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The Astonishing LAGQ

The god of serendipity was beaming when, 20 years ago, four USC guitar students dubbed themselves the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. No particular thought went into the name – it happened to be their home address. They weren’t native Southlanders (what trend-setting Angeleno ever is?).

Sprung from unmusical families, they entered USC’s guitar program not exactly steeped in the classics: One was a fingerpickin’ Chet Atkins wannabe who’d only recently mastered note-reading; another fantasized about playing lead guitar for Yes. And there was the child prodigy who, though trained by a Segovia disciple, had contemplated joining the Marines and might well have hung up his guitar if the hockey coach had given him a glimmer of encouragement.

There’s something so cosmically right about one of the world’s premier classical guitar ensembles – a maverick in redefining the guitar’s voice and literature – springing from such a mish-mosh. Like the city whose name it bears, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is a gumbo of creative juices, a paella of wildly diverse tastes and influences. Its style is rebelliously relaxed, amiably iconoclastic, tongue-in-cheek, low-key So Cal.

If you’ve never heard them, imagine a classical group that mixes up J.S. Bach and J.P. Sousa; rolls out Scottish reels and Klezmer dances alongside Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and a Praetorius gavotte; gives you a straight-ahead transcription of Telemann’s Concerto in D for four violins, but goes all bossa-bluegrassy with Pachelbel’s “Loose” Canon; pays equal homage to Aaron Copland and Led Zeppelin. Imagine guitars simulating “world” instruments like an African thumb piano, a Balinese gong or a Japanese koto; imagine 24 nylon strings masquerading as a harpsichord continuo or Samba band; imagine four white guys thumping out Afro-Cuban, Macedonian, Native American and Brazilian rhythms, transforming their fine rosewood instruments into congas, claves, palitos and all manner of drums.

The LAGQ has a curious effect on audiences and critics: one of pleasurable confusion. “When is a guitar concert not a guitar concert?” asked a St. Louis Post Dispatch critic, then solved his own riddle: “When it is given by the eclectic and whimsical musicians who form the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.”

“Who knew that four guitars could sound like a baroque ensemble or a gamelan orchestra?” marveled the Washington Post. “Is the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet classical or pop?” mused the St. Petersburg Times. “Any group whose repertoire ranges from Bach to Falla to Count Basie to Led Zeppelin is tough to label.”

Even in its hometown, the recording-arts capital where eclecticism is the norm, the LAGQ elicits puzzled approbation: “The world’s hottest classical ensemble or its tightest pop band?” wondered a Los Angeles Times critic. “However it helps you to think about the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, keep the emphasis on superlatives for its unrivaled joy, technical élan and questing spirits.”

It’s hard to find a reviewer who isn’t wowed by this group. In its 22nd year, the LAGQ has never been more original, more successful or more in demand. Last fall, winding up an 18-city East Coast tour, the group went into recording sessions to produce Aires, its 10th release (if you don’t count a long-out-of-print LP from the 1980s). In 2001, the quartet gave more than 60 concerts, in venues that included Spain’s Aranjuez Palace, the Hollywood Bowl and Wolftrap. They blew through Germany and Luxembourg in March. They soloed with the philharmonics of Nashville, Buffalo, New Mexico and Utah in Rodrigo’s seldom-heard Concierto Andaluz for orchestra and four guitars. Gigs at New York’s Eastman School of Music and the Tuesday Musical Club of Akron, Ohio, hint at the breadth of the quartet’s appeal.

Ask Bill Kanengiser ’81, MM ’83, Scott Tennant ’86, John Dearman ’81, MM ’83 and Andrew York MM ’86 how they stand the pace, and they won’t drag out some tired cliché about feeding off the audiences’ energy. Travel is drudgery, they’ll tell you.

“You don’t sleep, you don’t eat right, you practice, you rearrange, spit out parts in a computer, it’s really intense, and then you’re done,” Tennant summarizes. The financial rewards are modest (“Finally, we’re making the amount of money that a normal guy working at a normal job would make,” Kanengiser grouses.)

They’ll talk about coping mechanisms – like keeping their distance during downtimes. “We’re really great friends, have been forever,” says Tennant, “but when we’re done touring, we all go our separate ways” – solo concertizing, teaching (Tennant and Kanengiser are guitar faculty in the USC Thornton School of Music; Dearman teaches at area community colleges), publishing, arranging, composing and regrouping once a week, as they have through 22 years of Mondays, to keep four independent spirits in sync.

If serendipity sired the LAGQ, the deity briefly transfigured itself into Pepe Romero, a USC guitar professor in 1980 (and again, since 2000). The international concert star – whose Del Mar, Calif.-based family group, Los Romeros, had eight-handedly invented the guitar quartet genre some 20 years earlier – was keen to train students in the art he knew best: ensemble playing.

