From Tragedy To Transcendence
(Out Of Time Music Company)


In 2015, guitarist Steven Hancoff released a 3 CD box set entitled From Tragedy To Transcendence – The Six Suites For ‘Cello Solo By J. Sebastian Bach For Acoustic Guitar. The 3 CD box set is filled with solo guitar transcriptions of Bach’s famous Cello Suites, written by Bach in 1720, when he was 35 years old. Hancoff has done a remarkable job, vividly bringing to life Bach’s complex music written for cello and has even transcribed it for steel string acoustic guitar, something unheard of in the more traditional classical music world. Speaking to about what inspired taking on a 3 CD box set of Bach’s iconic masterpiece, and transcribing it for acoustic guitar, Hancoff explains, “I was working every day to practice and organize my other recordings, but I’d start each day’s practice by reading one of the suites. I couldn’t help falling in love with the music. I even remember the first time I ever played the Prelude to Suite Six – which Rostropovich called “a symphony on four strings.” When I finished I was overwhelmed and quaking. I felt like I had entered some metaphysically significant realm, an entry granted only to a lucky few.” Not only has Hancoff produced an entire 3 CD box set of Bach’s Cello Suites for acoustic guitar but simultaneously, he has created an i-Book all about Bach, entitled Bach, Casals And The Six Suites For Cello Solo. Perfect if you have a Mac computer or an Apple i-Pad, the 4-volume set contains over a thousand images, 25 original videos and 300 works of contemporary art that animates Hancoff’s Bach experience. So, between the 3 CD box set From Tragedy To Transcendence – and the four volume i-Book, Steven Hancoff has brought Bach’s timeless music and sonic vision back to life in 2015 with new life and insight. For the final word on the life and times of Johan Sebastian Bach, check out Steven Hancoff’s superbly recorded 3 CD set From Tragedy To Transcendence and his impeccably produced four volume i-Book, all in praise of one of the greatest classical masters in music history. presents an interview with
Steven Hancoff

mwe3: Can you tell us something about where you grew up and when you began studying music and the guitar? I’m presuming you have extensive understanding of written notation and classical notation. What music inspired you most early on in your music studies?

Steven Hancoff: I’m from Baltimore. I never studied music with anybody. But I sure sat in my room, with my guitar and record player a lot! In 1961, when I was thirteen years old, I went to my first concert – by the folk group, The Weavers. I was smitten. Next day, I got a hold of a $15 genuine plywood Harmony nylon string guitar, and I got myself a record: The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I sat with that record every day, over and over until the grooves were literally worn out, and I figured out how to play all the songs on it. Then I got a second record, The Weavers on Tour, and did the same thing. Then I started hearing about other folk singers. I’d get their records, learned songs, etc. Within about six months, I’d go to two clubs: Le Flambeau and The Blue Dog where they had weekly “hootenannies.” I signed up every week at both clubs, and performed regularly.

When I was 20, I finally scraped together enough pennies to buy a good guitar. I had no real idea how to go about finding and purchasing the right guitar for me. There were always rumors about somebody picking up a vintage Martin D-28, the then-current gold standard for steel string acoustic guitars, at a pawnshop somewhere for fifty bucks, but not me.

So, I went into my local music store, Schubert’s in Baltimore, and told the owner, who I thought must be Mr. Schubert, what I wanted. He ordered a brand new D-35, and I picked it up two weeks later. I paid full retail. Maybe he felt sorry for my naiveté or something — I’ll never know why—but as I was leaving his shop, “Mr. Schubert” literally threw the Edmund Wensiecki guitar transcription of the Complete Lute Music of J. S. Bach at me, and said, “Here. Try this.”

It was from that book that I learned to read music, and where I was introduced to Bach. I absolutely loved stumbling my way through those pieces.

Jump forward to after college, I got a job teaching guitar at a studio in Vancouver, B.C. I played whatever gigs I could land. I played folk clubs in Gastown (the music district); lead guitar for a folk duo “Dale and Kathy” (Kathy had a gorgeous voice!); accompanied an Hungarian accordion player going table-to-table taking requests at a fancy restaurant playing standards like “Misty,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” etc. – that’s where I began to learn jazz chords; lead in a country & western band at a bar downtown called The Barn; several dance bands both in clubs and for weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. More venues than I can remember.

