BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
The new Melbourne Guitar Foundation met with great success in its 2015 season, having hosted concerts with international talent from Johannes Moller to local star Minh Le Hoang. The foundation will launch this year’s season in a performance with the Melbourne Guitar Quartet, and member Ben Dix chats with us ahead of the gig.
Ben studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, and when he’s taking time off MGQ it’s only to sit on adjudication panels for competitions and exams, host masterclasses, and conduct the Classical Guitar Society of Victoria Guitar Orchestra.
He’ll be joined in this concert by fellow guitarists Tonie Field, Jeremy Tottenham, and Dan McKay in a performance of varied works. Expect Debussy, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Haydn, and Houghton – along with a work the group commissioned last year by Robert Davidson.
When did you first pick up the guitar and decide it was the instrument for you?
I first started guitar lessons at high school when I was about 14, after hearing Slava Grigoryan’s debut album Spirit of Spain. I was totally blown away; I thought that there was no way that one person could do that on the guitar – there must be two or more people playing on this disc. So I asked my parents to enrol me in lessons not long after listening to the disc.
To be honest, there never has been a truly defining moment in which I decided that the guitar was for me, I’ve just kept on playing it. I guess since joining the Melbourne Guitar Quartet, I can safely say that the guitar is for me!
So how was the Melbourne Guitar Quartet born?
MGQ started out long before I turned up on the scene. The original group formed in 2005 with Tom Clay, Chris Donovan, Peter Karutz and Jeremy Tottenham. Those guys were studying at the Victorian College of the Arts at the time and had formed the quartet to fulfil a part of their ensemble component (which was part of the undergraduate course). After their ensemble recital at VCA, they coined the name Melbourne Guitar Quartet and decided to hit the road, organising a small tour around some regional and metropolitan centres of Victoria.
Since then, the group has undergone some line up changes. Tonié Field joined in about 2007. Tonié was head of the guitar department at the VCA and taught all of us. It was around then MGQ recorded its first album Four Elements. I then joined in 2009 and went on the quartet’s first album launch tour; a bit weird, I know, touring an album that I didn’t even work on.
At the end of 2014, Dan McKay joined, just in time to celebrate MGQ’s 10 year anniversary concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre. What an initiation for Dan – first gig with the group and it was at MRC! Now that leaves Jeremy as the only founding member left – no worries there, he’s got plenty of good years left in him…we hope.
What’s it like playing in a guitar quartet?
It’s a great experience, it truly is. Sure, it has its moments and you go through a bit of ‘band politics’ once in a while, but you always come out the other side better for it. For me, I’m humbled to have the opportunity to direct part of my life towards such a creative and rewarding process. I can honestly say that all my performance career highlights have been with MGQ; we have had some wonderful opportunities and many memorable performances. Some of the best moments for me have been during rehearsal after we have just played through a new arrangement for the first time, hearing all the parts come together and the subtle nuances that each individual bring, it’s such a great feeling. Don’t get me wrong; I also sit there relieved that the arrangement is going to work!
Another aspect of quartet life is booking concerts, applying for festivals, grant applications, choosing programs, booking guest artists, writing program notes and concert abstracts, organising marketing and photos, keeping up to speed with social media posts, and then, of course, you have the time to start arranging the music. At times, taking care of such things is a little time consuming. However they are all necessary tasks and can lead to very rewarding outcomes.
What are the types of guitars you use, and how do they differ?
We use a range of guitars known as the ‘guitar family’, which includes classical bass, baritone, standard, treble and octave guitars. These instruments provide a broader and richer timbral spectrum as well as providing us with a greater range in general. You could loosely say that when we use these instruments, we are similar to a string quartet in regards to range or pitch and in turn this allows us to explore another realm of repertoire that four standard guitars are unable to navigate.
Without the pioneering work of the guitar quartet Guitar Trek and luthiers Greg Smallman and Graham Caldersmith; the ‘guitar family’ concept would not exist. Graham recently received an OAM for his work in the field of instrument making.
To truly grasp the ‘guitar family’ concept, you have to see and hear the guitars in action. Audience members often come up to the stage during interval to have a closer look at the guitars and comment on each instrument. In some concert settings, we have presented a pre-concert talk in which we chat about each guitar and give a few little demos.
It goes without saying that guitarists, like all musicians, have individual approaches to the music – but do you find the instruments match in timbre more than you’d hear in other ensembles? For instance, a wind quartet where sustained notes are played on highly varied instruments?
They are very good questions, as MGQ do explore works that were not initially composed for guitar let alone guitar quartet. First and foremost would be that we approach the music purely from a ‘musical’ perspective, we endeavour to conserve and support the musical integrity.
The guitar family certainly adds a depth to the overall tonal palette and having all family instruments made by the same luthier (except for each of our standard guitars) certainly provides a consistent voice. Guitars can’t compete with the timbral spectrum of a wind ensemble or even the dynamic range; same goes with a string quartet. We can, however, create a unique timbral continuum that no other instrument can replicate.
Like all instruments, there are weak spots and sweet spots. The guitar (standard) at times can lose certain aspects of projection and sustain in the very high registers, so that is where you might ‘handball’ that particular line to the treble guitar in order to create a more appealing blend. We might also transpose lines or harmonies down an octave to the baritone or bass guitar in order to create a similar effect. The guitar, and in particular guitar family, is still developing.
You’ve arranged many of the pieces in this concert. Tell us why you decided on these ones – and what you think about when arranging for four guitars.
Going back to one of your earlier questions regarding our approach to the music, I must fundamentally ask myself: ‘Is this arrangement going to be suitable for the guitar, will it work and what can a guitar quartet bring to this work?’. As you may know, much of the solo classical guitar canon comprises of many transcriptions and arrangements of keyboard and piano works, along with solo violin and cello works. Ironically, some of these arrangements are solely recognised as ‘guitar classics’ and overshadow the original, such as Albeniz’s Asturias.
Mostly, all my MGQ arrangements are of string quartets or string concerti. Early string music of Vivaldi works very well for the guitar; it is very idiomatic and there is a type of freedom in the harmonic language that can allow you to explore certain ideas and gestures from a technical perspective. That there is not a lot of long sustained bowing helps also, however we guitarists have to work a little harder at times when it comes to scales and other select passages; as what can be achieved in a single bowing, we have to move a lot of fingers for!
Of course, I am always thinking about balance, blending colours and how we can replicate or convey particular textures through various techniques, promote melodic material, as well as thinking about the colour palette of the various guitars. In some instances, arranging to other key centres is a must – not only to facilitate the arrangement but also to allow the full tessitura of the guitar family to come to life.
You commissioned Cliffs & Rivers in 2015. What’s it all about, and what sort of journey does it take us on?
Like most of Robert Davidson’s compositions, it is inspired by nature and his surroundings. We have recorded two other works by Robert, Coonowrin and Landscape – both highly evocative compositions inspired by the Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland.
Cliffs & Rivers wanders through a range of textures and moods at times underpinned by a guitar ostinato pattern or a groovy bass line (Rob being a bass player himself). We have only performed the work twice, so this will be very exciting for us to perform it again now that we have spent some more time with it.
The Melbourne Guitar Quartet will perform at St Mary’s Church North Melbourne, April 15 in a concert presented by the Melbourne Guitar Foundation. For more info go to melbourneguitarfoundation.com. MGQ will also perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre later this year.