Romero had had his eye on Kanengiser, Dearman and graduate student Anisa Angarola ’76, MM ’80 for a while, but he bided his time choosing a fourth. “I can remember Pepe telling me, ‘Wait until you hhhear Superkeed! I hhhave the most amahhzing student,’” Dearman rasps, affectionately mimicking Romero’s whispery-soft Malagueñan tones. (Impersonating Romero is a favorite LAGQ pastime.)

Since age 13, Tennant had been making the pilgrimage from his native Detroit to Romero’s annual Houston master class. “Pepe had decided exactly what Scott was going to do after high school: he was going to come to USC and be the star of the program,” Dearman says.

When the 18-year-old Superkeed finally arrived, he found himself ankle-deep in quartet music. “Literally, my first week here, I remember getting these big boxes of xeroxed scores,” Tennant says. “‘Here, we’re going to learn this for two weeks from now,’ Pepe told me. It started right away.”

In the beginning, the quartet’s goal was crystal clear: recreate the Romeros. Play their Spanish-infused repertoire, reproduce their uncanny rhythmic precision, copy their tonal unity. (Patriach Celedonio Romero had famously dubbed his ensemble “a single 24-stringed guitar.”)

“We became fixated on playing together, everybody matching in tone,” Dearman says. “We all had the same guitars by the same maker. We worked with a metronome, did the exercises and scales. Everything was oriented toward playing exactly together.”

Such slavish imitation may have been part sincerest-form-of-flattery, but it was no less a basic necessity in the face of a dearth of alternatives. Twenty years ago, “guitar quartet” was synonymous with the Romeros. They were unique. What four-part guitar music existed was either arranged by the Romeros, written for the Romeros or was patriarch Celedonio’s own composition, according to USC classical guitar chair Jim Smith ’75, MM ’78. Music libraries had zero holdings in the genre. “Under these circumstances,” Smith says, “whatever you have, you make it work.”

Romero was no stylistic tyrant. The charismatic USC professor didn’t demand his students emulate him. Quite the contrary.

“He told me years ago, ‘Beeell,’” (Kanengiser tries on his best Malagueñan accent), “‘you weeell nehver succeed in being a second-best Pepe Romero, but you can succeed in being the best Beeell Kanengiser.’”

Andrés Segovia, on the other hand, was notorious for shaping students in his own image – a fact Kanengiser learned to his dismay at USC’s fabled 1981 Segovia master classes when he naïvely performed his own transcription of a Bach violin sonata and a non-Segovia arrangement of Sor’s “Gran Solo.”

“Segovia became infuriated,” Kanengiser recalls. Before a crowd of 500, the guitar legend spent the whole lesson savaging the student’s music selections. Dearman and Tennant, who also played for Segovia, didn’t make the same mistake.

Calling itself the USC Guitar Quartet (neither the first nor last ensemble to bear that name), the fledgling group had begun performing at USC functions and neighborhood concerts, delivering the Romeros repertoire in its best Romeros imitation. County arts-enrichment programs dispatched them to dozens of elementary schools. “That’s how we cut our teeth as performers,” says Kanengiser, who rates kids the toughest of all audiences.

By the time Pepe Romero left USC in the mid ’80s, the quartet he’d groomed was concertizing locally and in Northern California, and beginning to make inroads on the East Coast. “We’d get in John [Dearman]’s Volvo wagon and just go,” Tennant recalls. “Sometimes we played for nothing; we slept on a lot of people’s floors for a very long time. It was cool – until you reach an age where sleeping on the floor really hurts,” he adds ruefully.

The satisfaction of making it as professional musicians mingled with humiliating indignities on those early road trips. There was the gig in Fresno, where the ensemble outnumbered its surly audience; the polytechnic high school that neighborhood thugs inexplicably pelted with rocks during one recital. And that unforgettable 1981 Hollywood Bowl debut, when the quartet was invited to open a Barry Manilow benefit with light Spanish fare. So what if the 18,000-strong crowd talked through the program? They got fired up over the flashy Falla concert-closer from La Vita Breve. A Romeros staple, it ends with a palmas section of rhythmically complex hand-claps accompanying the guitars. “Bill had a way of hamming it up like a cheesy Flamenco dancer,” Dearman recounts, smiling hard. The Bowl crowd misinterpreted this as an invitation for audience participation. “But they were clapping much too slowly, getting really off tempo. It got so loud we couldn’t hear each other on stage. We barely managed to finish the piece,” Dearman says. “That was one of the most bizarre experiences.”

Only slightly more bizarre, however, than the group’s first foreign tour – a five-week, 48-concert whirlwind through rural Mexico arranged by the Los Angeles cultural affairs department. “Everything was screwed up,” Dearman grins. One miserably hot night in a small town in Yucatan, the quartet played city hall with the doors and windows thrown open onto a tree-lined plaza. This time the audience behaved itself, but a flock of birds became unruly. “It was just awrrk, awrrk, awrrk,” crows Dearman. “These birds were going nuts! They drowned us out completely.”

