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The Nutcracker Suite


The Nutcracker
Released: 1999

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The Nutcracker Suite - Liner notes by John Renbourn

As far as I know, this is Tim Sparks' first solo album. I say that because had there been other recordings out there, however obscure, I'm certain I would have heard about them as his playing is simply world class. Debut or not, this collection is comprised of two outstanding works - a complete transcription of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite and Tim's own settings of Eastern European dance tunes collectively titled "Balkan Dreams" - both of which are, in my opinion, major contributions to the guitar repertoire.
    Although pieces of this standard can only be the result of years of application, I did not become aware of Tim's work until comparatively recently. I can clearly remember listening to Duck Baker as he played tantalizing snatches of ideas he had picked up from "Sparks", a fellow American based in Minneapolis, an established stomping ground for a generation of innovative players. Next to emerge was a tape of the initial working of the "Nutcracker" and it was literally astounding. By that time the word was out, and I finally got the chance to meet him all too briefly at the Summer School of the Foundation for Guitar Studies, Milwaukee, where he was discussing the project.
    As he explained, "I approached this piece with the idea in mind that I wanted to do something that was both technically daunting and at the same time pleasing to a non-guitarist. I found in the "Nutcracker" these two qualities - lots of tricky fingerpicking dimensions with a theme of universal appeal. I worked by listening to the recording of the piece for a long time to really get it in my head, then I used a piano score and reduced that to a guitar score. As I went along I made changes that were guitaristic but preserved the essential spirit and architecture of the piece.
    In the interim I began studying the work of Paraguayan virtuoso Augustin Barrios. Under his influence and by changing to a nylon-string I revised many of the sections that were complex for complexities sake. This is what I've arrived at by re-editing and re-thinking the pieces, and on reflection I think it's good that I waited to record because the arrangements are now more musical."
    "Balkan Dreams" was originally conceived as an independent project which I find in some ways to be even more impressive than the "Nutcracker". In places the sheer control and execution in the playing are breathtaking, but underlying that is the conception of the music as a whole. While the main characteristics of the music of the Balkan countries (Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece), the time patterns, particular scales and, not least, the total implications have certainly intrigued Western players coming from a background of folk related musics, it is a territory that few guitarists have actually ventured into. Those that come to mind actually are the ever exploratory Davey Graham, Paul Brady together with Andy Irvine, and Ljubo Majstorovic who has something of an unfair advantage. But Tim somehow seems to have thoroughly absorbed the various idioms, his work is right in there and will become surely a milestone for those that may wish to follow.
    "I got turned on to Balkan music while traveling with my wife Chryll through Hungary and Yugoslavia about five years ago. When we got back to the States I started picking things off recordings that I thought would lay nice on the guitar. I also started playing with Mark Stillman, a great accordionist with a large repertoire of Greek, Hungarian, Serbian and Jewish music. This was invaluable in getting a handle on the style.
    The things that most intrigued me and were quite hard to digest were the so-called "asymmetrical" meters. For example, "Melek N'ty Ubana" is in 7/8 which is subdivided as ||| || ||, "Oniro" which is in 9/8 ||| || || || and so on. From a fingerpicker's standpoint these rhythms generate some interesting right-hand patterns.
    Some Balkan songs seem to have a "flamenco" quality owing, no doubt, to the large communities of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition that resettled in the Balkans in the sixteenth century. It therefore seems natural to sometimes utilize Spanish and Latin American chordal devices. "Balkan Dreams" was arranged for a Mexican requinto normally tuned a fourth higher than a regular guitar. I follow Duck Baker's lead and tune the top string to G# instead of A. That half step seems to add a lot in warmth and playability."
    Although the two works are in themselves complete and self-contained they both draw on traditional dance forms and sit remarkably well together in this collection. It seems fitting that Tim's music should have found an outlet through Peter Finger's Acoustic Music label, which is fast becoming the home of the best in new and innovative guitar playing. I can only add that if this really is Tim Sparks' first record may there be many, many more.

- John Renbourn

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