Classical guitarist marks history with a solo Beatle

by Peter T. Chattaway
The Ubyssey, February 27, 1996

• Carl Aubut: Paul McCartney's The Family Way: Variations Concertantes Opus 1 (Woolf/Sony, 1995)

1966. The Beatles have quit touring and are mere months away from recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band's cohesion is breaking down, its members fast becoming a lonely lot themselves: John Lennon and Ringo Starr are filming How I Won the War in Spain, George Harrison is studying the sitar with Ravi Shankar in India, and a phonecall from a film company leads Paul McCartney to record a soundtrack that will go down in history as the first solo Beatle project.

That film was The Family Way, a bittersweet look at newlywed woes in working-class England that starred Hywel Bennet, Hayley Mills and Sir John Mills. The film addressed a number of social taboos, including homosexuality and impotence, and was hailed by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet as an "intelligent and quite moving film about homosexual panic."

1996. The Family Way has still never been released on video (at least not in North America) and, what's worse, EMI can't find the soundtrack's master tapes anywhere in the vaults. A rerecording has long been overdue, and finally a classical guitarist from Quebec meets the challenge. On the phone from his home in Montreal, Carl Aubut laughs, "It's a world premiere!"

Adapting McCartney's original work posed some problems, though. Few tracks on the original album lasted longer than a minute -- a harbinger of things to come on Abbey Road, perhaps? -- and the compositions, arranged by George Martin, were ravenously eclectic.

"It's a very strange album, the pieces are very disparate," Aubut says. "There's a string quartet with clarinet, flute, and classical guitar, and there are songs that are made with two guitars, drums, bass. You had pieces with organ, like Steppenwolf used to do. It's a very odd album. It represents all the musical styles of the time.

"I decided to select only the pieces that were classical in my opinion, because I'm a classical guitarist. And I took out all the brass, because we wanted to do The Family Way in concert, and I could not imagine me playing classical guitar with a string quartet and a brass section!"

Revising a work by pop culture's must successful entertainer would be a daunting task for even the most experienced artist, and Aubut -- who makes his recording debut with The Family Way: Variations Concertantes Opus 1 -- admits that he was nervous when he first met The Cute One last May. "I was very afraid when Paul McCartney heard the music, because I did take some liberties with the orchestration, but he said it was a good thing to do. I think he liked it, but for them, you know, it's 30 years ago and they have done a lot of work after that!"

Aubut got his degree in music from the University of Quebec and, like most students who've spent four years forcing their passions through the academic mill, he put his guitar away once he got his degree and didn't touch it for ten years. It took a bicycle tour of France to revive his interest in music and the role music plays.

"I was in a state of shock, because there is so much history there: museums, old churches, everything. So when I came back to Montreal, I looked around me, and all I saw were grey houses, and it was very sad. And I said to myself, 'In Quebec, in Canada, there is no history -- it's not the same length of history, there is nothing that can be compared to France. But if every generation takes the time to mark its time, in musical production or in any kind of art, maybe we're going to have a history here in Canada.'"

It may seem odd that Aubut's contribution to the great Canadian legacy would begin with a Liverpudlian concerto, but Aubut's interests know no geo-political boundaries. The Family Way variations are only the first course on a disc that includes classical adaptations of themes from Quebec children's TV programs and 'Children of Sarajevo,' a haunting composition written by Aubut himself.

"What I like in my music is there is no frontier. There are no words, so it can be played everywhere in the world. Music is something that should bring people all together. I'm playing in bars, you know. It's not the usual place where you can play classical guitar, but I want to play in bars, because people are there, and I want to bring this instrument everywhere."

Aubut does chafe a little at the CD's packaging, which gives prominence to McCartney's name and all but buries Aubut's, but he has no intention of severing their ties. He's currently transcribing 'A Leaf' for guitar; McCartney originally wrote the piece for Soviet pianist Anya Alexeyev.

"Paul McCartney told us that he only learned a year ago that John Lennon was very sad and upset about Paul doing this solo work. He was very sad to learn that, because at the time he asked John if he could do that, and John said, 'There's no problem,' but that's not the fact. There was a bit of a split [in the band] that was preparing, and The Family Way was maybe the first showing of that."

Aubut was saddened to revisit the band's breakup on the recent Anthology TV special because he "wanted the dream to stay alive," but he says he appreciates the legacy represented by repackagings such as Anthology. "For the younger generation, it's pedagogical, because it shows them how things were 30 years ago. And, like I said, it's important to mark history."

© 1996-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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