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New Music and the Electric Guitar

With Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1955–57), a massive piece for three orchestras and three conductors, the electric guitar began spreading from rock and roll dance halls and smoky jazz clubs to the classical concert stage. Ever since, an increasing number of composers have been featuring the instrument, with some actually making it the centerpiece of their musical aesthetics. I’m a firm believer in guitar equality—all instruments in the plucked strings family have the right to be employed on the concert stage for so-called “serious-” or Art-music. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of my favorite composers working with electric guitars. All of the works I mention are available online at either iTunes or Amazon.com.

If you say “classical music for electric guitar” most people immediately think of Steven Mackey. Mackey—who teaches composition at Princeton, just to establish his street cred—channels the garage rock sound of his youth in a lot of his writing for the instrumentment. Notable pieces are the concerto Tuck and Roll, string quartet and guitar pieces Lost and Found and Troubadour Songs (both written for Kronos), and the mixed guitar ensemble Measures of Turbulence.

Another composer whose work is founded on the guitar is Glenn Branca. A proponent of Just Intonation (the tuning of musical pitches according to pure, whole-number ratios), his favorite ensemble is the electric guitar orchestra (often very large and VERY LOUD ones). His music is monolithic, glacial, impassible, gigantic. Check out Harmonic Series Chords, any of his Symphonies, and Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses.

Lois V Vierk hasn’t composed for guitar as much as either Branca or Mackey, but her writing for the instrument is a joy to hear (and to play, despite the fact that it’s extremely challenging). Her three pieces featuring guitars (Go Guitars, Io, and Red Shift) are very different yet incredibly coherent from a musical and stylistic point of view. Go Guitars makes a great introduction to her oeuvre: it features five microtonally tuned guitars (six Es with various quarter-tone inflections), to be played either by five players or most often by a soloist plus tape. The music is hard to describe—thick textures, subtle progressive changes, and incredible sequences of staggered glissandos.

I’m especially fond of the work of Larry Polansky, a composer, guitarist, improviser, computer music programmer, and overall polymath. Polansky teaches at Dartmouth and he’s currently a visiting professor at my own institution, UC Santa Cruz. He’s written dozens of pieces for guitar—classical, steel string, and electric—with or without electronics, and using a variety of just and tempered tunings. Some of his pieces (like the collection Songs and Toods) require the guitarist to play and sing complex independent parts (often in different keys, in a nod to Charles Ives); others are simple, quiet, and utterly beautiful. Most of his music, programs, and writings are available on his website; a large number of his guitar works were recently recorded on New World Records (NWR 80700).

Finally, a truly remarkable piece is Morton Feldman’s The Possibility of a New Work For Electric Guitar, written for Christian Wolff in 1966. The only copy of the piece was lost when the guitar case in which Wolff had left the manuscript was stolen from his car; Wolff went on to recreate a version from memory (Another Possibility) in 2004, but more recently a recording of a 1967 performance was found in the archives of KPFA radio in Berkeley, and transcribed for publication (which I believe is still forthcoming) by guitarist Seth Josel. Here is an account of the story (PDF), and here is a video of Larry Polansky performing Wolff’s alternative version.

When you include the many composers I have failed to mention (such as big names John Zorn, Fausto Romitelli, George Crumb, and Tristan Murail, in addition to scores of younger and emerging composers), you will see that the contemporary guitar repertoire is augmented by many rich and evocative works. If you have some experience with electric guitars, consider expanding your current practice regimen to bring your touch back up to speed—you never know when the local new music ensemble will need an electric guitarist who can follow a conductor!

9 Responses leave one →
  1. 2012 January 31
    Paul permalink

    One of the top classical guitarists who also plays electric guitar in modern “new music” style is Elena Càsoli.

    You can listen to her play some fantastics works composed by Maurizio Pisati (he’s also her husband): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ze3xAMIBanM

    This work, “Elettrico” is actually an adaption, based on a set of revolutionary studies written for the classical guitar by Pisati, called Sette Studi.
    You can also hear Elena Càsoli playing the classical versions on youtube. Search “Studio by Maurizio Pisati played by Elena Càsoli”.

  2. 2012 January 31
    Paul permalink

    One of the top classical guitarists who also plays electric guitar in modern “new music” style is Elena Càsoli.

    You can hear her play some fantastic works by composer Maurizio Pisati (who also is her husband): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ze3xAMIBanM
    This work, “Elettrico” is actually adapted from a set of 7 revolutionary studies for the classical guitar, by Pisati.

    You can also find Elena Càsoli playing these classical versions – search for “Studio by Maurizio Pisati played by Elena Càsoli”

  3. 2012 January 31
    Paul permalink

    For an experimental electric guitarist and composer, Terje Rypdal – stands out!

    A recommended album here would be “Terje Rypdal/David Darling: Eos”. In the words of Miroslav Tadic… they “produce the sound from the deep, dark side” (link).

  4. 2012 February 1

    Hi Paul,

    thanks for your comments! It’s an ever-growing field, and I wasn’t aware of some of those works. Speaking of Italians, do you know the work of Fausto Romitelli?

  5. 2012 February 1
    Paul permalink

    No, I don’t know Fausto Romitelli. But with a work titled “Trash TV Trance” for electric guitar (2002), I don’t really know what I should think.
    It it criticism? Is it indulgence? Is it a weird attraction to modernism? Does he want to be cool?

    The same questions apply to Maurizio Pisati as well – of course. And I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if I should like it, hate it, embrace it or leave it…
    Oh well.

  6. 2012 March 11
    Mark permalink

    Here’s a nice YouTube-recording of Tristan Murail’s Vampyr – with added visuals: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfY_dUftlcs

    I googled the guitarist – aside from contemporary classical guitar, he also plays Vierk’s Go Guitars.

  7. 2012 April 5

    Hi Giacomo, I certainly agree that the electric guitar deserves space on the concert stage! But to me it is a totally different animal than the nylon string guitar. (It isn’t really intimate, or warm, or personal, or even particularly evocative.) I played the electric guitar in various styles for a long time, and I recognize that it has great potential and a huge sound palate. But as a composer I feel drawn to the nylon string.

  8. 2012 August 13
    PolyGone permalink

    Cool article, Fiore!

    There are two very notable composers of new music w/electric guitar that deserve a mention here:

    1) Rhys Chatham, composer of pioneering works for electric guitar ensemble

    &

    2) Louis Andriessen, Dutch composer who works with electric guitars.

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