To say my latest artwork, “Alhambra,” is inspired by the classical guitar piece, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” would not only be an oversimplification, but would also do a great disservice to the many steps in the process which led me to creating it in the first place. To properly tell the story, I have to take you back to March 2nd, 2021.
It was very early morning, somewhere around 2am, and I was having trouble turning off my brain and going to sleep, as per usual. So, I reached over, grabbed my phone, and wandered through social media. Eventually, I made my way to Instagram and began scrolling. Anyone who knows me, knows I am a Prince fan. So, naturally, I have checked out some of the Prince pictures that are shared, and watched several performance videos as well. That, apparently, triggered the Instagram algorithm to say “Hey! I see you watched a video or two of Prince playing his guitar, so here are a BUNCH of videos of other people playing guitars!” I ignored the algorithm, and continued to scroll aimlessly.
That is, until I saw what I thought was a face I hadn’t seen in many years. In the fraction of a moment the tiny picture slid by, I thought for sure I saw Dolores O’Riordan, guitarist, and lead singer of The Cranberries. Sadly, Dolores passed away back in 2018, but I thought someone had shared a clip from an old concert video, so I quickly scrolled back up. It turned out not to be a video of Dolores, but rather of a young artist by the name of Stephanie Jones. With her short, white hair, at a fleeting glance she did bear a slight resemblance to the Cranberries’ former lead. It was enough for me to give the video a try, and so I clicked on the image.
Reader, I can not begin to tell you just how very thankful I am that I did.
It was a short video of Stephanie playing the beginning of the piece, Recuerdos de la Alhambra. A piece I don’t think I had ever heard before, and I was instantly transfixed. For those not familiar with the piece (which translates to “Memories of the Alhambra,” a palace in Granada, Spain) it is written so that, when properly performed, it sounds like a duet but is in fact a solo. This alone grabbed my attention. I was focused on her fingers, all the while asking myself how it is humanly possible to be able to make one’s fingers work so quickly, yet accurately, so as to achieve something so beautiful.
The 47-second long video ended far too soon, so I restarted it, once again training my focus on Stephanie’s fingers. The video again ended, and I again restarted, this time closing my eyes, and enjoying the illusion of hearing what sounded like two separate guitars.
I watched, over and over. Then I noticed something other than her strumming: a wine-colored planter in the background of one of the shots. I was struck by how well the color of the planter matched the color of her plaid shirt. This was likely just coincidence, but it made me chuckle, nonetheless. Then, as I was marveling at the color coordination of the plaid shirt and planter, I realized that while her top is indeed plaid, the sleeves have a floral print look to them! “Wait…I wasn’t paying attention…let’s rewind this again…”
I was now obsessed with this revelation, and wondered what else I had overlooked, so I began to inspect every detail of every camera shot. The mustard-colored chair, the potted palm trees, the tuning keys of her guitar. Is that a hint of lavender hair color, or just a trick of the lights?
All the while, the beautiful melody of “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” played in my ears, and I was once again drawn to the artistry of this guitarist’s performance. I began to dwell on the level of skill this piece requires, and juxtaposed this with the amount of time, diligence, and practice it must have taken someone so young to hone her talent to such a level. I immediately clicked “follow” on her Instagram (stephjonesguitar).
As I continued to lie there, in the wee small hours of the morning, trying – and failing – to fall asleep, my mind persisted in dwelling on her video, even though I had eventually put my phone back on the nightstand. I couldn’t help thinking about the many onion-like layers in which I enjoyed her post:
- The sheer artistry of her guitar performance
- The composition itself, having been written in 1899
- The aesthetic of the video – fashion choice (I’m still obsessed with the plaid/floral mix), room decor, etc
- Her countenance as she played
Oh, yeah. Her countenance. I forgot to mention how she killed me TWICE with her smile. At the 0:25 mark, as she is playing with her eyes closed, Stephanie smiles, and all I could do was grin in return with a small “hmm” – not quite a chuckle, but definitely a sound denoting my enjoyment. Then, at the 0:39 mark, she again lets slip a smile, this time while watching her fingers form a chord on the fretboard, as if seeing an old friend. It got me right in the feels. I let out another “hmm,” but this time just a touch louder, and with a knowing nod of my head.
As I thought on all these things, I began to run through my mind some of the other times I was equally moved by something I experienced, because that’s what my mind does when I should be sleeping at 3am. Le sigh.
The list continued to compile – recorded music, live performances, movies, paintings – and now my brain was cross referencing for common denominators. What was it about these experiences that made them so endearing, so meaningful, so significant?
