24 strings, 40 years: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet hits a milestone
One might think that a conversation with Bill Kanengiser, one of the founding members of the LAGQ, would begin in Los Angeles, but one would be wrong to assume so.
James Baker: Bill, I'm so happy to have the opportunity to talk to you. Can you please take us back to the beginnings of the LAGQ?
Bill Kanengiser: Well, I tell you, I tell you, where in Texas are you based by the way?
JB: I'm in San Antonio.
BK: San Antonio, okay. LAGQ has a really strong Texas history. I have to say, even though we all met at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles over 40 years ago when we were all students there, and we were drawn there because the masterclass teacher there was Pepe Romero, the great Spanish virtuoso . . . Actually, the summer before Scott Tennant started at USC, which was really the beginning of the quartet, Pepe Romero was teaching annual masterclasses in Houston sponsored by my good friend Suzie at that time, Suzie Cash and at the guitar gallery of Houston. And so, really the first time we met was in Houston at these Pepe Romero masterclasses. And we then started at USC in a guitar ensemble class, like we were all registered in this class that we had to take. And Pepe sort of helped put us together and we, we worked with him. We also worked with our teacher at the time, Jim Smith. And I like to say that, you know, it's taken us like 40 some years to like, get that A in the class. You know, it's tough. But, but I have to think when I really think through like the history of the Quartet, and Texas, is there's a lot of, of important milestones. I mean, one one huge milestone for us, was right there in San Antonio. We did the world premiere of a concerto that was written for us by Sergio Assad.
JB: Oh yes, I heard that performance down at the Majestic in San Antonio.
BK: We also premiered this fantastic work by Nico Muhly for actually three guitar quartets and chorus. We premiered it in Austin, Texas, with Conspirare under the director, Craig Hella. Johnson. And we played it with the Dublin and the Texas guitar quartets back in 2015. And then, right before the pandemic, we recorded that piece along with some other pieces that were written for LAGQ and Conspirare, we recorded them in Houston, actually. And so those are a couple of big milestones, but boy, we've played in Texas, so you know, I'm trying to think, you know, boy, we played in Odessa, and Brownsville, Corpus Christi, tons of times in Dallas at UT Dallas. So we have a real strong connection with Texas and I got a bunch of buddies there... I think, Austin, especially the Austin guitar society, and their hosting of the guitar Foundation of America festival. That was a real highlight for us.
JB: Yeah, I think we have, I'm sure several mutual friends. I'm thinking of Matt Dunne, in particular. He introduced me to a lot of guitar players over the years that I've known him.
BK: I actually just commissioned Matt Dunne to write a solo guitar piece for me that I'm working on right now.
JB: Oh, that'd be very cool. He's a really fine, fine guitarist and a fine composer.
BK: LAGQ has recorded at least three or four pieces that he wrote for us.
JB: So, 40 years! And how has the personnel changed in the ensemble?
BK: Well, I think it's it is kind of unusual that John, and Scott and I are original members. We've been in the group for the whole time, and we've only had three people in that third chair, the whole time, and Anisa Angarola for about 10 years. Andrew York, a very well regarded composer for 16. And now Matt Greiff. And Matt is coming on on 16 himself. So he he'll soon be the longest reigning third chair guy.
JB: Yeah, you sound like you're talking about an orchestra section with first chair, second chair and the third chair. It's sort of a band vocabulary that you're using.
BK: We like these sort of roles, in a way. I mean, we're, we like to think that it's a very heterogeneous ensemble, a very democratic ensemble, but because we all play the same instrument, it's not like a string quartet where, you know, first fiddle, and then the viola is there in the background kind of thing. And, you know, at any given moment, any of us can be the main melody or the accompaniment, but we just sort of have our roles in the group And so we sort of, we've always sort of thought it's like I'm first chair, Scott second chair, Matt's third and John playing the seven string is kind of the, you know, the bass, the bass guy.
JB: That's one of the things I've always admired about your work is the interplay within the ensemble, as you were just describing. So with very few changes in personnel, how has the sound of the quartet changed over these 40 years?
