Friday, May 31, 2019

Stolen Moments: A Composition by Kenny Hill

Last December at the Santa Cruz Guitar Christmas party I ran into multi-talented Sandor Nagyszalanczy and he offered his facilities to do some audio video project. I haven’t really done any recording in a very long time, but what the heck, let’s try it. It’s challenging, hard to play well on a good day, let alone on camera. And unnerving to see how much I have become my father. Sandor was great to work with and very supportive, and I thank him for his work. 

Stolen Moments represents a comeback to composing music for my lifetime instrument, the classical guitar. While I have been actively playing for over 50 years and building guitars for almost as long, there has been a nagging instinct to compositionally explore the instrument in my own way. I’ve been procrastinating so long until, at this stage of life, if not now, when? 

The title refers to an interview I did with Santa Cruz legacy composer Lou Harrison. I asked him how he manages his prolific output, where does he find the time? His response was “Oh there's never time, I just write in stolen moments.” This has been helpful wisdom for me getting deeper into composing. There is a double meaning as well. I asked the great guitarist composer Johannes Möller if there was any of his contemporaries whose music he would play in his programs and he said “No, no, if I hear something I like I just steal it.” Well I stole the tuning system for this piece from Johannes’ composition “A Star in the Sky, a Universe Within.” Johannes has been a great inspiration and supporter for me.

Recently I was looking through drawers of sheet music in my office and I came across a big stash of manuscripts I had written between 1974 and 1979. I was vaguely aware they were there, but I was stunned at how much there was. It was all jumbled up, pages mixed up or missing and smelled like a mummy. There are at least 15 compositions. Then nothing until 2010. Then nothing again until 2018. There have always been ideas, but not follow through. It’s curious how related in style that 4 decades old music is to what I come up with now. The main difference is that I’m a little better editor and architect now, but the feelings are pretty much the same. Currently I’m working on several pieces in various stages of progress and trying to remember Lou's advice and take advantage of the “stolen moments” to start — and finish the new pieces.

The playing trick with Stolen Moments is that it uses a capo on the first 5 strings at the 4th fret, with the 6th string unfretted. This produces an elfin, wind chime like upper resonance and a nice low bass note. The score is notated in the key of C, even though the actual pitches are key of E. The open 6th string is treated as a low C. The piece is in 4/4 but for much of the piece the rhythmic count is grouped 5,5,6 which keeps the recurring arpeggios swaying a little off balance.

Kenny Hill 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Giacomo Fiore Performs "Stolen Moments"

On March 30th Giacomo Fiore performed the world premiere of my recent guitar composition “Stolen Moments”or the New Music Works Night Of the Living Composer concert at Cabrillo College. 

Giacomo only had the score for a few short months and he really got the piece, including playing from memory. He did it beautifully! I was thrilled to hear someone else playing it, and so well! I loved listening to it from the audience. I am proud of Giacomo and proud of the piece. 

Barry Phillips recorded the whole concert and it sounds quite good. Please take a listen to this clip. It comes with good timing because I also just completed the sheet music for Stolen Moments, now available for publication. I’ve got more pieces in the works and we’ll be releasing them over the next few months. This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time and now, finally, there’s some momentum. 

Philip Collins is the artist director of New Music Works and a profound supporter of living composers, as well as a fine and tireless composer himself. His recent two piano piece was on that program, amazing. I’m grateful to be included in this program. I don’t know how he does it all. 

Kenny Hill, April 2019

Friday, August 24, 2018

A Reflection on Robert Ruck

I am stunned and saddened at the news of Robert Ruck passing away. Of all the people in this guitar business he is the most unexpected; he was one of the strongest, healthiest most self aware and balanced people I know. It’s hard to believe, hard to accept, and yet, there it is. Death is such a fact of life now. I know, it’s alway been there, but it is really catching up.

