The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
interviewed in 1987
In an interview of this sort, it is customary to present a more or less lengthy preamble covering the artist’s careers. In the case of the LAGQ, there are really only three things that call for comment: the shortness of the time they have been together, the astonishing standard they have achieved in that period, and the rave reviews (including my own) they have received wherever they’ve been.
Last summer they played at Paco Peña’s Guitar Festival in Córdoba, where they astonished the audience by their unrivalled execution; and they also (as I reported previously) guested at Ben Verdery’s Master Class. Here they gave some useful insights into ensemble playing, and I requested them to repeat some of these for GI.
Interviewing four people could obviously be pretty chaotic, but John and Bill (perhaps by arrangement) fell naturally into the role of spokesman, with occasional comments from the others. It was very clear that they had already thought out the issues I addressed, and had articulate views on all of them.
But first I asked them how they got started.
Scott: We were formed by Pepe Romero in 1980, for his Master Classes at USC. We got together in a very informal way, just to play ensemble music for fun—it wasn’t really anything we expected to go any further. We started developing a small repertoire and playing at student concerts, and we played all Romero pieces at first.
But then there was a lady working in Publicity at USC who said she would like us to make a demo tape. So we put together a couple of pieces, and she gave it to a new agent in Hollywood who was just starting with classical music. He loved it, he flipped, and he signed us. So we were in school (we’d been together for about year), and all of a sudden we had an agent.
Bill: Then we decided to get serious about it. Audiences seemed to respond pretty favorably to what we were doing—perhaps there was a little more excitement, a little more interaction than you would have with solo guitar. But also, perhaps, there was some kind of chemistry that we didn’t see at the time.
We worked pretty hard getting the ensemble tighter, developing the repertoire, and so forth; and it seems to have moved on fairly well.
How long ago was all this?
Six or seven years.
So presumably you relied pretty heavily on transcriptions, at the beginning.
Jim Smith, who teaches with me at USC, had done a few interesting arrangements for four guitars—the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, and some pieces by Stravinsky. But since we know the ensemble well nowadays, we like to do all the arranging ourselves, because we know the dynamics of the group, and it saves time.
What do you look for in your choice of material?
John: We just look for good music that we like: For example, we’ve done Stravinsky, Debussy, Bach, Mozart, Falla, Ravel…
Music that’s familiar in other instrumentation.
Bill: Speaking for myself: when I look at a piece and try to decide if it will work for four guitars, one of my criteria is whether it will sound natural. I think there’s nothing worse than an arrangement that sounds forced or pretentious.
El Amor Brujo was such a natural! because it was obvious to me, when I was doing the transcription, that Falla was thinking about guitar—the keys were guitar keys, the sonorities were flamenco sonorities.
Likewise, the Brandenburg Concerto that we did, the sixth, happens to be one that’s in a very low tessitura, and it seems to work very naturally on four guitars—you don’t have a lot of range problems, or voice-crossing problems, as you might have with other Baroque pieces.
These are some of the criteria. Some of the arrangements we do don’t fall within them, and at times we do stretch the point a bit. But that’s one of the limitations of the genre, I suppose.
Scott: There are also some very practical limitations; like, Air on a G String just isn’t going to work for a guitar quartet. That part’s pretty obvious, but every now and then there'll be a piece that will mostly work, but part of it doesn’t, because of the sustain. So we try to develop various ways to overcome that, either tremolo or some kind of brushed chords.
Bill: It’s always easier as an arranger to thin something out than build something up. So working from an orchestral score that’s rather thick is easier when you have a quartet medium, than working from a piano score. I have done arrangements from solo piano, but it’s always a little trickier (although if you’re doing solo or duo arrangements, then it’s easier). With four guitars, you have to make sure that everyone has something to do.
John: By far the most virtuosic music for guitar quartet is a transcription of a solo piano piece—especially anything from the middle of the 19th century onwards, when the essence of the piece is rubato. For instance, we’ve done Debussy and Ravel, and it’s extremely difficult. Because the piece is written for one mind controlling everything, not because of the fingerings. And for four people to do that expressively is very hard.