BK: It's really interesting, you know, over the years, I think our instruments have changed, our techniques changed a little bit as we age, we slowed down a little bit. When I've heard some of our early recordings, I was like, man! We need to ease off the coffee there! But I do think there is there is an LAGQ sound, you know, that, that we try to create, you know, it's a sort of blend, a unified blend. But it's interesting that we, we each have a slightly different tone, it's a pretty subtle thing. But we each do have a little bit different kind of attack . . . a little different. And I think that's a good thing. Like, I think if we all sounded exactly the same, for people playing the same instrument, sounding exactly the same, it would kind of wash out. But so we have our own individual personalities. But we can blend when we need to. And, you know, this was really highlighted for us. We had this incredible honor that Pat Metheny wrote a piece for us, it was this massive piece, this six movement, 27 minute piece called "Road to the Sun." And when he wrote it, and he gave us the score, it wasn't just guitar 1-2-3-4. It was like Bill, Scott, Matt, John, and because he had really, like, listened to us as individuals, and he kind of had a sense, okay, this is what, you know, this is what Matt does and here's John's vibe. And here's, you know, and it was really an honor. You know, and also, I think, really smart of him, you know, it's like to really kind of custom tailor the parts for our individual personalities.
JB: Over the last 40 years, I'm sure you've all changed instruments. Perhaps you're playing instruments built by different makers. This is one of the things that's always fascinated me about guitarists is you guys are always very much wedded to whoever the maker of your instrument is. So has that changed the sound?
BK: Absolutely. I mean, this is getting into sort of guitar geekdom... but way back in the day when we were just starting out, we sort of fashioned ourselves as being like a mini Romeros guitar quartet. And we were playing, you know, some of their repertoire, you know, very traditional Spanish music, a lot of Baroque music. And we played on this kind of instrument that was made in in Cordoba, by this legendary builder named Miguel Rodriguez. And so we were, we sounded, you know, like a little mini Romero's. It was when Andy York joined the group that we kind of made this decision: it's like, well, we're never going to be as good as the Romeros, but let's be the best we can be as LAGQ. And we started playing different instruments. I got my first American instrument, and then we started finding actually German. I think we're all playing German instruments right now. And our repertoire change drastically. Our, our style of playing, that's when we started, you know, especially through Andy York, we started exploring, you know, like groove oriented music and you know, doing jazz and doing, you know, Afrobeats and, you know, country and, you know, rock elements and, you know, definitely taking it pretty far from where the Romeros would go, essentially reflecting our more eclectic musical tastes, and the fact that we're American guitarists who grew up, you know, in the 60s and 70s.
JB: Let's talk a little bit about "Opalescent." I've been listening to it and I have yet to find a track or several tracks that stand out as my favorite because I've enjoyed everything about the recording. Tell me a little bit about how you came to form the program that you recorded for this particular album. And let's see, it's the 15th or 16th . . .
BK: I lost count. But it's the second project that we've self-released. About five years ago, we released a project called "New Renaissance," which I'm very proud of, based on Spanish Renaissance music and French Renaissance music. And we learned a lot about the pluses and minuses of being your own record company. You know, you have complete control and a complete responsibility. And you know, it's a lot of work. But this particular project, sort of the, the theme of it is really trying to, to find this interaction between sound and light. And, you know, all of the pieces in some way kind of reflect this idea of music, having a visual component in our minds. And in some of them, it's very overt. And the reason we came up with the title, "Opalescent," it's inspired by this three movement work by an Australian composer named Philip Houghton, who was a synaesthete. So he was able to, when he heard musical tones, he saw very specific colors. And so the idea was, he was trying to write music that depicted looking at an opal stone, which is the Australian National stone, and all the little colors and glints that would emanate from the stone. And so that, that was the sort of starting point for this whole record, you know, to find other pieces that in some way reflected this idea of light.
JB: Do any of you in the quartet have that ability to associate pitches with certain colors, or colors with certain pitches?
BK: I don't think so. I speak for myself. No. Like, I, I see, sometimes mental images. When I hear music, I certainly feel emotion and feel a sense of, you know, of space, or, you know, with some pieces I play I have almost like a mini film going by. But I know that this ability that some people have to have a very specific color . . . it's like if I hear the D I hear this blue, you know . . . Actually, this is maybe off topic a little bit or whatever. But I just put in the chat a link (https://youtu.be/0ozJk59_BSU) that you could check out which is sort of the trailer for this project, which is a 3d digital version of a black opal actually, that my daughter who's a virtual reality artist created and it it sort of is a quick sort of reference to this idea of the record that the music kind of reflects this. We actually used three different opals that she created in the packaging and it reflects the three movements of Phil Houghton's opals, the black opal, water Opal and white Opal.
