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Fanciful Strumming, The Flamenco Way

Music is fun to write about, provided that precision of terms is evaded. It is normal that art based on non-verbal sounds doesn’t easily lend itself to verbal descriptions, hence too much precision can get in the way. A famous example is the term “atonal” for describing the music without tonal center. Its actual meaning is “toneless”, and many attempts have failed to replace the term “atonal” with something more defining. Furthermore, musicians seem to favor catchiness, and today, as another new term is about to become accepted, I believe it would stick as “irrational meters”, instead of “time signatures with denominators that are not powers of two”.

Guitar can be played in many different ways, likely in more distinct ways than any other instrument. One can be foolish and argue the supremacy of one way of playing over another, as has happened many times before. However, every style of guitar playing has a reason to exist In some unique dimension that takes true mastery to conjure up.

The element most characteristic and idiomatic on the guitar is the strumming of chords. It has many advantages, and only one big downside, which is a narrow potential of chords playable, compared to keyboard instruments. Its wide array of advantages include: fairly sonorous six-tone chords, great dynamic range and variety, ability to play rhythmic patterns, and the rapid repetitions of those same chords in ways impossible with other instruments.

Now, here comes a moment for some more inexactness. I will refer to every strumming performed with the fingers of the right hand as a rasgueado. A term from flamenco music and flamenco style, it is undoubtedly the most advanced technique when it comes to strumming the guitar strings. However, the guitar has been fancily strummed before regardless of flamenco; hence it should be possible to use today’s rasgueado in a context without flamenco music, despite the awareness of the heavy burden of ingenuity and artistic mastery that association with flamenco music may bring. To be objective, one must mention that the technical mastery of the rasgueado as we know it today has been developed in the last hundred years. Nevertheless, it should be possible to make a connection to earlier documented examples of fanciful strumming. There are rasgueados in French, Spanish, and Italian baroque guitar music. There are many editions of music by de Visée, Corbetta, Roncalli, and other baroque guitarists that today’s guitar students study at conservatories. However, much of it is out of context, as the rasgueados are usually omitted, and the modern guitar simply cannot emulate the courses and, sometimes, alternative tunings. The sonorities and fine colorings produced were often integral parts of compositions, and a listen to some fine performance on an authentic instrument will aptly show how much must have been missed since rasgueados were not given a more prominent role in the further development of classical guitar. Another (very famous) early example is Boccherini’s guitar quintet “Fandango” - of which I yet need to see the facsimile edition- which to certain extent should be mirroring the level on which flamenco must have been played at that time.

To date, standard strumming in classical literature was executed by a series of alternating up and down strokes with the index finger. There are quite a number of classical guitarists today, however, who strive to integrate five-finger rasgueados (and other flamenco techniques) in their playing. In such cases, there is a crossing of the Rubicon when it comes to nails. The right hand nails have always been a source of frustration for classical guitarists, as it is not possible to meet today’s standards of playing without maintaining good right hand nails. In the course of practicing and playing, nails get damaged, shortened, and cracked, causing the performance to suffer. With rasgueados, the nails get battered not only from the inner, but also from the outer side. As a result, in most of the cases, using artificial nails, or another form of protection involving strong adhesives, becomes unavoidable. It is certainly a major inconvenience, and putting glue on nails on a regular basis is not a way to promote their health. Usage of artificial nails inevitably brings with itself loss of some subtleties of tone possible only with a good set of natural nails, and some classical guitarists see it as a reason never to cross the Rubicon.

One can become frustrated and wonder why rasgueados haven’t been developed and incorporated into classical guitar musicianship earlier. It is not only that rasgueados are the most idiomatic element of guitar playing, but also the loudest. It is an interesting detail to mention in the light of the fact that one of the main reasons for the absence of guitar from a variety of chamber music combinations, or orchestral music, is its inability to acoustically assert itself, and be heard in larger groups of standard orchestral instruments. With rasgueados close to today’s standard of playing, guitar certainly could have been integrated. One can even imagine guitar rasgueados supporting orchestral tuttis without too much brass, promoting the development of a completely new orchestral character. Classical literature would have looked quite differently, and it is likely that we would be seeing guitarists going to orchestral trials today.

Looking to the development of classical music in a variety of forms, music has crossed to instruments from the realm of vocal music, and not vice versa. The medieval songs, renaissance madrigals and motets, and the styles and textures thereof have found their way to being transferred and transcribed for instruments. In the family of plucked strings, these were the lute, vihuela, and baroque guitar. A style has developed through imitating vocal music: fantasies and tientos by Milan and ricercars by da Milano are some of the stricter examples. Then, strumming was coming from dance and folk music and its emergence was slower. It seems to have peaked with baroque guitarists and to later be mostly neglected by “classical” musicians almost until today.

One of the reasons that may have played a role in the avoidance of rasgueados by classical guitarists may have to do with the social status of classical guitar. As classical guitar was regaining its status and rebuilding its code as an instrument taught at conservatories and present in subscription programs with classical concerts, it was necessary to easily differentiate from all the other styles, which were not classical, and hence to be excluded from this context. The economic implications were of primary importance. Hence, rasgueados had to be pushed aside, in order not to resemble flamenco guitarists. This may also be the reason for some displeasing statements about flamenco guitar by some leading classical guitarists.

Interestingly, one of the elements suppressed in order to achieve that status, is the one that is the most idiomatic, characteristic, and sonically rich on the guitar – fanciful strumming, i. e. rasgueado, which has in the meantime been developed in the flamenco realm, so much so that it rivals the technically most sophisticated conservatory achievements.

Rasgueado may in the future be spoken of as an element “temporarily developed by flamenco virtuosi”. Writing for classical guitar may change, and guitar may become more prominently featured in chamber and orchestral music. Concertos for guitar and orchestra featuring flamenco soloists playing parts with no flamenco music may become common. Although it is difficult to imagine that a great convergence would take place musically between classical and flamenco styles, in terms of technique, only dogmatism may stand in the way.


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