You have to plan things out, and you lose some of the essence of what rubato is all about. We have really and truly to think as one, and so solo piano music has been the most difficult thing that we’ve tried. You can’t play music like that metronomically, and so you only have two options, really. One is to cue everything (to the point of being in hospital with a stiff neck), or just relying on luck and telepathy. I think the way we approach it is a combination of the two.
Eventually, when we’ve played a piece quite a long time, we do end up thinking of it in the same way, and the cues disappear. But when we’re first learning it, the cues are very important.
I saw Presti/Lagoya. They used to come in, sit down and start without even glancing at each other—I think they did it just for laughs, to astound the audience.
John: Well, you know, there are little tricks you can use that the audience can’t pick up: tap your foot, or wink.
Scott: The Abreus were in the same league—they played as one.
Actually, they had little tricks. One of them was that the brother on the left would tap his foot imperceptibly, in a very small subdivision—like sixteenth notes—and that would be the tempo. It would look like they were just diving into it, from nothing.
But I do believe that a group like Presti/Lagoya, the Abreus, or even the Romeros, have played together for so long that they just get this sense of what the others are thinking.
So I hope some day we can play piano on four guitars, it’s…
John: Something to shoot for.
Scott: Right. But at the moment we’re searching for four-guitar music to play on four guitars.
Bill: There is a dearth of original music for the medium. I mean, there are good pieces, but by virtue of the genre, all of them are rather recent.
We played a piece a while back that was rather an oddity, written by a fellow named Hans Schmidt-Kayser. He played the guitar-lute—I believe he flourished around the start of the 20th century. And he wrote this sort of neo-Romantic piece for four guitar-lutes. It was weird: the first movement sounded like the early Mannheim school, the second like Schubert, and the third—well, it was sort of Julio Iglesias of something [laughter].
But it was fun, because it was actually written for four plucked instruments, way before its time.
Also, of course, there are early lute quartets. We’ve had quite a few scores submitted to us. And there are existing published pieces that we enjoy. The search goes on! I think the more concerts we and other quartets play in the world, the more composers will start turning to this as a viable medium.
John: If you’re in an ordinary string quartet, you step into a tradition, and a lot of literature. It’s sort of set up for you already.
But as a guitar quartet, we’re still working on defining our identity. It’s not just getting together, rehearsing and all that. And our identity so far has been to play mostly quality classical music, such as the Bach and Falla transcriptions. It’s an ongoing process, and at this point I think we’re looking to see what sort of contemporary pieces fit our personalities.
Bill: Essentially, our goal up to this point has been to establish the viability of the medium, rather than to explore totally new directions. But now, I think, we’re in a position to be a little more exploratory.
John: This could sound pretentious, but: if you look at what Segovia did when he was establishing the solo guitar (and he drew a lot of criticism for this), he didn’t play much ground-breaking music in terms of compositional style. He played neo-Romantic music, and transcriptions of popular works. First of all, I’m sure it suited his own personality and taste. And also, he felt that it would draw a bigger audience.
I think we’re in a similar position. People like to hear Manuel de Falla, and not maybe some new composition by an unknown composer that might be very challenging for the majority of the audience.
Anisa: I think it depends too on where you are. At a guitar festival, obviously, you can play new music: people already know the instrument and the repertory, and they’re open to new pieces, so it’s the perfect format.
But if you’re in [location expurgated], and you’re not firmly established, you have to play things that are accessible, because you have to build your public.
Scott: On the other hand, we typically throw in at least one thing that is a bit challenging, a bit new, just to satisfy the modern music person in the audience.
The type of contemporary music we’ve done up to this point has been Minimal music, actually. We enjoy it a lot. At this point it’s not quite as in vogue as it was (say) five years ago, and we’re sort of looking now towards other motifs. But we’ve just got a new piece by Leo Brouwer, called Cuban Landscape with Rain, written for four guitars. We got it about a month ago—we had no idea he had written it, and we met him at the Toronto Festival. He gave us the score, and we thought it was a lovely piece. It’s extremely minimal in style (though I don’t know if Brouwer likes that term—I think he prefers the term “meditative”). It’s an atmosphere piece, and essentially it tries to portray, in quite a realistic sense, the sound of rain falling. People who want more picante from their modern music might think it too watered down, I don’t know.
