Special Blends: How the Guitar is Being Combined with Other Instruments to Create Unique and Fascinating Music
Left Column: Rupert Boyd, Stephen Goss, David Starobin, Gidi Ifergan. Right Column: Jane Curry, Gerry Saulter, Dusan Bogdanovic, Jason Vieaux
BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
Although this magazine, dating back to its early ’80s birth in England, has primarily been devoted to the art of solo classical guitar, one of the things that really struck me when I became the editor of CG a little over four years ago and my mailbox started to be inundated with CD releases, was how much music was being produced featuring the guitar in combination with other instruments. Every month it seems a new album featuring guitar and cello came in, or violin and guitar, or less obvious pairings—guitar and marimba, guitar and harpsichord, guitar and tabla, guitar and flute, guitar and bandoneon, etc. And then there were albums (or single tracks on albums) with guitar in trio settings, or as part of mixed ensembles, or fronting string quartets. Sometimes they were old or new pieces written for those particular instruments, but often they were imaginative arrangements of existing keyboard or orchestral works. Anything was fair game!
So, this got me to thinking seriously about the guitar’s role in these settings. Obviously, all instruments have unique characteristics in terms of their pitch range, volume potential, ability to sustain notes, simultaneously express a melody and a harmony, plus whatever “effects” can be coaxed from it—from the subtle purring drone of a single low note on a cello to a guitar’s harmonic pings. As a listener I’ve observed that more often than not, when it comes to stating melodies, arrangements of “conventional” existing pieces for guitar-and-[blank] tend to “favor” the instruments that are naturally louder and capable of more sustain/decay (cello, violin, flute, accordion, piano, etc.), putting the guitar in a more supportive, rather than “lead” role. But more modern/contemporary pieces—whether written by guitarist-composers or not—seem to place the guitar in more prominent and interesting contexts, no doubt by choice.
Last fall I posed a handful of questions about these issues to musicians whose work playing in and/or writing for chamber settings I had admired, and what follows are some of their thoughts on the subject. The illustrious eight include David Starobin, Jason Vieaux, Rupert Boyd, Gidi Ifergan, Gerry Saulter, Stephen Goss, Jane Curry, and Dušan Bogdanovic. For the purposes of this story I chose not to regard groupings of multiple guitars as “chamber ensembles”—though they clearly are!
I should also note that several of those polled mentioned that beyond the inherently interesting process of melding guitar with other instruments, and the rewarding social aspect of making music with others, playing in chamber situations can be financially lucrative, too, opening up career opportunities outside of the limited classical guitar niche.
Few guitarists are as connected to contemporary chamber music as David Starobin, who has not only put out numerous albums featuring his own playing in various chamber configurations, but also, on his own Bridge Records label, issued literally hundreds of albums—many featuring works by modern composers, including countless commissions—that do not include guitar. He has a unique perspective on the way guitar combines with other instruments, so we asked him about several specific pairings/groupings he’s been part of.
Guitar and percussion (as on George Crumb’s Mundus Canis and other works): “For the combination of percussion and guitar I’d have to begin with a true masterpiece, Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maitre. He frequently uses the guitar’s attack as a softer shadow of the mallet instruments. When I say softer, I mean in actual relation to the decibel levels the percussion instruments put out. If the guitarist isn’t prepared to project like crazy (and find fingerings that help projection) the part can fade into the background. In terms of balance with guitar, other composers have perhaps used percussion more judiciously than Boulez, but also frequently turn to amplification to address the inherent dynamic difference—a solution Boulez rules out. I’ve heard Crumb’s Mundus Canis and Ghosts of the Alhambra played with and without amplification, and find amplification far more successful. With the rare exception, guitar and percussion together is like rock ’n’ roll: bring your amp!”
The Group for Contemporary Music (clarinet, flute, cello, guitar, piano): “Mixed new music chamber ensembles have enjoyed great popularity for the past 50 or 60 years. I’ve enjoyed playing this repertoire, and for a number of years made my living performing it. I think of Roberto Gerhard’s Libra, or going back a bit, the Schoenberg Serenade. I mention those two pieces because the guitar parts take on completely different functions: Schoenberg essentially uses the guitar—paired with mandolin—as a rhythm section; Gerhard uses the guitar that way too, but also takes advantage of the guitar’s potential as a lead instrument.”