Robert was already a legend when I met him in the early 1990s, famous for his fine guitars, amazing skills and prolific output. He was a role model and an inspiration. He was generous with is thoughts and his time, his tremendous knowledge and work abilities. And he was a bit mysterious. Periodically he would pack up his workshop and family and move somewhere completely different, lock stock and barrel. When I met him he was in Washington, near Seattle, and he later moved to Hawaii, then to Oregon and then to Wisconsin. I was introduced to Robert by my good friend and colleague Jerry Roberts, who came of age with him as young guitar students in Florida and remained close from then all through until now. Jerry has probably played and sold more Ruck guitars than anyone besides Ruck himself and has kept in steady contact with him until recently. Jerry actually arranged a very interesting liscensing deal between Ruck and my guitar company to make a special model of guitar which he designed for us to produce and for Jerry to sell. The design was beautiful, creative and the guitars were wonderful. We did that for about 10 years and those guitars are still loved and sought after. It was this model that first introduced me to the idea of sound ports, that was Robert Ruck’s idea. The curious thing was that at the time of those first drawings Ruck hadn’t actually done it himself. I was so excited and honored to get this project with him that I made the first prototype very quickly, about a week, and when I drilled those holes in the upper shoulders of that guitar and heard the difference, it was a major revelation. I actually called him up in Washington and said “Bob, this is a wonderful idea of yours — you should try it”. And he did, though I’m not sure he was as constant with ports as I have been. It was a bold idea in 1998, but now it has caught on, and some variation of ports is very common among guitar makers, old and young. 
The last time I saw Bob Ruck was in Denver in 2016 when he was there to receive his lifetime achievement award at the GFA festival. It was wonderful to hang out with him and his wife and daughter, a reunion of sorts, and we both said “this is really nice, we need to keep in touch, maybe build some more of those guitars”. He was on the verge of another of his inscrutable moves, from Oregon to Wisconsin. We didn’t keep our pledge, and that was the last time we spoke. You never know. I’m very, very sorry he’s gone.

Kenny Hill

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Get To Know Our True Temperament Model

Some people have a problem with guitar intonation. I don’t mean just the struggle to get the 6 strings in tune with each other, I mean the accuracy of the the notes and intervals from fret to fret, string to string. Guitars have been around for quite a while now and guitar players have learned to live with it, but an accurate measurement of the pitches and harmonies would definitely show up compromises and discrepancies. For most of my life I’ve been perfectly content with the idiosyncrasies of the guitar fingerboard, and anyway I wasn’t aware of any other choices. That is, until now.

The True Temperament fretting system is a special development by Anders Thidell from Sweden. Several years ago my good friend Johannes Moller gave me a TT fretboard and frets that had been passed to him by the manufacturer. Johannes is also Swedish and a very prominent guitarist and composer and a clever and forward thinking fellow. I guess he figured I have tried a lot of progressive and innovative and weird things over the years, so why not give it a shot?

That first TT fingerboard and frets sat around in my shop for at least two years until I finally built a guitar with it on a whim. To be honest, I probably put it off because I thought it was a dead-end idea. I’m certainly very aware of the conundrum of guitar intonation and the compromises we learn to live with, but as a guitar player for over 50 years I’ve accustomed my ears to the reality of guitar intonation and I’m fine with it. In some ways I feel that the quirks and “imperfections” of the guitar are part of what makes it so lovable.

Nevertheless, that first TT guitar was really sweet. It was completed just before the Namm show, we took it with us to the show and it sold immediately. I barely had a chance to get acquainted. So with that tease I worked around trying to acquire more TT fretboards. It took quite a while to make a good connection with True Temperament but eventually I did get some more of these fingerboards and last year I made another similar guitar, which turned out just as sweet. Both of those guitars were Performance Model 650 scale, both spruce double top and both really delicious. Quite a few professional players tried out the second one and used it in performances, and everyone agreed there is something magical about it. So after these glimpses of this magic I decided to build one for myself. This way I could live with it in my daily routine of guitar stuff, practicing, performing, studying new pieces etc. I’ve gotten hooked on my Ergonomic designed Signature guitar, so that’s what I wanted, a Signature, Ergonomic, True Temperament cedar top with a Barbera pickup, all the bells and whistles. We made one, and I love it.

