Greater than the sum of its parts

I happen to think that the sound of a guitar orchestra is special, that it is a sound world of its own and there is a sound that no other instruments en masse can reproduce.
There are many who disagree with me, who, through experience of bad ensembles, think that guitar orchestra is synonymous with out of tune, imprecise, unmusical quasi-ensemble.
Duelling Guitars


Here is a little article I wrote defending my point of view, and it is more poignant now that I am Musical Director of the National Youth Guitar Ensemble. Over the years that I have been director, we have had many pieces dedicated to us by composers including Stephen Dodgson, Gary Ryan and Alfonso Montes. We have played original compositions by Leo Brouwer, Andrew York, Gilbert Biberian, David Carroll, Roland Dyens, Celso Machado with many others to explore.
We have also performed with many musicians – the Eden Stell Duo, cellist Victoria Walker, percussionist Keith Fairbairn, guitarists Antonio de Innocentis and Carl Herring. In our latest concerts this year, we are performing with the soprano Belinda Evans.

The article was first published in Donn LeVie’s ambitious collection of contributions by notable performers and teachers, “Instrumental Influences” and argues for the adoption of guitar orchestras as a source of new sounds as well as being a medium for social interaction in the same way that team sports are.

I hope that some of you will be able to experience this firsthand – NYGE are playing at the Menuhin School on Saturday 17th August and West Dean Open Day on Sunday 18th August. See Diary for more details.
See you there!

So you have finished your studies and performed your final recital with full honours and have collected your degree or qualification – what happens next?

Even if music making is not your profession, it is not easy to find opportunities to play to an audience. In fact, the musical process from composer through interpreter is completed in the appreciative listener.
This listener is often passive, but can also be active. I believe this is the pleasure that many find in chamber music making, where we interact with a listener who also participates in what we do.
The joy of music making gains an extra dimension when playing with another musician. This could be with a bowed instrument, flute, keyboard, another guitarist or a combination of any of the above. The other player or players participate as active listeners and contribute to our own sense of musical excitement and fulfilment in the give and takes that happens when musicians play together. There is a spirit and friendly rivalry that is often found in team sports such as sailing and football. Also, most music societies seem to prefer chamber music to a soloist.
For chamber music making to be fun, a minimum number of conditions must prevail:
1) All the musicians must be confident in their ability to play the piece – sight reading skills are a prerequisite for classical music.
In the past, guitarists were traditionally not known to be great sight readers. This has certainly changed in recent years and most young and newly graduated guitarists can read as well as any other instrumentalist.
2) All instruments must be able to be heard more or less equally.
With regard to being heard against another instrument, modern guitars with a large variety of lattice bracing and double top construction can certainly hold their own with another solo instrument or voice. But there is now also the possibility of subtle amplification with minimal distortion – there is no longer a limit to the guitar’s volume.
3) The sound world created  must be coherent and unique.
This is the interesting point for me. There seems to be little gained soundwise in playing a transcription of a baroque piece such as a trio sonata with the guitar taking the part of the continuo. Of course, the pleasure of chamber music making is still there and it is great fun. Also, guitars, lutes and theorbos were indeed used as continuo instruments, so there is nothing extraordinary about using the modern guitar in this context.

However, the challenge for a composer and interpreter comes with the uniqueness of the sound of multiple guitars and this is what I would like to discuss in the remainder of this chapter.
Many guitars playing together is a very special sound that is different from most other same instrument orchestras – here is a huge resource of sounds from percussion to strumming, to single lines to the tintinnabulation of a monstrous harp to soft thrumming with the flesh of the fingertips.
It was the realisation that these exciting sound possibilities existed and  that there was a tremendous potential for teamwork and social awareness that led me to become musical director of the National Youth Guitar Ensemble based in the UK.
I have conducted many ensembles in the past and became aware of the enriching and renewing effect that playing together can have on a group of guitarists of any ability. It is a great feeling to listen to a group which has been cajoled and bullied into playing together, then when they are off the leash and allowed to play without a conductor there is genuine liberation and freedom in expression – this ideal is not always reached, but there is a great sense of accomplishment and pride when it happens.
With the National Youth Guitar Ensemble the situation is different – the children are between the age of 13 and 18 from all over Britain and they are selected by audition. They are usually of a high technical standard already so my co-auditioners and I are looking for a flexibility in outlook (eg ability to change fingerings and interpretation quickly) and willingness to be part of a group -not always easy, as most are lone guitarists who never knew that there were others like themselves in the world. There are also no passengers in this group – they all take responsibility for their own parts and are encouraged to listen and lead when appropriate.
The latest incarnation of the group has 35 members and I have seen it transform from a band of schoolchildren into a professional group which plays with musical flair and intelligence. The repertoire used to be transcriptions of ensemble music for other instruments, but has now moved into music especially written for this kind of ensemble such as Brouwer’s “Acerca del cielo, el aire y la sonrisa” and Dodgson’s “Roundelay” for cello and guitar orchestra (written for NYGE). We are planning to perform Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” and have commissioned a piece from Gary Ryan. Pieces by Roland Dyens and Celso Machado are also on the agenda.
Playing in this kind of ensemble creates a totally new appreciation of the guitar – what used to be an isolated activity now fits into a social context and awareness. Self esteem and responsibility are boosted, many friends for life are made, and musical horizons expanded. The desire to play with other instruments is also born. This is a life enhancing activity and natural corrective to antisocial behaviour
I would encourage any guitar teacher to form a group like this and any guitarist to be part of one. Many guitarists I know are sociable by nature outside of their playing, but this brings guitar playing and music making into the realms of a social activity. The sound world created is also unique – more possibilities than a quartet or octet of guitars can produce. But we need the music, so composers, please get writing!

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