Because I play finger style – which sounds syncopated when accompanying a song – people who didn’t know any better said my style sounded like “ragtime.” So, I got curious about ragtime. I got a hold of Joshua Rifkin’s great Nonesuch Scott Joplin album, and wore that out. Then, one day in Omaha I happened to see a book of piano music – The Complete Classic Piano Rags of Scott Joplin. I bought it, and started to transcribe complete pieces note-for-note, including paying attention to the left-hand chord inversions. I was very, very accurate in transcribing and arranging these for guitar.

In 1975, about a year after I started my romance with Ragtime, I heard about the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin lived, and composed. I went, entered the contest, and won. The judges were a Who’s Who of the Ragtime world. And they encouraged me to keep doing this. One thing led to another so that I ended up recording two LPs of complete classic piano rags on guitar. Last I saw, one of the LPs was for sale on E-Bay for actual money!

You may notice that I don’t mention studying or teachers. And the reason for that is that I never had any teachers. I did, however, sit hour after hour, day after day, year after year, practicing, listening, figuring out, being moved – in short, immersing myself in the music and instrument with which I have had this, thus far, 54 year long love affair.

mwe3: I was reading you were an Artistic Ambassador for the U.S. Government touring the world. Can you elaborate somewhat on your Artistic Ambassador role and when did that happen in your life? What was involved with that? Sounds like an amazing experience!

Steven Hancoff: Indeed it was an extraordinary life experience.

As far as performing is concerned, I didn’t really pursue that so much. But another thing I love to do is white-water rafting. There was this river in Chile that was legendary – called the Bio-Bio. The Chilean government was about to dam it, meaning it wouldn’t be worth running anymore because the rapids would be washed out. So, people in the boating community sought another river in Chile to run, and they found the Futuleufu. So, in 1993, I went down there, and we ran both of them. By the way, we were only the second group to do the “Fu,” as we affectionately came to call it. And the week I left home to go down there, there was an article in the paper about how some people in the first group drowned doing it!

It turned out to be a great trip. Besides the whitewater, I did a lot of hiking, boating through spectacular iceberg-filled water, and much more. It was my first time in South America. So, when I came home, I was filled with stories of the wonder of the scenery, the sweetness of the people, the great local wine sold in boxes, and what a great place it was to visit.

One of my closest friends here was Buddy Wachter, who to me is still the greatest four-string banjo player of them all. We like to say, “He’s so good that nobody ever heard of him!” To give you an idea: I first met Buddy at a jazz jam. We were seated next to one another – the “string section.” We got along, and made a date to get lunch down the road. In the meantime, I had decided I wanted to transcribe some music by the great 1920’s banjo legend, Harry Reser. So, I walked into Bud’s apartment, and asked if he knew “Lollipops,” one of Reser’s signatures. Damn if Bud didn’t sit down, and write it down then and there, note-for-sixteenth-note! I was mightily impressed!

I mention all this because not a couple of weeks after I got back from Chile, here I am singing the praises of South America to Bud, the phone rings, and the US Information Agency wants us to do a tour in South America on behalf of the US. Talk about serendipity! On the tour we did two cities in Brazil, three in Argentina, and then three in Ecuador. In fact, we were the first Americans to ever play a concert in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, the southern most place in the world and the home of the most delicious seafood -- centolla -- in the world too.

When we got back, we were told, “You guys were a hit.” And this began our fifteen year association with USIA, and then the Arts America program of the US State Department.

We created a concert program that told the story of the history and development of American music from Stephan Foster through Gershwin and Ellington. Folk songs of the Civil War, cowboys, railroads, Sousa, Joplin, Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, and on and on. Telling the stories of the times, and the extremely interesting lives of the men and women who created our musical heritage.

