Not a jazz guitarist in any conventional sense, but an improviser of eloquence and imagination, nor strictly a classical guitarist, Ralph Towner is a category unto himself. originally a pianist, he has always sought to access on guitar the piano’s harmonic potential…
As a guitarist who specialises in solo concerts of original compositions and improvisation, I often think of myself as a raconteur of the abstract. It’s my contention that music unfolds to the listener as does a work of literature, only without the specific meanings of written or spoken words.
Each time I plant myself on stage before an audience, I proceed from the first sound to attempt to develop a musical continuity that will draw the listener into a world populated with a cast of sonic characters playing out an existence replete with all the emotions that could be suggested in a play or any work of literature.
Before a concert I choose from a list of pieces that I have composed, each of which has a unique quality that establishes a particular atmosphere that I can develop further with improvisation. I always begin with an improvised introduction to a composition, feeling out the sound of the room and the energy in the audience. An advantage of being an improvising soloist is that you are free to alter, or depart from, the form of a piece at any point if you sense that the ‘story’ needs a turn of events. In this respect, I consider myself as part of the audience, and if all is going well, I am swept along with everyone as to the shape and course the music takes.
Music, in my opinion, is a social art that combines the energies and contributions of multiple musicians and listeners. Being a soloist seems antithetical to this notion, but I feel the cultivation and imaginative use of a broad variety of musical colours and techniques invest the music with an orchestral aura that transcends the audience’s perception that it is being produced by a single player. Once the music has begun, it ceases to be a matter of how many are playing and what instruments are being played, and becomes rather a passage into a world of infinite sounds that are completely personal to each listener. The less self-conscious the audience and performer become, the better the concert. The most drastic difference for the solo player is that at the conclusion of the concert, the pleasure of discussing the concert you just played with the other musicians in the group isn’t possible. It is ironic that much of my sense of musical interaction in a solo piece has been cultivated by playing in group situations.
So far I haven’t felt any loss of fascination for the art of music. The guitar, for me, has always been an instrument with a bottomless reservoir of musical colours and possibilities. It continues to be a passport into a wondrous realm, and I am grateful for this.
– Ralph Towner, “‘Horizons Touched”
May 22 & 23, 1998.