“We try to be a little bigger than what the guitar can usually be,” Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s Matthew Greif said in an interview. The four professional guitarists that formed the quartet 27 years ago built a formidable reputation for crowd-pleasing, challenging performances of an unusual scope. This Sunday at 4 p.m. the quartet will perform a program that takes heavily from their newest release of Brazilian compositions, but also includes Celtic pieces and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody at the University’s best chamber music venue, Rackham Auditorium.
The range of musical styles and forms they adapt to their instruments may best characterize the quartet, known as LAGQ. Their versions of pieces historically unusual to acoustic guitar go beyond inventive arrangements. When the quartet last appeared at Rackham in April 2006, the sounds of cello and flute were worked from expertly manipulated guitars. The performers pounded on the bodies of the guitars for percussion and attached bits of metal to their nylon strings to imitate a gamelan, or Indonesian drum ensemble.
The jazzy opener on LAGQ Brazil, released in September, features flutist and MC Katisse Buckingham not only making his flute sound more like pan pipes in an improvisation, but beat-boxing – while playing.
Such “How’d they do that?” moments make their way into LAGQ’s live performances as well. In person, the quartet’s music takes on a more playful quality for the audience, which can visually track minute communications between the musicians and try to distinguish lines of music in pieces that may be too interwoven for the untrained ear alone to dissect.
“With four guitarists, in a recording it is difficult to pick out,” Greif said. “In a way it’s a compliment, because I think in these Brazilian pieces it should sound a bit like one big guitar.”
Greif said that while noticeable differences between the recorded and live experiences aren’t always intentional, they do come into play.
“The more traditional pieces are going to be less different visually,” he said. “But in some things, like where we’re using percussion, visually it’ll have a real different impact.”
Greif, long-time friend, student and fan of the quartet, replaces 16-year member Andrew York, who Greif said left the group amicably to concentrate on his composing and solo performance. The quartet’s members occupy themselves with teaching, two of them at the University of Southern California, composing and performing with musicians outside of the quartet.
“We’re lucky to have an active performing life, but for many musicians you can’t make a living on performing alone,” Greif said, echoing a reality evident in the University’s own music institutions, where faculty split their time between performing and training and students who anxiously wonder how to “make it” as performers. The LAGQ itself has just come from three concerts and a day of teaching in Germany.
“Pretty much every professional musician I know maintains that balance,” Greif said. “But it makes you a more well-rounded musician, to teach and play.”
Sunday’s varied program is the product of what Greif called a “pretty democratic collaboration” between the quartet’s members. Several of the pieces have been pulled from earlier years. “It’s a really effective program,” he said, “with serious music up front and more fun stuff in the second half.”
The LAGQ is part of a spate of Brazilian musical influence on campus in recent weeks. Greif said that because the acoustic nylon string guitar is the instrument used for classical guitar music and for Brazilian jazz, the group’s classically trained guitarists have a “natural affinity” for their recent focus.
Fans of any music type should find something engaging about Sunday’s performance, which Greif is also looking forward to.
“The performer can feel if an audience is into it, with their intensity and level of attention,” he said. “There’s a complementary wave of energy that passes between the audience and performers, back and forth.”
The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
Sunday at 4 p.m.
At Rackham Auditorium