In the end, we played in about 45 countries – all over South America, India, Africa, the Arab world – we even played in Saudi Arabia where concerts are actually illegal! – Asia, China twice! And I can’t count how many cities, how many radio/newspaper/magazine/TV interviews. We also taught master classes. I have stories galore… but they are best told verbally rather than written down. It has been a vast and enriching pleasure getting to meet and befriend some of the great painters, poets, dancers, novelists… you name it… You should see my address book! And what a singular honor representing America in the world. There’s plenty of more-than-interesting info about this on my website.

mwe3: After years of doing the Ambassador work, you recorded some albums prior to your new Bach work. How did making your other albums pave the way so to speak to Bach, Back to Bach to coin a phrase?

Steven Hancoff: At some point my wife and I traveled around a lot. We called it “dirtbagging.” We ended up for about a year in Hawaii. There was a guitar playing contest there too, which I won. I was named “Hawaii Guitar Champion,” whatever that means! This led to my doing my first concert tour – six concerts on the Big Island of Hawaii. That gave me the bug. So, I came back to the mainland, sat and practiced A LOT, went into the studio, and recorded Steel-String Guitar, my first CD.

Because of my reputation in the Ragtime world, and then the good reviews of the album, I started getting invitations to a lot of traditional jazz festivals where I had solo sets, but was also typically invited to sit in with the bands. This was my introduction to playing traditional New Orleans jazz. So, I’d sit in, and had to play music on stage that I did not know. This was great ear training, and this was how I learned to hear chord changes just before they happened. I got a reputation with the guys in the bands. And they would play their most sophisticated charts just to see if they could mess me up. I was later told that some of the guys would occasionally bet a beer on whether I’d get a particular change or not! It was huge fun – and very challenging.

At one of the festivals, on the Goldenrod Showboat on the Mississippi River in St. Louis, an old man came up to me after I played a set. He said, “Kid, you got it.” I was 41 years old, and no one had called me “Kid” for a very long time! The man was Al Rose. Al invited me to New Orleans.

Now, Al was a grand old man of jazz. He had had the very first jazz radio show in the world. He had also produced the very first jazz concerts in the 1930’s called “Journeys into Jazz.” Before that, jazz bands played for dances. He also wrote books about jazz and about New Orleans, one of which was called “Storyville”, the name of the legal red-light district in New Orleans in the early 20th century, and the book that was turned into the movie “Pretty Baby,” Brooke Shields’ break out hit.

I spent a year living in New Orleans, on Governor Nichols St. in the Quarter, playing with jazz bands, and hanging out with musicians there. I also spent many, many hours with Al in his den as he regaled me with tales of the early days of jazz. He was a great storyteller. In fact, his “autobiography,” “I Remember Jazz” is just a bunch of stories, many of which I’d bet are tall tales. The man could spin a yarn!

I also sat with him at the Tulane Jazz Archives, much of which was his donation. He smiled when he mentioned what a great tax write off that had been – like the cat that ate the canary! He’d instruct me by saying things like: “Now, listen to the clarinet obbligato here,” or “Listen to how the trombone supports the trumpet solo.” Things like that. I learned lot from Al.

That’s when I recorded my second CD, New Orleans Guitar Solos. When it was done, I remember handing it to Al. He looks at it, and in a deep guttural voice just said, “Yeah.” He was definitely my mentor.

Anyway, I realized that the next step in terms of the development of American music was swing. A little history: Jazz was a New Orleans phenomenon. When Storyville was shut down, by edict of the US Navy during WWI because it was forbidden to have a brothel within a certain distance from a Navy base, gigs for jazz musicians dried up. This drove many to leave the laid-back city, and head to where the action was – which meant Kansas City, St. Louis, and then Chicago, and of course New York. So, swing developed as a citified response to the New Orleans sound. Rhythms became more complicated. And of course harmonies were far more complex. Charts had to be written down, and were much more specific because sections had to play tight and often in unison. And add to that the new city sound of saxophone taking the place of clarinet, and just the intensity of the north versus the “Big-Easiness” of N’Awlins – and that gave rise to swing. And so I listened to lots and lots of swing. And it did not take long to become apparent to me why Duke Ellington was the grand master.

So, I got into transcribing Ellington, and I recorded my first Ellington CD – Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar. But by the time I finished that, I still had about half a dozen more pieces I wanted to record. So, I kept working on it, until I had a second CD – The Single Petal of a Rose.

