The Song of the Golden Dragon

Jan 24 · 11 min read

I’ve never before been inspired to write an essay about a piece of music. This is a first for me; we’ll see how it goes.

You know that feeling when you find a new song or a new piece, and for a while it just consumes you for days, maybe even weeks? Most of us have had that feeling many times. It’s always a bit sad when the feeling finally wanes, after you’ve fully absorbed the piece into the patchwork fabric of songs and snippets that comprise a significant part of who you are as a person.

A few pieces will even captivate us for months on end. For me, many of these have been what you might call “classical” music, or something similar — movie soundtracks, video game music, that sort of thing. But even pop songs can do it. I was utterly haunted, ten years after it was released, by Mr. Brightside, which I had somehow missed back when it was a big phenomenon. I stumbled on it during a bout of the worst flu I’d had in decades, looking for something to take my mind off the strep throat and sleepless cough. That astonishing song carried me, body and soul, through my illness and beyond.

But I’m hit more often by great classical or classical-ish music. I think maybe it is because we have literally centuries of it to choose from. We are blessed with literal reams of great works — lifetime achievements by the greatest composers of all time — which might be a little tricky to get your head around, at first, but then they offer so much depth to explore. Once a great piece hooks you in, you can keep listening to it and finding something new, long after most pop songs have lost their lustre. How many long months I spent enraptured by Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto №2, oh so much better than his more-popular №3, or by Bach’s Chaconne in D or his Passacaglia in C minor, or by Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto or Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, or virtually everything ever written by Chopin. Classical music offers us riches for a lifetime.

And there may be nothing better than being addicted to a piece while you’re doing something else in your life: reading a novel, playing a game, commuting to school; it could be anything. Then the music and the activity become forever joined, so that the music evokes nostalgia for the activity ever after. An odd example: as a young teenager I listened to Van Halen’s uncharacteristically dark Fair Warning album over and over as I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series — and now for me that album is the soundtrack for those novels. Music can become incredibly specific and personal through association.

As another example, I used to listen to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor while I played LP MUDs in college, so again, hearing the music now brings me back to those days, 1988–1992, in which chat and RPGs were for a brief time one and the same. It almost doesn’t matter what you listen to; the music will inevitably bind itself to the experience and become an integral part of it, and of you.

I have played guitar for most of my life. I just turned 50 a few days back, and my dad gave me my first real guitar for my 14th birthday, so it has been a long stretch. I don’t think I have ever loved anything as deeply and persistently as being a guitarist. I would bring my guitar to school and ask other guitarists to teach me what they knew. I would marvel in envy at the ones who could sight-read, and although in later years I achieved some proficiency, I am still not fluent.

I was 15 years old in 1984, which meant that nearly all the “real” guitarists at the time, to my teenage mind, were playing Heavy Metal. It is still popular today, but unless you were a teenager in the 80s, you have no idea how amazing it was back then. The Guitar Gods of the time were so gigantic, so unprecedented, that they felt like deities: ancient Norse Gods striding across the stage with their long hair and dazzling axes.

These players advanced the state of the art, technically if perhaps not as much musically, with a steady evolution from the blues-based pentatonic forms of the 70s to more intricate and melodic forms which began to resemble classical music in many ways. Yngwie Malmsteen, gaudy as his playing might have been, opened everyone’s eyes to the possibilities, and then Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker and many others took the art form of heavy-metal guitar to extremes that for all I know are still evolving today.

“For all I know,” I say, because in all their guitar-magazine interviews, the 80s guitar gods would point to Niccolo Paganini, Franz Lizst and other virtuosi as their influences: Giants of the 18th century, at the height of the Romantic period. And so, like many other young guitarists of the time, I began my journey of exploring the landscape of classical music, paying special attention to pieces of exceptional difficulty, but gradually broadening my listening habits to encompass all of the most well-loved music over several centuries.

This exploration eventually led me to classical guitar, and one day in the early 90s, I hung up my electrics and committed to the acoustic guitar, coming back to my roots: the cheap Madeira guitar from my Dad, which was by then so beat up, but also imbued with unmistakable warmth from the many hours I had spent with it.

I took classical guitar lessons for years, upgraded my instruments, attended masterclasses, performed in competitions, and refined my technique and my musicality. I threw myself at Bach, tried my hand at Spanish guitar, flirted with South American guitar, and eventually settled into doing my own arrangements of game geek music. I never really lost my love of showmanship, and I have always gravitated towards the faster, flashier pieces, even when I could not play them well.