Another concert, staged under the open cupola of a lovely adobe church, presented new technical challenges: playing guitar while dodging the droppings of pigeons roosting overhead. There was the time the quartet played in a movie theater – the house lights on, the stage in complete darkness. And the time they puffed clouds of cigarette smoke across the stage to fend off a swarm of mosquitoes.

On a rainy December afternoon in O’Henry’s, a swank Burbank recording studio, the LAGQ is winding up a week of daylong sessions, the end-product of which will be Aires, to be released in August. As the guitarists warm up, they’re getting better acquainted with “Aranjuez II,” an Andrew York composition hot off the inkjet, so to speak. Inspired by the ultimate guitar war-horse, Joaquin Rodrigo’s concerto of the same name, the final arrangement was finished only the night before.

Headphones on, their hand-made instruments cradled in their arms, the quartet members are relaxed and ready. Inside the mixing booth, producer Bob Wood rhapsodizes about the audio artillery trained on the foursome beyond the glass wall. Wood’s label, Telarc, has pulled out all the stops for this CD, experimenting with six-channel superaudio technology streaming directly to disc. This ensemble’s superfine sound warrants the extra attention, he implies. As the producer calls “Take 1,” six brawny speakers arrayed around the booth ripple distinct wood-timbred notes that coalesce in a cascade of sound.

Like prior LAGQ releases, Aires has a theme: it is to be Latin. (Air and Ground and Labyrinth had been “world”; Evening in Granada, Spanish; For Thy Pleasure, Baroque.) Trust this ensemble of eclectic musicians, though, to buck stereotypes. They define Latin loosely: two Mexican-flavored dances by Aaron Copland and York’s quirky “Syzygy” for flute and guitars mix with more likely selections by 20th-century composers Astor Piazzola, Leo Brouwer and Eduardo Martín. A traditional flamenco “Sevillanas” and Bizet’s Carmen Suite (a sure crowd-pleaser) round out the tracks.

The quartet members make very few mistakes, adjusting their tone, correcting their dynamics, picking up the tempo on demand. Even so, take after take is required to nail “Aranjuez II.” A building fan automatically flips on, scratching the first take. Inaudible to the naked ear, a truck roaring down Magnolia Boulevard and an airplane overhead spoil two more takes. “Recording classical guitar and solo violin is very difficult,” explains Wood, who diligently marks up the score wherever it is marred by ambient noise or the occasional performance blemish. He offers stylistic pointers, too, calling for a ritardo, a fade-out, a bit more “punch” in guitars one and two, less volume in guitars three and four. The quartet accedes graciously. No creative tantrums or unchecked egos. No clear leader of the band either, though York has slightly more pronounced opinions concerning “Aranjuez II” – it is, after all, his composition.

So when Wood makes the 11th-hour suggestion of adding an instrumental cover of Sting’s “Fragile” to the playlist, no one freaks out. While Dearman and Tennant record a Flamenco duo, Kanengiser and York slip into another room to sound out the chords and harmonic voicings of the popular post-September 11 ballad. The tune represents a creative departure for the group: “Usually we’re very leery of covering vocal tunes, because they always sound kind of muzaky,” says Kanengiser, “but this one, we hope, sounds really good.”

The spontaneity of playing from chord charts rather than a score was another exciting first. “There’s an improvisational section where Andy took a solo and John followed in the bass part. I left the session walking on air,” recalls Kanengiser.

Selecting music is probably the ensemble’s most creative and conflict-riddled task. “We all have different slants,” says York, “and that’s what makes it so cool. We can trust each other. We don’t all agree; we’ll pull in different directions. It’s kind of exhilarating.”

For Tennant, the question of what music to transcribe boils down to this: Does it sound as good, if not better, on guitar? Here’s where Kanengiser’s genius comes in. With a keen ear for imitation and a talent for transcription, he’s responsible for most of the quartet’s arrangements and gets credit for nearly all the exotic guitar effects they’ve created. To simulate an Indonesian gamelan choir, he experimented first with paper clips, bits of film and tin foil before settling on alligator clips clamped onto the bass strings. Plastic twist-ties wrapped around the treble strings produced the felicitous effects heard in Air and Ground’s “Gongan.” For the clangy African sound of “Mbira,” he affixed staples to the strings.

The mission, as Kanengiser sees it, is to explore the guitar’s infinite possibilities. “There are more pieces to play than just “Leyenda,” or Bach, or Villa-Lobos,” he said in a 1997 Guitar Live Q&A. “I’m not saying that’s bad stuff to do. It’s great stuff! But the guitar … is a universal instrument. It can play music from almost any culture, almost any style, almost any form.”