By the way, we found the album cover painting for Single Petal – a lovely young woman holding a rose – at a street market in Lijiang, China after we played a ten-city tour through the western Uyghur region of the country. Talk about an amazing adventure!

I also toured in quite a few American cities, including in 1985 in California. That trip turned out to be beyond significant. I had a couple of days between performances and called Michael Lorimer. Michael had been Segovia’s student. That’s when he told me that I ought to check out the Cello Suites.

mwe3: When did the idea come to you to record the “Six Suites For Cello Solo”? Was the catalyst Bach and how does Pablo Casals fit into that equation? I forgot Casals played for JFK in 1961. That must have been something to see.

Steven Hancoff: Well, after Michael suggested them, I got a hold of his transcriptions. I was working every day to practice and organize my other recordings, but I’d start each day’s practice by reading one of the suites. I couldn’t help falling in love with the music. I even remember the first time I ever played the Prelude to Suite Six – which Rostropovich called “a symphony on four strings.” When I finished I was overwhelmed and quaking. I felt like I had entered some metaphysically significant realm, an entry granted only to a lucky few. Over time I vaguely thought about that I’d like to devote myself to Bach and to the Suites.

Then in the mid-1990’s, I was staying over at the apartment of my friend Ruth in New York. Her boyfriend at the time was a record producer. And he came home one night with a new record: it was John Lewis (the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet) playing Well-Tempered Clavier. I put on the headphones, and decided that night that I was going to devote myself to delving into Bach at some point.

But then the Artistic Ambassadorial gig came along. So, years passed. But I never did lose sight of the intention. Finally, I cut the State Department cord, and I dove in.

By the way, now that you mention Casals and JFK, Casals played a concert at the White House, November, 1961. The elegant pictures of him, Marta Casals and the Kennedy’s appear in the
i-Book. In 1963, President Kennedy named Casals a recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian award. But before he presented it, Kennedy was assassinated. The medal was subequently presented to Casals in December by President Johnson. That picture is also in the book, along with about 1,000 other great pictures!.

mwe3: The 3 CD Bach Cello Suite album is entitled From Tragedy To Transcendence? In your liner notes, you make us feel genuinely moved by Bach’s tragedies and how he triumphed over them. The 3 CD set is an incredible tribute to Bach’s enduring legacy as the God Of Music. How long did it take to put the whole project together?

Steven Hancoff: Well, first, I take creating the liner notes booklet very, very seriously. I intend for them to be beautiful and meaningful, and to help to render the music on the discs more intelligible. So, I’m very glad you feel that way.. because the entire saga is inherently and profoundly moving.

And second, I don’t know if I’d say “God of Music.” But Casals, in his incredibly poetic manner, once said: The miracle of Bach has not appeared in any other art. To strip human nature until its Divine attributes are made clear, to inform ordinary activities with spiritual fervor, to give wings of eternity to that which is most ephemeral; to make Divine things human and human things Divine; such is Bach, the greatest and purest music of all time.
I’d say that’s pretty good!

The project – of which there are four distinct elements – took, or I should say is still taking eight years. But that was kind of an accident. I expected to take 2- 3 years to do the transcriptions and recordings. And that is about how long that process actually did take. As the project evolved, five elements emerged:
1. The Recording: From Tragedy to Transcendence
The four Volume iBook: Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for Cello Solo
3. Fourteen promotional You-Tube Videos
4. The dissemination of the printed transcriptions themselves.
5. A concert-length, multi-media presentation of the entire phenomenal legend. The first performances will be in Vancouver at the end of November.

Early on I decided that the transcriptions and recording would be deepened and just made much better if I knew more about the man himself and what the circumstances of his life were when he composed this heavenly music.

