Typesetting Gaspar Sanz

When I made a baroque guitar under the tuition of Zach Taylor, I decided to learn to play it. But what to play?

I came across a modern edition of, “Instruccion de Musica Sobre la Guitar Española”, by Gaspar Sanz. This contained a transcription of the music for modern guitar and some tablature for baroque guitar, and so it seemed ideal. However, when I compared the edition with a facsimile of the original Sanz tablature, I found that there were significant differences that I was not happy with. Sadly, the Sanz tablature, whilst a remarkable publication considering when it was printed, is very hard to read and so I searched for an authentic and accurate modern edition that was easy to read.

Instrucciòn de Mùsica sobre la Guitarra Española – Passacalles” by Gaspar Sanz – Biblioteca Nacional de España. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

My search for authentic and accurate Gaspar Sanz tablature in a form that is easy to read was more or less fruitless. Either it had been transcribed for modern guitar or it had been otherwise “improved” upon. These “improvements” were generally of two types:

1) Eliding some of the notation that is not easy to produce in modern tablature setting programs.

2) Adding beats in order to satisfy the modern fixation on strict time signatures and a regular number of beats in each bar.

The notable exception to this is the excellent work by Donald Sauter, who has typeset the Sanz tablature very accurately in ASCII text.

My failure to find authentic and accurate Gaspar Sanz tablature outside of ASCII text led me to consider typesetting it myself.  There are several tablature setting programs available, but I have found none that are capable of capturing all of Sanz’s rich notation, at least without considerable effort and inconvenience.

In the end, I considered that the best way to proceed was to create my own tablature setting program that could fully accommodate every notational element that Sanz used.

This led to the creation of the Simple Tablature Language (STL), and the  Gaspar tab compiler.

STL is designed to be the simplest possible way to describe tablature in text. STL is an absolute tab language, rather than a positional one, so a note is always described very concisely in STL as COURSE-FRET. For example, the note on course 2, fret 5 is notated in STL as 2-5. The actual note that sounds depends on the stringing and tuning of the instrument.

Notice that this absolute notation doesn’t specify or depend on whether the tablature is notated in the Italian fashion (course 1 at the bottom of the tablature) or French fashion (course 1 at the top of the tablature).

By comparison, in a positional tab language, the note on course 2, fret 5 might be notated as {,5,,,} in Italian tablature and as {,,,5,} in French tablature. In my opinion, positional notation has many disadvantages. It is not as clear, simple and elegant as absolute notation, it tends to be more verbose and is more prone to typing error.

The Gaspar compiler takes an STL file (extension .sanz in honour of Gaspar Sanz) and compiles it into a Postscript and a MIDI file. The Postscript file contains nicely typeset tablature, and the MIDI file contains a MIDI version that you can play in Garageband etc.

STL is a flexible language that is easily extendible to virtually any type of tablature. I intend to write bespoke STL compilers for other guitar and vihuela composers and for “standard” lute tablature.


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