When it comes to assigning guitar parts, the group is passionately democratic. Dearman’s seven-string gives him an expanded bass range, but that doesn’t mean he gets stuck with boring whole-note chords. Melodies pass from player to player, and parts shift so nobody’s stuck with second fiddle for long. Rhythms bounce back and forth too, as in “Cumba-Quin,” a conga-rumba meditation in which each guitarist at some point produces two separate and opposing rhythms simultaneously, one in each hand.

Why not? “We’re all playing the same instruments,” points out Kanengiser, “so any one of us at any given time can be doing the most important thing.”

The LAGQ is fast approaching the quarter-century mark – a landmark for any music ensemble. “Some people have been married three times in that space of time,” jokes Tennant. In all those years, there’s only been one staff change. Original member Anisa Angarola left in 1989. The break marked a sea-change for the quartet.

Angarola had been a staunch traditionalist. “Her dream was for us to become the Romeros II,” quips Kanengiser. The rest of the group, meanwhile, had begun questioning the rules. If they liked South American, Celtic or Indonesian music, why shouldn’t they play it? Perfect unity of tone had become less important too. “The challenge was to develop our own voices within the group,” Dearman says. (Today, each LAGQ member plays a different make guitar.)

“We all still adored the Romeros,” says Kanengiser, explaining the drift, “but they just aren’t us. We weren’t born in Malaga. It didn’t ring true.”

Angarola had refused to do school concerts from the start, so the group had recruited USC comrade Andrew York as an LAGQ alternate starting in 1986. A seasoned jazz-studio guitarist, he had played in bop bands, fusion bands, pop and funk bands, dance bands and grunge rock bands; he’d also played lute and guitar duets with Tennant in ensemble classes. When Angarola backed out of a 1989 European tour on three weeks notice, the quartet reactivated York, then living in London. (“We practiced by fax,” York cracks.) Days before the tour began, he met up with the LAGQ in Germany, having memorized a stack of new music.

“After the first concert,” recalls Kanengiser, “I looked up at Andy and thought, ‘Why are we doing this to ourselves? This is so much better.’”

The addition of York pushed LAGQ ever farther from its Romeros-based roots. The emerging philosophy, explains Kanengiser, was “still chamber music: this sophisticated conversation between four instruments. But we weren’t speaking in an Austrian dialect, as most string ensembles do. We were speaking in the American vernacular.”

York’s contributions as a composer fueled this dynamic. The quartet’s 1995 Labyrinth featured three York pieces; four others went on the 1998 release LAGQ, and three on Air and Ground. York writes for other ensembles, too. His “Syzygy,” included on the forthcoming Aires, was originally commissioned by Festival of Four, a flute-and-guitar ensemble. York has also composed a concerto, a dozen guitar quartets, many guitar solos and duets with other instruments, and some piano music.

“I like to write in many styles – neo-Baroque, atonal, Andean-Caribbean, African drumming,” he says. Top guitar soloists Christopher Parkening ’69 and John Williams have recorded York’s music, such as his New Age piece “Sunburst for Guitar.”

While the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is original, it is not unique. The genre has become fairly popular in the United States, the Romeros’ adopted land since the 1950s. Thus you have the Buffalo Guitar Quartet, the Alexandria Guitar Quartet, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, and, of course, a running tide of USC student quartets.

“There was always a tradition here of guitar ensembles, even before Pepe came, that began with Jim Smith,” says Tennant. A current one, calling itself the Brouwer Guitar Quartet (named for the prominent Cuban composer), is comprised of USC graduate students mentored by Kanengiser. “They’re trying out a lot of new arrangements I’m making. For me, that’s super-exciting, passing along the torch,” he says.

“There was never any doubt that we would have more quartets, when you have this model created by these virtuosos,” says Smith, referring both to the Romeros and the LAGQ.

The quartet’s ties to the USC Thornton School have remained close, with two members on the faculty teaching and mentoring a new generation of performers. “We have a class here called Guitar Ensemble. It’s required,” says Kanengiser. “The joke about our group is: It’s a 22-year homework assignment.”

Creatively, the LAGQ has taken as well as given, recording new music by student composers like Carlos Rafael Rivera, alumni like Ian Krouse MM ’79, DMA ’88 and faculty composers like Brian Head MM ’91 and Morten Lauridsen. In 1997, the quartet won the school’s prestigious Outstanding Alumni Award.

“They were all my students,” beams Smith, reflecting on how far the quartet has come. “I’ve known people who were really physically talented, but none with that kind of dedication and passion and desire to achieve.”

With a name like the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, the group has inevitably become a cultural ambassador. Not in any official capacity. (“We don’t get any city funding,” says Tennant dryly. “Maybe we should start writing grants.”) But the region clearly has embraced the ensemble. Classical radio stations give them abundant air-play, and for the past 10 years, any place the quartet performs nearby – from Santa Barbara to the Orange County Performing Arts Center – they consistently sell out the hall.

