Philip Hii's debut album, Johann Sebastian Bach: New Transcriptions for Guitar, sent tremors through the classical guitar world. The combination of stunning technique, meticulously thought-out interpretations, and an ambitious program made this disc a real attention-getter. Hii (pronounced "hee") played spirited renditions of his own transcriptions of two of Bach's grandest organ works: the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and the towering Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565, which is excerpted here. These selections were long ago deemed unplayable by the legions of classical guitarists who have scoured the Bach catalogue seeking works to transcribe over the past 30-plus years.

Hii's album also provided a point of reference for where his abilities place him vis-à-vis the galaxy of guitar stars. His stunning performance of Bach's Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, one of the guitar repertoire's warhorses, is the yardstick. While many guitarists play the Prelude reflectively, with lots of rubato, Hii's rendition has a tremendous forward motion, imbuing the movement with new character. The knuckle-busting Fugue flows effortlessly, and the famed Allegro is clean as a whistle-even when executed at a tempo closer to prestissimo than allegro. (Hii's is the fastest version this writer has ever heard.)

Virtuosity is no obsession for Hii, though; it was simply required to do justice to the music.

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His objective was to develop a distinctive voice and present a new perspective on repertoire that has been around for a few hundred years. Hii accomplished that. His 1995 GSP disc was praised by critics around the world. Writers for guitar publications were jazzed-Acoustic Guitar contributor Diane Gordon dubbed him the "Heifetz of the classical guitar"-and even critics for publications like the Washington Post, Tampa Tribune, and Audio magazine sat up and took notice, a rare occurrence for a classical guitar album issued by a small indie label.

GSP soon began receiving calls from record stores asking when Hii would issue a follow-up classical outing. That won't be too soon though; for his second disc; Hii is focusing on his own compositions, which draw upon strains of jazz, new age, popular, and Asian folk music. His nylon-string guitar will be tastefully backed by synthesizers and a rhythm section. But Hii doesn't see this as a change in style, just a move closer to what first attracted him to music.

"Most people don't know that I started composing-writing songs, actually-very early," Hii says. "Growing up, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Leonard Cohen were just as important to me as Segovia and John Williams." Hii, who grew up in Sibu, Malaysia, picked up the guitar at age ten. He started playing folk songs before beginning classical guitar lessons. "The lessons only lasted six months, and then I was on my own," Hii recalls. "I learned most of the standard repertoire, some of it by ear, because guitar scores were hard to come by in my small Malaysian town."

By age 18, Hii had won a prestigious award at a Malaysian competition, playing a piece of his own. An appearance on national television followed. After high school, Hii left Malaysia to study law in New Zealand. At the encouragement of a guitar instructor, he enrolled at Victoria University of Wellington and switched his major to music. There he studied with American virtuoso Karl Kerreshoff and earned his bachelor's degree in music. After a successful debut concert in Christchurch, Hii embarked on a national concert tour and gave two recitals on Radio New Zealand.

Hii studied composition for two years in New Zealand and then continued studying 20th-century compositional techniques in Germany. "In Germany, I got really into 12-tone music, the avant-garde, and free improvisation," Hii recalls. "Through avant-garde music I came back to a more popular style of music. I never liked jazz when I was young, but the language of jazz appealed to me after the anarchy of free improvisation. I heard [Brazilian guitarist] Egberto Gismonti in Germany and was amazed that in his performance he would make great tonal music one minute and avant-garde the next. In 1983 I came to Berklee College of Music in Boston and started getting into bebop. I barely touched the classical guitar for the three years I was there. After graduating, I decided jazz was not me. When I heard George Winston, I found a happy medium."

After Berklee, Hii went back to the classical guitar and earned his master of music degree from the University of North Texas. Soon after he took teaching posts at both Del Mar College and Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he remains today. He continues to attract a steady flow of classical guitarists to each institution. It was with a faculty grant from Del Mar that Hii produced his Bach recording.

Surprisingly, Hii confesses that he hadn't really planned to make a classical CD his first time out. In his mind, the Bach album is not strictly a classical CD in that his playing on the album was influenced by many other styles.

"As a guitarist, I have been more influenced by flamenco and jazz guitar than by classical guitarists," Hii says. "I like music that is passionate and exciting. A lot of classical guitarists don't play passionately. Speed is one component, but timing in the phrasing of slower movements, rhythm, and swing and big considerations too. Those are things you hear in the playing of all the great musicians of any style."

