Saturday, October 23, 2010

A song for Ruby

A few days ago I went with Ruby and a few other friends to see the phenomenal Aussie guitarist Tommy Emmanuel playing at the Centennial Theatre in Peking University.  (Regular readers may remember that I was bummed that I missed his show there this time last year because I'd only found out about it a few hours before it was due to start.)

This was one of the highlights of the evening, one of the prettiest of his own compositions, an instrumental number he calls Ruby's Eyes. Our Ruby, of course, likes to imagine that it was written for her (though Tommy claims he wrote it on the spur of the moment for a little girl he once met in an airport).

[Now, I hate to be a curmudgeon again, but... well, yes, it was a fine show and Tommy is certainly a remarkable talent... However, I wasn't always convinced by the musicality of the performance.  There was a tendency to overindulge the pyrotechnics, to throw in eccentric techniques or very fast passages just to show off - at the cost, I felt, of some smoothness or accuracy in the phrasing, or, at times, of the logic of the musical development.  Tommy loves to entertain, and I suspect he was deliberately playing up to the somewhat unsophisticated tastes of the predominantly Chinese audience (the Chinese like showing off; and they like short, flashy - or quirky - moments that can prompt them to applaud in the middle of a song; and they love any strong rhythmic figure that can get them clapping along or stamping their feet!).  Ruby (who's seen quite a lot of Tommy on TV when she was living in Australia, and much preferred those performances) and another of my companions (himself an extremely fine guitarist) both shared some of my scepticism; they suggested that the 'cheese factor' - both in some of the song choices and in the style of performance - was being ramped up to please the Chinese punters.  'Entertaining' and 'artistry' ought not to be mutually exclusive or incompatible; but on this occasion I found these two strands of musicianship disentwining rather.  And, while it may have been more of a problem when playing for a Chinese crowd, I suspect it is always likely to be a vice of Tommy's; when you have developed such an extraordinary technique, it must often get tempting to demonstrate how good you are.... rather than just play music, rather than rely on simplicity of melody and the subtle tonality of the guitar to engage your audience.  I found this over-elaboration especially irritating on some of the covers he did, particularly Over The Rainbow: a tune that beautiful doesn't need a lot of trills and flourishes poured all over it!  Curiously enough, he tended to give his own compositions a much more straightforward treatment, and so I much preferred these.  And he's a pretty damned good songwriter.

If this Beijing gig is going to become a regular October fixture in his schedule, I'll definitely give him a go again next year.  But I rather think I'd enjoy him even more if I could see him play in Europe, or Australia or America.]

I hope I don't enrage Tommy's legions of fans with these observations!  I'm sure that a lot of people would put him on their "Mt Rushmore of music".  Would you???

1 comment:

Ruby said...

Damn, you bet me to it, I was going to post that on over on BeijingDaze! Oh, well, I guess I'll just link to your post instead :)