It was the way they made me feel. To put a finer point on it, it was the LEVEL of emotion induced by these varied works. I was having trouble deciding what words I would use if I were trying to explain it to someone, so I started by considering the fact that there are a lot of movies I enjoy, but only a small number of films make me feel a truly high level of emotion. Likewise with music. Thanks to my parents’ influence as I grew up, I love a wide variety of music styles, genres, and artists. However, only a select few can be said to affect me emotionally to a high degree.
I continued to dwell on this, (it was now 4am) and I finally came up with what I feel is an adequate analogy: color.
As a kid learning my colors, I remember being taught about the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) and how you use them to then make the secondary colors by mixing two of them together. Red + yellow = orange. Blue + yellow = green. Red + blue = purple. You’ve gone from three colors to six.
(This is where I really fell down the rabbit hole, and became obsessed with the whole “spectrum” metaphor. It gets a bit inane, so I am going to italicize this portion, and you can just skip down past it to the next non-italicized paragraph if you want to skip the boring details)
Primary/secondary colors are far as I remember being taught way back when I was little, but what I now know, is that the third level of color is referred to as the “tertiary” level, and is created by mixing two adjacent secondary colors. For instance: red + orange = orange red, orange + yellow = amber, yellow + green = lime green, and so on. When you are done, the tertiary level has 12 colors in it.
The fourth level, or “quaternary” level, is created by mixing two adjacent tertiary colors. Once done, the result is a total of 24 colors.
The fifth level, or “quinary” level, is created by mixing two adjacent quaternary colors, resulting in 48 colors.
On, and on, and on, for infinite layers, with each new level having twice as many colors as the level before, and less and less distinction between each individual color, until eventually all the colors appear to blend seamlessly from one end of the spectrum to the other.
That’s when the metaphor really sank in, and my new philosophy truly took form. Art that truly hits me on the highest level is like a complete color spectrum, utilizing thousands of colors. Art that I enjoy, but perhaps not as much, uses the colors of a lower level – let’s say the quinary level, for instance. Maybe a piece of music only makes me metaphorically “feel” 48 colors. I still enjoy it, and it still generates an emotional response, but not to the same degree as if it made me “feel” all 1,536 of the denary (tenth) color level.
Let’s use movies as an example. The Godfather is always included on any list of the greatest films of all time. Do I enjoy it? Yes. Do I think it’s among the greatest films ever made? Sure. But it’s not my favorite movie, nor do I think it would make my personal top ten. Why not? It has a great cast, a great soundtrack, and a great story, but it just doesn’t evoke a high enough level of emotion inside me personally. On the other hand, An American In Paris is easily in my personal top ten favorite films. The script may not be the best, and the story line may even be troublesome in spots by modern standards. But when you have the music of George & Ira Gershwin, the choreography of Gene Kelly, the amazing Leslie Caron, combined with beautiful wardrobe, sets, and cinematography, you get a piece of art that metaphorically strikes at my very core with every color in the spectrum.
Art without content is not art – Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte is an amazing artist, and an even greater human. His quote regarding art has always stuck with me. However, as time has passed, I fear the word “content” has been watered down in this age of online content saturation. So, with all due respect to Mr. Belafonte, I would like to dare to be presumptuous enough to give my personal interpretation of his meaning, which is this: art without substance is not art. It is my belief, regardless of the genre, art must have an essence, a foundation, a marrow at its core from which an emotional connection may flow. This brings me to another quote I love:
A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art – Paul Cézanne
There are many emotions – happiness, anger, fear, sadness, etc – and art should make everyone feel something. The truly amazing thing about art is the ability of one piece of art to conjure a wide range of different emotions across a group of individuals. What makes me happy, may inspire entirely different feelings in someone else. My enjoyment of something does not require another observer to enjoy it. This means even the intent of the artist themselves can be (and often is) different from how the art is received. Art simply IS, and it is up to each individual to determine for themselves how they feel about it.
It was this spirit in which I created my piece, “Alhambra.” Inspired by Stephanie Jones’ performance of a song written over 100 years ago, and itself inspired by a palace in Spain. I wasn’t planning on finding a muse via Instagram, or conceiving a new philosophy, but here we are.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra – written by Francisco Tárrega
Images and video of Stephanie Jones used with permission.
You can find Stephanie Jones, and info regarding her albums, on these platforms:
Instagram – stephjonesguitar
YouTube – StephanieJones
Patreon – stephjonesguitar