July 18, 2002

As I am writing this, I am on a plane with my son Julian and one of his friends to Japan to perform a piece called Fire Strings with the TMSO.



The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO) has a concert series where they will occasionally introduce new pieces and composers. The prominent avant guard composer Ichiro Nodaira composed a piece for electric guitar and 100 piece orchestra. The guitar part is tremendously challenging and when they inquired to various sources for a soloist for the performance my name kept coming up so I was contacted. Now, I would not normally accept something like this but after seeing the music I could not resist. It looked artistic, bizarre, beautiful, and terrifying. It’s been a while, if ever, since I attempted anything like this so I decided to do it. Not since my days with Frank Zappa have I been confronted with such a challenge. The music is unorthodox for the guitar but I have been seriously shedding it for about 10 or so weeks. About 40% of that time I spent 12 hour days on the piece just trying to figure out how to negotiate some of the fingerings.

Ichiro really did his homework on the performance potential of the electric guitar, and has written masterfully for the instrument incorporating the depths of the dynamics that the instrument is capable of.

Every riff is meticulously specific in it’s approach to the performance. At times he has a note holding that has to be fluctuated with the volume pedal and maneuvered with a whammy bar to the appropriate pitch while playing other notes, only to end up in a series of virtually impossible cascading harmonics that necessitate a fabricated style I have never used, alongside a raging 100-piece orchestra, and all this within a few seconds. It’s a 25 minute piece of music with 2 long form, completely notated guitar cadenzas that defy conventional fingering and approach to the instrument, and there is not one note of improvisation in the entire piece.

For the first time in my entire life I wore out the delicate muscles in the arm and fingers and at one point actually thought I was developing carpal tunnel. I had to lay off for a while, and that’s a first too.

I don’t think that this piece is impossible to play for some other players because it does not involve a lot of “shredding,” but the articulation and use of rhythmic notations took me a lifetime to understand and this piece takes me to the enth of my ability on the instrument. I’m sure there are some aliens out there who might find it easier and I bet I know some (Mr. Lukather), but not this alien. I had to bust hump. Anyway, I’m happy to say that I just about got it and we have rehearsals on July 21-23 and three shows at Santory Hall on July 24-26. The first performance of the night is Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide,” and then after “Fire Strings” will be a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” I do not play on those pieces, only “Fire Strings.”

I will be attempting to record it and if I can and you get to hear it, I preface it with saying that this is unlike any music you may have ever heard. When I first started playing through the guitar part I knew it would be dissonant and odd but after Ichiro sent me the piano reduction it was clear to me that this is really a way outside piece, and I can’t wait to see the look on the people’s faces in the audience who are expecting a soaring Vai type piece with huge thick melodic orchestrations and warm endearing passages. Ha! Hold on to your seat because the friction of the frequencies caused by the harmonies and rhythms that will be performed on that stage can rattle the bass clef out of your G-string.

There is something that happens after listing to this kind of dissonance after a while. It becomes pleasant in an odd way and has a tendency to scratch itches that “normal” music just cannot reach. It has it’s own life and it’s own set of emotions. It’s tenderness and aggressions resonate within a different realm of physiological fiber. After a while I found myself craving to hear and play it and then feeling a sort of addiction to it. Like a drug that makes you sick at first, but later you find yourself needing it’s effects after it has so blissfully dominated your senses (but I don’t do drugs so I wouldn’t know anything about that).

After being ensconced in the elixir of Fire Strings everything else seems to pale in comparison. I’m concerned how it will affect my ability to enjoy the simplicity of a good song, without it fading into obscure insipidness.
Listening to pop music or even conventional yet inspired instrumental melodies after the addiction of Fire Strings is like comparing the light of the sun to the light of a galaxy. Of course you have to get past the shock value and the peeling away of the skin from the sheer intensity but I warn you, there’s no turning back. I wonder how many will allow it to get that far under their skin. God, I’m turning into more of a musical snob than I already am. Great Ceasar’s Ghost!

In any event I choose to do it and though it threw my schedule back 3 solid months I don’t regret it at all. It’s just another one of those things that I do because I can.

I really hope you get a kick out of it and don’t think I’ve lost my mind completely, although the challenge of learning and performing this overtly brilliant piece of music has humbled me into a state of melancholy.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Yours truly,
Steve Vai

July 18, 2002
8:06 PM
Flying somewhere over the Pacific.