Letter from Down Under: Guitar Trek, Australia’s Premier Guitar Quartet, Reflect on Classical Guitar There

Letter from Down Under Classical Guitar Magazine Guitar Trek (Photo credit Rohan Thomson. Left to right Minh le Hoang, Bradley Kunda, Tim Kain, Matt Withers)
From the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar

G’day from down under! Guitar Trek is thrilled to be turning 30 next year and we’re stoked to share with you our reflections on the guitar in Australia over the past three decades. For those who have never visited our island nation, you have heard of all the dangerous spiders, sharks, crocodiles, bluebottle jellyfish, and dropbears that are out to kill you. You’ll be pleased to know that the guitarists of the country are quite the opposite. Over the years, Australia has thrived with its collaborative and supportive community of guitarists, teachers, composers, and luthiers—too many to name them all—who have contributed to creating an exciting and ever-evolving musical scene.

Australia’s first guitar quartet was the Sydney Guitar Quartet (now the Sydney Guitar Trio, comprising Richard Charlton and Raffaelle and Janet Agostino), formed in the early ’80s. Tim Kain—Guitar Trek’s founder—was then just setting the gears in motion for what would become Australia’s most famous guitar school at the Canberra School of Music (later the Australian National University School of Music). There were some real pioneers at work back then (as there are now), particularly on the guitar-making front: Greg Smallman had just put one of his groundbreaking, lattice-braced guitars into the hands of John Williams, and Tim was playing his part to promote the rich new sound of these guitars whenever he toured the country.

Other makers soon cottoned to the lattice idea, with other exciting experimentation soon following for the relatively young instrument. In fact, Australian luthier Graham Caldersmith took the guitar in a different direction again by suggesting to Tim that he should create a quartet using different-sized guitars: treble, standard, baritone, and bass. If other instruments had formed into families over time, why not the guitar? And so, in 1987, Guitar Trek was born.

The group’s first concert sold out and the program repeated an hour later for those who couldn’t get a seat the first time. A debut CD, Music for a Guitar Family, followed in 1990 on Australia’s biggest record label, ABC Classics. By this time, the group had made yet another important leap forward: Expanding the quartet repertoire by commissioning new Australian composers, as well as crafting arrangements of their own. The group created guitar-family-friendly versions of popular works covering everything from Albéniz to Led Zeppelin. There was an obvious driving force behind this move: Repertoire for the “guitar family” didn’t exist!

Arranging and commissioning new works that take advantage of the guitar family’s expanded pitch, sonority, and color range seems to us to be a scenario that could and should be duplicated in other parts of the world. Composers have likened our approach to chamber ensembles they are familiar with, such as string or wind quartets. In addition, with four independent voices to write for, much of the difficulty in understanding and writing for the solo instrument disappears.

The first composer to write for Guitar Trek was Nigel Westlake, who in 1989 wrote “Winter in the Forgotten Valley” for the full guitar family. Nigel has since become one of the leading voices in Australian music, with many concert works and film scores to his name. And he continues to write for the guitar—including a recent solo sonata (written for Tim) and an incredibly imaginative quartet piece titled “Six Fish”—a staple in Guitar Trek’s repertoire, but actually written for Saffire, another great former Australian guitar quartet. The work is scored for two standard guitars, 12-string guitar, and Dobro, and the sound is lucid, colorful, and eerily evocative of the underwater world.

In the early 1990s, things were really cooking for the Australian guitar. Tim paired up with John Williams as part of a seven-piece mixed chamber ensemble called Attacca, which featured the clarinet virtuosity of the group’s in-house composer, Nigel Westlake, as well as musicians from both Australia and the UK. John and Tim then released a CD of duets on Sony, and the biggest beneficiary was again probably the Australian guitar repertoire, with composer Phil Houghton receiving noteworthy attention for his unique compositional voice. Phil is another of Guitar Trek’s loyal advocates, and in 1992 he penned for the guitar family a major quartet called “News from Nowhere,” and later expanded his “Wave Radiance” for the group. Richard Charlton followed soon after with his very popular “Dances for the Rainbow Serpent” and other subsequent important additions to our repertoire. Many of Australia’s leading composers have also written for us.

By the mid-1990s, Guitar Trek was gaining noteworthy attention around Australia and overseas. The group had toured the United States and Southeast Asia and was featured at major international festivals Down Under, including the Darwin International Guitar Festival and the Adelaide Festival. By this time, the line-up had also changed and featured the talents of Carolyn Kidd, Mark Norton, and Peter Constant alongside Tim. (Peter has since gone on to form the outstanding ZOO Guitar Duo in Holland with his guitarist wife Marian Schaap, while as notable teachers in Canberra, Carolyn and Mark helped spawn a whole new generation of guitarists). The members of Guitar Trek have always come through Tim’s careful pedagogical nurturing at the ANU School of Music—these have been outstanding graduates who gain enormous benefit from the group by cutting their professional teeth in an established and well-respected ensemble.