Flute (as on Soli e Duettini): “Milton Babbitt’s writing for guitar might be considered less than idiomatic by some—his dynamics are extreme and ever-shifting, as are his rhythmic schemes—but I love the way guitar matches up with flute in his Soli e Duettini. Though the guitarist’s part is never chordal, the careful attention to register ensures that there is never a note that goes unheard. Historically, plucked and blown instruments have always been a great match. It’s not a big surprise that many flute/guitar partners end up married!”
Violin (as on Poul Ruders’ Schrodinger’s Cat): “Schrodinger’s Cat consists of 12 canons, each with material shared equally by both instruments. This breaks the pattern of most violin-guitar duos, where the guitar parts are frequently accompanimental in nature. In the past, there have been composers who tried to cope with this issue: I think of concertante pieces like Paganini’s Sonata Concertata, Giuliani’s Op. 52, and Matiegka’s Serenade. Schrodinger’s Cat is one of the most rhythmically intricate pieces in the guitar’s chamber repertoire, and it tests the readiness of guitarists who are game to conquer both technical and musical challenges. The work’s complete devotion to imitative polyphony has a purity that is spiritually uplifting.”
Oboe and guitar (as inPoul Ruders’ Occam’s Razor, also the title cut on Starobin’s most recent CD): “Occam’s Razor finds its voice and material through the oboe’s sustained, plaintive qualities alongside its more jocular side. The guitar part is substantial and gives our repertoire a large-scale deeply felt duo. When one thinks about the hundreds of flute-and-guitar duos, it seems inexplicable that the oboe-and-guitar repertoire is so small in comparison. There are no real balance issues, and oboists specialize in the kind of sustained playing that the guitar supports perfectly.”
Starobin adds, “I’ve had a chance to work with a number of composers repeatedly over the years, and the pieces composed number in the hundreds. If there is anything in common they share, it was my desire and the composers’ willingness to express themselves authentically through the guitar. By this, I mean without stylistic or technical constraints. But each of the composers I’ve worked with was different. I remember wanting Changes to sound like real Elliott Carter. We worked together diligently to make the piece sound like his music. In Elliott’s next two guitar pieces—Shard and Luimen—he needed only minimal input from me. I found this amazing. He was 89 years old when he composed them. Elliott never played guitar, and though his first guitar part dates from 1938 (Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred, for voice and guitar, written for Orson Welles), he had clearly come to be very comfortable with intricate guitar writing only in his final decades. ”
Stephen Goss is one of the most celebrated and prolific contemporary composers for guitar (as well as for other instruments), and a guitarist himself. In his chamber work he has paired guitar with cello, cello-violin-viola, flute, violin-viola, violin-viola-clarinet, and more.
“We have to address the elephant in room right away—amplification,” he says. “In my view, we live in an age where there is no excuse to have unsatisfactory balance in any live performance. The amplification techniques and equipment available to the modern performer are of an exceptionally high standard. Microphones and amplifiers are affordable. A high-end set-up for just about any occasion costs around $5,000; much cheaper than buying a second (or third) concert guitar. When I used to play a lot of concerts with a singer, I always used amplification—not much, but enough to provide support and to allow me to exploit a wide range of dynamics and colors. Playing unamplified often means the guitarist has to play loud and hard pretty much all the time. Paradoxically, this forced sound is less natural-sounding than a well-amplified guitar. Amplification can be the portal into some very exciting sound worlds. For instance, Australian guitarist Ken Murray plays in a trio with trumpet and trombone—it’s a great combination, but only works when the guitar is amplified. Unfortunately, the guitar world suffers a little from ‘ampliphobia.’ Certainly, in the past, poorly amplified guitars have sounded terrible in concerts. These days, that’s no longer a reasonable objection.
“Another really important factor is the kind of guitar used for chamber music. A double-top instrument, like a Smallman or a Dammann, will have a much stronger attack and projection than a traditional guitar. This stronger attack is very important in ensembles where other sustaining instruments dominate the texture. For solo playing, or for playing in guitar-only ensembles, I prefer traditionally built guitars for their subtlety of colour and more resonant sustain. However, in a mixed ensemble or a concerto, I would always favour a double-top.
“The acoustic of the venue is another crucial consideration. The guitar will be heard much better in a dry or clear acoustic than in a wet one. In a wet acoustic, like a church, the sustained instrument will dominate, as its sound is reflected around all the hard surfaces in the space. This is where there’s a real danger of the guitar being lost.