The full weight of representing Los Angeles, however, doesn’t hit until the quartet goes abroad. The moment they set foot on stage in Japan (where the group enjoys a strong following), Tennant says he can feel the audience sizing them up: “So this is what L.A. is like? These guys – the way they dress, the way they act, their character – is this what L.A. is all about?”

Happily, it’s not a bad fit for the musically adventurous LAGQ, which prides itself on being a crossroads between the Old West and neighboring influences of Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. In New York, where labels are important, you’re either classical or jazz or pop, says Tennant: “Out here, all that runs together. That’s us! If it happens to represent L.A. somewhat, that’s even better.”

Classical music tends to be dead-serious outside America, notes Kanengiser, so international audiences seem “utterly shocked and delighted with our openness, our ignorance-is-bliss attitude” of blithely mixing reggae and Indonesian gamelan music on a program. On stage, the quartet members dress casually, smile and occasionally crack jokes. “I think [foreigners] find that both refreshing and horrifying,” Kanengiser says.

A mini-explosion of guitar quartets now sweeping Japan and Europe probably has something to do with LAGQ’s influence there. Beyond the United States (where the Romeros set an indelible standard), guitar ensembles have tended to be trios – a combo that yields either thinner musical textures or fiendishly difficult parts. “Yet there’s nothing inevitable about a quartet,” notes USC’s Smith.

And here’s that mischievous rogue, serendipity, beaming again: “I’m sure when Celedonio formed Los Romeros, he was guided by the fact that he had three sons. If he had had four sons,” Smith grins, “we’d have guitar quintets, don’t you think?”

Metaphysical questions aside, there’s little doubt the disciples have become role models in their own right. “I think we’ve established a bit of a legacy,” says Kanengiser: “That it’s OK to have fun.”

Which isn’t to say the LAGQ hasn’t got its moments of angst. Dearman pines for what he calls “an even more progressive direction.” The Eeyore to Kanengiser’s irrepressible Tigger, Dearman tries to push the group toward more exploration of abstract music. “We tend to play a lot of lovely, tuneful stuff – admittedly with a good deal of success – but I like a concert program to have more contrast,” he says. “Going from light to darkness and back again is more dramatic and emotionally satisfying.”

As a composer, York finds four guitars rather monotonous: “All pluck and no sustain,” he complains, “just dink, dink, dink. To make it sound not tiresome takes a lot of effort and thought.” Hence the occasional cameo by flute, pan pipes, Japanese shakuhachi, shakers or rain sticks.

After 20 years, the quartet clearly remains a work in progress, with no end in sight. “We just have so many interests,” Tennant says, summarizing it all. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to touch them all in our lifetime.”

Scott Tennant ’86

Being a guitar prodigy in a family where all the men were ex-Marines wasn’t easy. Though his father, a Detroit hotel manager, was proud of his musical son, “no one was taking me around like a little Mozart,” Scott Tennant snips. Being a hockey and weight-lifting jock didn’t mitigate the fact that “I spent a good portion of my life hiding my long thumbnail in junior high.” But Tennant can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing guitar. By 13, he was taking lessons from Segovia-trained master Joe Fava (“who spent the lessons with his hand inside his shirt, rubbing his ulcer,” Tennant reflects guiltily).

The acknowledged Wunderkind of the LAGQ, in 1989 Tennant became the first American to win the Tokyo International Guitar Competition. (The $5,000 prize, he says, “saved my life. I was so broke!”) Tennant, the recording artist, has five solo CDs, among them Wild Mountain Thyme, a nod to his father’s Scottish roots; and Rodrigo: Complete Guitar Works, an ambitious three-part project (Vol. 1 was released in 1996, Vol. 2 just came out in February). There’s a good reason why the blind composer-pianist’s complete guitar cycle has only been attempted once before. Rodrigo wrote some near-unplayable guitar music, like his “Entre Olivares.” It took Tennant a year to bring that piece up to tempo. Even so, he had to record it in stages: “I have a pretty relaxed hand, but it was shot after just three takes,” he says. Future recording projects include the complete solos of Torroba; a Renaissance program (“that’s really my favorite stuff”); a Baroque sampler of Tennant’s own transcriptions of the Bach cello and violin suites; and a compilation of new music written for Tennant by various composers. The abundance of raw material makes up for Tennant’s deficiency as a composer. His lone opus to date is best described as Celtic reel-meets-Indian raga. “It was one of those inspirational things. I just had to get it out of my system,” he says.

The only thing Tennant enjoys more than playing is teaching others to play. “You deal with a lot of personal issues, which I kind of like,” he says. “I enjoy coaching people.” Except for a four-year hiatus teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory, Tennant has always been affiliated with USC.

His catchy-titled handbook has become the technical Bible of classical guitar students. As a teenager steeped in the weight-lifting culture of Pumping Iron, Tennant had joked about someday writing a guitar manual to be called Pumping Nylon. His finger-twisting drill book of the same name was published in 1995, followed by a series of progressive repertoire books and instructional videos. He’s now working on a five-volume guitar method for beginners to experts.