Australia has many talented teachers, one of whom has prepared a great number of young students for Tim’s tertiary program—Andras Tuske, who is based in Adelaide and taught current Trekkers Bradley Kunda and Matt Withers during their formative years, as well as other names readers might recognize—Alex Tsiboulski and Andrey Lebedev.

Also based in Adelaide, Oliver Fartach-Naini is doing great work at the Elder Conservatorium and recently organized a national chamber music festival with guitar. Similarly, in Perth, Jonathan Paget, a highly accomplished player himself, has worked tirelessly for the guitar at WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) over many years, supported by a hugely active guitar teaching program in Perth’s schools.

Among the many fine guitarists around the country, Karin Schaupp is one of Australia’s best-known players, currently in the prime of her career. Karin was taught by her mother, Isolde, who held a position at Queensland University for many years as one of Australia’s main guitar teachers. Karin was a member of Saffire, and has also contributed enormously to the guitar in Australia with a large number of recordings and extensive touring, both nationally and internationally. She has undertaken innovative collaborative projects in recent years, at times taking the guitar into some fascinating uncharted theatrical territory.

Slava and Leonard Grigoryan have made a massive contribution to the public awareness and popularity of the guitar in Australia through highly virtuosic playing and extensive recording and touring. As well as composing, arranging, and commissioning, they have expanded the classical instrument’s possibilities in many crossover collaborations and have been enormously successful in connecting with a wide cross-section of the Australian community.

Tim’s former students Dan Mckay (a former Trekker as well) and Tonié Field, are doing great work in Melbourne by continuing the generational expansion of the guitar family with the Melbourne Guitar Quartet. Tonié’s students Michael MacManus and Evan Hopkins have recently formed the Melbourne Guitar Foundation offering a brilliant concert series, festival, and competition.

Aleksandr Tsiboulski, based in Adelaide, is a superb musician in the style of the traditional virtuoso pianist or violinist. His two Naxos releases to date are a testament to a classical artist of great integrity and deep musical conviction. His solo and chamber music activities add greatly to the Australian music scene and the standing of the classical guitar as a serious concert instrument here.

Another of Tim’s former students, New Zealander John Couch, runs the Taranaki Guitar Summer School in New Zealand every second January, while maintaining his performing career and teaching in Canberra during the rest of the year. In fact, many of Tim’s former students have continued a life in music performance while teaching in schools in Canberra and in other parts of the country, as well as overseas.

In Sydney, the Sydney Guitar Society has played a pivotal role in the public profile of the guitar for 30 years with its regular meetings, guitar orchestra and ensembles, and concert series, often featuring international artists. Key members of the society, notably Christopher Keane, Raff and Janet Agostino, and Richard Charlton, have run the Sydney Guitar Summer School for more than 20 years. This is a five-day event that brings together young guitarists from all around the country.

An important recent development in the Australian guitar scene has been the appointment of Vladimir Gorbach as the full-time guitar lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium, following the retirement of Greg Pikler, who held the position for more than 30 years. This position has become all the more valuable for the continued good health of the classical guitar in Australia, since severe cutbacks suffered at the ANU School of Music at the end of 2012 effectively brought the shool to a standstill as a nurturer of high-level performance. A guitar department with a considerable international reputation was also destroyed in the process.

As in many other countries, university music departments are under threat right now around Australia, causing many to worry about the future of classical music here. It’s a space we are all watching nervously. Outside of the universities and conservatoriums, the performance arts in Australia have long been supported by the Australia Council, as well as Musica Viva’s Schools Education program and their international concert series, which have all helped to build a solid foundation for enjoyment and education nationally. Much of Guitar Trek’s funding for instruments, touring, and commissioning has come through the Australia Council and Musica Viva.

Guitar Trek currently comprises Matt Withers, Bradley Kunda, and Minh Le Hoang, with the ship still steered by Tim—albeit in a very collaborative way. Each member is extremely active in the Aussie scene, with Minh performing and teaching; Bradley composing, teaching, playing, and studying conducting—he has a new disc on the horizon with soprano Rebecca MacCallion; and Matt performing, teaching, and creating the Matt Withers Australian Music Composition Competition, continuing the growth of solo guitar repertoire.

Moving toward the group’s 30th anniversary, this lineup continues the tradition of promoting the classical guitar around Australia. Major highlights have included a concert at the iconic Sydney Opera House presented by the Sydney Guitar Society, and a concert in the Adelaide International Guitar Festival, the most prestigious in the southern hemisphere. Guitar Trek recently released Serene Nights, our sixth album on ABC Classics, this time going one step further into the unknown by re-creating a careful selection of our favorite non-guitar works for quartet.

We send warm best wishes to guitar players everywhere and hope this snapshot of the Aussie guitar scene sparks still more interest in all things plucking Down Under.

This story originally appeared the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.

Classical Guitar Magazine Summer 2016 John Williams Luthiers Improvisation Practice