Cerros de Santiago (“Hills of Santiago”) is the most personally meaningful track on The Panamericanist, the one that for myself gets to the heart of my relationship with Alfonso Chacon as a solo guitarist.
As you can see on the notes, it did not originally have this title. He taught it to me as “Prelude #3”. I have no idea what Preludes 1 or 2 are.
The song is a study in tremolo technique, in which, in its simplest manifestation, the index finger, middle finger and ring finger of the right hand work as a little machine to create a sustained note effect while the thumb moves and plays other notes independently. Tremolo pieces are their own genre in the world of classical guitar, and many of the great composers have made contributions. Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega is probably one of the most popularly known classical guitar pieces in the world and is a beautiful demonstration of tremolo.
The acoustic nylon string “classical” guitar can achieve a wide range of sounds, but a sustained note – say, one that can last as long as the breath of a horn player – is a definite challenge. What’s fun about an electric guitar is that even with a very clean tone, by finessing a vibration on the string your left hand you can play very long-lasting notes. Try that on a nylon string acoustic and it will fade fast after a couple seconds. If you can play long-lasting notes you can then use your instrument to create more dramatic melodic effects, bringing the instrument closer to what a human voice can do. Or you can create layers of ambience, building sensations of spaciness or etherealness.
In my days playing electric guitar, I got really into using electronic effects to create cascades of sustained guitar sound. Since I was a kid I had a soft spot for spacey psychedelic rock, no about it, and I also love the washes of synthesized sound in electronic music. Later on I became a reggae rhythm guitarist and was introduced to world of dub production and the ritual use of analog delay pedals. Creating original music and improvising live with these ideas was and continues to be tremendous fun, and I feel it to be a source of emotional impact not possible otherwise, as well a source of freedom to break free of concept of time and song structure. Here’s a track from my 1990s Ann Arbor MI band Butterfly that explores these ideas:
What’s limiting on the electric guitar though is that any effects (delay/sustain pedals, overdrive, etc) you might use to gain sustain are going to hit all the strings, not just the one you want, so you can’t create a balance of sustained notes with non-sustained notes (unless you use loops). You either need another guitarist in the band, or overdub in the studio. The tremolo technique on the nylon string affords the possibility of simultaneous playing of sustained and non-sustained notes, creating foregrounds and backgrounds of sound. A clever composer will take advantage of that tableau, switching melodic ideas between being expressed by the tremolo fingers or the thumb. All very nice, that is, as long as one is able to develop and play the technique.
Alfonso introduced the first tremolo exercise to me in preparation of learning his arrangement of El Condor Pasa, in which the technique is used in a section of the song. It’s actually an essential part of that arrangement, as the tremolo helps to express the sensation of flight. You check me out on it here:
Sometimes I think I have may have been put on this Earth just for the opportunity to learn tremolo. In addition to the aesthetic buttons it pushes, for me it gets to physical challenge/excitement/pleasure of guitar playing like nothing else.
Learning tremolo is very much akin to learning a series of yoga positions, or a progressive series of dance steps. You start with a simple achievable motion, very slowly, focusing on steadiness and a perfection of movement. Maybe 10-15 minutes a day to start, until you find yourself dedicating blocks of 30-45 minutes a day to it. Tremolo became my “fourth hour” of practice, if I got in a regular 3-hour session earlier in the day, later at night while watching the talk shows I would break out guitar and quietly exercise tremolo for an hour before bed.
I started with El Condor Pasa, then Alfonso gave me Recuerdos to learn. Once I had that he showed me a new variation in the technique. The first pattern I as I mentioned above, when slowed to a crawl, is a sequence of thumb-ring finger-middle finger-index finger. The new sequence was the “flamenco tremolo”, employing a sequence of thumb-index-ring-middle-index. The former is a thumb plus a 3-digit tremolo machine, the flamenco was a thumb plus a 4-digit tremolo machine.
This latter technique is a stronger choice for tremolo pieces that run a slower tempo. What’s tough about tremolo is that it’s based on a kind of momentum amongst the fingers, when you slow it down it loses its hypnotic power – it’s an interesting lesson in gestalt to find the point when the space between notes individuates them, breaking the perception they are a unified sonic chain. Adding the fourth pulse in the tremolo affords a greater space between notes played on the thumb.
Enter Prelude #3. Alfonso’s tremolo study was achingly spacey, and definitely musically improved when played using the flamenco style. This piece, as well as Romanza, were how I developed this technique, while using the 3-digit way on Recuerdos. The innovation I like to think I have brought in playing the flamenco tremolo is in bringing the thumb onto the same note the other fingers are playing, so the whole hand is working just one sustained note with no bass line. If you are careful to keep it steady and accent any finger or thumb it becomes a pure tone, a raw wave – I employ this especially in the introduction of Cerros on The Panamericanist.
Alfonso saw how much I enjoyed playing Prelude #3, and how enthusiastic I was to improve my tremolo overall. I think I saw that tremolo was my road to being considered a good guitarist, something I could be singularly excellent at. I’m never going to be the kind of guitarist who is going to thrill a crowd with a wanky fast note guitar solo, that’s just never been me, but I could always feel a strong reaction from folks when I played my tremolo tunes. Just the mere fact that I played Recuerdos de la Alhambra meant that I could call myself a “classical guitarist”, so I always thought of it as a worthy way to pass my time.
The title, however, was just not satisfactory. The dramatic riffs and melodies in Alfonso’s piece called for something more meaningful, so I asked him about his inspiration for the piece. He explained to me that surrounding Santiago Chile are three small mountains. The descending chromatic melody in the piece repeats three times jumping an octave each time, and they signify his memory the three hills of Santiago. The piece is meant to be a kind of nostalgia for Santiago, a memory, and to be played with a sense of loss. Saudade.
After that I dubbed it, with his approval, “Cerros de Santiago”, and he then dedicated the piece to me.
Tremolo is a long simmering stew. It’s never done, it just keeps improving with time as long as the heat is on and you keep the stir. This is another track that I haven’t finished recording yet, as every few months I feel a change in my tremolo, a little more steady, a little more under control, a little more expressive. There are still several tremolo pieces out there that I hope to add to my repertoire, especially Aire Popular Paraguayo by Augustin Barrios, and I imagine that if the day comes that I find myself working on original guitar music, the tremolo undoubtedly be an element.