One important technical component of Hii's style is the nontraditional way that he approaches scales. "The greatest problem in scale playing is string crossing," Hii says. "Using the a [ring] finger consistently for both ascending and descending scales eases the problem. I generally don't practice three-octave scales with Segovia's fingerings. I practice scale passages from pieces from the repertoire, like those in the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 7.

"My basic approach to scales is that when the left hand plays three notes on a string, I use a-m-i [ring, middle, index] for the right-hand fingering. When there are four notes to a string, I use m-i-m-i or a-m-i-m. However, I am not happy with the fixed, formulaic approach of using the same pattern consistently. Pianists combine different permutations of seemingly arbitrary fingerings in their scales, so why shouldn't guitarists? I play scales with different combinations of a-m-i, p-a-m-i, and m-i-m-i-anything to get the job done. The occasional use of the a finger can increase speed dramatically."

This approach can be seen at work in Hii's transcription of Bach's great Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This music, Hii says, "has always held great fascination for me. When I read an article suggesting that it might originally have been a solo violin work which Bach later arranged for the organ, my curiosity was fully aroused. I checked the score and tried it in a few different keys. When I put it in A minor, everything fell into place. Even the fugue subject worked with the open strings.

"Technically, the work is not too difficult. I originally played all the scalar lines with the traditional m-i right-hand fingering. Although that worked, I experimented with using all three right-hand fingers (a-m-i). Somehow the inclusion of an additional finger resulted in more fluid lines. Played this way, the scale passages have more of a cascading effect-like keyboard scales." Hii's technical notes are included in the music presented here.

Looking ahead to his next album, Hii says, "A friend suggested that a jazzed-up Bach album might be a logical follow-up, but that would be selling out. I could never do old pieces with a rhythm section or make a record only as a showcase for flashy technique. Why do we make Cds anyway? At a clinic I went to at Berklee, [jazz guitarist] John Scofield said artists need to look inside themselves to see what sells. I am at the point where I feel I don't need someone's approval or recognition. The main thing is to be honest with what I am doing.

"Playing classical repertoire alone does not fulfill all of my needs as an artist. If I had not done other kinds of music, I couldn't have played the Bach the way I did. Even while making that CD, I was thinking of a second album. So the second CD has been ten years in the making-from before I did the Bach. Some of these tunes have been around for years." In fact, two pieces are based on melodies Hii wrote when he was 16, and two others are from a fusion suite he composed for his Berklee recital.

"The second album will not be as virtuosic as the first," Hii says. "If I was just trying to be virtuosic, I wouldn't be true to myself. I want to make music that touches people. I hope the second CD will touch them in other ways than the Bach CD did."

-Mark L. Small

Philip Hii plays a classical guitar made by Christopher Savino (208 W. Oak St., Denton, TX 76201), which he bought in 1991. The body is Brazilian rosewood and the top is aged spruce. Hii says the guitar has "beautiful sustain and tone, especially for recording." He also plays a Takamine Santa Fe steel-string, which, he says, "sounds really good when you plug it in."

Hii occasionally uses amplification in concert, especially when he's playing with an orchestra. In such situations, he uses a Crown GLM-100 omni-directional microphone run through a Carver amp with Tannoy speakers. Although he's very pleased with the sound, Hii says, "It's a little complicated to bring four different pieces to the gig, so I'm still looking for a good, one-piece combo amp." When he plays with an orchestra, he places the amplifier in front of the conductor, but when he plays solo he tends to hide the amp at the back of the state "in a plant or something." His use of amplification in concert sounds very discreet, as well. "It's just a little reinforcement of the real acoustic sound," he says.

In concert, Hii plays on a combination of D'Addario and Augustine strings: high-tension D'Addarios for the treble and Augustine Blues for the bass. "When I was recording my first CD, I had a lot of trouble with the strings I was using because they started fraying," Hii recalls. "So I started experimenting, and I found the D'Addario trebles especially warm after they've been broken in." In the studio, he prefers La Bella bass strings, because the Augustine Blues are a little too bright. "La Bellas have a real nice bottom when you record them," he says. "They still squeak, but not as much as other strings."

Hii has set up one of his older guitars with a Photon MIDI guitar controller, the same one John McLaughlin uses. "It's based on a laser," he explains, "and it's the only unit that works with nylon strings. Unfortunately they don't make them anymore." The Photon attaches to the soundboard of the guitar, next to the bridge, and each string passes through it. "The string has to be in just the right place for the laser to read it," says Hii," so it took me a long time to set it up. But the tracking is very good; it responds very well."

-Simone Solandz

© 1997 Acoustic Guitar