So, I started reading biographies. And then talking to people. I’d get up early, and do a lot of Googling for articles, talking on the phone, thinking about things, dipping my toes into the waters of writing. Certain things became apparent: a lot of Bach biographers are geniuses whose use of language is downright masterful (so reading was a pleasure); Bach himself essentially wrote nothing down except the music itself (i.e. he did not commit his thoughts, intellectual or creative processes to paper); no-one really knows for whom he may have written them; nobody that I encountered actually wrote anything about why he might have composed the cello suites, or why he composed them when he did. If you look up “Cello Suites” in the index of the books, you get at most one page, sometimes one paragraph, and sometimes nothing at all.

But what struck me as most significant was the circumstance of his life when he composed this music. My take is way too much to articulate in an interview – after all, I spent years pondering and writing about all this. But in short, for the first 32 years of his life, eight of the people closest to him died (parents, siblings and three children). And every job he held is riddled with angst, intrigue, trouble, nobody likes him or appreciates his music. He is in trouble with his bosses and the authorities most of the time. The very definition of frustration. The one fulfilling aspect of his life is that he meets and marries Maria Barbara about whom we know almost nothing other than she was very musical, she bore seven children, and in Bach’s obituary, Carl Philipp Emanuel (Sebastian and Barbara’s second son) wrote that Sebastian Bach enjoyed: “…thirteen years of blissful married life.”

Then, he gets the gig of a lifetime – writing music for a Prince who is musical himself and who becomes his best friend. For three years things are looking up. He and the Prince (as they did each year) go away on holiday to a fancy spa for a month. He comes home, and as he enters the house, he discovers that Maria Barbara is dead and buried, and no one can tell him what killed her. Just put yourself in his place for a moment. Imagine…

He then goes to visit his old high-school organ mentor, Adam Reincken, performs the grief-filled By the Waters of Babylon We Wept, and a song he composed, I Had Great Distress in My Heart. In other words, Sebastian Bach is publicly expressing intimate grief and bitterness. He returns home, and he composes The Six Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo and the Six Suites for Cello Solo, basically the very first of his iconic masterpieces.

At this point he is 35 years old. And from here on out, the torrent of immortal music flows from him until the end of his life in spite of the fact that, starting three years after Maria Barbara’s death, he held a low paying, subservient position, a day job teaching Latin and leading a boys’ choir.

Putting these events together struck me as extraordinary. And I felt that I had to write about it, because I had to seek to fathom how the man metabolized his agony in such a way that he turned himself into BACH, the great genius of Western music. The bedrock of Western harmony, for goodness sakes!, and he did not allow himself to let his tragedies define his life or, indeed, who he was.

mwe3: Tell us about the complexities of figuring out how to transcribe Bach’s cello music for guitar. How long did it take to put the notes for cello into form to play on the guitar? Did you have other parameters to help guide you? I know John Williams recorded Bach’s Lute Suites for guitar.

Steven Hancoff: In order to perform the Cello Suites for guitar, it is necessary to take into account that the timbre of the cello is of a very different temperament — more deep, less bright —than that of a guitar, classical or acoustic. Since this music will never sound the same on my instrument as it does on the cello, I concluded that merely transporting the notes from one instrument to the other can and should not be the point. The point is to create as-great-as-I-can guitar pieces.

The cello is essentially a single-note-at-a-time instrument. In contrast, while the guitar can certainly be played as a single-note instrument, accompanying bass lines and chords are readily available, and more to the point, are inherent to the nature and structure of the instrument.

Also, on a cello, a note can start soft and grow louder and be played for as long as the musician wants by virtue of the cello being a bowed instrument. With a guitar, on the other hand, the note is always loudest the first instant it sounds. Then it immediately begins to decay until it vanishes or until it is intentionally stopped.

So, the creative juice is in harmonizing the Cello Suites while still playing all of Bach’s notes, and staying true to the profundity of his musical and emotional intent, while contending with the limitations of the instrument.

mwe3: What about the other project you simultaneously created, the four volume Bach i-Book – Bach Casals and the Six Suites for Cello Solo? I watched the videos, which are brilliant and it almost seems like an overwhelming concept to put Bach’s life into a 21st century perspective. After all, we are talking about a composer who was born in 1685! What were the challenges in creating the i-book?

