Daily Bow: Revolutionary, Reactionary, Visionary?


In yesterday’s Daily Bow we linked a piece of particular interest about violinist Rupert Guenther. Described as a “a rare combination of classical musician and revolutionary who has pioneered a new style of playing that has gained the rare accolade of being accepted by the musical establishment,” I felt that this story deserved its own treatment and exploration.

Here at String Visions, we’ve been very interested at the idea of the musical visionary, one who is impacting classical music through innovation and impacting the lives of others through classical music. These visionaries come in many forms.

Is Rupert Guenther a revolutionary as he has been described? Or rather, is he somewhat of a reactionary? And if so, what is it (if anything) that makes him a visionary?

”I am able to show new possibilities in classical music,” says the violinist, who will demonstrate his new technique in a concert of impressions of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze with his sister, cellist Penelope Gunter-Thalhammer, at the National Gallery of Victoria on Friday as part of the Winter Masterpiece exhibition, Vienna: Art & Design.

Guenther specialises in musical improvisation, a technique usually associated with jazz. ”It is the fruition of many years’ fermentation that is geared around a unique process,” he says. ”It allows classical concert artists to create new work from scratch, provided they are well prepared.”

The idea of improvisation may be famous from jazz, but it has much more ancient roots, going back to pre-Medieval music when music was rarely transcribed onto hard copy. Improvisation was the standard for many chamber musicians and keyboardists during the Baroque era. And for the solo performer of the early classical, one of the most striking marks of musical creativity was the cadenza of a concerto, of which one was expected to showcase improvisational skill. Although mandatory improvisation in concerti and other early works is no longer widespread, the roots of such a skill far predate the more contemporary movement of jazz.

So when Mr. Guenther combines musical improvisation with the modern classical concert, is he a revolutionary or a reactionary? And whichever one, is he a visionary?

A self-confessed maverick, Guenther grew up in Melbourne listening to pop and classical music, sneaking into the Rolling Stones’ 1973 gigs at the Kooyong Stadium one week, watching Yehudi Menuhin perform the next.

While studying violin at the Victorian College of the Arts he became interested in improvisation. He began experimenting – first with a guitar, then with the violin – while his traditional classical education continued, including several years studying in Vienna and playing in the Vienna Chamber Opera.

”I developed this technique out of a journey that started with my dissatisfaction with classical music,” he says.

The last phrase could be considered key: “dissatisfaction with classical music.” After all, isn’t that why String Visions is here, to fulfill an unsatisfied gap in the world of classical music?

Yet perhaps at times we are too quick to jump on anything that perhaps looks shiny and new and label it “revolutionary.” Bringing back older styles and labeling them as new might be better thought of as a reactionary move. But reactionary has a implication of “backwardness” which isn’t at all what Mr. Guenther’s efforts should be thought of as. And when one integrates something old, the result can be something completely new, a synthesis of ideas from different points in time that now — because of context — form a modern innovation.

And in the end, if we are true to definition of visionary, the measure of its worth is best judged by how much it impacts classical music and to what degree it touches others.

Read the complete article

What do you believe are the essential qualities of a revolutionary musician? A reactionary musician? A visionary musician? Are they all one in the same? Or are they only one in the same in certain contexts?

Do you think that Rupert Guenther’s musical pioneering is truly unique and revolutionary?

If so, why?

If not, why not?

These are open-ended questions. There are no right answers in this because it is a matter of perspective, much like art and music.

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5 Responses to Daily Bow: Revolutionary, Reactionary, Visionary?

  1. Rupert Guenther August 8, 2011 at 1:00 am #

    Dear Colin,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments regarding the recent 12 July article in the SMH by Robin Usher. I think your comments are justified, and your questions are very good ones to be asking.

    However I feel to point out that you are critiquing an article here, not my actual arts practice. The article was composed by a journalist whose invention of phrases, selective use of materials from previous articles with or without relevance or context, and free-contextualisation of just some of my actual words in interview, may be found to stand in contrast to a well-researched, accurate documentation of my work, position and writings on the subject from an academic point of view.

