The Cathedral

Every once in a while, I hear a piece of music that I forgot existed. Maybe it’s been many years, maybe just one year, but I hear it and I suddenly remember how great it is. This sometimes happens on my way to the grocery store late at night while channel surfing on the radio. Most recently it was The Cathedral, by Augustine Barrios. Here is a good version.

On the radio though, they played the John Williams recording. (This is John Williams the Australian guitarist, no relation to the more famous movie composer.) Despite the big celebrity name, I’ve never liked his playing much. Tonight it figured out why. It’s not his technique, which is clearly very good. Rather, it is the recording technique. They must have put a ribbon mic about 2 inches away from the bridge and stuck him in a dead room. It’s SOOOOO dry. No reverb and you can hear every tiny little fret scrape and fingernail noise. It’s raw and pure and… completely distracting and sparse. Sure, having too much reverb (or even effects!) can quickly get you into syrupy New Age territory, but I think you have to have SOME. A little bit of acoustic sustain goes a LONG way to making music beautiful and connected, and a nylon string guitar playing a lot of notes quickly needs it desperately. Dry is bad and this particular recording on NPR was just so. Fortunately, the piece is pretty popular so there are lots of alternative versions to listen to, like the one in the video above.

Everyone always wants to play the fast third movement, but I think the slow prelude is really the best part.