Steven Hancoff: Well, I like to say the i-Book was an accident… because it was. It started as liner notes. But the more I read, learned, talked with people, thought about things… the more the story revealed itself. I began to realize that this is maybe the most grand story of inspiration and serendipity in the entire canon of Western culture. Don’t forget – I didn’t know any of this when I started. And at the same time, electronic books, and the doo-dads associated with them, were just being invented.

About four years ago, Beth (my other half) and I were on a bus in Harlem. We noticed that not a single person – not one – was looking at a piece of paper. No newspapers, no books, no magazines… But literally everybody was staring at an electronic device of one kind or another. So, that got our attention – that’s really when the light bulb went on. I call it Guttenburg 2.0

My writing is anecdotal rather than technical, describing the lives of these great men in the context of their times as I have come to fathom them—as fascinating, illuminating, and inspiring artists, and as human beings challenged, like all of us, by the demands of life. Raising kids, paying rent, dealing with unsatisfiable bosses… same as we all have. It’s just that they were somehow able to rise above everything. I want to be able do that.

You mention the videos. There are 25 embedded in the book. There are nine elements of interactivity. For example, if you read somebody’s name, you can click on it, and a pop-up with a picture and description of who the person was appears. And that’s only one of the elements. And you can do the same thing with musical terms.

In addition to the storytelling, the book is illustrated, with about 1,000 (!) period pictures – a cornucopia of portraits, oils, watercolors, stained glass, photographs, etchings and engravings, documents, sculptures, statues and monuments. These pictures illustrate the text, and make the i-book very colorful and accessible.

Also, when I started I wanted to have a few Bach-inspired pieces of art. I knew about the Bach masterpieces by Georges Braque. But when I found out how much it would cost to publish them, I gave up on the idea. One day it finally dawned on me that lots and lots of contemporary artists have created passionate and glorious art inspired by Bach, and Pablo Casals. So, I went to artists’ websites, wrote letters asking for permission in exchange for the i-Book when it came out. One thing led to another, and to my utter delight, fewer than a dozen people turned me down. And in the end, more than 300 artists gave me art for the book. So, when I say “accident,” I mean it: this became the single largest collection of Bach-inspired art ever collected in one place. I call it “Bachiana.”

I can tell everybody all about it, but when they see it, that’s when the jaws drop. Even calling it a “book” is misleading, really a misnomer. This really is something new under the sun. It seems to me that the establishment media are still asleep at the wheel. Even they are going to have to wake up to this phenomenon one of these days!

I think Roxane Assaf, who wrote about it in Huffington Post, put it better than I can. She wrote: The experience of the i-book contrasts Hancoff's natural, even folksy, delivery with slickly produced graphics and video, gliding so smoothly from one turn to the next that total immersion is irresistible….It is an antique subject elegantly rendered in an impossibly light 21st-century container.

: What acoustic guitar do you play on the Bach box set? I guess people would usually associate Bach with the more traditional sounding classical guitar but it’s interesting that your steel string acoustic gets a very chimey sound, not unlike a harpsichord in places. Also tell us something about your other favorite guitars over the years and do you play other instruments?

Steven Hancoff: On the same trip when I met Michael Lorimer, I also met Ervin Somogyi in Berkeley, California. I had been looking for someone to make a guitar for me, but had not yet been satisfied. Then, in San Francisco, I visited Alex DeGrassi. I played exactly one open E major chord on his guitar. Asked him who made it. He told me Ervin Somogyi made it. I now count Ervin as a close friend, and he’s the guy who built my guitars. On this album, I’m playing a Somogyi Jumbo Cutaway… Jumbo for the deeper bass that I sought.

One review noted that the sound might be closer to what Bach may have intended because he would not have had any access to nylon strings. But as you allude to, he would have heard harpsichord strings. I don’t know. I love both of them.

I don’t play other instruments, except to mess around sometimes. I wish I’d learned piano when I was young. But now that you mention it, I once played kazoo in a jug band!

mwe3: I noticed you are wearing a thumb pick in your performance videos. How would you describe your right hand picking technique? Do you use other classical guitar techniques on your picking hand or your left fretting hand?

Steven Hancoff: I use a thumb pick, and picks on the i,m and a fingers. Lorimer once told me that Fernando Sor did not use the a finger at all.

