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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.

Four Guitars & the Challenge of Orchestration

E-mail: ElaineStrauss@princetoninfo.com

What I like about playing classical guitar," says

Scott Tennant, "is that it’s one of the few instruments where

you have direct physical contact all the time. There’s no bow, or

mouthpiece, or hammer. What matters is how you touch the string and

release it, and how your fingernail is shaped that day. And then,

you’re holding the instrument next to your heart. It’s intimate; it’s

really part of your body when you play."

Tennant is a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ), which

appears at McCarter Theater Monday, April 3, at 8 p.m. The guitar

quartet is a relatively rare form of human life. "There are a

few professional guitar quartets in the United States, Europe, and

Japan," says Tennant. "There aren’t as many as string quartets.

We’re unique because we generate most of our material. It’s either

composed in the group, or composed by close friends, or arranged by

us. We’re also unique in doing crossover and world music."

Other members of the ensemble are John Dearman, Bill Kanengiser, and

Andrew York. Their concert includes pieces by members of the quartet,

a group of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the most Spanish excerpts

from Bizet’s Carmen, as well as four selections from "Air and

Ground," the quartet’s new CD, released March 14. Tennant spoke

by telephone from his hotel room in New Orleans, one of the stops

on a two-month tour that has the group crossing the country from New

Mexico to Connecticut and New Hampshire to Florida.

Founded in 1980 at the University of Southern California (USC), the

quartet celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Three of the original

members are still with the group. The newcomer is York, also trained

at USC, who came on board 10 years ago. Tennant describes USC as a

major guitar mecca. "Because Pepe Romero was there," he says,

"it attracted all of us. The Romeros are a famous guitar-playing

family from Spain. Now that Bill and I teach at USC, it continues

to be a mecca."

Unlike a string quartet, which consists of two violins,

a viola, and a cello — instruments in the same family with differing

pitch ranges — the four instruments in a guitar quartet are normally

identical and have the same range of pitch. "Because all the instruments

are in the same range," says Tennant, "there is a danger of

murkiness." A hearing of the LAGQ CDs shows the group avoiding

the peril of sonic muddiness; their recordings are remarkable for

transparency of sound and for precise timing. In this group the individual

members nimbly keep out of each other’s way and play with a lean authority.

Tennant attributes the clarity to skillful organization of individual

lines — he calls it meeting the challenge of orchestration —

and to precise attention to what is happening within the ensemble.

"We’ve practiced together a lot," he says. "We’re always

going after raw, basic ensemble technique. We invent ensemble exercises.

We break up scales or we sit in four corners of the room where can’t

see each other."

The LAGQ departs somewhat from the standard practice of using matched

instruments. Three of their guitars are the normal six-stringed instruments

with the normal 19 frets, or metal bars on the fingerboard, against

which a player presses to alter the pitch. Tennant calls them "standard

old boring six-string guitars." However, since the early 1990s

John Dearman has played a seven-string guitar with more than the usual

number of frets, designed by New York guitar-maker Tom Humphrey. The

extra string enables him to play as much as a fifth lower than the

standard guitar. (A fifth is the musical distance at the beginning

of "Twinkle, twinkle little star.") The extra frets enable

him to play in the range of a high soprano.

Tennant defends Dearman’s instrument as a legitimate modification

of a classical guitar. However, he warns, "once you’re into two

extra strings or more it feels like another instrument." The extended-range

instrument determines the shape of the music the LAGQ plays. "The

ranges of the pieces we play are geared toward the Dearman instrument,"

Tennant says.

The classical guitar is a notably quiet instrument. "We can’t

sit in semi-circle like a string quartet, " Tennant says. "We

have to sit in almost a straight line because the sound hole must

face outward. We turn in just enough to hear each other. We play pretty

big halls, and sometimes we use mikes. When the hall holds more than

400 or 500 we use mikes, even if it has great acoustics. We amplify

very subtly, just enough so people can hear the sound of the guitar.

We’re very particular about our sound." McCarter, with its capacity

of 1,000, warrants a microphone.

