Can guitar and orchestra be friends electric?


OF ALL OF the instruments associated with classical music – violin, cello, piano – the electric guitar remains an unlikely boisterous cousin.

Its plugged-in capabilities make it seem like a slick arriviste compared to instruments that have been the backbone of orchestras for centuries. As technology has advanced, more classical works are concerned with electronic sounds, but not electronic instruments, especially when it comes to symphonic composition.

Tonight, musician and composer Ronan Guilfoyle will explore the possibilities of the electric guitar within a classical framework, with Hands, a new commission for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO).

Dublin-based Guilfoyle is primarily a jazz musician. He is self-taught, and his father had a strong interest in music and an eclectic range of tastes. “I was raised with both classical and jazz growing up,” says Guilfoyle. “My father loved music. He didn’t play an instrument, but he had speakers in every room of the house downstairs. He particularly loved jazz made after 1945 and classical music from the 1880s onwards, so I heard a mix of Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, mixed with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.”

In professional musician terms, Guilfoyle is somewhat unusual, in that he has never been classically trained and, comparatively, was a late starter. At 18, he took up bass guitar and always felt that he would “gravitate towards the double bass”. As an instrument, they were pricey, cumbersome and the cheaper models “were poorly made”. In the 1980s, a friend gave him an acoustic bass (not an upright one, like the double bass he once craved) and he confesses it was an Orwellian moment of “seeing the future”.

Having listened to several acoustic bass players as a child, one of the standout influences for him was Charles Mingus. “He was the first double-bass virtuoso, and a difficult man who did what he wanted.” After years of working with both acoustic bass and guitar, the genesis of Handscame about after conversations with people connected to the orchestra. “I remember expressing my amazement at how little the electric guitar is being used by contemporary composers, considering its possibilities. Post-Jimi Hendrix, the guitar has a 50-year history of virtuosity; of tonal variety and sonic possibility, but its use is almost unknown in the repertoire, and the idea for Handsgerminated out of that.”

Playing electric guitar tonight is Rick Peckham, also assistant chair of the Berklee College of Music Guitar in Boston, where 1,100 guitarists are in training. Guilfoyle’s preferred instrument, however, is acoustic bass – another instrument that he says “doesn’t get a look in, in orchestral terms” – but the possibilities of the electric guitar made the idea of a symphonic work appealing.

“Classical music has its own traditions, and its tradition is one of acoustic instruments. Composers have taken on the idea of electronica and electronics, but not the idea of electric instruments. There are very few classical pieces from the last 30 or 40 years that actually use electric instruments – from electric bass, guitar or keyboards.”

With the constant updating of technology, making an array of things sonically possible, there is now more convergence between the two. Composers such as Nico Muhly, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Dustin O’Halloran work within classical parameters, while experimenting with the possibilities of sound and instrumentation. Guilfoyle is interested in this concept of cross-pollination, but is wary of “genre-fication”. However, he is accepting of the myriad influences that may find their way into a composer’s work. Rather than being censorious, he believes they should be embraced.

“Debussy went to the World Fair in Paris in 1889, where he first heard a gamelan group. If you listen to the piano music he composed around the turn of the century, you can really hear its influence in the Études and the Preludes. It’s there in the tonal influences, and is subsumed into his work. It’s a great example of how something from outside one tradition – perhaps so-called crossover – produces a piece of music that would not have existed if he had never heard that gamelan group.”

Handsis Guilfoyle’s second commission for the National Symphony Orchestra. He has also been commissioned three times by the National Concert Orchestra and has written for the Manhattan School of Music’s Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra. What does this latest commission mean? “It’s a privilege and such a thrill. The NSO is an extremely undervalued cultural asset to the country. Week in, week out, they play very challenging music and it’s an absolute cultural treasure.”

Guilfoyle believes there is a symbiotic relationship in being both a musician, and a composer. “Because I’m a jazz musician, the act of being creative is the same. Composition is just improvisation slowed down – it’s the same impulse. Most jazz musicians I know also compose music and the act of performing can bring a lot of practical baggage, like travel, hotels, and bad sound.

“With composing, all of those irritants are gone, and it’s very seductive. The ultimate impulse for me is to play, because it’s immediate and that’s where I started. The feel of the instrument under your hands and responding to it – that immediacy of playing music will never be replaced in my affections.”

Handspremieres tonight at the NCH at 8pm, with works by John Adams and Shostakovich. Ronan Guilfoyle is in conversation with Rick Peckham from 7pm.