As to organizing these transcriptions for acoustic guitar as opposed to the classical guitar, it is fundamental to take into account that the tonal character and technical requirements of a steel-strung instrument are very different than those of a nylon-strung one. For one thing, an acoustic guitar is louder than a classical guitar. The unwound treble bronze-treated steel strings (E and B strings) sound brighter, less sweet, less “fat,” and are less influenced by vibrato*** than their nylon counterparts, especially higher up the fingerboard.

***An irresistable aside: The great conductor Otto Klemperer (and father of Werner Klemperer, the actor who played the role of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes), on being told that vibrato was an ornament that should never be employed when playing Bach, was reported to have replied: “Huh? Twenty children and no vibrato?”)

The wound phosphor bronze bass strings (E, A, D, G) tend to sound more deeply but perhaps somewhat more brashly than wound nylon. Also, on a classical guitar, the third string (G) is usually not wound. Consequently, notes sounded on an acoustic third string feel somewhat more confluent with regard to the timbre of the bass line than on the third string of a classical guitar.

Furthermore, the classical guitarist has twelve frets, one complete octave per string, with which to work ahead of the convergence of the fingerboard with the body of the instrument and where fingering dexterity therefore becomes more limited, whereas the acoustic guitarist has fourteen such frets, and especially with a cutaway instrument like mine, there is more flexibility for playing very high up the neck.

Last, the strings on an acoustic guitar sit more closely to one another than they do on a classical guitar (about 46 mm for
the acoustic vs. 54 mm for the classical guitar at the nut, and therefore 9.2 mm between acoustic strings vs.10.8 mm between classical strings), so that the width of their respective necks differs (about 51 mm vs. 59 mm). For me, this renders picks a necessity rather than a luxury.

mwe3: Were you interested in the classical guitar when you were younger? Who were and who still are some of your favorite classical guitarists?

Steven Hancoff
: No. I did not know about classical guitar. The Weavers were my first concert. The second, a few months later, was Segovia. The publicity said he was the greatest guitarist in the world. But I thought the Weavers were better because Segovia only plucked one or two strings at a time. Whereas the Weavers could hit all six at once!

That was the reasoning, the artistic impression, of a musically inexperienced thirteen year old boy.

I love a lot of classical guitarists. I apologize ahead of time for unintentionally omitting some of them! To me Kazuhito Yamashita is a kind of miracle. Cellist and playwright Harry Clarke dubbed him “the Franz Liszt of guitar.” Well put, I’d say. But I have pretty much the same list as everybody, I guess. John Williams, Pepe Romero. I saw Romero in concert a few years ago. I couldn’t believe the ease with which he addresses the instrument. He caresses it like a lover.

I love the composing of Stepan Rak and Leo Brouwer. I loved Narciso Yepes’ recording of the Scarlatti Sonatas on his seven-string. Manuel Barrueco is amazing, so musical. I can’t imagine how Eliot Fisk does what he does. Sharon Isbin. Paul Galbraith recorded the Violin Sonatas and Partitas on an eight string guitar that he holds like a cello (with a tail-pin), but is fretted and plucked like a guitar. A gorgeous recording. There are so many. You could say that Segovia had a lot of kids.

Did you know that back in 1924 it was Pablo Casals, who by then was probably the most renowned, not to mention well-paid, musician in the world, who introduced the then-unknown 31-year-old Andrés Segovia to Parisian high society? Casals vowed never to return to Spain as long as Franco continued to rule there. So, when Segovia moved back after the war, Casals broke off all contact with him because he felt that Segovia’ s repatriation was an impardonable transgression.

mwe3: What are your other favorite works by Bach as performed by other artists?

Steven Hancoff: Well, I just mentioned Galbraith. And Yamashita’s Cello Suites are miraculous, as far as I’m concerned. Almost everybody has done at least some of the Lute music. And Segovia and others have played the Chaconne.

Beyond that, Ton Koopman’s performances of the Cantatas – if you want to be moved, just open yourself to any of those. Of course, all the great cellists have recorded the Suites. And it’s absolutely amazing how the same and how different they all are. I love Fournier’s version a lot. I don’t think Jacqueline du Pre recorded them. But I have heard her Kol Nidre, which is in beyond description. I wish I could have seen her live.