Given his strong views on the teacher-student bond, it’s not surprising that Tennant dedicated the original Pumping Nylon to Joe Fava. “I know my teachers made a big difference in my life,” he says, “and I know at some point – though they won’t admit it – I make a big difference in my students’ lives.”

John Dearman ’81, MM ’83

My musical background is pretty damned checkered,” confesses John Dearman. The Minneapolis native began his musical odyssey the night the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He begged for a drum set, but “when my birthday rolled around, I got a baritone ukulele.” Even after upgrading to a proper steel-string, Dearman was turned off by formal study. He learned to play by ear, memorizing hits like “Secret Agent Man” and later picking out Chet Atkins licks from his dad’s records. One less-than-clairvoyant teacher advised Dearman’s father not to waste his money on guitar lessons: his son showed no promise. Studying alone, Dearman supplemented his pop and fingerpickin’ repertoire with Bach and Scarlatti pieces learned from Parkening and Segovia recordings. After high school in Tustin, Calif., he began teaching guitar at a local music store. The story might have ended there had a fellow instructor not offered to introduce him to Celin Romero. Curious, Dearman drove down to Del Mar. “We hung around the house, had some coffee and then I played Scarlatti and some Chet Atkins,” Dearman recalls. “Celin was so into it.”

Dearman was spellbound. “I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. It wasn’t just the music: it was being with the Romeros, with somebody who was a master of his instrument.” Within weeks, Dearman had sold every instrument he owned – assorted guitars and a banjo – to scratch together enough to buy a handmade Contreras guitar. He began studying with Celin, took occasional lessons with Pepe and Celedonio Romero, and enrolled in community college for much-needed remedial music education. After a year and a half, Pepe encouraged him to transfer to USC.

Today, Dearman still attends community college: He now teaches at El Camino College and Pasadena Community College. Though he sometimes solos on LAGQ recordings, Dearman hasn’t really pursued a solo career. A stickler for originality, he doesn’t see the point: “I look out at the solo guitarists, and they’re all doing the same things,” he carps. Dearman’s philosophy: “You shouldn’t play Sor, Giuliani and Bach unless you’re really extremely rare. Scott is such a one-in-a-million player. Andy has his own repertory, so that’s interesting. And Bill, with his knack for new musical arrangements, gets really creative when he puts together programs.”

Dearman’s checkered past comes in handy for the LAGQ, which often capitalizes on his fingerpickin’ finesse. He fills out the ensemble’s register on a seven-string classical with extended highs and lows. Dearman ordered the custom guitar after the quartet had hit a wall on a Brandenburg concerto arrangement. Other quartets have followed Dearman’s lead, adding a seven-string for flexibility. “A guitar quartet is not like a string quartet or saxophone quartet, which all have different instruments,” he points out. “It’s more like a giant harp or a super-guitar.”

The Guitar Century
Now a staple of both concert hall and conservatory, the classical guitar wasn’t always so popular.

Twentieth-century music history might just as well be subtitled “the age of the guitar,” so powerfully has it been dominated by classical guitar’s country-cousins: the acoustic steel-string (“folk”) and the electric. These juggernauts owe their rise to two Industrial Age developments. One is mail-order: at the turn of the century, catalogue stores began selling folk guitars for as little as $2.70; in 1900 alone, Sears sold more than 78,000.

The other development is electricity and, hence, amplification, which transformed the guitar from a velvet-throated serenader to an instrument that could rock a sports arena. The first solid-body electric guitar was built in 1946; two years later, the Fender “Broadcaster” went on sale to the general public.

The meteoric rise of these modern guitars tends to overshadow the quieter but no less exhilarating resurgence of their classical kin, which presently is enjoying its own Golden Age. “This is the renaissance for the classical guitar,” says USC associate professor Jim Smith ’75, MM ’78. “There’s hundreds of times more music written [for it] now than ever before.”

Like any good story, the guitar’s begins in a fog. No one really knows where it came from, but suddenly in the 1400s, there it was: a trebly, eight-stringed (four double courses), intricately ornamented little thing sadly overshadowed by a spotlight-stealing relative – the Renaissance’s darling, the lute. Guitar historians like USC’s James Tyler, whose book on the subject will be published by Oxford University Press this summer, now believe lute and guitar, while both members of the “plucked string” family, evolved along separate, parallel lines.

A fair number of published 16th-century collections attest to the four-course guitar’s popularity in France, if not elsewhere in Europe. “But,” says Tyler, “generally speaking, the early composers who wrote for guitar and lute wrote many more pieces for lute.” The guitar, however, had a unique feature: it could be rhythmically strummed. By the late 1600s, the Italians had developed the larger and considerably more complex five-course guitar, which they called the Spanish guitar. It set off a spurt of composing. “That’s when the guitar came into its own,” says Smith, who chairs USC’s classical guitar program.

