It has taken classical guitarist extraordinaire Eric Henderson four long and sanity-wrenching years to master the pinnacle piece of his tumultuous career. And he wrote it.
Learning how to play the technically challenging nine-minute composition tested the Segovia-trained guitarist’s skills. “It’s the most radical piece I’ve played in my life. It’s massive,” said Henderson, who will premiere his original work, “Valinor,” at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, in the sanctuary of Laguna Beach’s Neighborhood Congregational Church, 340 St. Ann’s Dr. A $20 donation is requested.
“This piece scared me so much because it seemed so complex,” said Henderson, who has coped with fear-inducing conditions throughout his 37-year career, including necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria in his right arm, life-threatening addictions and resulting emotional challenges.
When the notes started pouring into his head several years ago, the Laguna Beach progeny listened to his imagination, letting the notes flow without analyzing their technical difficulty. “I don’t play the guitar when I’m writing,” explained Henderson, who began training with virtuoso classical guitarist Andre Segovia when he was 13. “I heard this piece unfolding and I just kept on writing and writing. I was using the freedom the child has that’s nothing impossible. I heard the music but I wasn’t sure if I had the skills to record it.”
Henderson’s composition is inspired by JRR Tolkien’s description in “The Lord of the Rings” of how angels sang the universe into being, interweaving their themes and watching the unfurling of the past, present and future. In the process, the cherubs became enamored with the beings who were emerging and aligned as their guardians. “They fell in love with us,” Henderson states simply.
Years of practicing what he titled “Valinor – In His Hands” frustrated and exhausted Henderson, nearly bringing him to tearing up the score. Despite his emotions, the musician instinctually began studying and sharpening his counterpoint guitar skills, aware that that might be the key to opening up the piece’s complexity.
Heightened technical skill helped but it wasn’t the answer. “Once I felt confident, I discovered it was damn near impossible to play,” he said, conceding that the process remains endlessly humbling. “It was so hard. It’s like trying to play an orchestral overture with one guitar. There’s so much going on.”
What finally made the piece possible, said Henderson, was seeing how it was showing him new ways to play the same notes with greater ease by learning new fingering on both the left and the right hands, a skill he was forced to embrace while his right arm was healing from skin-grafting surgery more than 10 years ago.
Henderson knows how to bring his audience to the sheer precipice his music thrives on, never failing to build and release the tension that brings a thrilling ride to an exquisite ending.