I’ve been playing this guitar for about 6 months now. I suppose I now have more experience with True Temperament on classical guitar than anyone. Over the years I’ve been willing to try many modern and sometimes controversial things in guitar innovation, and this one I was skeptical about. Because it’s so unusual and provocative looking, I kind of didn’t want it to be so good. But it is.

I don’t fully understand what’s going on with it, or the math and engineering that went into it’s invention. I do understand that although the fret position formula may be mathematically correct, the differences in the behavior of the individual strings because of their materials and design introduce a whole set of variables. And I understand that each individual note on the fingerboard is defined by it’s own beat-per-second frequency that can be measured, and if each note on each string were to have it’s own little fret, it might tune up more like a keyboard, but it would be pretty darn complicated. These curvy frets accomplish something like that in a dramatic but fairly practical way. I’ve read the FAQs TT has published, and I’ve thought about it a lot as I listen to it. I have a pretty good ear and can tune a guitar reliably and quickly. That’s not an issue. What I experience with the TT guitar is not so much a dramatic difference in tuning, but rather a lovely fresh purity to the sound, like extra fresh air and crystal clean water. It seems the various intervals are in greater harmony with each other, and the overall resonance is at greater peace and vitality. As I said, I’m not deeply bothered by the intonation of a traditional fretboard, but I am very excited about the overall countenance of the sound that comes out of my True Temperament guitar. This is not a mode, or a different twelve note temperament — it’s good in all keys, it sounds good all the way through my repertoire. And in spite of the wacky visuals it’s not hard to play for the left hand, there is no adapting of technique, that’s just not a problem.

Frankly the only downside to it is that it looks so unusual and provocative. It’s eye catching in a woozy way and I wind up having to try to explain it to people all the time. Since I am interested in it myself, I don’t mind talking about it, it helps me think about it and grow into some kind of broader understanding. But until it is much more common, it will be a topic of chit chat with customers and at any gigs that I play for a long time to come.

We’ll be making another True Temperament guitar here in the next few months. With three of them under my belt now and more to come, I’m convinced that this is a real option for players with a certain kind of discerning ear. I doubt that will become an industry standard any time soon, but for my own personal use I think it will be my choice for some time to come.

Kenny Hill 
December 2017

Friday, September 15, 2017

Johannes Möller Live in Santa Cruz, CA!

NewMusicWorks’ 2017-18 season begins with supreme guitar artistry.

A performance of breathtaking range, from dazzling bravura to autumnal intimacy.
Sponsored by Hill Guitar Company

Guitar Poetry

A solo recital by Guitarist Johannes Möller

7:30 pm, Friday, October 6, 2017

Peace United Church of Christ, 900 High St. Santa Cruz, CA
Swedish-born guitarist and composer, Johannes Möller brings electrifying virtuosity and extraordinary worldliness to Santa Cruz! Chinese, North Indian, and Western music traditions are encompassed in a program of mercurial plucks, strums and drumming. A concert that encompasses musical styles and techniques of planetary scope. It will be a truly an Intimate evening, while also ranging in temperament from unheard of gentility to fearsome fortissimos.
Möller will perform new works of his own, including Night Flame, a North Indian-inspired work for guitar and tabla drums, featuring percussionist, Neel Agrawal. Adaptations of traditional Chinese music (Chinese Songs) and original works inspired by the genre (Moonlit Night on Spring River) will also be featured. The program will further include a piece for solo guitar that Kenny Hill composed in memory of his father, There and Gone.
Möller is an international phenomenon, a winner of innumerable prizes (including First Place in the GFA International Competition in 2010) but more importantly, a creator of glistening new guises for the guitar.
His recitals span tremendous range and remind us of how diverse the guitar can be.
Special Guests: Guitarists Philip Collins and Jay Arms perform Madagascan tube harp music

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

My Time at SBAIC

I just got back from the Santa Barbara Guitar Acoustic Instrument Celebration. This was the second year. It was fun last year, and way more classy and well done this year. I hope it continues on and we can do it again and again. Thanks to Kevin and his crew for making it happen.