From Italy, France, Spain and England, a body of solo works, guitar parts in large ensembles (court ballets, operas and oratorios) and even a few guitar chamber pieces emerged. The instrument was particularly important in the court of Louis XIV, himself a hard-core amateur. The Sun King’s passion excited a passionate enthusiasm among his courtiers, seeding a bumper crop of virtuoso performers and teachers, and a flowering of guitar compositions. “Louis liked minuets, so everyone wrote minuets,” Smith notes with amusement.

Over the ensuing centuries, the guitar had its ups and downs. A dip in the late Baroque period; a bounce in the Classical; a steady swell in the Romantic. By the 19th century, it could claim a respectable body of literature penned by generations of virtuoso-composer-teachers like Angelo Michele Bartolotti, Francesco Corbetta, Robert de Visée, Gaspar Sanz, Santiago de Murcia, Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani and Francisco Tárrega. Some better-known maestros were also linked to the guitar. Though remembered as a violinist, the flamboyant Paganini was also a formidable guitar virtuoso. He composed almost as much music for guitar as for violin, and virtually everything he published contained at least one guitar part. His contemporaries Von Weber and Schubert were other noted guitarists. And who knew that Berlioz or Wagner played guitar?

Still, the guitar couldn’t compete with the Romantic era’s big-guns: piano and violin. Part of the problem was structural. Even with the addition of a sixth course of strings, an instrument incapable of real sustain or projection was drowned out by robust 19th-century orchestras. Well aware of these faults, luthier Antonio Torres (think Stradivarius of the guitar) gave the guitar a make-over in the mid-1800s. He dropped the doubled strings, changed the bracing and the bridge, replaced wooden tuning pegs with metal screws and enlarged the soundbox, thereby amplifying and deepening the tone. Torres guitars (a few remain) were the precursors of the modern classical guitar.

Make no mistake, the guitar still doesn’t lend itself to large concert halls – though virtuosos like Christopher Parkening ’69 and Pepe Romero fill cavernous auditoriums with the audience’s tacit agreement that not so much as a sniff will they emit during the recital. (A microphone, or “pick-up,” in the soundhole would permit electronic amplification, but many classical guitarists themselves sniff at that idea.)

Another impediment to the guitar’s rise was a lack of leadership. “Bottom line, there weren’t a lot of talented people who seriously took it up,” says Smith. Only in the last half-century have composers who aren’t also guitarists begun to write for the instrument. Thus you have Rodrigo, a pianist, composing some of the guitar’s most important literature, and non-guitarists like Pierre Boulez, Anton von Webern and Arnold Schoenberg incorporating guitar in chamber music and song cycles.

Instruction posed another hurdle. Until recently, guitar wasn’t taught at conservatories. Modern masters like Andrès Segovia, Celedonio Romero and Julian Bream were largely self-taught. “USC’s guitar program was pretty early: we had one in the late 1960s,” says Smith, who studied here under Parkening a decade later. At Yale, guitar virtuoso Eliot Fisk studied with a harpsichordist; he went on to found that distinguished music school’s guitar program in the early 1980s.

Much of the credit for this turnabout goes to Segovia, the apostle of the guitar and the most important force in establishing it as a concert instrument in the 20th century.

As a child, Segovia had studied cello and piano, but he could not be swayed from his devotion to the lowly guitar. No competent teacher being at hand, Segovia taught himself. In his 20s, he concertized his way across Spain and South America, earning an international reputation. He enlarged the guitar’s repertoire with more than 150 transcriptions of works originally written for lute, vihuela (Spanish lute) and harpsichord by such composers as Couperin, Rameau and Bach. And he brow-beat leading 20th-century composers into writing new music for the guitar. Much of the guitar’s concert repertory is the direct result of Segovia’s needling of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Villa-Lobos, Turina, Ponce and others. He similarly pestered prominent conservatory directors and music school deans to make room for classical guitar in their course catalogues.

“Segovia was a man with a mission – extremely talented, virtuosic, charismatic,” says Smith. “He was the first guitarist who played major concert halls. He had the ambition necessary to change things.”

Bill Kanengiser ’81, MM ’83

His first guitar was purchased with 46 books of S&H greenstamps. Technically the steel-string belonged to his older brother, but anyone could hear the youngest Kanengiser had all the musical talent. “For some reason I was just hard-wired to do this,” he says, recalling how, at 9, he devoured an introductory manuel in two days.

