The idea is simple. In the good old days, five hundred years ago, the guitar was a simple instrument and was used in the most direct way. As it came under the influence of classical music in general, especially the piano and romantic composition of the nineteenth century, things started to get a little more complicated.
My experiment is to see if this addition of complexity could be made in a way that keeps the original character of thre instrument. Here's what happened:
The direction the guitar took was to merge with classical tradition in terms of how it was used and how it was notated. This meant there was now one standardised tuning for the strings, one standardised pitch for A, and one standardised notation (staff notation) used for all instruments.
In order to get all the different keys of classical music (E Major, G Major, F# minor and all the rest of them), guitarists learned to play more complex fingerings, started using the entire neck of the instrument, and open strings became a rare commodity. It was not so easy to change the tuning for the instrument as staff notation required learning positions on the fretboard which would be lost if even one string was changed. Guitarists managed to learn one or two new tunings, namely dropped D and sometimes the vihuela tuning mentioned below.
The simple harplike nature of the earlier instrument was lost, except in rare instances (like Manual deFalla's Homenaje and perhaps in more modern times with Dominiconi's "Koyunbaba"). When guitarists played early music from the lute or vihuela they converted it to modern notation, usually the modern tuning (EADgbe, instead of the various early tunings like EADf#be or open tunings used on baroque lute).
When I made the first kora transcriptions I had been playing vihuela music from renaissance Spain for an entire year. From the original tablatures. I had been struck by the beautify and simplicity of the "old" guitar, and it was this approach to guitar playing that made my transcriptions possible. You can compare my transcriptions to John William's transcription of a Kora piece on his album "The Magic Box" which is using the guitar in a more modern way to see the difference. For John it was necessary to have the repeated bass line in open strings so that the higher reaches of the guitar could be used. For my transcriptions, using mostly one region of the instrument, it was possible to keep more complex bass lines going without losing the melody, and visa versa.
When approaching the music of Bach's solo violin works (which have a long history of being arranged for solo guitar, usually in the "modern" way) I knew there had to be a similar approach. It took a long time to convince myself that relearning something as long as the Ciaconna was going to be worth just a slight resonance change! But when I did change it to renaissance lute or vihuela tuning (EADf#be)and the key of b minor (with capo it sounded like the original b minor) it all became clear. But the problem remained: how to play the other movements in the keys that don't work in vihuela tuning (because the open strings would not correspond to notes of the scale).
So the solution, which takes a different road to what Fernando Sor and the boys took in the eighteen hundreds, is a somewhat elegant solution if I may say so myself, with rather fabulous consequences for the Bach at least, a solution which came about while transcribing Malian singer Fanta Sacko. (My friend Gerard Cousins has been experimenting on the compositional side - check out his work if you want wonderful pieces to play btw - and seems to be seeing some possibilities too.)
Maybe you can try it out and share what you discover. I will elaborate the further implications in future posts, but in its most simple form it is representing here. You can see how these were related to the keys of the Bach in an earlier post.