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Encores and Curtain Calls

Encores & Curtain Calls: The gentlest master troubadour

“Lean your body forward slightly to support the guitar against your chest, for the poetry of the music should resound in your heart.”

— Andres Segovia,
classical guitar virtuoso

There’s just enough time to read this and prepare to pilgrimage to Brattleboro, Vt., this evening to hear a regrettably rare performance by one of the world’s premier music masters, French-Algerian guitarist, singer and composer Pierre Bensusan, at the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery at 7:30 p.m.

Of his art, an anonymous voice has offered the supreme compliment: “The way a guitar would sound if it played itself.”

Bensusan began study of the piano at the age of 7 and taught himself guitar at 11, signing his first recording contract at 17. One year later, his first album, “Pres de Paris,” won the Grand Prix du Disque upon his debut at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland.

Bensusan was voted “Best World Music Guitar Player in 2008” by Guitar Player Magazine Readers Choice. He is a musician clearly well beloved by the world music community for, I believe, a number of compelling reasons. He has an undeniable humility, for one, in which one never feels subjugated to sheer virtuosity. This is a gentility that becomes readily apparent in the man himself, should one care to witness any of several interviews with this gentle voiced troubadour.

But even without the interviews, all is encoded in his music. Delicately strung lines, like the perfectly spun silkworm threads — not too tight, not too loose — span a fluid latticework of cascading under tones. At times, the aroma of American 20th century folk is thick in the air; shades of a Gallic, graceful James Taylor. At other times, the scent of soft, sensuous Latin jazz overtakes, ebbing and flowing like a dance of two lovers.

In truth, like many in the contemporary musical scene, his sound and style defy category, combining many cultural streams into a new, authentic and seamless voice.

The music is almost inevitably tender and sweet and rich with empathy, leaving its listeners quietly stunned by the profound peace its serene simplicity is able to impart. At its end, there is a warmth so welcome that it is hard not to want to hug its self-effacing source.

No doubt a goodly number of those reading these words have at some point or other in their lives, dabbled with coaxing sounds out of a guitar or some closely related variant — a duclimer or banjo, perhaps — if only to provide a cushion for the voice or background to soothe the soul.

It may be enlightening — as a guitarist myself — to share a bit about just what it takes to cajole the Muses out of a solitary acoustic guitar, whether amplified or not.

If I were a prospective performer choosing an instrument but wishing to steer clear of excess difficulty, danger, the imminent possibility of sounds all-too-easily muted or muffed by nervousness, and sheer, naked technical vulnerability, the one I would absolutely make certain to avoid would, alas, be the guitar.

Especially the acoustic guitar.

Sound technology has provided us with such a vast spectrum of musical legerdemain — distortion, self-looping, synthesizing and the capacity to generate decimating decibel levels — that these can easily be misheard for the stuff of music itself. There have been many performers — far too many, in my book — who have made entire careers out of manipulating this very impressive technological sound and fury, mesmerizing a goodly share of their devotees into the certainty that they are hearing actual music rather than skillfully manipulated sound.

But blow a circuit breaker — or just pull the plug — you’ll discover what lies beneath all the bells and whistles. In many cases, it will be found to be the tamest, even most tepid, creation imaginable.

A lone acoustic guitarist is, by necessity, a painfully honest being. He or she is out there in a way that almost no other musical performer — except, perhaps, an unaccompanied singer — can quite imagine: No bells, no whistles, no wires, no distortion, no techno layering, no safety net to catch him from the free fall of the missed note or chord.

Now, even a pianist has the luxury, should he or she be in less than stellar form, of knowing that when their hand descend and their finger strikes a note, that a pure clean sound of some kind will emerge. Not so the guitarist. For this perilously situated soul there is the all critical dance of coordination between the underhanded fretting of the left hand and the over handed plucking of the right, both of which must be exquisitely timed so that the (hopefully accurate) fret pressing occurs virtually simultaneously with — but actually a nanosecond prior to — that pluck.

This way, the guitarist knows that the sound he or she wishes to hear is securely in place without taking up critical space or dampening a still-vibrating prior sound. To place the finger on the fretboard prematurely would be disastrous, causing a musical traffic jam. And likewise, placing the fretting fingers on their destinations too late — that is, after the all important pluck which sets them vibrating — is to have them miss the boat entirely and to have inadvertently created a musical story far different than the one the composer wished to tell.

So then, when we are witnessing a good or great guitarist pealing forth with anything from a silky Bossa Nova ballad to the roiling tapestry of a fugue by Bach of four independent phased-in layers, we should know that for certain the artist you we are beholding has left more blood, sweat and tears on the jagged rocks littering the ferocious technical mountain he has had to scale than we would ever care to contemplate.

While unraveling a sinuous melody in the treble region, the fingers of a master like Bensusan will also magically conspire to cover a series of syncopated (off-beat) moving bass notes and, at the same time, spin out an intervening web of harmonies — all in fluid, rhythmic forward motion, as if the most natural thing the world.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t. If you want to see it up close, real and live this one time and this time only, come to the Hooker-Dunham Theater this very evening, and come with both your ears and eyes and see if you can fathom the secret by which one man with five fingers on each of his two hands can possibly produce the music that emerges thereby.

Or, as the gentleman said when witnessing the dog that could sing while walking on his hind legs, “The wonder is not that he does it at all, but that he does it so well!”

Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery is located at 139 Main St., downtown Brattleboro, Vt.  Tickets for the show are $20 general, $18 students and seniors.  For ticket reservations and information, call 802-254-9276.  For more information, visit www.pierrebensusan.com, www.twilightmusic.org and www.hookerdunham.org.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at
josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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