“In a duo setting, singers and instrumentalists really appreciate solid support from their accompanists and always prefer the guitar to have a fuller, louder sound. With the right guitar, or with the right amplification, or in the right acoustic, problems of balance subside.”
As for composing for guitar and other instruments, Goss says, “I always think of the guitar like a magic box. Through sleight of hand, an audience can be convinced that the guitar is capable of almost anything. I like to perpetuate that illusion. The most important thing is to give the guitar a variety of roles in the musical texture—melodic, textural, bass-line, chordal, atmospheric, coloring, doubling, etc. For me the guitar is an equal partner, not an accompanying instrument—particularly in duos, but also in larger ensembles.
“As anyone who has played my chamber music knows, I go to enormous efforts to maximize the acoustic resonance of the guitar—laissez vibrer and campanella instructions litter my scores like a virus! I use extended beams and piano-pedal markings to indicate how long notes are to be sustained. I put in a lot of fingerings, as often my textures only work in one position on the instrument. This more resonant approach to texture helps a great deal in writing for guitar in a chamber context.
“I like to give each instrument its own registral space. The guitar fares much better if there are not other instruments playing in precisely the same register. I also think a great deal about how each phrase or section will balance. I write very differently for cello in a cello-and-piano duo than I do in a cello-and-guitar duo. I used to play violin and viola to a reasonably high level in solo, chamber, and orchestral contexts. The insight I gained from that really helps seeing the guitar-in-ensemble from the point of view of the other instruments.
“I wrote a piece, The Flower of Cities, for John Williams and Friends for violin, two guitars, percussion, and double bass. That proved to be an excellent combination. I’ve written for guitar and string trio, but I’d love to write for guitar and string quartet or string quintet. In 2019 I’m writing pieces for viola-and-guitar, and saxophone-and-guitar for the first time. These are both potentially great combinations. The list of unexplored possibilities is almost endless, even before we get to guitar and electronics.”
An Australian guitarist who lives in New York, Rupert Boyd has enjoyed success as a solo guitarist (his latest album should be out this spring), with his wife, cellist Laura Metcalf, in their duo Boyd Meets Girl, and in various other settings.
Discussing the guitar’s role in ensembles, he notes, “The limitations are typically that the guitar is nowhere near as loud as other instruments, nor able to really sustain a note for any duration. When playing with cello, even playing on my Smallman & Sons [double-top] guitar, I generally find that I have to play on the louder end of the spectrum, while begging my wife to keep the cello down a bit. But there are so many great and unique things about the guitar. Firstly, the guitar is capable of being utilized in a variety of ways, from playing an expressive melody through to strummed chords, or a contrapuntal accompaniment. The guitar, too, is ubiquitous in many styles of music and cultures, which makes it easy to adapt music from other genres, and from around the world, for the instrument. I also love that the guitar is capable of such a wide variety of timbres—plucked notes, strummed chords, harmonics, not to mention percussion and extended techniques—which opens up a lot of creative and textural possibilities when making arrangements and when composing for the guitar.
“I’ve always felt that the cello, out of all instruments, comes closest to mimicking the human voice, so it makes a lot of sense to give the cello the ‘lead’ role, especially in more melodic music. That said, the cello is also capable of providing a great accompaniment or bass line, allowing us guitarists to have our moment in the sun and have a chance to play the melody. While a good amount of our repertoire has the cello playing the melody with the guitar providing accompaniment, like Manuel de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, we also have some notable exceptions: One is the Sonata for Guitar and Cello by Radamés Gnattali, which really does divide the parts evenly—in the first movement, the two parts imitate each other, taking turns playing the melody (when the guitar plays the melody, the cello part is played pizzicato). Another is an arrangement of the second movement of the guitar concerto Arafura Dances, by renowned Australian composer Ross Edwards. When Laura and I first started performing as a duo, I wrote to Ross to ask if he’d written anything for cello and guitar. He responded a few days later with a newly made arrangement of this movement, in which the guitar part is the same as the concerto, but having reduced the entire orchestral part to one cello! Another example where I get to play the melody is our arrangement of four of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. For this arrangement we made few modifications and basically I play the right-hand (treble clef) part, while Laura plays the left hand (bass clef).