I enjoyed it very much. But Brouwer certainly seems to have polarized people sharply, with this shift to more accessible music. For instance I was talking to Manuel [Barrueco] about El Decamerón Negro, and he was less than enthusiastic. For him, Elogio de la Danza is the definitive Brouwer—he said so in so many words.
Scott: But music doesn’t have to be challenging always—that piece is more relaxing.
Bill: And hopefully, we would balance that with something not quite as soothing, like Falla.
I’d like to repeat, for the readers, some of the things we talked about in the class, such as the problems of ensemble playing, tuning, articulation, phrasing together…
Scott: Well, there are quite a few ways of getting in tune. We always tune one at a time, using an electronic tuner initially, and then checking our tuning with each other. For this we use open chords, without a third in them—just open fifths, generally in the key we’re going to begin the concert with.
Another effective way is for one person to tune all the guitars.
Why is that more effective?
Bill: Because I think that one person has in their ear an exact pitch, and somehow it’s easier to hear.
Another thing is that tuning doesn’t stop the moment you step on stage! You have to be constantly aware of intonation while you’re playing. One thing that playing in a quartet affords you, is that from time to time you have little pauses, when you can adjust; in a string quartet, players are constantly adjusting their intonation, around the ’cello, and in our pieces (certainly in the Falla), I have to tune while playing. In the middle of movements we have to change to a new pitch, especially a low string—D down to C, or something like this. We have to be constantly adjusting, and not just with the tuning pegs. If you know your D-string is a little flat, and you don’t have the chance to tune it, push it a little sharp. We’re always trying to be aware of that, so that things are blending. Tuning is an ongoing process.
Now, you were saying that it doesn’t work to tune all the guitars with a mechanical tuner.
Bill: Apart from the length of time, and everyone having to be quiet, we’ve found that they’re not as accurate with the treble strings as with the bass strings. Maybe we’ve just got the wrong make.
Scott: There are other problems, too. Anyone who has played concerts will know the unfortunate experience of tuning so well backstage, in the air-conditioned environment, and then walking out on stage under those burning lights.
Bill: And we like to come right out and start. Sometimes, if the lights are hot enough, it can really be a shock—Morley with microtonality is an interesting effect!
What about starting together?
Bill: You’ve got to use your head! Cueing is a necessary part of playing in a group, and it’s something we’ve worked on quite a bit. The way we sit is tied up with the whole process: we’ve learned by experimentation that it’s more effective if the person giving the cues is seated stage left. In that case, the other three will be looking down their fretboards at him—it’s very much the same as orchestral players putting their music-stands just below their line of sight to the conductor.
Essentially, all that’s necessary is just a basic knowledge of conducting techniques: giving good cues; the preparatory beat; defining not only the starting note, but the tempo, by the subdivision; and then setting the style, by the peacefulness or aggressiveness of the cue itself.
How to play together is another matter. It takes years of experience to know everyone’s attack—really, a lot of it is just telepathy.
John: Well, playing together involves several different aspects, some of which you will find very obvious. For instance, your guitars. Ours are very similar, we have three Miguel Rodríguez and one Contreras; so they’re all Spanish guitars, with that type of sound.
Another aspect is the type of nail/flesh combination that you use. Again we’re luck to have a homogeneous quality there, because we all studied with the same teacher.
Then comes the whole bag of articulation, use of dynamics, and the style you develop as musicians.
What I noticed myself in our group, is that we made some real advances, improved immensely, when we started working on certain repertory.
If you play Spanish music, you can play very freely, and everybody can go their own way—to a certain extent. But when we played music of the Classical period, I think the ensemble improved tenfold. Because now we’re talking about music where articulation, dynamics, and all that, are the essence of the style.
You were saying in the class how essential it is for people in an ensemble to use the same articulation.
John: Oh, it’s absolutely essential. Because with the guitar, with so many notes ringing, it can become real wash, a real mess.
Bill: And articulation is just one of the major components of style.
