Postmodern ahead of the curve, the guitar has been an uninhibited eclectic throughout its history. Its Baroque repertory, for example, includes native Afro-Mexican dances as well as European court dances, to say nothing of drinking songs and military band imitations.
Recovering and extending that multifaceted heritage is what the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is all about. One of the more important landmarks on the vibrant and influential Los Angeles guitar scene, the quartet has a strong sense of identity and mission.
"The guitar world is so fragmented now, with all these specialists and subgenres," says Andrew York, newest member of the ensemble. "It's really important to bring it all back together--I see it as a must."
The group has been heading in this direction since 1980, when the original members--Anisa Angarola, John Dearman, William Kanengiser and Scott Tennant--were all students of Pepe Romero at USC.
"We were in an ensemble class and Pepe sort of put us together," Kanengiser recalls. "It worked--not always smoothly. We did a couple of outreach concerts to represent the School of Music, and then we were asked to do a student tour, through the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department, and we had this grueling five-week tour through Mexico, playing for schoolkids. That was our first real tour, a trial by fire. Our tour bus was John's old Volvo, the Quartetmobile. We played 48 concerts in five weeks--short concerts, like 45 minutes, often several times a day."
Even as students, however, these guitarists were deeply concerned with goals beyond simply getting the next gig.
"At the outset," Dearman says, "some of us had different ideas about what direction the quartet could take, because there were different models out there. The [traditionally influenced] Romeros for one, but another model was the Amsterdam Guitar Trio and groups like the Kronos Quartet, who were having a lot of success playing modern music. I guess you could say we split the difference--not so much as a calculated compromise, but everybody's voice is recognized, and that created a certain diversity in our programs."
The group has gone through a reincarnation.
"Six years ago Anisa left and Andy came in," Dearman says, "I think that rather drastically changed the musical direction of the group, and perhaps reinvigorated it."
Although he had played with the quartet previously on some of its many educational outreach concerts, accomplished jazz guitarist York found he had much to learn when he was asked to join the group formally after substituting for Angarola on a tour.
"I was well aware of the group's history," he remembers. "It's difficult, joining a group at a later date, because the others paid the dues, they did that tour in Mexico. The first year, basically I didn't make my voice heard too much because I felt like the newcomer." ("He vents very well now," Tennant says.)
"I was always really impressed with the quartet's ensemble--with any plucked instrument, with its instantaneous attack, you know how hard that is to achieve. I had never been in a classical ensemble before, so that was an enormous challenge. There was no improvisation in those days, and you had to balance tone and volume."
The challenge proved mutual. As Kanengiser notes: "Andy sort of had to take a step toward the classical world, and we also, essentially, had to step toward the nontraditional world. It wasn't too hard for us--we all have pop music roots."
This ensemble conversation was taking place on the deck of Dearman's Silver Lake home. The four had just returned the evening before from concerts in Colorado, and they would leave two days later for a guitar festival in Portugal. York may have missed that epochal tour in Mexico, but upon joining he made immediate contributions to the lore of quartet logistics.
"When they asked me to join," York says, "I had promised my wife that we would move to England, and I couldn't go back on it. We actually worked it out so that right after I joined, we moved away for six months and had a flat in England. The initial period, we actually practiced by fax and tape and then met up for tours."
The quartet now travels frequently to Japan and tours Europe several times a year. Its regular summer homes are the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Connecticut and the Cal State Summer Arts program, held this year on the Long Beach campus. There the quartet caps an ambitious guitar and lute series with a performance Thursday at Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall.
That concert, a joint recital with period-instrument specialist James Tyler, features new repertory, including a piece by York, dances from the Chilean group Inti-Illimani as arranged by Tennant and a suite from "Carmen." For some time now, the quartet has played everywhere amplified, which its members report not only increases their music's effect on their audience but also helps them considerably in acoustically inhospitable halls. The musicians also incorporate spoken introductions to the music, and they have long since mothballed their tuxes.
"There's a storytelling aspect to it," York says. "All of us dislike the implicit formality of the classical music setup. We try to be ourselves as much as possible. The tux is a uniform which implies not only a separation from the audience but that you're colorless--just a vehicle for the music."
If you miss the Thursday performance, you can catch up with fresh L.A. Guitar Quartet the following Monday when the group appears on the national PBS Boston Pops telecast (KCET-TV Channel 28, 8 p.m.). This concert was taped just after Memorial Day, and even the guitarists haven't seen it yet. It includes the last movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto Andaluz," York's "Bantu" and Manuel de Falla's "El Amor Brujo, in which mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and the Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco join the quartet and the Pops, led by sophomore music director Keith Lockhart.
"I was able to incorporate our quartet arrangement of the Falla with the orchestra--thank goodness I kept the original keys!" Kanengiser says. "The producer got so excited about it that he then brought in a flamenco dance company."
That quartet version of "El Amor Brujo" is also the centerpiece of the ensemble's second CD for Delos, "Evening in Granada." The first was "Dances From Renaissance to Nutcracker," and the latest is "Labyrinth," which best displays the group's eclectic stance. The title track is a 21-minute tour-de-force, extended-technique elaboration by 'The guitar world is so fragmented now, with all these specialists and subgenres. It's really important to bring itall back together.'
L.A. Guitar Quartet
Ian Krouse of a Led Zeppelin theme (from "Friends"); the all-American disc also includes three of York's tunes and arrangements of Copland, Count Basie and Sousa.
The next quartet release is a Baroque program due in September, which includes much Bach, some Monteverdi, Purcell, Telemann and Handel and a highly idiosyncratic take on the oft-taken Pachelbel Canon.
"We put together this arrangement where it starts out straight and then goes through a number of stylistic gyrations," Kanengiser says.
"It's a good example of what our rehearsals sound like," Dearman adds, "when one of us takes a tune and bends it into a sitar-like thing, and then someone else takes it and turns it into bluegrass, and so on."
Although the pace is increasing dramatically for the quartet, its members also maintain individual careers. For York it's mostly composing--he's racing to complete a concerto for two guitars and orchestra for the Guitar Foundation of America convention, due in early August. Dearman is doing solo concerts, Kanengiser is working on a new solo recording, and Tennant has written "Pumping Nylon," a technique manual that has become a bestseller for its publisher, Alfred Publishing. All teach at colleges and universities in the area.
As Kanengiser, devoted father of a new daughter, says: "Now the good news is we've got a gig, and the bad news is--we've got a gig."
"The last few years, it's been getting busier--in a lot of ways turning into more of a job," Tennant says. "It is really hard to get us four together for rehearsal. Sometimes we just barely meet an hour before a concert, go backstage, tune up and play. But despite the fact that it's getting more like a job, now, once we get onstage, it's even more fun. There's this explosion and--boom--it just happens. It's a real thrill, kind of exhilarating."
LOS ANGELES GUITAR QUARTET, with James Tyler, Cal State Summer Arts Festival, Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Date: Thursday, 8 p.m. Prices: $10-$15. Phone: (310) 985-7000.