G2E Ep 016: Classical Music For Electric Guitar

Pat Metheny

INTRO: We start with the first movement from Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich. The piece was written for Pat Metheny in 1987. Pat recorded it on the 1989 Nonesuch release called Different Trains, which won a Grammy for Best Classical Composition. Electric Counterpoint was originally conceived as a work for one live guitarist and tape. Reich also made an ensemble version, and it gets performed quite a bit these days. For a lot of composers who were interested in writing art music for electric guitar, Electric Counterpoint was somewhat of a watershed moment. I mean: here’ s Steve Reich, a dude with serious classical music cred writing a multi-movement work for amplified guitar and tape. And he’s making no apologies for it. That guitar is plugged in, front and center, and sounding amazing. I know, I know…these days, classical music for electric guitar hardly qualifies as a headline. I mean, Michael Tilson Thomas commissioned a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, string quartets regularly tour around with dudes lugging amps and stomp boxes, plus we’ve got groups like Eighth Blackbird and Alarm Will Sound who commonly program music with electric guitar. But it wasn’t always that way. Andres Segovia rather famously referred to the electric guitar as “an abomination.”

Steve Reich

And if you want to know what the rest of the classical music establishment thought about electric guitar, just try to find a major work written for the electric guitar prior to, say 1984. I mean, 20 years after the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance, and the electric guitar was still considered anathema. So what changed? Well, for one thing, the folks that used to preach those moldy old concepts about the inherent superiority of traditional instrumentation have either croaked or become professor emeritus. Or worse: they’re living in Baca Raton. When those folks handed the keys over to the Baby Boomers, it meant that virtually everyone in a position of authority in the art music world shared Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner as a frame of reference. Sooner or later, Jimi and Amadeus pretty much had to hook up. Today, we hear what happens when Jimi hooks up with Amadeus. We’re talking to Steven Mackey, the composer/guitarist probably most responsible for the current renaissance in concert music for the instrument. We’ll also hear from D.J. Sparr and Anthony Joseph Lanman, two very active electric guitar composer/performers who are, as we speak, working to expand this repertoire.

Mark Stewart

Part 1: Mark Stewart, Bang On A Can All-Stars Early experiments that incorporated electric guitar in classical composition seem to have occurred independently around the U.S. throughout the 1980’s. In New York, one codifier was the now-legendary affiliation of composer/performers who call themselves Bang On A Can. Originally conceived in 1987 as a one-off marathon concert featuring the music of experimental composers, Bang On A Can has gone on to become a major influencer in the new music world, as has the group’s founders Julia Wolf, David Lang, and Michael Gordon. When Bang On A Can needs a guitarist, they call on a guy named Mark Stewart who’s been with the group from the beginning. Mark’s one of these protean, multi-instrumentalist guys who can coax a great sound out of pretty much anything you put in front of him. Here’s Mark handling the guitar part in Julia Wolfe’s ultra-rhythmic and insanely cool Lick for soprano saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, piano, cello, and bass. If you’re new to Bang On A Can, their label is called Cantaloupe Records, and it’s just a treasure-trove of unique musical voices. A good portion of that catalogue includes Mark Stewart playing guitar.

Steven Mackey

Part 2: Steven Mackey joined the composition faculty at Princeton in 1985. At that time, Mackey was a respectable art music composer. But throughout his undergraduate years, he was a pretty serious rock guitarist doing the gigging thing on the west coast. Things really got cooking for Mackey when he starting working with new music juggernaught Kronos Quartet. Once you’ve written three large-scale works for string quartet and electric guitar, it’s about time to tackle a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. Mackey’s first foray into the genre was written for the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. But when Michael Tilson Thomas approached Mackey to write a concerto for the New World Symphony, Mackey himself took on the role of soloist. It’s called Tuck and Roll. We also look at Four Iconoclastic Episodes, a really cool piece for a number of reasons. It definitely represents Steve Mackey’s full-on embrace of the electric guitar as an integrated, even, I dunno, essential instrument in the concert music idiom. Another thing is, those pieces are actually instrumental arrangements of songs that Steve wrote for his band Big Farm, whose lineup consists of exactly the type of heavyweights you’d expect. There’s lyricist and playwright Rinde Eckert on vocals, NY session guy Mark Haanstra on bass, and Jason Treuting of So Percussion fame on drums.

