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HE PLAYS THE SONGS
[posted 09.10.2003]

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How’s this for ironic excellence? The ShinyGun Interview Hit Squad recently sat down with James Baur, a Chicago-area classical guitarist, to discuss the details of performing matrimonial music at a stranger’s wedding. But, lo and behold, the boy up and gets engaged himself, so … this is now an interview about wedding music with a wedding musician who will be wed himself in just a few days.

SUPER-OFFICIAL SHINYGUN INTERVIEW QUESTION LIST

Subject: James Baur, 27
Occupation: Classical Guitarist
Interviewed by: Michael Solita

1.) For all the prospective couples-to-wed out there, what’s your ultimate music choice for a wedding procession? I mean, besides Megadeth’s Holy Wars … The Punishment Due.

There’s the straightforward Wedding March, by Wagner, but although this has been made popular by television and the movies, it can’t always be used in the actual ceremony due to its secular nature. Many religions (Episcopal, for example) only allow sacred music to be used. Bach’s music, however, is acceptable because he composed hundreds of cantatas, oratorios, chorals and organ preludes that were based on religious tunes. And he was also employed by the church in Leipzig from 1723 to his death in 1750, and several significant secular pieces (The Art of the Fugue and The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example) were composed within the last 15 years of his life.

There isn’t one particular choice of music; some people like Canon in D by Pachelbel and others like pop tunes or gospel/spiritual songs that are important to the couple.

At the lakefront in Chicago a few summers ago, I played an arrangement of the Beatles’ And I Love Her for the processional. And as Chicago was especially windy that day, the only thing I was thinking was that my music might fly away. Didn’t even worry that much about the slight feedback I was getting from the microphone.

2.) Similarly, name your top five love songs of all time. I guess you should divide this into a “irony-free” top five (the Beatles’ I Will) and an “irony-laden” top five (Journey’s Any Way You Want It).

Irony-Free (no order):

At Last, Etta James. (Everybody’s favorite.)

Mike, you pick ‘em — there are no love songs that aren’t in some way ironic or naively simplistic; you’re asking a freakin’ song to express one of the most simple yet complicated human emotions.

Irony-Laden:

My Black Ass, Shellac

Big Ten Inch Record, Aerosmith

Anything by Mr. Bungle

Hot for Teacher, Van Halen

Baby Got Back, Sir Mix-A-Lot

3.) Playing classical guitar at a wedding reception versus playing your own classical guitar recital — what’s the difference?

Enormous differences are present. First of all, it’s a much different psychological attitude when playing pieces for people you know are coming explicitly to hear you play. I care much more about what I’m playing when it’s truly meant to be heard as music and not background noise; it’s the difference between a painting in a museum and wallpaper in your living room. With a gig, you do just as much work as is necessary to not make a noticeable mistake. Expression, articulation, phrasing, timbral differnces and overall musical subtlety just aren’t as important because there’s too much other noise going on for anyone to be able to hear that sensitively.

Second, music that I perform for “serious” concerts is mine for the choosing, whereas the music I play for a gig is up for grabs. Musicians will take requests (And I Love Her is an example), but aside from that my experience has been that as most people don’t know what the classical guitar can do, they allow me to play whatever I feel works for their event. I usually play a mixed bag of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical music; pieces with consistent rhythms work well because they fill the space. Pieces that have quiet sounds or a great deal of space to them don’t work as well because there’s not enough rhythmic substance to hold them together while people are talking, eating and drinking. Usually, a gig is a great place to either play pieces you’re working on, or sight-read pieces you might want to learn at a later date. Again, this works because no one’s really listening, even if they come up to you afterwards and say, “Your music is so wonderful.” But every now and then I think people are genuine about what they feel musicians add to the reception: Just a few weeks ago I received an email from a wedding that I performed in A YEAR AGO. She wanted to tell me again how much she enjoyed the music. That was nice.

Sometimes people who go out of their way to listen to you play. At the opening of an art gallery in Chicago I was under amplified and no one could hear me. But a few brave souls came over and stood within 10 feet of me at various points throughout the evening to get a better listen. It’s those people who keep you from dwelling on the ugly apathy that springs from the nagging question, “Why am I doing this when no one is listening?”

4.) More importantly, how often do drunk bridesmaids flirt with you? And the subtopic: How often do drunk groomsmen yell at you?

Truth be told, I never really have any contact whatsoever with members of the wedding party when I’m playing. They’re too busy or have already saddled up to the bar by the time I’ve finished playing. And once I’m done, I like to get out of there as soon as possible. As lucrative as the job can be, it’s still a job and you want to be done and get home at the end of it just as anyone else would from an office or retail job. So, alas, no stories of romantic interludes with bridesmaids or violent episodes with groomsmen.

5.) What’s the last thought that enters your mind after you finish a wedding performance and prepare to leave?

The last thought is, “Did I get the check?” and if not, “Who’s going to be giving me the check?” And then the very last thought is, “Did I remember to pack up everything?” Generally, people are happy with your having shown up and contributed to the elegance of the afternoon or evening, so you know that you’ve done a good job even if no one says anything to you and you’re just anxious to get the check. It sounds quite callous, but it’s simply the way such events run; they’re fine when there are no problems.

6.) You’re getting married soon yourself. What music do YOU want at your wedding? And should the performers worry that you’ll be listening more than most guests would?

The irony, which is not lost on me, is that there will be very little music at my own wedding. It’s an important part of my life, of course, but doesn’t have to be an important part of the ceremony or reception. We’ll have some organ prelude/processional/ceremony/recessional music, but that’s it. In part it’s due to space limitations of the church, and the fact that only sacred music can be performed. At the reception, we’re still toying with the idea of cocktail music, but there will definitely be some music during the end of dinner and throughout the evening as folks meander to the dance floor and “shimmy-shimmy ya.” We want it simple.

A more selfish reason to not have much music is that I want to concentrate on my bride-to-be and the ceremony itself; with music around I’m much more liable to cast an ear (and thus my mind) in that direction.

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michael solita lives and works and listens to braid much too much in new york city.