersion is irresistible
.It is an antique subject elegantly
rendered in an impossibly light 21st-century container.
mwe3: What acoustic guitar do you play on the Bach box set? I
guess people would usually associate Bach with the more traditional
sounding classical guitar but its interesting that your steel
string acoustic gets a very chimey sound, not unlike a harpsichord
in places. Also tell us something about your other favorite guitars
over the years and do you play other instruments?
Steven Hancoff: On the same trip when I met Michael Lorimer,
I also met Ervin Somogyi in Berkeley, California. I had been looking
for someone to make a guitar for me, but had not yet been satisfied.
Then, in San Francisco, I visited Alex DeGrassi. I played exactly
one open E major chord on his guitar. Asked him who made it. He told
me Ervin Somogyi made it. I now count Ervin as a close friend, and
hes the guy who built my guitars. On this album, Im playing
a Somogyi Jumbo Cutaway
Jumbo for the deeper bass that I sought.
One review noted that the sound might be closer to what Bach may have
intended because he would not have had any access to nylon strings.
But as you allude to, he would have heard harpsichord strings. I dont
know. I love both of them.
I dont play other instruments, except to mess around sometimes.
I wish Id learned piano when I was young. But now that you mention
it, I once played kazoo in a jug band!
mwe3: I noticed you are wearing a thumb pick in your performance
videos. How would you describe your right hand picking technique?
Do you use other classical guitar techniques on your picking hand
or your left fretting hand?
Steven Hancoff: I use a thumb pick, and picks on the i,m
and a fingers. Lorimer once told me that Fernando Sor did
not use the a finger at all.
As to organizing these transcriptions for acoustic guitar as opposed
to the classical guitar, it is fundamental to take into account that
the tonal character and technical requirements of a steel-strung instrument
are very different than those of a nylon-strung one. For one thing,
an acoustic guitar is louder than a classical guitar. The unwound
treble bronze-treated steel strings (E and B strings) sound brighter,
less sweet, less fat, and are less influenced by vibrato***
than their nylon counterparts, especially higher up the fingerboard.
***An irresistable aside: The great conductor Otto Klemperer (and
father of Werner Klemperer, the actor who played the role of Colonel
Klink in Hogans Heroes), on being told that vibrato was an ornament
that should never be employed when playing Bach, was reported to have
replied: Huh? Twenty children and no vibrato?)
The wound phosphor bronze bass strings (E, A, D, G) tend to sound
more deeply but perhaps somewhat more brashly than wound nylon. Also,
on a classical guitar, the third string (G) is usually not wound.
Consequently, notes sounded on an acoustic third string feel somewhat
more confluent with regard to the timbre of the bass line than on
the third string of a classical guitar.
Furthermore, the classical guitarist has twelve frets, one complete
octave per string, with which to work ahead of the convergence of
the fingerboard with the body of the instrument and where fingering
dexterity therefore becomes more limited, whereas the acoustic guitarist
has fourteen such frets, and especially with a cutaway instrument
like mine, there is more flexibility for playing very high up the
Last, the strings on an acoustic guitar sit more closely to one another
than they do on a classical guitar (about 46 mm for
the acoustic vs. 54 mm for the classical guitar at the nut, and therefore
9.2 mm between acoustic strings vs.10.8 mm between classical strings),
so that the width of their respective necks differs (about 51 mm vs.
59 mm). For me, this renders picks a necessity rather than a luxury.
Were you interested in the classical guitar when you were younger?
Who were and who still are some of your favorite classical guitarists?
Steven Hancoff: No. I did not know about classical guitar. The
Weavers were my first concert. The second, a few months later, was
Segovia. The publicity said he was the greatest guitarist in the world.
But I thought the Weavers were better because Segovia only plucked
one or two strings at a time. Whereas the Weavers could hit all six
That was the reasoning, the artistic impression, of a musically inexperienced
thirteen year old boy.
I love a lot of classical guitarists. I apologize ahead of time for
unintentionally omitting some of them! To me Kazuhito Yamashita is
a kind of miracle. Cellist and playwright Harry Clarke dubbed him
the Franz Liszt of guitar. Well put, Id say. But
I have pretty much the same list as everybody, I guess. John Williams,
Pepe Romero. I saw Romero in concert a few years ago. I couldnt
believe the ease with which he addresses the instrument. He caresses
it like a lover.
I love the composing of Stepan Rak and Leo Brouwer. I loved Narciso
Yepes recording of the Scarlatti Sonatas on his seven-string.
Manuel Barrueco is amazing, so musical. I cant imagine how Eliot
Fisk does what he does. Sharon Isbin. Paul Galbraith recorded the
Violin Sonatas and Partitas on an eight string guitar that
he holds like a cello (with a tail-pin), but is fretted and plucked
like a guitar. A gorgeous recording. There are so many. You could
say that Segovia had a lot of kids.