To the quiet strumming of their instruments the LAGQ sometimes adds

percussive effects. "Basically, a guitar is a drum with strings,"

Tennant says. "The top is thinner than the rest; it’s like the

skin stretched over a drum. The guitar is a hollow wooden box. There

are lots of different effects you can get by tapping the top, side,

back, or fingerboard. You can get bass drum sounds, and bongos. For

Cumba-Quin [one of the `Air and Ground’ pieces to be played in Princeton]

there are imitations of Cuban percussion instruments, and the composer

specifies where to hit the guitar. For this piece we use wooden rings,

that sound like claves [the pair of wooden cylinders, about eight

inches long, struck against each other in urban Cuban music] when

they strike the side of a guitar.

"We talk over programming, and argue about it," Tennant says.

It’s essentially a democratic procedure. "We try to program a

wide array of styles. We traditionally include a classical piece because

we like doing it." At McCarter a selection of pieces by Johann

Sebastian Bach provides the classical component. "We almost always

end with a big Spanish piece." For McCarter LAGQ’s Bill Kanengiser

has arranged the Bizet "Carmen Suite" to furnish the Spanish

element. "We thought about acting it out, as the Canadian Brass

does with their Carmen [using props and costumes as they move about

the stage or writhe on the floor while blowing their instruments]

but we have to sit down and hold our guitars steady."

Tennant was born in Detroit in 1962. His mother, whose family is from

Croatia, played clarinet and percussion when Tennant was growing up.

His father, whose background is Scottish, sang. "We listened to

a lot of music all the time, lots of Celtic music," Tennant says.

Tennant’s one sibling, an older brother who has Down’s syndrome, lives

in San Diego. "He was a regular family member," Tennant says.

"We used to get into fights and everything. He’s very musical;

he got that, too."

Having just turned 38, Tennant looks forward to many decades of performing.

He cites the examples of guitarist Andres Segovia, who concertized

until a few weeks before his death in his 90s, and of the patriarch

of the Romero guitar family. "You’d think brass players would

live longer, with all that exercise. But guitar players are more easy

going, and that’s good for longevity." Tennant knows about brass

instruments from personal experience.

As a student at Detroit’s elite Cass Technical High

School, he played trombone and violin. "It was a public high school,"

Tennant says, "but you had to have straight As to get in. I was

a music major. You had to play a wind instrument, a string instrument,

piano, and sing in the choir."

By the time he graduated from high school, Tennant knew that his main

instrument would be guitar — he began lessons at age six. "It

was always my main instrument," he says. "After high school

graduation, I got my Chevette and drove out to L.A.," home of

USC.

One of Tennant’s main non-musical activities is yoga. "I’m a really

big guy. You wouldn’t look at me and think `yoga.’ I look more like

a Red Wings forward. John Dearman is great at yoga; he talked me into

it."

Tennant’s yoga has its musical manifestations. Among the pieces both

on the new CD, and on the McCarter program is Tennant’s "Celtic

Fare," a three-movement work whose genre Tennant calls "Yoga-Celt."

"Daya’s Spin," is Celtic music to which Tennant says he can

imagine the spinning movement of the Yoga teacher to whom it is dedicated.

"Music for a Found Harmonium" simulates the sound of an Indian

musical instrument. "The Cat-Cow Reel" derives from the fusion

in Tennant’s mind of two common yoga positions with Celtic dancing.

In "Pumping Nylon," his technique book for classical guitar,

Tennant promotes another fusion: the joining of a love for the instrument

with the need for technical mastery. The title is no random choice

for Tennant, who lifts weights as a hobby. With a related video available,

the book, he says is "a good seller for what it is. I wrote it

because there are some issues that haven’t been covered in method

and instruction books thus far."

"I thought I would add my voice to the pack of wolves out there,"

Tennant says. "Instead of just giving exercises, I’ll give a specific

exercises for tremolo, for instance, and tell people how to practice.

Most of the book explains how to practice. The main thing is to try

to help people with how to do it, rather than just saying `Do this

20 times.’" In the book Tennant appears to join his pleasure at

the direct physical contact of playing guitar with both the mindfulness

that yoga evokes, and the precise attention to detail that can turn

weight lifting into an esthetic experience.

— Elaine Strauss

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. $22 & $25. Monday, April 3, 8 p.m.


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