Striking New Chords

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We know, from the first familiar notes of itsnew recording, “Pathways,” that the California Guitar Trio offers anything but standard fare. The notes in question are the somber ones introducing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

But the orchestral chestnut has been radically rearranged for three handy guitarists who dare defy classical convention by using plectrums--guitar picks--on steel-string instruments rather than on the traditional nylon, and with the unconventional tuning (in fifths, mainly). And why not?

It all began at camp--a music camp. Paul Richards from Salt Lake City, Bert Lams from Brussels, and Hideyo Moriya from Tokyo had convened at one of the intensive “Guitarcraft” courses in England, led by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp in the early ‘90s. (Later courses were held at a Salvation Army camp near Calabasas.)

The guitarists absorbed Fripp’s teachings and his iconoclastic approach to the instrument. They worked in various Fripp-oriented projects, including the League of Crafty Guitarists and the Robert Fripp String Quintet, while building their own trio identity. That identity evolved into a healthily eclectic one.

On the trio’s new CD, its third since forming in 1991 (on the Fripp-sponsored Discipline label), tunes range from Samuel Barber’s melancholy “Adagio for Strings” to the surf-music swagger of “Misiriou” heard on the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack.

On one hand, the trio belongs to the current movement of chamber groups that freely move in and out of classical convention, in search of fresh ideas and new audiences. But there is little overlap with an ensemble such as the L.A. Guitar Quartet, for instance, which has gained growing acclaim in recent years for its accomplished multiple guitar sound.

“As far as being traditional, that’s not really a concern of ours,” Richards said. “For one thing, since we play steel-string guitars, that puts us in our own place, whereas the traditional classical player would never do that. But in a way, it’s become an advantage, because it sets us apart. I don’t know of anybody who does things quite like we do.”

That distinctiveness can also be a problem in terms of finding a niche in the existing music world. On this tour, the trio has played in showcase venues and on the circuit of Borders stores--it performs at Thousand Oaks Borders on Saturday and at the Santa Barbara store Sunday. At Borders, the crowd is mixed in its musical tastes.

But they have also performed in more strictly defined settings as well, both in classical venues and in the rock world, as the opening act on a nearly two-year tour with King Crimson.

Do they find these disparate audiences sympathetic to their music?

“Most of the time, yes,” Richards said. “Some of the hard-core classical people have a bit of difficulty with us, although we’ve gotten some nice compliments from that world recently about the Beethoven.

“We recently did a radio interview with a classical programmer in Salt Lake City, one of these guys who knows his Beethoven. He made a comment that our Beethoven was very ‘Beethoven-esque.’ Coming from someone like him, that was quite a compliment.

“We did a tour years ago in Germany and played one or two classical venues there. Here we were in the homeland of Bach and we were playing the toccata and fugue really loud, with amplification and with guitar picks, and completely untraditional. We got reviewed and the only negative comment was that there was too much reverb.”

Richards noted that, on the King Crimson tour, any initial resistance to their sets--the opening-act syndrome--was quickly set aside when the guitarists started playing. “To be a Crimson fan, you have to be open-minded,” Richards said. “That was quite an advantage to begin with. We were on tour with them for almost two years, and it was rare that we received any negative comments.”

Listening to the trio’s recordings can inspire a quizzical response. The ensemble resonates in ways that defy normal guitar practice, sometimes sounding like a large, mutant variation of a harpsichord.

Richards confirms that the reasons stem from the fifths-based tuning, more in line with orchestral stringed instruments than the standard guitar tuning, and the intricate use of guitar picks instead of fingers.

The trio also deploys a technically complex system called “circulating.” Each musician takes a different part of a given melody, allowing certain notes to ring out in a way that one guitarist alone could never achieve. Adds Richards, “It can give a harpsichord effect when we apply it to the Bach pieces or other classical pieces.

“You can hear a good example of that on our latest album, on the first movement of ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ normally played on piano. If you were to hear that same piece played on just one guitar, it would probably sound pretty boring,” said Richards. “We can get this ringing effect, each taking a part of the melody and letting the notes ring over.”

One of the new album’s more unexpected tunes, in fact, is a new arrangement of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” one of those fluke instrumental pop hits of the ‘70s.

“Actually, that song was a request from my father,” said Richards. “He kept asking us to play that, over and over again, and finally we did it.

“At first, we thought, ‘Oh, that’s much too goofy. We don’t want to do that.’ But we took a look at it and said, ‘Well, we do goofy things.’ We played it at a few performances, and people really responded well, so we included it in our live repertoire and eventually recorded it. It’s a crowd-pleaser.”

Crowd-pleasing comes naturally to them, as they try to balance musicality with accessibility. Although said crowds are modest so far, the buzz is growing, confirming suspicions that the line separating Bach and surf music isn’t as wide as we once thought.

BE THERE

California Guitar Trio, performs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books, 125 W. Thousands Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks; 497-8159. Sunday at Border’s, 900 State St., Santa Barbara; 899-3668. Free.