They’ve been called the world’s tightest pop band and a 22-year homework assignment. For the four USC alumni who make up the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, it’s a source of pride that labels don’t come easy.

by Diane Krieger / Illustrations by S.B. Whitehead

The god of serendipity was beaming when, 20 years ago, four USC guitar students dubbed themselves the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. No particular thought went into the name – it happened to be their home address. They weren’t native Southlanders (what trend-setting Angeleno ever is?).

Sprung from unmusical families, they entered USC’s guitar program not exactly steeped in the classics: One was a fingerpickin’ Chet Atkins wannabe who’d only recently mastered note-reading; another fantasized about playing lead guitar for Yes. And there was the child prodigy who, though trained by a Segovia disciple, had contemplated joining the Marines and might well have hung up his guitar if the hockey coach had given him a glimmer of encouragement.

There’s something so cosmically right about one of the world’s premier classical guitar ensembles – a maverick in redefining the guitar’s voice and literature – springing from such a mish-mosh. Like the city whose name it bears, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is a gumbo of creative juices, a paella of wildly diverse tastes and influences. Its style is rebelliously relaxed, amiably iconoclastic, tongue-in-cheek, low-key So Cal.

If you’ve never heard them, imagine a classical group that mixes up J.S. Bach and J.P. Sousa; rolls out Scottish reels and Klezmer dances alongside Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and a Praetorius gavotte; gives you a straight-ahead transcription of Telemann’s Concerto in D for four violins, but goes all bossa-bluegrassy with Pachelbel’s “Loose” Canon; pays equal homage to Aaron Copland and Led Zeppelin. Imagine guitars simulating “world” instruments like an African thumb piano, a Balinese gong or a Japanese koto; imagine 24 nylon strings masquerading as a harpsichord continuo or Samba band; imagine four white guys thumping out Afro-Cuban, Macedonian, Native American and Brazilian rhythms, transforming their fine rosewood instruments into congas, claves, palitos and all manner of drums.

The LAGQ has a curious effect on audiences and critics: one of pleasurable confusion. “When is a guitar concert not a guitar concert?” asked a St. Louis Post Dispatch critic, then solved his own riddle: “When it is given by the eclectic and whimsical musicians who form the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.”

“Who knew that four guitars could sound like a baroque ensemble or a gamelan orchestra?” marveled the Washington Post. “Is the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet classical or pop?” mused the St. Petersburg Times. “Any group whose repertoire ranges from Bach to Falla to Count Basie to Led Zeppelin is tough to label.”

Even in its hometown, the recording-arts capital where eclecticism is the norm, the LAGQ elicits puzzled approbation: “The world’s hottest classical ensemble or its tightest pop band?” wondered a Los Angeles Times critic. “However it helps you to think about the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, keep the emphasis on superlatives for its unrivaled joy, technical élan and questing spirits.”

It’s hard to find a reviewer who isn’t wowed by this group. In its 22nd year, the LAGQ has never been more original, more successful or more in demand. Last fall, winding up an 18-city East Coast tour, the group went into recording sessions to produce Aires, its 10th release (if you don’t count a long-out-of-print LP from the 1980s). In 2001, the quartet gave more than 60 concerts, in venues that included Spain’s Aranjuez Palace, the Hollywood Bowl and Wolftrap. They blew through Germany and Luxembourg in March. They soloed with the philharmonics of Nashville, Buffalo, New Mexico and Utah in Rodrigo’s seldom-heard Concierto Andaluz for orchestra and four guitars. Gigs at New York’s Eastman School of Music and the Tuesday Musical Club of Akron, Ohio, hint at the breadth of the quartet’s appeal.

Ask Bill Kanengiser ’81, MM ’83, Scott Tennant ’86, John Dearman ’81, MM ’83 and Andrew York MM ’86 how they stand the pace, and they won’t drag out some tired cliché about feeding off the audiences’ energy. Travel is drudgery, they’ll tell you.

“You don’t sleep, you don’t eat right, you practice, you rearrange, spit out parts in a computer, it’s really intense, and then you’re done,” Tennant summarizes. The financial rewards are modest (“Finally, we’re making the amount of money that a normal guy working at a normal job would make,” Kanengiser grouses.)

