Steve Cowan Picks: Francisco Tárrega’s “Capricho Árabe” performed by David Russell

So it’s not just roughnecks who are bringing the bacon back to Newfoundland and Labrador from Fort MacMurray. At this year’s National Music Festival in Fort MacMurray classical guitarist Steve Cowan of St. John’s became the first Newfoundland and Labrador musician to win the $6,500 grand prize. And that’s the grand prize, not merely the guitar prize (which he also won.)

We know Cowan started out as a rock musician before he started classical guitar (we know him best as a member of Surgeon or Narrows or AE Bridger) so we wondered what it took for him to get into classical guitar, and asked him to give you Track of the Day readers a crash course in getting hooked.

This piece is a standard in the guitar repertoire. It’s rather over-played, and to be honest us classical guitarists are all sick of it, but to the newcomer it is always a favourite. I remember it was one of the first pieces I heard when I was researching classical guitar. And I was hooked.

People often think of “Spanish Guitar” when they think of classical, and this is a good example why. It has that beautiful Spanish character, shifts mood from dark to light, and has a tinge of Arabic flavor throughout with the ornamentation, etc. (hence Capricho “Arabe”).

What grabbed me and what grabs a lot of people on the classical guitar is the beautiful tone. It’s an incredibly hard thing to master (I use plastic nails from Wal-Mart that I have to shape and smooth every day just so I can get the right sound). This recording is by the great Scottish guitarist David Russell, who is known for his round, full, singing tone, in addition to his musical playing.

Also, just hearing the layers capable of being performed by one person on a guitar is very clear in this piece. My idea of “fingerpicking” prior to understanding classical guitar was very much rooted in a folksy style, where the player will simply use patterns and arpeggios more as accompaniment figures. In this piece, it is clear that there is a bass line providing the harmonic foundation, inner voices filling out the chords, and a melody singing out on top. This is all done by four fingers on the right hand, working independently. The instrument is closer to a piano than it is to other styles of guitar. It’s been frustrating at times over the years because it truly is such a difficult instrument, but so beautiful, so rewarding, and the body of repertoire expands so much further then this rather “generic” Spanish music. Though like I said, a very good starting point.

Personally these days, I play mostly contemporary music that would fall more under an avant-garde or experimental category. The guitar lends itself well to some crazy sounds and extended techniques, which was a big part of the piece I played in this competition. I’m also really into Baroque music these days, as Bach Cello suites and Lute suites sound amazing when arranged for classical guitar. Bach is the purest music this world has to offer.

Here’s a snippet of Cowan’s grad recital from NYC in March (part of the same piece he played at this competition.


“Your Heart Don’t Know” by Andrew Hunter & The Gatherers

Rock and roll goodness from Nova Scotia’s Andrew Hunter & The Gatherers.

22 August 2013

  1. ah yom · August 22, 2013

    this is really wonderful and an awesome track of the day :) thanks!

  2. Festus · August 22, 2013

    Just beautiful! Makes me want to close my eyes, sit back, and be transported to another time and place.

  3. Elling Lien · August 22, 2013

    Steve will be performing a selection of classical guitar works tonight at MUN’s Petro Canada Hall.