Did you know that back in 1924 it was Pablo Casals, who by then was
probably the most renowned, not to mention well-paid, musician in
the world, who introduced the then-unknown 31-year-old Andrés
Segovia to Parisian high society? Casals vowed never to return to
Spain as long as Franco continued to rule there. So, when Segovia
moved back after the war, Casals broke off all contact with him because
he felt that Segovia s repatriation was an impardonable transgression.
mwe3: What are your other favorite works by Bach as performed
by other artists?
Steven Hancoff: Well, I just mentioned Galbraith. And Yamashitas
Cello Suites are miraculous, as far as Im concerned.
Almost everybody has done at least some of the Lute music. And Segovia
and others have played the Chaconne.
Beyond that, Ton Koopmans performances of the Cantatas
if you want to be moved, just open yourself to any of those. Of course,
all the great cellists have recorded the Suites. And its
absolutely amazing how the same and how different they all are. I
love Fourniers version a lot. I dont think Jacqueline
du Pre recorded them. But I have heard her Kol Nidre, which
is in beyond description. I wish I could have seen her live.
Everybody should be made to hear St. Matthew Passion at least
once in their lives. Its impossible for me to name one recording
of it. Composing it may be the greatest single artistic achievement
of any human being in history.
This question is unfair because its too hard to stop.
There are so many. Id guess off the top of my head that there
are more recordings of the music of J. S. Bach than of any other person.
You surely must be getting some great reactions from both classical
music lovers and guitar fans on the 3 CD Bach set as well as fans
of high technology things like i-books and internet related things!
Whats been the overall response?
Steven Hancoff: Well, its people like you who help to
get word out. And I cant express my gratitude enough. But I
get e-mails everyday from people, right now often musicians, that
are pouring love and praise on me. Its amazing, actually. The
thing is, I kind of feel its a mission, a calling, to tell this
story to the world. Just because it is so extraordinary. And the story
is told best in the four-volume iBooks.
Its an emotional, or spiritual, bonus, really that people feel
so touched and so moved by music in general, and by this recording
in particular. It actually feels like quite a high honor. Did you
know that the ancients regarded the fact that music is intelligible
to the human ear that is, we can discern melody instead of
experiencing it as random sounds to be proof of the existence
of God because it meant to them that harmonic relationship was intentionally
created by a reasonable Being?
Pretty soon Ill be sending the CDs and i-Books to all the artists
who so generously contributed their work to the project. I expect
Ill be hearing a lot then.
Its not ready yet, but soon Ill be putting up a page on
my website chock full of letters from people responding to the project.
Im definitely looking forward to doing that.
mwe3: What would you have to say to those who have no clue
who Bach is / was in describing his relevance to music of the 21st
century? Also is there a way to compare Bach with Beethoven or other
composers? I know Beethoven came after Bach, so who were Bachs
contemporaries in the early 18th century (the 1700s) and what
Steven Hancoff: Playing Bach on an acoustic guitar this
is not your granddaddys Bach. Of course, Im not by any
means the first to record or play Bach idiosyncratically. Remember
that fantastic album by the Swingle Singers? And how about Walter/Wendy
Carlos Switched-On Bach that sold more albums than any
classical recording ever.
Id tell them that old Sebastian was The Father of Harmony.
His work (well-tempering) is what made it possible to play in all
Beethoven famously said: His name should not have been Bach
(which in German means brook or stream. It
should have been Ocean!
The great Dr. Albert Schweitzer said: His single concern was
to create what is true.
And Aaron Copland addressed this very matter most perfectly:
the grandeur, nobility and inner depth that one creative soul could
bring to it
. spiritual wholeness, the sense of his communing
with the deepest vision
I cant possibly do better than that. But if you want a complete,
entertaining, enlightening, astonishing answer to this question, come
to one of the concert presentations that I expect to be touring with
mwe3: Is the 3 CD set From Tragedy To Transcendence and
the four volume i-Book your defining moment as an artist or are there
other mountains to climb, so to speak, at least from an artistic standpoint?
Any other plans moving forward?
Steven Hancoff: I have a handful of cool ideas for projects.
And I like climbing mountains because its from the top of mountains
that you get the most awe-inspiring view.
said, its hard to imagine ever devoting myself to any other
project with the same passion and intensity which this one called
for. And I wouldnt mind basking for a little while!
Above, I mentioned this is a five-element project. The fifth element
that is almost complete is that I am creating a concert-length program
with music, video, pictures, storytelling that tells that saga..
actually what ought to be a grand legend of our culture. In short,
- The tragedies he endured
- He becomes the greatest virtuoso and composer
- When he dies, he is unknown as a composer
- His music is not rediscovered until 80 years after his death
- The Cello Suites are lost to obscurity until a teen-ager
accidentally comes upon them
- The teenager just happens to be Pablo Casals
- Casals, in exile, finally consents to record them just as the world
is going up in flames World War II begins three weeks after
he completes his immortal recording.
Its going to be a sensational, enticing, beautiful, musical,
compelling and moving evening.