An ultimate 1960s fantasy envisions "10,000 guitars,
grooving real loud." But the instrument has become such a standard musical
appliance that audiences may easily overlook how present the six-string (and
its variants) is in just about every type of music there is - not only rock and
"It's the quintessential instrument of the 20th century," says David
Spelman, founder of the New York Guitar Festival. "Apart from the voice, it's
the only instrument to have crossed over to so many kinds of music. The guitar
has become an international language."
As if to prove his point, Spelman presents the second biennial Guitar
Marathon on Sunday at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. The concert is the
biggest single event in the fifth annual New York Guitar Festival, which
continues through Feb. 3 with a variety of programs, including a Tuesday
tribute to Tom Waits at Merkin Hall (with John Hammond and the Tin Trio), and
several smaller shows at Joe's Pub, featuring such guitar stars as Marc Ribot,
Badi Assad and the Brazilian Choro Ensemble. Sunday's extravaganza boasts eight
solid hours and 16 separate 20-minute sets of guitar performances. No fret
will go untouched.
"We wanted something that is going to show what the guitar is capable of,
but also to show where it's coming from and where it's going," says the
producer, who also curated an accompanying exhibit by music photographer Danny
Clinch. As such, the afternoon and evening showcase will touch on such major
aspects of guitar lineage as the lute (with Renaissance music wizard Paul
O'Dette), and explore such tangents as flamenco, jazz, folk, African and
classical guitar in an afternoon concert. The evening performances will be a
lot more plugged in, with appearances by two leading electric guitar
improvisers - Henry Kaiser and David Torn - the Brazilian guitarist Vinicius
Cantuaria and slide guitar specialist Bob Brozman, among others.
Part of the instrument's viability in so many forms is that it travels
extremely well. "Everywhere I go, when I meet people from other traditions, we
can play together," says Banning Eyre, an African music scholar and musician
who shares an afternoon stage with Malian vocalist Abdoulaye Diabat�, who hails
from a long family line of griots - storytellers who keep alive a village's
oral history - and also plays guitar. "In Mali, the guitar has become so
adapted into traditional settings that it has now become a traditional
instrument," explains Eyre, author of the book "In Griot Time: An American
Guitarist in Mali." Though the pair will improvise off traditional themes,
Mali has become strongly identified with American blues, with artists such as
guitarist Ali Farka Toure underscoring the connections - playing with the likes
of Ry Cooder and contemporary Mississippi blues figures. "It's not stigmatized
like it is in some parts of Africa," Eyre continues. "The guitar is an amazing
It certainly has worked that way for Kaiser, who lately has devoted a good
bit of time to jamming with penguins. He spent three months playing and
recording in Antarctica, thanks to a grant from the National Science
Foundation. He joined 16 other acts for Icestock, an annual concert at McMurdo
Air Force Base, and continued to indulge his notions of music as an ongoing
"science fair project."
"Now, when people ask, 'What is Antarctic music?' I can say, 'It's me!'"
Kaiser says with a laugh. Known for frequent excursions into eclectic
traditions (traditional Madagascar music, Hawaiian sounds) and sonic
experiments, the guitarist has enjoyed more recent success with "Yo, Miles!" a
tribute to the electric phase of Miles Davis' career. He's all over the map.
But for his segment of the Guitar Marathon, Kaiser will focus on American
steel string guitar played fingerstyle, without a pick, embellishing tradition
with his own improvisations. He will be joined by percussionist Lukas Ligeti
and Raoul Bjorkenheim on electric viola da gamba. "We just consider ourselves
to be the musical troublemakers," he says. "Here's something you've never seen
Husband-and-wife duo Michael Newman and Laura Oltman like to think the same
way, even though they play within the confines of the classical guitar form.
But, hey, what exactly does that mean? Their performances, in fact, suggest
that "form" is what the musician makes of it, not vice versa. "What is
classical guitar?" Oltman asks, rhetorically. "It's not the music. It's the
technique. And whatever music you end up playing using that technique, it's OK."
Though Newman will give a solo performance of Villa-Lobos' five preludes
for guitar in an afternoon set, the pair's evening performance will feature a
brand new piece, "Caught in the Headlights," by composer Michael Karmon. As
Oltman notes, there's not a lot of music written specifically for two players.
"Duos," she says, "are an exotic thing."
As is the Guitar Marathon. The event, hosted by John Schaefer of WNYC
radio's "New Sounds" program, is one of those irrationally great ideas that
exists because someone was crazy enough to make it happen. Spelman, who has
worked as a classical music publicist, got the concept from the new-music
marathons put together by Bang on a Can, the nonprofit collective devoted to
promoting contemporary classical music. Thanks to solid sponsorships, Spelman
finds himself in one of the most enviable positions a programmer can have.
"I don't want to get political, but there's a battle we're fighting, one
between creative artists and what I'd call the Clear Channel-ization of
American culture," he says, referring to the media monolith with its vast radio
and concert venue properties. "We do what we want to do."