Actually I have a special point of view here. I made my first guitar in Santa Barbara in the 1970’s, so being in Santa Barbara was very nostalgic: In 1972 I was learning to play guitar, make guitars, write music, body surf, hike those mysterious mountains above the town. These were golden years. I was a skinny barefoot kid living the life, trying to avoid getting a job. I had started this sweet little guitar repair shop called Wooden Music,  and I was equally focused on classical guitar, the beach, the mountain trails, the music, getting stoned, and the girls.

This festival was housed right on the main beach in the Fess Parker Doubletree Hotel. There is an irony here because the last year that I was living in Santa Barbara there was a strong political battle about what to do with the undeveloped beachfront land — make it into a park — or make it into a lucrative tourist hotel. In 1976 something — to the extent that I was paying attention — I was all about the park. And now in 2017 I was exhibiting and staying at the hotel, quite happily. How the world does turn!

At the Santa Barbara festival on Saturday night I had some time to kill. The David Lindley concert at the Lobero Theater was at 8:00, so I had two hours free time, I went looking for one of the local festival venues in downtown Santa Barbara to get a bite to eat.  SoHo. This venue is in a warren of shops downstairs and upstairs on State Street and I decided to just hang out in the bar, the back of the room, a little separate from the music stage.There was a fine acoustic guitar concert performance going on, but I sat in the back, I was the only customer at the bar. I was watching Spanish TV above the bar and my eyes caught the  architectural trusses above the TV. It was obviously an old building with brick walls and ancient skylights that had been remodeled many times, and now a a hipster joint, with a young guy tending bar, waiting for the the younger So-Cal crowd to come in later, maybe around midnight. I was sitting there by myself, the only person there besides the bartender.  The roof trusses struck some chord, I thought I had seen them somewhere, in the fog of memory I realized holy shit, I’ve been here before! In this upstairs building it hit me, this was my first guitar shop! 1972, my first business. Even this very spot, I kissed a girl. More than 40 years ago I was living my life in this exact GPS location, this was my first guitar shop!

I couldn’t help myself, had to share it with somebody, so I blurted it out to the young bartender, “This place was my first guitar shop." He could have said “yeah man, far out” and blown me off, but instead this nice guy listened to my nostalgia, I described the corner of the building, the old windows above the parking lot, and he said  “Oh that’s the green room now, wanna see it?"

I was stunned, instinctively thought I should demure, but I said heck yeah!. If not now, when? He led me through the pantry and kitchen to the corner room, to the old window looking over the parking lot. It felt smaller than I remembered but not much changed, only the cars were newer. Looking down through the wash of memory, the not forgotten beauties tossing pebbles up to the window so I would open the downstairs door. I couldn’t believe it, my heart exploded, my eyes burst. This was my first guitar shop! Almost 50 years! How did this happen? The privilege of memory was young again. Just for a moment, but wow, what a moment! It felt like the cards of my life were spread out in a brilliant fan from then to now, prescient, nostalgic and current and vital.  Adreniline, sentiment and satisfaction all rolled together.

I took a picture. And sorry, I cried. Then I retreated and thought about what I could do with this burst of experience, how to savor it. What luck to be here. I hung out for a while longer talking with this young bartender, nice guy, he has young kids. He is trying to figure out what to do with his own life. He asked how it was in 1974, how I knew what I wanted to do for my whole life, even up to now. He could see I was much older than him. But actually I didn’t know the answer. I felt concerned for him, he sounded confused, and I guess that’s not such an unusual question these days. I’ve never asked it for myself. I wanted to light a fire for him, a fire like I’ve had had since back then. I love young people. I used to be one myself.

All I could think of to say was to "do whatever it is that you can’t not do.” Again, "Do whatever it is that you cannot - not - do." That impulse isn’t totally reliable, sounds a bit trite,  but maybe it’s the best thing we’ve got to go on. It still works for me. I hope that young bartender finds his move. I’m sure grateful for mine.

Kenny Hill
August 2017

By the way, the David Lindley concert was more than amazing. If you ever have the chance to see him, don’t miss it. He is a monster, an icon!

The view from the window of my old Santa Barbara workshop.