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The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet Bend Classical Music to Their Own Worldly Wills

By Michael Henningsen

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  "When we first got together, it was really sort of innocent," says the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet's William Kanengiser from a payphone in a Boston airport. "We were just essentially fulfilling the requirements of a class." The surprisingly lighthearted and quite personable Kanengiser is recounting his group's history, from their early days in the 1980s as a student ensemble at the University of Southern California during which time Kanengiser, Scott Tennant and John Dearman were under the virtuosic tutelage of Spanish master Pepe Romero. At Romero's urging, the trio began performing together, gradually becoming closer and closer as a unit. In 1990, another USC student, Andy York, came aboard to round out what has since become one of the most highly acclaimed chamber music innovations in recent history: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

"One of the strange things about our group is that all of us are playing essentially the same instrument," says Kanengiser. "John Dearman plays a seven-string guitar, so he can play about five notes lower than the rest of us. But aside from that, it's all the same instrument, so we don't have any sort of predetermined roles like a string quartet would have. And there's some interesting possibilities with that."

The possibilities Kanengiser speaks of have been explored with increasing depth and broadening palette by the group on each of their three albums. The first, For Thy Pleasure (Delos) is made up in large part of classical music by familiar composers, arranged for guitar quartet by members of the group. The second, Labyrinth (Delos), features more original compositions along with varied interpretations of classical pieces and music inspired by other music. But it is the LAGQ's self-titled and latest release, their debut on Sony Classical, that most truly defines the group thus far. The various colors and textures that make up the new record run a spectacular musical gamut--from the African-influenced "Mbira" and "Djembe" to a suite of three traditional klezmer pieces to Chick Corea's "Spain" and York's offbeat ode to reggae, "Dreadlocked." Remarkably, the monumental stretching out by the group to incorporate European, Pacific Rim, African, Latin American and Asian cultures into their music resulted in their most natural, flowing and beautifully diverse recording to date.

"Even though all of us are classical guitarists and have classical training, our tastes have always been much more varied and eclectic than just straight-ahead classical music," says Kanengiser. "When I first arrived at USC as a student, I was still playing rock guitar, John (Dearman) was playing Chet Atkins tunes, Scott (Tennant) was playing flamenco and Andy (York) was a bluegrass guy and a jazz player. We all have different backgrounds," he continues, "and we listen to all different kinds of music. It's not that we turned toward more worldly music as a market decision, it's always been our dream to reflect this kind of stuff with just four classical guitars."

The cross-cultural reflections employed by LAGQ on the new album were achieved simply, but in decidedly heterodoxical ways. Take, for instance, "Mbira," the opening track named for the traditional African thumb piano: To achieve the sound of the mbira, Kanengiser attached staples to his guitar strings. On the Gamelan-inspired "Gongan," he used alligator clips on the bass strings and plastic bread ties on the higher strings. On "Kojo-No-Tsuki," pieces of leather were fitted over the strings to create a sound replicant to that of the Japanese koto. Kanengiser says great care was taken to ensure that whatever was recorded for the new record could also be achieved live. "When we were coming up with the different techniques, we needed to make sure that whatever we did was not only stable, but pretty easy and quick to assemble."

Live, the LAGQ are nothing short of mesmerizing--each player a virtuoso, with clearly defined artistic perspectives of his own. When they come together, the four guitarists contribute uniquely to a singular musical vision: to boldly go where no guitars have gone before, to mingle tradition with contemporary passion and the virtually untapped traditional music of cultures for whom the guitar is the foreigner. It's a journey that continues to lead the LAGQ and those privileged enough to experience them to new musical planes.

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