When compared to its fellow string instruments like the violin and the cello, the classical guitar might seem to have a smaller arsenal of playing techniques. With a bowed instrument, you can float, skitter, crunch, sustain, shimmer and a thousand other things, including setting the bow down and plucking. With a guitar...you might think that plucking is the ONLY option. On the new CD, "Thrum," the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet quickly puts that notion to rest, busting out a wide array of styles and sounds. Plucking, yes...and so much more.
The first track, "Harlem" (part of composer Daniel Bernard Roumain's "Ghetto Suite"), starts off with a bang - four bangs, really - before settling into a dissonant determined groove, interrupted with an episode of dreamsong that echoes back on itself to create a shimmering wall of sound. Roumain evokes the mesmerizing rhythms of a big American city in another movement, "Motor City."
Joe Hagedorn: "Well, this piece...Motor City...really has a simplicity to it...the more we played it the more we just really were hypnotized by it."
Guitarist Joe Hagedorn, talking about a moment of calm simplicity from a CD full of grittier works that did not put the quartet at ease. One example: in Van Stiefel's "Cinema Castaneda," the guitarists are required to vocalize while they're playing.
Hagedorn: "To be honest, that scared the pants off us...and we performed it live before we recorded it and it was a real challenge - the singing and playing. While both of the parts looked at separately seemed pretty simple...that was really difficult for us. I have so much more respect for people who do that professionally."
You hear more unusual sounds coming from the guitars in Gao Hong's piece, "Guangxi Impression." In the opening movement, Gao Hong plays a traditional Chinese instrument, the pipa, while the quartet provides a muffled kind of backup. I said "unusual," but Hagedorn says it's not really that strange at all.
Hagedorn: "It's a popular and commonly used sound on the classical guitar. We actually call it "pizzicato", which always makes string players laugh because they say, 'Well, isn't everything you play on the guitar pizzicato?' But it's really a muted sound. You touch the string with some part of your hand other than the picking part, your finger or your thumb, and then you can mute it in almost any degree you want."
Although Gao Hong uses an authentic pipa through "Guangxi Impression," she relies on the quartet to flesh out - or at least point to - the sound of her homeland.
Hagedorn: "She was trying to imitate a lot of traditional Chinese sounds. And at one point she said she wanted us to just sound like a Chinese band. The traditional Chinese music I've heard usually is very colorful with lots of different kinds of percussion. And at the very end we all shout 'Halo, Halo!' Gao Hong's translation of that was just sort of like 'yee-haw' or something."
The title of the CD comes from a work by David Evan Thomas, "Thrum."
Thomas: "'Thrum' is just a great word, I think, that describes the stroke of the hand on the guitar or on any stringed instrument. It also, though, means a little bit of string. So I liked the play on words of both the sound and the idea of bits of thrum, which could also be bits of musical material. So it was threefold resonance there."
Hagedorn: "Well, to be honest, I had not heard that word until David gave us his piece. But I think what he's describing...maybe just because thrum starts with 'th,' it makes me think of the thumb...I think it's a thumb strum."
Thomas says that he's not a very "visual" person, so he doesn't tend to take in a vista and try to translate that into music. However, that's not to say his process isn't informed by being in nature.
Thomas: "A lot of the music comes while I'm walking, especially if I'm walking and not trying to think about anything in particular. This piece started germinating in Wyoming, but I didn't start actually writing it till I got back to Minneapolis. It might be that some of the rhythms and the flow of the piece come out of that time in Wyoming. But it's not so much focusing on a landscape or something visual."
Though he says he's not a "visual" person, and that his music is about music rather than story-telling or scene-painting, Thomas can still paint a pretty picture himself, describing the middle movement of "Thrum" as "part philosophy lesson, part stroll to a garden of little bells, where the first notes of the work are recalled as if in memory."
Bells, drums, tambourines, dancers, farmers, cowboys and singers...all evoked via by the 24 strings of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet.