A ghost wanders, undisturbed, in the world of contemporary academic music, it’s the electric guitar. The electric guitar is a foreign body, a virus, a technological revolution that displaces composers. Principal instrument of popular music, it crossed the twentieth century connecting its technological innovation both with popular music, and with the social and artistic tensions that have gone through it, and with the most advanced avant-gardes.
Popular avant-gardes that have energetically passed the homologous academic avant-garde involving a real evolutionary push of the instrument, a very fast push, which has gone through a kaleidoscope of genres in which the guitar has always been able to find at least one generational innovator of language, style, approach, sound and … visionary madness. A technological evolution that has led to the elaboration of thousands of effects with which to modify, personalize, alter a sound that comes from a series, industrial product, the musical product par excellence of the mass culture so dear to Adorno.
A product of mass culture that takes its revenge by entering the avant-garde of a popular nature, riding the wings of improvisation and a search for a sound capable of representing a controversial century devoted to innovation.
The composers, in front of this instrument, are confused. Unlike the classical instruments to which they are accustomed, the electric guitar is an alien body, both from a technical and from a conceptual and aesthetic point of view. From a technical point of view since the techniques for playing it are very far from those of classical instruments and all of popular derivation, cultural heritage of performers of other musical genres. From a conceptual and aesthetic point of view because the electric guitar has run a lot in the last century, sedimenting a solid base of techniques, aesthetics, genres, heroes, narratives both in the popular field and in the experimental field. Snubbed by the exponents of the “high” culture, it has been able to create its own conceptual spaces, generating sound forms far from rock, blues and jazz, innovative forms that have created new aesthetic territories.
Composers have three different problems: first, being able to master a series of styles and techniques that are not usually taught in conservatories and which are in any case in continuous evolution. Second, unlike what happens in other experimental areas, the composer here has need of a highly specialized interpreter, capable both of managing that series of techniques and styles of which I spoke before, and of reading and understanding the scores created by the composer. Third, to be able to create something new with two possibilities, first completely reinventing the sounds and techniques of the instrument, secondly adapting to what is already available, trying to reuse the available materials. I think these are the reasons why the electric guitar’s academic music repertoire has so far been so limited.
Fortunately, the electric guitar in the contemporary context can count on champions such as the Dutch Wiek Hijmans, his discography in fact is not only a testimony of his ability as an interpreter, but also an effective sample of interesting pieces.
Almost all of his CDs come from the independent record company X-OR which he manages with Luc Houtkamp, his first CD “Electric solo!” was released in 2002 with pieces such as Michel van der Aa’s “Auburn (for guitar and tape”), Tristan Murail (“Vampyr”), Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s “Solo for E-Guitar”, Louis Andriessen’s “Triplum for Guitar” and two pieces by Hijmans himself, “Carrousel” and “Upward (improvisation)”.
In 2004 he releases another solo album, “Classic Electric”, another excellent example of his virtuosity where an excellent version of the “classic” “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich, “Scan” by Theo Loevendie, “Another Possibility” by Christina Wolff, Paul Termos’ “E Domino”, Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight / Volte” and Jan Pietersz Sweelinck and Hijmans’s “From here there and no Return”.
The next album, “One Hour” (2013) is a little surprise, it contains 4 improvisations, each of 15 minutes, a radically different album from the previous ones, a sort of parallel reality to that of an interpreter, which turns out to be very interesting, putting in light the stylistic characteristics of Hijmans himself.
We had to wait 5 years for something really new, the new album is called “Electric Language” and wass released in 2018 for the independent label Attacca.
It’s another confirmation of Hijmans’ abilities, which juggles excellently between pieces such as the newfound “The possibility of a New work for Electric Guitar” by Morton Feldman, a new version of “Another Possibility” by Christian Wolff, “Language” by Maarten Altena, “article 6 (waves)” by Rozalie Hirs, “(Backgrounds)” by Peter Ablinger, “Interstitial Sketch” by Vedran Mehinovic, “MacGuffin” by Yannis Kyriakides, “Tree Ferns” by Allison Cameron and “Victus, always from Hijmans.
These are three very interesting and important records for those wishing to access an experimental form still in the embryonic stage. Contemporary academic music for electric guitar is very interesting and certainly Wiek Hijmans is one of its champions. What is not entirely convincing? The lack of an extended narrative. This is certainly not the fault of Hijmans himself, but I think there is still a lot of work to be done to be able to convince other experimenters of the possibilities offered by this different approach. But if you are thinking of a way of playing the electric guitar that can get out of the usual clichés of rock, blues and jazz … if you believe that technological changes can have a strong impact not only on the economy, on society, but also on art … then you have to listen to Wiek Hijmans.