“Over the years I feel like I’ve played in a duo with nearly any instrument you can think of. Never yet with the tuba, but almost everything else: accordion, cello, violin, viola, flute, all voice types, oboe, piano, percussion, etc. Of these combinations, the most problematic I’ve found is piano-and-guitar, partly because of the volume discrepancy, but also because the timbre of the two instruments—particularly the decay of the sound—can be so similar. Even with amplification, the sound can get quite muddy. I’ve always loved the rich repertoire for voice and guitar, and a unique combination of timbres that I adore is that of guitar and accordion. I think there are a lot of possibilities for that combination, and it would be fun to explore further.”
When the fine Australia-based guitarist Gidi Ifergan set out to make his most recent album, Down Celestial Avenue, he knew that he would need to expand his instrumental palette beyond the solo guitar approach of his excellent previous outing, Vast Expanse. As he says, “The album is about personal narratives in various periods of my life—from my Sephardic-Moroccan origins, to life in Israel, and later, settling in Australia—as memoirs in sounds.” And so, in different pieces, Ifergan enlisted a varied roster of players, including strings (cello and violin), French horn, tabla, and gongs; always used in interesting ways—from melodic flights, to supportive parts, to atmospherics.
“Coming from Sephardic-Moroccan origins, naturally I wanted its traditional music to be expressed as well. Traditional Sephardic Jewish music is mostly based on scales called Makam, which are the basis of Arabic music. It is clearly noticed in the melody played by the cello in Clover 3 that weaves quarter tones into the musical phrases. The influence of such Jewish music might also be noticed in Lu Bat, played by the strings, but to a far lesser degree.
“I personally love mid-range instruments, such as the cello and French horn, as they sound like a human voice and its extraordinary range of expression,” he says. “The communication between those instruments and the guitar would be impactful, as the guitar can capture the human voice, as well. In my conversations with Shaun Rigney [who composed several pieces on the album] regarding the approach to the instrumental combinations for the album, we shared the ideas that while the guitar’s acoustic energy dissipates so quickly when played in an orchestral setting, in chamber music, this quality can be exploited. Where the colors of the guitar mix so well with these instruments is in the softer dynamics. The player’s touch and nails have a huge influence on the sound, as do the instrument and the strings. There are so many variables, such as the ability to play sul tasto or sul pont, with flesh and nail or just one or the other; guitarists have an enormous palette at their disposal. The guitar is a polyphonic instrument played by direct contact, which makes it so good for expressing intimate and complex thoughts. Intimacy and complexity are at the heart of chamber music, which makes the guitar a wonderful chamber music partner.”
Ifergan says that on the pieces that featured the Shem-Tov Levi string ensemble, “I was not that concerned about the voice of the guitar and its weight or dominance, as what interested me was the instrumental approach that would reflect the music and its expression of my memoires as sound. In some other pieces, the guitar is an equal partner in the arrangements in relation to other instruments, such as second guitar, horn, or cello. In Oded Zahavi’s Direction to Find, the guitar is silent for long moments, offering space for a haunting solo viola. And in Lu bat,the guitar is not that dominant, providing space for the marvelous harmony created by the strings. But the guitar is played in all the pieces, including, obviously, the solo ones, which makes it the heart of the album.”
Another gifted, eclectic, and successful player/composer, Dusan Bogdanovic has performed in numerous configurations and written pieces for such combos as guitar-cello, guitar-flute-pipa, guitar-flute-koto, guitar-cello-violin, and others.
“I think that most guitarists like that the instrument is a sort of a vibrating mini-piano or an enlarged violin that can play several things at the same time,” he comments. “This kind of multi-functionality has progressed with time, so that guitar today encompasses a variety of instruments, techniques, and uses.Perhaps an extreme illustration of this would be Dowland’s songs for voice and lute, in contrast to Paginini’s Centone di Sonate for violin and guitar. Somewhere in between is the manner in which, say, Giuliani in his Serenade, Op.127 for flute and guitar or Boccherini in his Fandango, G.448 quintet use guitar as an accompanying instrument with occasional melodic incursions.
“Employing guitar as an equal partner capable of both figured bass and melodic dialogue is probably more of a 20th century invention. A shining example would be the way in which Britten has approached guitar in his Songs from the Chinese; it assumes different roles that are compositionally fully integrated with both text and voice. The Big Chariot uses a combination of chords and melodic lines very differently from The Old Lute, which is primarily contrapuntal.