JB: Sound and vision are not totally neglected in music, though we're certainly more familiar with music as aural and not visual. I'm thinking of the movement in painting called impressionism. But it's one thing to see, through music, lightness or darkness or shimmer . . . but another to have a certain pitch trigger a very specific color.
BK: Well, you know, so many of the adjectives we use in describing music... it's, oh, that's a dark, it's brilliant. You know, we don't always say, well, it's a yellow [or] it's shimmering, you know, or it's, it's gloomy music, you know? We tend to use some vague terms that are visual, but but, you know, maybe not specific color ones.
JB: This does relate back to one of the comments you made a little bit earlier, that each of the members of the Quartet have a little bit different sound, hue to the instrument they play and to their own internal concept of how they want to sound. And I think that's one of the things that makes being a musician so special is that we do have within our means different tonal characteristics. I think back to hearing Julian Bream a few times in performance, and he had so many different colors.
BK: I'm so glad you you mentioned Julian Bream because I think he's more than any figure responsible for it. [Andres] Segovia really explored color as well, obviously. But I think Bream was the one who took the five or six colors that we thought of on guitar and just blew them open, like expanded when he played bright it was so bright. And when he played dark it was, you know, and tapping and so, you know, we like to think that we're sort of heirs to that. That kind of aesthetic of exploring this wide palette of classical guitar, which I think is you could make the argument that except for a synthesizer, it's like the most varied colored instrument. . . like an oboe is going to usually sound a lot like an oboe, you know, the saxophones gonna sound . . . they can change. Obviously, I'm not trying to diminish their potential, but guitar is capable of this really wide range. And most people just think, "Oh, it's just grinding it out. It's just that it's this one sound." And it's not.
JB: Are all of the the composers represented here on the new album, do they all have a background with guitar or are some of them writing for the guitar is an instrument that they've had to familiarize themselves with?
BK: There's only one composer represented who is not a guitar player. And that's Robert Beaser. And Robert Beaser is an award winning composer from Boston, but he teaches at Juilliard. But he has a long association with guitar. He's really good friends with Eliot Fisk, and has written a number of pieces for Elliot and this recording of his beautiful "Chaconne" is a world premiere recording of this new piece he wrote for us. Elliott worked with him and I worked with him quite a bit on sort of, you know, negotiating this animal that is the guitar quartet, you know, it's like an interesting thing, but Robert Beaser has a really good deep understanding of the guitar, you know, harmonics and all the different things that you can do on it.
JB: Backing up a bit. We have talked about how personnel changes in the LAGQ have altered the sound and even the repertoire of the ensemble, also different instrument makers . . . but what about different engineers and different record labels. Have some of the changes in the sound of the LAGQ been attributable to the different labels you've recorded for?
BK: We've been so lucky over the years, we've recorded on five different labels. And now we're our own label. And we've always had great engineers who understand how to get a good sound. But I think that the philosophy or the approach of recording has changed a little bit from some of our earliest recordings on Delos. They were a kind of old school representative recording, like I'm in a chamber music recital. And it's a little distant, I can hear the whole blend of the group but it's not like kind of in-your-face sort of thing. And then once we move to Sony, and then especially to Telarc, it got like a little closer, and, and our own records, especially this last one, the last two are engineered by this fantastic guy named Rich Breen, who's a little bit more known for jazz recording. And I think it's the best of both worlds. It has the bloom, it has the air, but it's like right there. And it's impressive and, and we were very lucky that Opalescent was produced by Steve Rodby. who's this legend. He's a legendary jazz bass player. He played in the Pat Metheny group for years and [has] unbelievable ears and incredible dedication to the project. And I think this record sounds pretty good. I'm pretty happy with it.
JB: As you should be! The album is called "Opalescent" and it's on the LAGQ's own label, LAGQ 322. I've been talking to Bill Kanengiser, one of the original members of the LAGQ. Bill, do you ever see a day whenever there will be none of the original players in the LAGQ?
BK: I think some of us are getting on in years. And, I think, in the next couple of years, we might see some personnel changes. But I don't know if it's going to be like the King Singers or the Juilliard String Quartet where it just keeps going but there's no original members left. I'm not sure. If the pandemic's taught us anything, it's just like, you never know what's going to happen.