SGV Tribune

Classical works are electrified

by John Farrell
September 26, 2008

The electric guitar is the symbol of rock ‘n’ roll. The instrument’s versatility and its rich and readily manipulated sound has made it a star in arenas around the world. But applying its virtuoso possibilities to the classical world hasn’t often been attempted.

The Los Angeles-based octet Electric 8 has broken ground here, using guitars for everything classical such as baroque to sacred Indonesian gamelan music. The group offers thrilling concerts and has issued its first CD. Sunday night at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, Electric 8 performed in the center’s main gallery for 200 enthralled fans as part of the Southern California-wide World Festival of Sacred Music.

The Electric 8 members are all classically trained guitarists who use that training to create a new world for the electric guitar and tube amplifiers, a world where Bach’s preludes can be performed with a sound like that of a harpsichord, and where the bell-like tones of gamelan music can shimmer in the air.

The 8 are Philip Graulty, Chelsea Green, Ben Harbert, Andy Nathan, Marc Nimoy, Alexander Sack, Felix Salazar and JohnPaul Trotter. Their backgrounds are academic and include not only multiple musical degrees but credentials as composers and arrangers. Harbert is the principle arranger for the group.

Sunday’s concert opened with “Domino Figures” by contemporary composer Wayne Siegel, a work in the American minimalist tradition originally written for as few as 10 to as many as 100 guitars. Four preludes and fugues by J.S. Bach followed, works arranged by Heitor Villa-Lobos and then arranged in a new version by Felix Salazar.

Bach’s complicated and richly detailed music, originally written for solo harpsichord, works well with eight string performers, especially as the guitars can create a sound much like the original harpsichord, although with more volume. These eight performers balanced their instruments into a single voice and created a richly detailed tapestry, especially in the two exciting fugues.

In two works by Nathaniel Braddock, “Ill Tempered Lancaran” and “Armour Square Vespers,” the 8 created an atmosphere that pulsed with energy and bright colors. It was hard to imagine the instruments, familiar hard-bodied guitars connected by wires to their amplifiers, could produce such delicate sounds. Because the instruments can be retuned to different scales, they can easily manage the different tonalities of Balinese music.

The group has a large repertory, and two works from the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Domenico Rognani Taeggio’s “La Porta, Canzone” and Gabrielli’s “O Jesu mi dulcissime” gave them a chance to create, on a smaller scale, the stereo effects that the composers created in cathedral spaces, with one section of guitars echoing in reduced volume the music of the other. The Armory space is small one, but with eyes closed, you could the depth of the space these works were originally intended for.

The fifth movement, “Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus” from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” arranged by Andy Nathan, ended the regular program with another look at the group’s remarkable flexibility, a sharp-eyed modern sound that seemed perfect in tune with the work’s deep passion.