Anthony Joseph Lanman

Part 3: Next Gen Concert Music for Electric Guitar It stands to reason that Mark Stewart and Steve Mackey have inspired a new generation of composer/guitarists who are making great strides in the genre.  Anthony Joseph Lanman was born in 1973 in Des Moines, but he grew up in Texas. Like Steve Mackey, Lanman’s first inspiration was rock music. One of the things that I really like about Anthony Joseph Lanman’s music is that his influences are totally transparent, he’s not trying to hide his inspirations behind some academic compositional bluster. Faith No More is right up there with John Dowland. For more information about Anthony Joseph Lanman’s music go to anthonyjosephlanman.com. Anthony is also the host of two amazing podcasts about music. They’re called “All the Cool Parts” and “1,000 recordings”, both shows are, in my opinion, essential listening for podcast fans.


D.J. Sparr with New World Symphony

D.J. Sparr has written some pretty remarkable concert works for electric guitar. Plus his opera Approaching Ali was premiered by the Washington National Opera. He’s written music for Eighth Blackbird and the California Symphony and he’s won some pretty big awards. Oh yeah, and like everybody else on today’s program, he’s also a helluva guitar player. And like a lot of guys who write music at least partially as a performance vehicle for themselves, there are a few pieces that emerge as audience favorites.

Before we close, there’s one last trend that I’d like to mention: We’ve been talking about guitar players who started in rock, then went into classical music, and then somehow found a way to reckon the seeming disparateness of those two musical worlds. And in the process they discovered their true compositional voice. But there’s another way in. Recently, a handful of highly successful rock guitarists have started writing concert music, and I really love the results. There’s the amazing film scores that Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood has written, a very exciting collaboration between Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Bang On A Can, and Bryce Dessner of The National, who’s become one of the more sought-after composers in the past five years or so.

Bryce Dessner

Big thanks to this week’s guests: Steven Mackey, Anthony Joseph Lanman, and D.J. Sparr, thanks also to the California Symphony for releasing a portion of DJ Sparr’s Violet Bond for us to hear. Goes2Eleven is produced and written by Matthew Cochran. G2E’s research team is Ciyadh Wells and Cole Hankins. The theme music for our show is from my latest collection of original tunes called Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane.

 RECORDINGS: “Electric Counterpoint” from Different Trains, Composed by Steve Reich, Performed by Pat Metheny

“Cicadas at the Equinox” from Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane, written and performed by Matthew Cochran

“Lick” from Bang on a Can Classics, written by Julia Wolfe, performed by Bang On a Can All-Stars

“Rewrite” from So Beautiful, So What, written and performed by Paul Simon

“Physical Property” from String Theory, written by Steven Mackey, performed by Steven Mackey and the Brentano String Quartet

“Anthem” and “Puffe” from Tuck and Roll, written by Steven Mackey, performed by Steven Mackey and New World Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

“Like an Animal” from Big Farm, performed by Big Farm, written by Steven Mackey

“Like an Animal” from Four Iconoclastic Episodes, performed by the Irish Chamber Orchestra

“Troubadore Songs” and “I’ve Grown Up So Ugly” from String Theory, written by Steven Mackey, performed by Steven Mackey and the Bretano String Quartet

“Fantasia in D Major” written by Telemann, performed by Carlo Marchione

“Chaconne in D” from The Rags of Time, performed by Nigel North

“Flow My Tears” from Three Lamantations on the Death of John Dowland, written by Anthony Joseph Lanman

“Veridian Soliloquy” from Synesthesiac, written and performed by Anthony Joseph Lanman

“Eleven” from Synesthesiac, written and performed by Anthony Joseph Lanman

Vim: Hocket: Calm, written and performed by D.J. Sparr and Karen Strittmatter Galvin

Woodlawn Drive, written by D.J. Sparr and performed by New Music Raleigh, Timothy Myers conductor

DACCA: DECCA: GaFfa, written and performed by D.J. Sparr with musicians from the Richmond Symphony

St. Carolyne By The Sea, written by Bryce Dessner, performed by Copenhagen Phil, Andre Ridder, cond.

“Kool Thing” from Goo, written and performed by Sonic Youth

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