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Sketches of Newport Album Notes

During the summer of 2014 my wife and I took our first empty-nest trip to Newport, Rhode Island. After a lovely week touring elegant mansions, beautiful gardens, and exploring the magnificent coastline, I was inspired to write a suite for classical guitar based on my impressions of this historic New England town. My goal was also to create repertoire suitable for teaching guitar technique and musicianship to students of all levels. Finally, I wanted the pieces to be enjoyable to listeners, whether heard separately or all together as they appear here. After our trip, my wife surprised me with a beautiful original watercolor and ink birthday card of the lighthouse where we spent a wonderful afternoon. It is the perfect album cover for the recording inspired by and dedicated to my lovely wife, Sharee´.

The Sketches of Newport suite is almost geographical in nature. One can almost imagine venturing from the Cliff Walk into the mansion district, into the town, and ending finally back on the coastline at Castle Hill Lighthouse. Each piece, in my mind, evokes a strong impression of some aspect of Newport. Every evening during our stay at the quaint Victorian Ladies Inn we would reflect on the experiences of the day, looking forward to what lay in store on the next. Here is a bit of insight on each of the pieces:

Cliff Walk – This opening to the suite starts with a quote from the last movement, as Castle Hill Lighthouse is at the end of the Cliff Walk. However, the most striking view I recall of the Cliff Walk itself is from Rough Point. The walk forms a bridge at one point over tumultuous waves hitting the rocks below. Fog rolled in quickly, dramatically changing the weather. The rasgueados in this piece emulate the agitated sea, while the harmonics allude to the fog. The general upbeat nature of the piece reflects the beauty of a stroll on the Cliff Walk with impressive mansions on one side and the stunning coastline view on the other.

The next five tracks represent historic mansions of the Gilded-age along Bellevue Avenue that were restored and maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

The Elms – It was after touring this mansion that I got the idea to write this suite. This piece reflects the two different worlds of the mansion: the upstairs, with its elegant paintings and furniture; and the downstairs, where the staff would keep the mansion running. The major/minor tonality suggests these two coinciding worlds, and in one part, you can almost hear the servant descending stairs. The piece moves from minor to major in the last four measures, assuring that all appearances will be maintained.

Rosecliff – I wrote a waltz for this beautiful estate, as we spent extra time in the magnificent ballroom appreciating the artwork and marvelous view of the bay. We could almost imagine a late 19th-century ball taking place.

Chateau-sur-Mer – The Baroque-like ornamentation in this piece reflects the French chateau style of this intriguing manor.

Marble House – Pictured on the inside of the album jacket, this mansion is truly beautiful. However, there was a melancholy feel to the place, as the Vanderbilt couple that built it divorced three years after completion.

The Breakers – As this is most impressive of all the Newport mansions, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, I chose to pay homage with the most virtuosic piece on this recording. It represents the opulence of this architectural archetype of the era, as well as the rocky coastline on which it is situated.

Gardens – This piece reflects the beauty and ever changing aspects of all the lovely gardens of Newport. The piece has a walking feel, which is the best way to experience Newport.

Carriage House – Part of The Breakers estate, one can imagine the horse drawn carriage on its path to the main house. It makes use of an ostinato bass line in triple meter.

The Old Church – The hymn-like nature of this piece was actually inspired by two churches, Trinity Church (pictured on the album jacket), and St. Mary’s Church. The opening theme is reminiscent of a single voice or even a melody played from the church bells, before being joined by the congregation.

Street Lamps – Newport was the first American city to have gas street lamps. Imagining them in the past, from a distance you would see a serene glow; moving closer, you would see all the activity of the flame.

The Bookshop – The piece alludes to the nostalgic feel and smell of a library of fine books and pays homage to a special little shop in Newport. While purchasing some very old books as gifts, the proprietor of D. Kelley Fine Used Books generously gave us a first edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Hanging of the Crane. It is a poem about a couple who starts out in life, raises a family, and comes back to the simplicity of life as couple, just as my wife and I experienced. The book inspired a quick stop to Longfellow’s house in Boston after we left Newport.

Spanish Cafe – A great exercise for guitarists, this piece provides a taste of popular Spanish idiomatic themes so common on the instrument. Rather than representing one particular venue, it brings to mind the intimate background music heard at a number of the fine eating establishments in Newport.

Jazz Festival – As the recording starts to transition to other genres of music, this piece gives a nod to the famous Newport Jazz Festival.

The Harbor – With overtones of fingerstyle folk guitar, this piece starts with a muted alternating bass. When the early morning fog lifts (as the basses are unmuted), one can imagine a beautiful day with puffy white clouds in the sky, a gentle breeze, and sailboats in the distance. This piece requires the third string to be tuned up one half-step, a tuning that I have personally never seen.

Castle Hill Lighthouse – The Celtic flavor of this piece presents a nautical feel, capturing the movement of the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline by the use of the hemiola (a rhythmic pattern with a two against three feel). The piece also makes extensive use of the Mixolydian mode in two keys and utilizes the technique of tambora, or drumming on the strings.