“A good player, but unfocused,” is how Kanengiser describes himself when he left New Jersey to attend USC. “It’s sort of embarrassing: What drew me here wasn’t that I could study with the greatest virtuoso of the guitar. I didn’t know who Pepe Romero was!” Rather, he came to be in the record industry hub. “I had these ridiculous adolescent dreams of becoming a rock ’n’ roll guitar-god,” he says. “I thought I could do both classical and pop.” Watching the nimble-fingered jazz and blues musicians in USC’s studio guitar program, however, Kanengiser quickly realized he was out of his depth. So it was no great sacrifice when Romero pressed him to focus exclusively on classical. Within a few years, Kanengiser was winning competitions in New York, Toronto and Paris and playing classical solos on movie soundtracks like the guitar cult-classic Crossroads – a 1986 film loosely based on an episode in the life of bluesman Robert Johnson – and on the 1993 historical drama Sommersby.

Kanengiser also has kept up an active recording career. Don’t bother looking for Albéniz or Tárrega on his solo releases, though. The selections are playfully iconoclastic. His debut CD, Rondo Alla Turca, includes a Mozart piano sonata, a Handel suite and new music by USC colleague Brian Head MM ’91. His Levantine-spiced Echoes of the Old World has folk tunes by Bartók and Kabalevsky, a Chassidic song by Ian Krouse MM ’79, DMA ’88, and Carlo Domeniconi’s mesmerizing Turkish delight, “Koyunbaba.” His recent Caribbean Souvenir cruises the tropics for lesser-known works by Cuba’s Leo Brouwer and Mexico’s Manuel Ponce.

A master transcriber and arranger, Kanengiser is a relative neophyte at composing. His first original effort is the title track on Air & Ground – a neo-Baroque air with bluegrass and banjo-stomp elements. “I found it emotionally painful to write,” he says. “I drove my wife crazy. I played the piece constantly in my head, writing most of it while driving to and from USC. I was slowly going mad, I think.”

USC is one of two stabilizing forces in Kanengiser’s maddening life. “I’ve been here either as a student or faculty member since 1977,” he says. The other source of stability is his wife Collette, a special education teacher in Whittier, Calif. The only married LAGQ member, Kanengiser met his mate at one of his first professional gigs: the 1979 opening of her uncle’s Beverly Hills cigar shop. She offered him a ride home, “we stopped for Chinese food, and have been together ever since,” she says, laughing. The couple has an 8-year-old daughter, who has yet to ask for her own guitar.

Andrew York MM ’86

The only LAGQ member to come from a musical family, Andrew York recalls a childhood awash in melody. If mom and his two sisters weren’t filling their Richmond, Va., home with song, chances are dad or an uncle was strumming a guitar. “It seemed natural for me to pick up the guitar and try,” says York. At 8, he began classical study with Greta Dollitz, a disciple of the renowned Aaron Shearer. By 10, he was composing.

Graduating from James Madison University, York headed West for advanced training in jazz and studio guitar. To a guy who’d played everything from classical to grunge, USC still held novelty. “It was really thrilling. I was free to do anything I wanted” – and by anything, York means not just new guitar styles, but learning the lute, joining a hand-bell choir. And more composing. “I always wanted to make new music,” he says. “Some people don’t have that push. For me, it was always a natural desire.”

York’s 1994 Denouement features 25 of his own pieces for nylon string; his Perfect Sky (2000) contains nine more original solos, along with a Couperin harpsichord piece and celluloid and video themes from Pinocchio to “Peanuts.” A forthcoming CD, Into Dark, bundles York’s own works with Bach’s Cello Suite in C. The oft-transcribed piece has never sounded like this, however. Tuning his strings to the cello’s actual pitch and intervals, York plays from the original score, fingering the fretboard as if the guitar were a cello. “It’s ravishing,” he says somewhat immodestly.

A true eclectic, York composes in many styles, from Afro-Caribbean to New Age. Only on rare occasions has he known a Mozart moment, when “the music just comes on a platter, hovering above me, complete.” His ideas can come from dreams, the natural world and sometimes the not-so-natural world. “Once I heard a gate squeak. It squeaked four notes in a specific rhythm. I’ll never forget it.” The fragment hasn’t found its way into York’s music yet, but it will. “I’m saving it,” he says enigmatically.

The only LAGQ member who doesn’t teach, York says his composing and solo career leave no time for it. (Recent gigs included a Japan tour, an appearance with Christopher Parkening at a master class and a spot on the roster of the 2002 International Guitar Night tour.) For those who yearn to learn from him, there’s the Jazz Guitar for Classical Cats, a two-volume set with enough information to keep amateurs busy for a year, he boasts. A third volume on improvisation is in the works.

It’s a cliché these days for techies to seek solace from the soulless blinking of a computer by cradling a guitar. How ironic, then, that a professional musician like York should turn to programming in his leisure. A few years ago, his hobby spawned MindChimes (www.mindchimes. com), audio wallpaper that teases the sounds of bells, bamboo reeds, rain storms, lapping waves and sea gulls from idle computers. Trust a musician to turn a 200-tone vocabulary of beeps and buzzes into soothing, ever-changing aural imagery.

The Astonishing LAGQ

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