But in all those years, I was never inspired to write an essay about a piece of music. Where should I even begin?

The piece that has so inspired me is The Song of the Golden Dragon (SotGD for short), a ten-minute acoustic guitar solo by composer/performer Estas Tonne, whom I had the pleasure of watching live in November, in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. You might try putting on the video in the background, as you read on.

I stumbled on the video last July, by way of a YouTube recommendation (go figure). At first I was a bit put off by the “fake gypsy street performer” vibe, but then I saw it had 48 million views — up to nearly 58 million at the time of this writing, just six months later.

Friends, that is one hell of a lot of views for a solo performance on a nylon-string guitar. A quick search for “classical guitar” on YouTube shows me that even an old chestnut like Asturias, played by a woman who could easily do modeling on the side, still only has 24 million views, and most of the famous pieces by famous acoustic guitarists have no more than 1M or so. Yet here was this “Estas Tonne” guy, playing a beat-to-hell guitar on some side street in Germany, with a stick of incense stuck his bridge. I mean… what the heck? So I gave it a listen.

And folks, I haven’t stopped listening, fully 6 months later. I have what can best be described as a man-crush on this song, apparently along with millions of other Tonne fans. I’ve learned it and absorbed it and I play it day and night, unable to slake my thirst for its snaking syncopations and the sheer brashness of its soundscape.

I’ve been enamored of many an epic solo guitar piece before. Andrew York’s Sunburst/Jubilation was so powerful that it finally got me back to playing guitar after I’d taken a 3-year hiatus for piano, and its sequel Moontan never fails to scratch my itch to make the audience’s faces melt. I’ve dabbled with everything from Al Di Meola to Koyunbaba to Vaseline Machine Gun; over the years I’ve left no stone unturned, and any interesting guitar piece has been able to get me excited, no matter the genre.

But something has been happening to classical guitar for the past 70 years: It has become cripplingly conservative. It began with Andres Segovia, as big an asshole as ever graced the scene, and he set a precedent for chronic hipsterism: That music isn’t good enough for classical guitar; your playing isn’t clean enough to qualify as “real” music; your friends aren’t in the right circles to get you on stage, and so on. It is nothing less than gatekeeping on joy itself. And of course this attitude is far from unique to classical guitarists; it infects many if not most branches of academia (particularly in the liberal arts), modern art, architecture and so on.

This makes me sad, and also a bit embarrassed for humanity. All those years of classical lessons certainly helped me become a more accomplished guitarist, in the sense of being able to play more freely without exhausting myself, and teaching me to focus my practice to get the most from my time. But they also made me hate my own playing, and where’s the fun in that?

Tonne’s SotGD hit me like a gust of wind, sweeping away the dusty old hipster cobwebs and reminding me that guitar is first and foremost about passion. It’s bold, it’s fresh, it’s sloppy as hell, it’s almost insanely ambitious, and it’s just plain fun. After all those years of heavy metal, flamenco, jazz, latin american, classical, rock, and more, I think that more than any other piece, SotGD expresses everything I’ve ever wanted to say on my guitar.

With a pretentious title like “The Song of the Golden Dragon”, the piece has a lot to live up to. Talk about setting unrealistic expectations! But it delivers. The song is a treasure trove, and like any much larger piece (for instance, the famous piano and violin concertos), teasing it apart yields layers and hidden corners that will pass you by until you’re deeply familiar with its overall structure.

It took me a dozen views before I could even start making sense of the song’s architecture. It twists, it turns, and ultimately, it soars like the eponymous dragon of the title. From a genre perspective, it spans continents, feeling somewhere between Malaguena and Piazzola, but stitched together like a spaghetti Western, with strong flavors of Enrico Morricone.

After a leisurely minute-long preamble, SotGD begins in earnest at 0:56, alternating between E-minor and A-minor chords in chord-melody style, with an improvisational feel that turns out to be legitimate: Tonne never seems to play the piece in quite the same way. At the start he has two voices going on: The chords, representing the chorus, and the melody (mostly played on the high string), which has some recurring themes but which never actually repeats itself.