“I have always tried to make chamber music with guitar reflect primarily the compositional idea. Everything else has been a kind of an acrobatic venture around it. For example, the cello-and-guitar combination, for which I have written a bit, is an unusual match considering the overlap of the ranges of both instruments, which gives lot of possibilities in terms of timbral differentiation: pizzicato and arco, harmonics, exchange of bass lines, etc. Another example might be my piece Games for voice, flute, guitar, bass, and percussion, dedicated to David Tanenbaum. Here, guitar is in the mid-range, often teaming up with voice and flute. While I used guitar as a strumming instrument in the ensemble f and ff dynamics, there are many moments where guitar is used in a harp-like role dialoguing with different instruments.
“Mostly my chamber music pieces have been commissioned by guitarists, but occasionally they have been commissioned by other instrumentalists. My piece And Yet… for flute, guitar, and koto was commissioned by the Yamamoto & Awaya flute-and-koto duo. A recent big ensemble piece, Contemplation de mystérieux chérubins, commissioned by the [Aachen] SpeGTRra Guitar Festival 2018 in Germany, involved an early music ensemble with vocal octet and a solo mandolin; my piece Crow for voice, flute, guitar, bass, and nine dancers was commissioned by the Pacific Dance Company from Los Angeles.
Jane Curry is a member of the exciting and adventurous New Zealand Guitar Quartet, but has also been active playing in various chamber settings on recordings and in concert, including a superb trio called Archi d’Amore Zelanda (which combines guitar, viola d’amore, and cello), and also such groupings as a wind trio (with flute and saxophone), guitar-and-choir, and flute-cello-guitar.
“Some of the strengths of the guitar in a chamber setting can be entirely practical,” she comments. “I have been recruited into chamber groups because the guitar provides a texture which could be considered similar to the piano, but as an instrument, is infinitely more portable—allowing the group to play in venues that don’t have a piano. Artistically I find the immediacy of the attack of the guitar in a string ensemble often provides the rhythmic fundamental. With this in mind, though, I do my best to choose repertoire that is democratic with the musical material and doesn’t just relegate the guitar to an accompanying role. Arrangements are tricky. To be honest, I find that these can often be quite unrewarding musically speaking and sometimes quite
fiddly to play—taking much time to prepare for not much return. I find repertoire by composers who are familiar with the guitar—often guitarists themselves—is often the most successful to play and perform.
“A recurring theme in terms of the limitations of the guitar in a chamber music setting tends to be related to volume and balance. My way of mitigating this is to have a loud instrument. Being based in New Zealand, I have access to a wide range of lattice-braced guitars, which, in my opinion, are essential in chamber music. These types of instruments allow you access to a degree of nuance without simply having to project all the time.
“My sense is that because the guitar generally needs to project a lot more with other instruments, I’ve certainly extended my f–ff range, which inevitably asks for a more physically robust relationship with the instrument, and I can expect to play a sustained big sound for longer musical moments. Playing in a guitar-only ensemble—duo, trio, quartet—there has to be a lot more conscious sharing of dynamics to create a multi-dimensional soundscape (depending on who has the important part). I also think that things have to be choreographed a lot more in guitar-only ensembles, because the attack is the same and it is glaringly obvious when things aren’t exactly together.”
The married American duo of guitarist Gerry Saulter and flautist Michelle LaPorte(often billed as the Serenade Duo) has been playing together for 30 years now. Their latest CD, Siempre Vivo!, features a pleasing and diverse selection of South American pieces. But they have also been responsible for bringing many new works into the guitar-flute repertoire, either through commissions or their own arrangements.
Saulter says, “From the traditional Grand Duo Sonatas of Mauro Giuliani to the modern masterworks of such notable composers as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Maximo Diego Pujol, and José Luis Merlin, a key element for us is that the writing strikes a balance between our two instruments. The smaller volume of the guitar relative to the operatic-like voice of the flute is only a limitation if the composition is limited in its imaginative construct. The composer/arranger who has a relative understanding of the guitar’s true strengths can produce innovative material. For the guitarist, our unique use of arpeggios, rhythmic syncopation, melodic lyricism, harmonic voicing, as well as specific techniques such as tremolo, natural and artificial harmonics, percussive effects, and altered tunings are all part of the unique color palette in the creative process for making and playing guitar-centric music. As these tools and techniques are considered in the creative writing and/or arranging, we can focus on the possibilities, rather than the limitations of the guitar.
“The joy of chamber music is that our roles are flexible,” he continues. “Luckily the guitar can function well both as a soloist and an accompanist. It is musically thrilling at one moment to be the soloist, and then to have the ability to shift gears and give a supporting performance that complements the flute, but does not get in her way. For us, this is the true commitment to the ensemble, making ‘the sum greater than the parts.’”
