Written by

Andrew Millar


July 7, 2008

As you, the Readers of the Bleat know, after 35 years, I’ve gone back to feeding a love of making music. The guitar was then and is now my chosen instrument. And I can trace this passion back to one song –- a one hit wonder called ‘Classical Gas’ by Mason Williams. I thought that track was so cool; I thought if I could play that, girls would swoon at my feet. So I went and bought a cheap classical guitar and took off in search of lessons.

And that was the trouble with learning 35 years ago –- there were not that many teachers around. After a long search of the local papers all I could find was a large Ukrainian woman who taught flat-picking Country and Western songs. She used to beat time with a broomstick on the floor and yell… “”Now play ‘Ze banks of Ze O-high-O. Un… Two… Zree…play’””.

No one was going to swoon for cheese like that. But there was no alternative.

So I turned to trying to read music for myself. Armed with the sheet music for ‘Classical Gas’ I retreated to my room for a week and managed to nut out the introduction. The problem was music was published for piano –- not for the guitar.

So I moved on. And when I left high school I left the guitar behind.

Through my life I’ve always listened to a wide spectrum of music, most of which was not fashionable or understood by any others I hung out with. In my car would be tapes of Zeppelin, Stones, and Floyd of course, but also Saint-Saens, Segovia, Bach, Brubeck and gypsy guitarist called Django Reinhardt… and my all time favourite, Claude Debussy. An eclectic bunch.

On reflection, the common link that joined these composers for me was that they made me ‘swoon’. Not a ‘bring the smelling salts he’s passed out listening to Wagner again’ swoon, but music that brought an emotional shift. Music that affected a sensory reaction -– music that created a taste, a smell or a colour in your mind. Sometimes music can exhaust you and leave you feeling like you’ve been hit in the chest by a phone book (2nd movement of Saint-Saens 3rd Organ Concerto. Particularly the digital Telarc recording.) Sometimes it can scare you. (I played the deeply emotional Russian saturated ‘Bydlo’ from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ to someone once and they couldn’t listen to it in its entirety. And it’s only 2:31 minutes…)

And sometimes it can leave you elated.

Take Joaquin Rodrigo’s composition for classical guitar and orchestra ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’. It’s an animated piece full of Spanish spirit, rhythm, and passion… It to me 30 years ago was the grown up version of ‘Classic Gas’. Here was the ultimate swoon fest.

History tells that Rodrigo was inspired by the gardens around the 16th century summer palace of Philip 11 in the hills above Madrid. He claimed to be inspired by ‘the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains’ –- powerful stimulation as Rodrigo was blind. And that could be enough of a description to satisfy anyone.

However I always felt there was something more powerful at work here. And yes, towards the end of his life (he died in 1999) his wife, Victoria, admitted it was the sound track of their honeymoon in Aranjuez. And this makes sense of it all.

This concerto is in three movements, Allegro con spirito, Adagio and Allegro gentile.
And it’s the second movement, that is the best known of the three, which best illustrates what I mean.

Written at a time when you didn’t have to say everything to get your meaning across, the first movement deals with innocent joy and spirit – the elation felt between church, ceremony and the first night spent together. Rodrigo skips the details (so often included in modern songs about sex) and goes straight for the ‘lying back and enjoying a cigarette’ bit. That’s what the second movement is all about.

This movement has a slow pace and quiet melody, introduced by the English horn, with a soft accompaniment by the guitar and strings – a strum like a hand stroking someone’s naked back…. A feeling of quiet regret permeates the piece. It’s melancholic. It’s transcendental. It’s the musical illustration of what the French call ‘La petite mort’ – the small death. Soon the guitar plants seeds of tension; they grow and take hold, but relax back to the melody periodically. Eventually, when the young lovers’ spirits had settled back into their bodies the ‘theme’ returns to the music – molto appassionato is the musical notation, and is voiced by the strings with accompaniment – an intimate encore perhaps? The piece finally resolves to a calm arpeggio from the guitar, (the male) though it is the strings (the female) in the background rather than the guitar’s final note that resolve the piece. Exhausting.

My point to all of this was really to remind myself of the power of music. Because I don’t think we use it enough in our work. We rarely use it in the background of television or radio. We’ve never been bold enough to put it in the foreground. Yet it has the power to do exactly what we need our advertising to do –- shift an emotion. Simply sex sells.

The ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ a very subtle, persuasive and romantic piece. I have the guitar music for it. But it will be years before I can make someone swoon with it.

In the meantime I’m sold on taking someone I fancy to Aranjuez.

Andrew Millar