After a 45-second buildup, he hits the first C major chord at 1:41. It’s a stunning emotional release, as he enters one of the song’s key chord progressions (C-Am-Em) for the first time. This is where the ambition of the piece starts to emerge, because here it splits into three voices, which is unusual for a guitar piece. The way Tonne accomplishes this, continuing throughout the piece, is by alternating between the high voice and the low voice in each measure. The low voice, played with his thumb, sounds like a gunslinger theme, and he manages to play it differently every single time, at dozens of points throughout the song.

Combine all this with a liberal amount of exciting strumming, and you’re starting to think, wow, this is a pretty cool piece. But then at 2:45 he hits the first B7 chord, in another pivotal release, and you suddenly feel the dragon take flight. The deep melody from 2:45–3:09 is hauntingly beautiful — I still hear it in my head all day long, after so many months — and he ends the section with an incredible climb of strumming at 3:10, with the melody ascending but the chords descending, E minor to Dsus4 (our first D chord!) to C6 to B7, and then a reprise of the heavy-metal style pull-offs he’s been doing since the beginning of the piece, but with a more traditional flamenco-style chord progression in the low registers.

After months of playing this piece myself, and listening to his many recordings of it, the imagery for me has materialized as a golden serpentine dragon flying up the Peruvian slopes towards Machu Picchu, weaving and winding its way — but so far, always near the ground. At 3:32, the dragon pauses to admire a beautiful dancer spinning elegantly in a traditional Peruvian dress. This lovely intermission continues for a full minute, climaxing at 4:38, as Tonne heads back into the C-Am-Em theme at 4:44 with renewed intensity.

And then at last — about halfway through the song, at 5:00 — the dragon finally takes to the air. If you’re with me so far, I think you’ll agree that the next minute of the song is as exciting as anything that’s been played on any guitar, anywhere. Then there’s a neat bridge from 5:53 to 6:24 reminiscent of Gerudo Valley, followed by more craziness that goes on perhaps a bit too long, and then the song at long last begins to wind down. 7:18–7:36 is a reprise of C-Am-Em as a wickedly clever strumming finale, still carrying 3 full voices, and then the piece takes a deep breath and rides off into the sunset, the dragon now being ridden by a cowboy saying his farewells around 8:00 through the end.

I’ve deconstructed the piece a bit here, but words can’t really do it justice. Tonne has created a magnificent tapestry of sound and color, stretching the horizons of the instrument. And the video itself is a little masterpiece, panning around the crowd and zooming in on Tonne’s face and his cowboy boots as the music soars, his German bystanders blissfully unaware that they will be viewed 58 million times over the next few years.

The Song of the Golden Dragon is a feast for the ears, and in many ways a revival of a style of playing that I believe had been slowly dying out. If, like me, you drink your fill and still find yourself wanting more, you should check out this alternate recording of the same piece. The first third is nowhere near as exciting, underscoring just how powerful the German performance was. But I’ve come to appreciate its beauty as well. It starts to heat up around 3:20, and by 5:20 I think it’s actually better than the more-viewed version. Unlike the constant onslaught of the German performance, this recording has greater dynamic range and emotional nuance, offering new musical ideas that further elaborate on the song’s themes.

Aside from SotGD’s overall beauty and its refreshing bravado, I feel it possesses another important dimension: accessibility to guitarists! There are many wonderful pieces out there that only a hundred or so guitarists on earth can play. These pieces are great to listen to, but they’re not very useful, because almost nobody can include them in their repertoire. You’ll never hear someone playing them in your neighborhood guitar shop. So I’ve come to believe that a key measure of a piece’s overall importance, in the final analysis, is how easy it is to play.

SotGD is a solidly intermediate-level piece. It’s flashy and impressive to watch, and all the open strings make it sound rich and rather difficult. But practically speaking it’s playable by any amateur guitarist with nimble fingers and a couple years of experience. It presents few technical challenges and they are easily solved; put another way, the piece is idiomatic to the guitar: it fits naturally in your hands. I like that. It makes it a piece for the people, not just for world-class professionals.

I have my own special arrangement of SotGD that I’ll try to record this year when I get some time. I can’t give too much away, but I think it may open the piece up to even more players.

And that, folks, is the end of my first-ever essay about a song. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, as well as some of the suggested music I’ve linked here. Maybe we can do this again sometime.

Steve Yegge

Written by

Steve Yegge is Head of Engineering for Data Insights at Grab, with nearly 30 years of tech industry experience.

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