Adds flautist LaPorte, “Performing ensemble music is something like a good conversation; one must know when to listen, as well as when to respond. We have always gravitated to compositions where the dialogue between our parts is balanced and relatively equal. Happily, there are many composers who are truly sensitive to this unique conversational balance of the flute and guitar.”
Saulter: “While the body of chamber music featuring guitar has a long history by composers from all over the world, I do feel an empathetic connection to works either directly from or influenced by Latin and South America. Perhaps it is because those cultures are so diverse and reflect a blend of Euro traditions with indigenous sounds in a way that describes an essential truth of the sound of flute and guitar. We hope our latest Centaur Records release, Siempre Vivo!, is an example of that blended sound.
“When we started our ensemble in 1988, the idea of the guitar as the accompanist for a flute—or violin—in a chamber ensemble was at best academic: Most of us tried it in college as part of the learning experience. These first 30 years of playing together has been so much fun, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. Over these last three decades, it has been great to witness the establishment of so many dedicated flute-and-guitar ensembles, as well as so much compositional activity for the two instruments. We hope that what we began 30 years ago has assisted in some small way to bring about a new horizon for the guitar and flute.”
Grammy-winning American guitarist Jason Vieaux is a musical chameleon: Besides being a true virtuoso as a solo player and fronting orchestras, he has a significant body of work combining his guitar with other instruments. We asked him about a few of his album and live collaborations over the past few years and how the guitar fared in each.
With harpist Yolanda Kondonassis: “A combination of instruments like this is more or less a blend of relatively similar sounds. Both are percussion instruments with an intimate sound and a whole lot of tonal color. Most of the time we don’t use any amplification, unless it’s a large space of 1,000 seats or more.” (Album: Together)
With Julien Labro, bandoneon/accordion: “OK, here we definitely need an amplifier. I use a Fishman Loudbox Mini, and externally mic the guitar, so that I can ‘work’ the microphone by moving forward or backward as needed, not unlike when I play concertos with orchestra. An accordion or bandoneon is a very powerful instrument that puts out a lot of sound, not to mention Julien’s tremendous virtuosity and energy on stage.” (Album: Infusion)
With Gary Schocker, flute: “The flute has a more diffuse sound, compared to other wind instruments like the oboe or clarinet. Also, flute has lots of tonal shading and variation, so this makes it a very ideal chamber music partner with an amplified classical guitar.” (Album: Arioso)
With other combinations: “I have been playing with the wonderful Escher String Quartet for over ten years now; we actually have a record coming out soon. When we play a Boccherini quintet, for example, I don’t use an amplifier. But in the case of a piece like Aaron Jay Kernis’ 100 Greatest Dance Hits, the density of the writing makes it necessary to amplify the guitar a little.
“I also have collaborations with several violinists: Anne Akiko Meyers, Kristin Lee, Tessa Lark, and Nigel Armstrong. They are all incredible violinists and musicians, and it’s been great to work with them. It’s a little easier for the guitar to project with a single violin than with a string quartet, for obvious reasons.
“I don’t approach any of these projects in terms of the actual instrumentation. If I thought too much about that, I might not play with an accordion player—but then I wouldn’t get to play with an artist of Julien’s magnitude! So it’s really more about the artist(s). One crosses paths with many musicians along the way, and it’s really about your compatibility with them as fellow artists, more so than about the instruments.”
Vieaux adds, “I think any time a guitar player is in a position to commission chamber music works with guitar, it is incumbent upon the guitarist to do so. I recognize that I am in a rare position to be able to commission and premiere pieces by major living composers, and that is a pretty big phase of my career at this point. Other guitarists. like Eliot Fisk, Sharon Isbin, Manuel Barrueco, Julian Bream, have done a great service to the guitar by bringing so many new pieces into the repertoire.”
Over the course of preparing this Special Blends article, I also asked each of the eight participants if they’d like to mention any albums (or pieces) featuring the guitar in combination with other instruments they particularly liked. Here’s some of what they said:
Dusan Bogdanovic: “It’s difficult to separate great music from successful instrumentation, but certainly Dowland’s songs and Britten’s Songs from the Chinese come to mind fulfilling the both. Although I am not necessarily a big fan of Tedesco’s work, I would mention his Fantasia, Op. 145 for guitar and piano, as well as his Quintet, Op. 143 as excellent, skillful examples of guitar use. I also would list Webern’s Three Songs, Op.18, Stravinsky’s Four Russian Songs and Boulez’s Marteau sans maître as examples that use guitar primarily as a monodic and non-contrapuntal instrument.