    I would like to clear up that I have never claimed to have invented improvisation in a classical context, and have always maintained right from the start of my work in classical improvisation, that improvisation is the original way of making music on the planet for most cultures, and that in the West as you have rightly pointed out, until relatively recently, it was at the heart of music making, and even continued for quite some time as a requisite skill of musicians through the Baroque (and beyond in some form or other such as embellishment and cadenzas).

    I no longer play any traditional classical repertoire, only my own improvised works. My concerts do not mix Mozart with improvisation, every note for the entire concert is improvised on the spot. My actual work is creating new works entirely through improvisation, not embellishing or extemporising on existing chord progressions, motifs or repertoire. Nor is it aimless doodling, but rather is well thought-out, coherent and highly conceptualised as to what it is about stroy-wise before I take to the stage. This makes it more like what a painter does: painting new works onto a blank canvas. It is very intuitive, yet draws on my extensive background in the riches of written classical repertoire.

    What I have achieved, which might be considered unique by some, is to develop an actual method for making new classical music this way from scratch, which is reliable, and can be taught, learned, performed and assessed with the same degree of rigour as any other aspect of classical music training and performance. This not only creates coherence in the works but also eliminates many mistakes which have made most attempts at modern improvised classical music concerts by classical musicians excruciatingly unengaging. I have taught masterclasses in this method at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, The European String Teachers Association (ESTA), in Austria at the Vienna University of Performing Arts (concert performance faculty) and the Vorarlberg State Conservatorium, and my students have included principal players from the Zurich Opera, La Scala (Milan) and several international chamber musicians.

    I differentiate what I do from jazz as often as I can in interviews, as I have often been misunderstood to be a jazz practitioner simply because I talk about improvisation. It’s easy to see how people, without having heard many – if any – classical music practitioners who work this way, might assume that to be the case based on their own limited observations that mostly jazz players improvise and classical players don’t.

    There are great examples of concert artists who extemporise in Mozart or Bach, and some who improvise their own cadenzas in concertos, and there are music academies who train artists in these skills. They are using improvisation as a supplement to repertoire. I think they are doing wonderful work and should be encouraged.

    But when I look through the classical record catalogs, classical radio playlists, major concert series and music academy programs in Europe and the USA, I don’t see anyone playing all their own works at all their concerts through improvisation, either solo or in ensemble. Nor do the academies run course to prepare artists with these skills. I think that is really sad. So on the basis of these observations, if a journalist says that what I am doing is revolutionary, and is a bit loose with his accuracy from an academic perspective, well, good for him for having a go I say.

    I hope that classical musicians become more and more known for their own works, as testimony to their own artistic vision, ideas and musical style. I believe this can only enrich the future of classical music.

    If any readers would like t listen to some samples of my work they can find plenty at http://www.myspace.com/rupertguentherclassical

    I enjoy your willingness to question unsubstantiated conclusions and correct historic inaccuracies. I offer these clarifications in a spirit of sharing something which might genuinely be of interest to readers to further look into as a practical pursuit, not merely academic scrutiny.

    Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes,
    Rupert Guenther
    Perth, Australia

  2. Colin Cronin August 8, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    Mr. Guenther. Thank you for taking the time to write this fantastic response for myself and our readers. I very much appreciate it. If you don’t mind I will email you directly in answer.

  3. GIacomo Birner August 15, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    I know mr. Guenther personally and i also had the chance to listen to his lessons in Sankt Paul im lavanttaal and i really enjoyed to see young musicians improvise because it opens your mind to another “dimension” of music. I also think that the music society really needs pioneers of revolution like him because that is, for me, the new way to make music and everyone should have to support this idea. Thank you Rupert!

  4. Marco Aurelio Di Giorgio August 16, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    I had the privilege of attending an improvisation masterclass in St.Paul im Lavanttal with Rupert, and there was nothing I experienced which was quite like it. I enjoyed it a lot, and it opened my mind to a wide range of possibilities. I improvise on my own ever since.

    I envision Rupert Guenther as a revolutionary, as I regard his work to be very original. Moreover, what he does is nothing I saw or heard anyone else do. While he didn’t invent improvisation itself, his ideas shake the founding of improvisation as it has been known.

    Keep the good work up!

  5. Colin Cronin August 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    Glacomo and Marco. Thanks for your comments here! It’s exciting for us to hear about your experiences with Rupert. I’m talking with him right now so be sure to check back later. We hope to bring you some new content on this soon!

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