Everybody should be made to hear St. Matthew Passion at least once in their lives. It’s impossible for me to name one recording of it. Composing it may be the greatest single artistic achievement of any human being in history.

This question is unfair – because it’s too hard to stop. There are so many. I’d guess off the top of my head that there are more recordings of the music of J. S. Bach than of any other person.

mwe3: You surely must be getting some great reactions from both classical music lovers and guitar fans on the 3 CD Bach set as well as fans of high technology things like i-books and internet related things! What’s been the overall response?

Steven Hancoff: Well, it’s people like you who help to get word out. And I can’t express my gratitude enough. But I get e-mails everyday from people, right now often musicians, that are pouring love and praise on me. It’s amazing, actually. The thing is, I kind of feel it’s a mission, a calling, to tell this story to the world. Just because it is so extraordinary. And the story is told best in the four-volume iBooks.

It’s an emotional, or spiritual, bonus, really that people feel so touched and so moved by music in general, and by this recording in particular. It actually feels like quite a high honor. Did you know that the ancients regarded the fact that music is intelligible to the human ear – that is, we can discern melody instead of experiencing it as random sounds – to be proof of the existence of God because it meant to them that harmonic relationship was intentionally created by a reasonable Being?

Pretty soon I’ll be sending the CDs and i-Books to all the artists who so generously contributed their work to the project. I expect I’ll be hearing a lot then.

It’s not ready yet, but soon I’ll be putting up a page on my website chock full of letters from people responding to the project. I’m definitely looking forward to doing that.

mwe3: What would you have to say to those who have no clue who Bach is / was in describing his relevance to music of the 21st century? Also is there a way to compare Bach with Beethoven or other composers? I know Beethoven came after Bach, so who were Bach’s contemporaries in the early 18th century (the 1700’s) and what inspired him?

Steven Hancoff: Playing Bach on an acoustic guitar – this is not your granddaddy’s Bach. Of course, I’m not by any means the first to record or play Bach idiosyncratically. Remember that fantastic album by the Swingle Singers? And how about Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach that sold more albums than any classical recording ever.

I’d tell them that old Sebastian was The Father of Harmony.

His work (well-tempering) is what made it possible to play in all the keys.

Beethoven famously said: “His name should not have been Bach (which in German means “brook” or “stream.” It should have been Ocean!”

The great Dr. Albert Schweitzer said: “His single concern was to create what is true.”

And Aaron Copland addressed this very matter most perfectly: “…all the grandeur, nobility and inner depth that one creative soul could bring to it…. spiritual wholeness, the sense of his communing with the deepest vision…”

I can’t possibly do better than that. But if you want a complete, entertaining, enlightening, astonishing answer to this question, come to one of the concert presentations that I expect to be touring with next year.

mwe3: Is the 3 CD set From Tragedy To Transcendence and the four volume i-Book your defining moment as an artist or are there other mountains to climb, so to speak, at least from an artistic standpoint? Any other plans moving forward?

Steven Hancoff: I have a handful of cool ideas for projects. And I like climbing mountains because it’s from the top of mountains that you get the most awe-inspiring view.

That said, it’s hard to imagine ever devoting myself to any other project with the same passion and intensity which this one called for. And I wouldn’t mind basking for a little while!

Above, I mentioned this is a five-element project. The fifth element that is almost complete is that I am creating a concert-length program – with music, video, pictures, storytelling that tells that saga.. actually what ought to be a grand legend of our culture. In short,
- The tragedies he endured
- He becomes the greatest virtuoso and composer
- When he dies, he is unknown as a composer
- His music is not rediscovered until 80 years after his death
- The Cello Suites are lost to obscurity until a teen-ager accidentally comes upon them
- The teenager just happens to be Pablo Casals
- Casals, in exile, finally consents to record them just as the world is going up in flames – World War II begins three weeks after he completes his immortal recording.

It’s going to be a sensational, enticing, beautiful, musical, compelling and moving evening.


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