“More recently, Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea is a very beautiful and original instrumentation for alto flute and guitar. And U.S. minimalist composers have created some memorable chamber works: Terry Riley’s Quijote for flute (or violin) and guitar comes to mind, as well as Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, which combines acoustic guitars with electric bass. Of the newer European chamber music, I can recommend Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip, which uses electric guitar in a very imaginative and well-integrated manner in an electronic ensemble environment. I have worked with some of my students on this composer’s music and it certainly is very eventful and ‘crazy,’ if that is what you are looking for.”
David Starobin: “The guitar is blossoming in a way that it never has before. The players and the repertoire produced during the past 50 years are of a scope and quality that I could never have dreamt of when I began playing, 60 years ago. To name names is to leave out the vast majority, who have ensured that the instrument will resound as long as people care about music and art.”
Stephen Goss: “Whoever I mention, there will be dozens of particularly noteworthy ensembles that I leave off the list. But here are four special ones:
“Genarro Desiderio and Aniello Desiderio (violin and guitar): Two brothers at the top of their game, equal partners who live and breathe the music.
“Ponte Vecchio—Chen Reiss (voice), Avi Avital (mandolin), (Lukasz Kuropaczewski (guitar), and Dávid Adorján (cello). This is a really imaginative combination that works brilliantly well.
“Bandini Chiacchiaretta (bandoneon and guitar). A terrific duo, both instruments on an equal footing, and Bandini really knows what’s required when it comes to playing with another instrument. His playing style is completely different from how a soloist would play.
“Paul Tanner and Craig Ogden (percussion and guitar): Proof that this is a combination with massive potential.
Rupert Boyd: “Many of the guitar chamber music albums I enjoy the most are guitar duo recordings by Julian Bream and John Williams, Presti-Lagoya, the Assad Brothers, John Williams and Timothy Kain’s Mantis and the Moon. But a bit further afield, some of my other favorite guitar chamber music albums are those of guitar and voice; particularly Christopher Parkening and Kathleen Battle’s albums, and brilliant ones by Julian Bream and Peter Pears.”
Gerry Saulter and Michelle LaPorte (flute): LaPorte: “The first artists that influenced our vision would have to be [flautist] Jean-Pierre Rampal and Alexandre Lagoya. Their incredible musicianship and joy in their collaborative playing was truly inspirational. The motivation for our Carulli Concerto adaptation actually came from one of their early albums. Also, check out their classic recording of Claude Bolling’s Picnic Suite for flute, guitar, and jazz piano trio. We played that way back in 1999. It’s a terrific work, blending musical styles from J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy, and Duke Ellington.”
Saulter: “Other early influences would include Eliot Fisk and [flautist] Paula Robison, as well as the early recordings of Benjamin Verdery and [flautist] Rie Schmidt.
Jane Curry: “Odair Assad and cello; Cavatina Duo: Denis Azabagic, guitar, and Eugenia Moliner (flute). Sorry, a bit light!”
Gidi Ifergan: “There are a few chamber contemporary music pieces in different styles that I am both moved by and appreciate. One is the piece Distance by Leonard Grigoryan—originally for two guitars (for the duo with his brother), but Leonard also made an arrangement for guitars and strings for the album Hush 10: Songs with Strings. The guitars play a beautiful melody and then freely improvise while the strings allow the second guitar to play autonomously, not just as accompaniment. Then there is Simon Thacker’s rich, high-energy album Rakshasa, featuring guitar, tabla, violin ,and voice. This album is mainly contemporary music weaved with dominant Indian and flamenco flavors. Others are end point by Shaun Rigney (which exists in various arrangements featuring guitar and one other instrument; my recording features the cello), and the newly written Directions to Find by Oded Zehavi, both from my recent album, Down Celestial Avenue.”
Jason Vieaux: “I come across some things on YouTube sometimes, when I am researching the internet for repertoire and composers, and I have heard some really good guitar ensembles. The names escape me, as I am really watching the videos in passing, before I go down a Sly Stone or Van Halen rabbit hole. To be honest, I don’t spend very much time listening to classical guitar-oriented music; never really have.”