It’s not just a matter of a long note, or a short one—it’s an incredible spectrum of degrees and combinations. A short note in the context of a Mozart piece is a long note in the context of a Falla piece: and as you get towards contemporary music, your parameters of articulation, vibrato, dynamics and color get much wider.
Anisa: One of the nice things about playing together for so long a time, is that you don’t always have to say, “Let’s do this”, you pick up on things.
Scott: When we did the first Mozart transcription, we worked so long on it, we had so many problems; and it evolved. I would hate to hear our first performance of it. But after years of playing it, it was fairly decent Mozart, I think. And now we’ve just begun work on a Divertimento of his, and learned some things about his language and how to articulate it on guitar.
Bill: And it’s really falling into place much faster.
Scott: Right. For one thing, we know now that we can trust the score: when he puts a dot over a note, he means a short note. When he puts a slur between two notes, he wants a long note and a short note, etc. So we have a lot more confidence in being able to interpret this music now.
You’re using four normal guitars, right? As opposed to some ensembles, who use maybe a requinto and/or an acoustic bass guitar.
Bill: Right. We’ve experimented with guitars of different range, and I don’t think we have anything against using them? If anything, we have a penchant towards lower-range instruments. At this point, it’s not something we have at our disposal, and we’ve been able to work around it: for instance, in the Falla pieces. I’m tuned to low C with the 5th string to G, which expands the range a bit. (Luckily my guitar, with new strings, sounds fairly good in those ranges.)
I think that eventually we will probably be using an eight-string guitar, that goes down to A, let’s say. And we have in the past used lower instruments, especially when we were arranging things like Debussy Preludes and pieces like this, where the range is so important.
We’ve also used guitars tuned higher. I experimented once with moving al the strings on a normal guitar down one space, so that the lowest string was a (normal) fifth, tuned to A; and in place of the first string, I had a thinner lute string, and tuned that to G and also to A (again, this was for a Debussy Prelude).
It worked, but I think all of us agreed that guitars that are tuned higher… the sounds of any that we’ve heard up to now are not acceptable. They sound a bit too thin, they don’t sound to us like a true classical guitar.
Scott used a capo in the Morley (Joyne Hands), that was because he was playing a lute part that he had previously learned (it was scored originally for lute and other instruments).
How do you decide who plays what?
Scott: Well, how we sit obviously has something to do with it: because (going back to cueing), the person way over on our right-hand side couldn’t reasonably have a lot of important things going on. He would have to do a lot of cueing, and we would all have to look over our right shoulders at him. Therefore, that dictates a lot.
Also, the way our guitars sound has a lot to do with it. My guitar sounds best, say, in the middle range.
Bill: We sort of fell into a certain way of sitting, primarily due to the cueing. Then, typically, we just play things in score order.
That doesn’t necessarily mean anybody’s playing a bass part the entire time; for instance, in the Falla, everybody plays a melodic part at one point or another.
We look for that in our pieces, a general balance of activity. Obviously, in something like Mozart, we don’t want the melody to go jumping around all over the place, it would be hard to follow. So we stick a little closer to the score order.
John: in pre-19th century music, it will show very clearly that you have a high part, a low part, and something in the middle. But in anything after that, the piece might well be written for 27 different instruments, and so everybody gets a piece of the action.
Bill: And also, in much of the new music we do (like the Brouwer), the parts are almost exactly the same.
Well, of course that’s written for the medium. But I was thinking in terms of Beethoven, for example. All viola players loathe Beethoven, because he wrote such boring viola parts. If you get stuck with the equivalent of a viola part…
John: There’s another thing, too. As Scott was saying, our guitars have different personalities that lend themselves to a specific part.
But also, I think we’d all agree that the personality of the players… like, Scott is the magician of the group, he’s the one that handles all the pyrotechnics, so we put him on second guitar—anything that’s impossible to play, we give it to Scott. I’m a very obstinate person, so I take the bass [laughter]. Anisa is the most easy-going of any of us, so she…
Anisa: I take the supporting role.
John: And Bill is our leader, he plays most of the melodic material, and he has that expressive quality in his playing, very gregarious.
Bill: I’m a ham.
The LAGQ’s website, which includes a discography.