After 35 years, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet continues to grow a legacy of recordings on major labels, in the process earning two Grammy nominations, and a 2005 Grammy award for its Guitar Heroes CD (Telarc). The quartet continues to play to sold-out houses, delighting audiences and critics alike with programs that range from classical masterworks to innovative interpretations of contemporary and ethnic music.
It hasn’t always been easy.
“You have to love what you do,” LAGQ member Scott Tennant says. “A musician is always on call. There’s a process that never stops.”
For LAGQ, that process began in 1980 when classical and flamenco great Pepe Romero hand picked four University of Southern California guitar students—Tennant, Anisa Angarola, John Dearman, and William Kanengiser—for a quartet he wanted to coach. Since then, with Andrew York replacing Angarola in 1989 and Matthew Greif taking York’s seat in 2006, the LAGQ has evolved from a band of young musicians doing educational programs in public schools to one of the nation’s preeminent concert ensembles. Along the way, LAGQ has demonstrated what it takes to sustain long-lasting and endlessly inventive collaboration.
Tennant spoke to CG by phone from his home in the Los Angeles area, just as a Kickstarter campaign for LAGQ’s latest recording project, aptly titled New Renaissance, was drawing to a close.
Thirty-five years is a pretty good run. Have there been difficulties? There are always difficulties. For instance, in 1981, when Anisa was with the group and we were calling ourselves the USC Quartet, we toured Durango and the Yucatan [Mexico] for the summer. I was 19. We did 48 concerts in five weeks. It was very intense. And, man, there were some hardships. One thing literally scarred me for life. We had a very rare free day. We didn’t have to play until that night. We were in the jungle near Mérida, so we decided to go to the beach. And I, Mr. Gringo, spent too much time in the water without sunscreen. That night I had huge blisters all over my arms and shoulders. I had to get it treated after the concert.
You performed like that? Yeah, second degree burns all over me. Next morning, I’m lying face down on this table next to a garbage can in this clinic, and they lance all of these bubbles and pour alcohol and scrub my back. It was terrible. They bandaged me like a mummy. And that afternoon, we played a gig. Lots of things like that happened. You wind up deciding whether or not this is something you want to do for a living. That tour in Mexico is what solidified the group.
I guess it did. You’ve stuck together. I always call the other guys my brothers.
Now that I’m in my 50s, I can look back and say we grew up together. But we can annoy one another, too. That’s one of the big things we learned long ago. You have to give everybody their own space. That’s hard for musicians. Something is always going on. You can’t just turn off the light and close the door. But at some point, you have to go home.
I suppose it takes a lot of compromise. It has to be democratic. Everyone isn’t always happy. If you want to speak with one voice, you have to make compromises. That’s something we’re all still getting used to. I’m a very non-verbal person when I practice. Yet, when you’re in a group, you have to be able to talk about your ideas and explain them, come up with solutions and tell everybody. That’s hard for me.
Was there a turning point when you knew you had something special with the quartet? When Andy joined the group we started exploring all kinds of styles. He was so good at jazz and bluegrass picking. He and Bill had rock ’n’ roll backgrounds. We’re all interested in different musical styles, different ethnic cultures and musical cultures. We let ourselves have the freedom to explore. That’s when we really stepped up the game.
Was it a rough spot when Andy left after 17 years? It was. Around 2005, we were just so tired. For about ten months, we didn’t travel or tour. Andy decided he wanted to do other things. But Matt came in. He had all those improvisatory chops, and he came from a background of multi faceted styles. His mom [Jana Jae Greif] is a famous country fiddle player from back in the days of Hee Haw [a country music and comedy TV show].
‘When you’re in a group,
you have to be able to talk
about your ideas and explain them.’
-SCOTT TENNANT, LAGQ
Let’s talk about the new project, New Renaissance. Why go indie? We’re learning from our students. Our last label, Telarc, would take a product we had already produced and market it. We were selling more at our concerts than through record stores, so we said, let’s just self-produce. We’ll have control and we’ll own the product. We had this set of music we’d been playing called “Music from the Time of Cervantes.” These are pieces Bill arranged of wonderful music dating back to Renaissance Spain. Bill had also prepared this 70-minute script for voice-over, based on Don Quixote. It premiered with John Cleese. What a thrill that was. It was one of the highlights of my life, working with one of my absolute heroes. We wanted to record some of that, and we had this new piece by Ian Krouse, based on music by English composer John Dowland. To flesh things out, we asked Dušan Bogdanovic to write something for us, and I transcribed some French Renaissance quartets. It’s all recorded. With New Renaissance, we got to do what we wanted to do, because we did it ourselves. It was a labor of love.
Looking back over the last 35 years, do you find something stands out for you? The audiences. People come up to us and say, “You came to my school back in 1986, and now I play cello with such and such orchestra, and thanks for that.” That’s awesome. You don’t think about that kind of stuff when you’re playing. It lets you know that you’ve touched somebody and that it’s made a difference.
You can hear the New Renaissance album in its entirety on YouTube.
WHAT THE LAGQ PLAYS
Scott Tennant favors a guitar built by Philip Woodfield; Bill Kanengiser plays Thomas Humphrey guitars; John Dearman plays a Thomas Fredholm seven-string; and Matt Grief is playing a double-top built by Toni Müller. The quartet uses D’Addario and Savarez strings. They always carry the same KM-184 Neumann microphones they have used for many years. One thing still eludes them, though: “We’ve all had our guitars broken or smashed in some of the most expensive guitar cases built,” Tennant says. “An ultimate guitar case would be great. One with wheels. That’d be kind of cool.”
Mark Ari is a writer, painter, and musician who teaches at the University of North Florida.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.