Playing, conversing, and hanging out with fellow classical guitar enthusiasts proved to be so rewarding that besides playing trios together, I also instigated a monthly discussion group that met outside of class to share music and exchange ideas. We called ourselves the Los Angeles Modern Guitar Project (LAMGP) and brought in other guitarists from the Yates guitar family tree at Cal Poly Pomona and UCLA. Ben Harbert, Brandon Mayer, Felix Salazar, and others were part of this collective.
One day in Guitar Ensemble, Yates brought in a heavily modified electric guitar to experiment on a piece originally written for classical guitar — Theodore Norman’s Toccata
. Little did I know, his two-minute experiment would have a profound impact on my classmates and me. Shortly thereafter, someone suggested that LAMGP perform an entire concert of classical music on electric guitars. Most of us had played, or were still playing, electric guitar in rock bands. I, myself, was curious to hear Bach with heavy distortion and feedback — a lá Jimi Hendrix.
In August 2004, LAMGP self-produced a concert entitled Classical Music Works on Electric Guitar. While the concert was well-received by our family and friends, LAMGP eventually faded away as many of us became busy preparing for individual recitals and graduation. After we left school a year later, our friendships drifted as well.
Flash-forward to November 2006. James Tenney, an innovative Los Angeles-based composer, had recently passed away and Philip, Ben, Felix, and I were asked to play at his memorial concert. I was thrilled to learn that Tenney’s piece was written for six electric guitars since almost all the music we had played on electric guitars up to that point was written either for classical guitar, piano, or some other instrumentation.
As Philip and Ben carpooled to rehearsals for Tenney’s concert, they mused over forming an electric guitar group. Since Ben wanted to perform his friend Nathaniel Braddock
’s piece — written for six electric guitars plus two electric bass guitars — the idea for a guitar octet was born. This piece, entitled Ill-Tempered Lancaran
, proved our first foray into Indonesian inspired music. Within months, Ben managed to organize weekly rehearsals and gather enough electric guitar music for our first concert. The original formation included Ben, Philip, Marc, Brandon, Felix, and myself along with JohnPaul Trotter and Bryce Wilson. Together, we became Los Angeles Electric 8.
Ben was itching to hear a Shostakovich
double-string quartet on eight electric guitars. He loves hard-core metal music and heard a similar energy in Shostakovich’s work. Soon, we began playing works by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn
, and other pinnacle composers of the Western Classical tradition. We ate up any music we could find, enjoying the exploration of un-chartered territory since we were the only electric guitar octet in existence.
Quickly however, the novelty gave way to a desire to make great music. I have found that asking someone to define what makes a work of art ‘great’ usually invites impassioned, nuanced, and rewarding conversation. Members of the Electric 8 don’t always agree, but the ongoing debate is what pushes us forward.
Indonesian gamelan-inspired music is a perfect example of something we all agree works well for our ensemble. The aforementioned Ill-Tempered Lancaran
called for six guitars and two basses in order to simulate the sound of traditional Indonesian Javanese gamelan. It didn’t take long for us to realize that Braddock was on to something. We found that gamelan and electric guitars
have similar sonorities — both produce sustained, percussive, metallic sounds. We have continued to perform music inspired by these traditions ever since.
Through trial and error, the group continues to make new discoveries about our music and our effectiveness as an ensemble. In recent years, we have performed our music entirely from memory. While this is rare for classical ensembles, we feel it greatly improves our communication with each other and our audience. By adding mandolin
, tap instruments
, and effects pedals, we have extended our pitch range and achieved a variety of sounds and expressions. We also discovered that in order to function on a regular basis, members need to take on extra-musical jobs, such as: arranging music, booking concerts and tours, conducting rehearsals, and etc.
New members also bring new perspectives. As with any group, members have come and gone. The latest formation includes Tom Farrell, Kai Kurosawa, and Hugo Aguayo. Each of these new members has contributed to the group in unique ways.
What moves me the most is that the blood, sweat, and tears spent by all members — new and old — to form and sustain the Electric 8, have been colossal. It’s a good thing that hard work makes success taste sweeter! I am grateful that our humble and experimental origins have led to countless performance opportunities, friendships, and new experiences. When this group was formed in 2007, there was no model to follow. We have been learning as we go and setting our standards higher with every new experience. I hope that we are an inspiration to any group — artistic or not — that wants to create something new, despite it never being done before.