They’ll talk about coping mechanisms – like keeping their distance during downtimes. “We’re really great friends, have been forever,” says Tennant, “but when we’re done touring, we all go our separate ways” – solo concertizing, teaching (Tennant and Kanengiser are guitar faculty in the USC Thornton School of Music; Dearman teaches at area community colleges), publishing, arranging, composing and regrouping once a week, as they have through 22 years of Mondays, to keep four independent spirits in sync.

If serendipity sired the LAGQ, the deity briefly transfigured itself into Pepe Romero, a USC guitar professor in 1980 (and again, since 2000). The international concert star – whose Del Mar, Calif.-based family group, Los Romeros, had eight-handedly invented the guitar quartet genre some 20 years earlier – was keen to train students in the art he knew best: ensemble playing.

Romero had had his eye on Kanengiser, Dearman and graduate student Anisa Angarola ’76, MM ’80 for a while, but he bided his time choosing a fourth. “I can remember Pepe telling me, ‘Wait until you hhhear Superkeed! I hhhave the most amahhzing student,’” Dearman rasps, affectionately mimicking Romero’s whispery-soft Malagueñan tones. (Impersonating Romero is a favorite LAGQ pastime.)

Since age 13, Tennant had been making the pilgrimage from his native Detroit to Romero’s annual Houston master class. “Pepe had decided exactly what Scott was going to do after high school: he was going to come to USC and be the star of the program,” Dearman says.

When the 18-year-old Superkeed finally arrived, he found himself ankle-deep in quartet music. “Literally, my first week here, I remember getting these big boxes of xeroxed scores,” Tennant says. “‘Here, we’re going to learn this for two weeks from now,’ Pepe told me. It started right away.”

In the beginning, the quartet’s goal was crystal clear: recreate the Romeros. Play their Spanish-infused repertoire, reproduce their uncanny rhythmic precision, copy their tonal unity. (Patriach Celedonio Romero had famously dubbed his ensemble “a single 24-stringed guitar.”) “

In the beginning, the quartet’s goal was crystal clear: recreate the Romeros. Play their Spanish-infused repertoire, reproduce their uncanny rhythmic precision, copy their tonal unity. Such slavish imitation may have been part sincerest-form-of-flattery, but it was no less a basic necessity.

We became fixated on playing together, everybody matching in tone,” Dearman says. “We all had the same guitars by the same maker. We worked with a metronome, did the exercises and scales. Everything was oriented toward playing exactly together.”

Such slavish imitation may have been part sincerest-form-of-flattery, but it was no less a basic necessity in the face of a dearth of alternatives. Twenty years ago, “guitar quartet” was synonymous with the Romeros. They were unique. What four-part guitar music existed was either arranged by the Romeros, written for the Romeros or was patriarch Celedonio’s own composition, according to USC classical guitar chair Jim Smith ’75, MM ’78. Music libraries had zero holdings in the genre. “Under these circumstances,” Smith says, “whatever you have, you make it work.”

Romero was no stylistic tyrant. The charismatic USC professor didn’t demand his students emulate him. Quite the contrary.

“He told me years ago, ‘Beeell,’” (Kanengiser tries on his best Malagueñan accent), “‘you weeell nehver succeed in being a second-best Pepe Romero, but you can succeed in being the best Beeell Kanengiser.’”

Andrés Segovia, on the other hand, was notorious for shaping students in his own image – a fact Kanengiser learned to his dismay at USC’s fabled 1981 Segovia master classes when he naïvely performed his own transcription of a Bach violin sonata and a non-Segovia arrangement of Sor’s “Gran Solo.”

“Segovia became infuriated,” Kanengiser recalls. Before a crowd of 500, the guitar legend spent the whole lesson savaging the student’s music selections. Dearman and Tennant, who also played for Segovia, didn’t make the same mistake.

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Related Links

The Astonshing LAGQ
They’ve been called the world’s tightest pop band and a 22-year homework assignment.

The Guitar Century
Now a staple of both concert hall and conservatory, the classical guitar wasn’t always so popular.

LAGQ Profiles

Scott Tennant '86
John Dearman '81, MM '83
Bill Kanengiser '81, MM '83
Andrew York MM '86

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