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Dublin Guitar Quartet Wrangles Guitar Strings and Bats
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The Dublin Guitar Quartet will perform Wednesday, Nov. 8, at The Argyros in Ketchum. COURTESY: Dublin Guitar Quartet
   
Monday, November 6, 2023
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Members of the Dublin Guitar Quartet knew they would have their hands adapting works of modern-day music meisters like Philip Glass and Steve Reich to 6-, 8- and 11-string guitars.

What they did not anticipate were the unforeseen challenges of taking that music around the world.

The Irish quartet, for instance, was performing in a church in Skibbereen in County Cork, Ireland, when a bevy of bats began bombarding them, coming within inches of their faces. And co-founder Brian Bolger was with the group on a tour of Colombia when he was stung several times by mosquitoes, causing his foot to explode with infection on the way home.

Happily, the group expects no such calamities to befall them when the perform on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at The Argyros Center for the Performing Arts in Ketchum. That’ll give them the capability to concentrate on their interpretations of contemporary works by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, American composer Bryce Dessner and, of course, postmodern composer Philip Glass.

The Dublin Guitar Quartet will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at The Argyros. Tickets are $25 and $50, available at https://theargyros.org/calendar/dublin-guitar-quartet/.

The Dublin Guitar Quartet is the first classical guitar quartet devoted entirely to new music. It was formed in 2001 by Bolger, Patrick Brunnock, David Flynn and Redmond O’Toole, who were all students at the Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama at the time. (The group is now composed of Bolger, Brunnock, Chien Buggle and Tomas O’Durcain).

They decided to eschew standard classical guitar repertoire, choosing, instead, to perform their own arrangements of international composers and new works that they commissioned.

You can’t just perform these adaptations with regular six-string guitars, said Bolger. Two of the members of the quartet use eight-string guitars to reach the high and low notes that six-string guitars cannot achieve. On occasion, they use 11-string guitars.

“I think the guitar is an interesting instrument culturally—it’s probably the instrument that’s had the widest cultural impact,” said Bolger. “There aren’t many instruments that are fundamental to most of the major genres. It's present in all the different periods of classical music, jazz, folk music, blues, rock, thrash metal, punk, reggae.… The piano or flute for example would stick out as odd in a few examples in that list. And we can draw on the associations to these other genres in our choices and interpretations and it sounds natural to the fundamentals of the instrument, as opposed to being an amusing impression of it like trash metal on a cello might be.” 

The quartet has prided itself on creating an original catalog of arrangements by such composers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

“We saw that there weren't any classical guitar quartets performing contemporary composers exclusively and thought it might be interesting to explore that niche,” said Bolger. “But we found that there wasn't a huge amount of music for guitar quartet so we had to make lots of transcriptions of pieces originally for string quartet, choir, piano or other small ensembles.”

The first works the quartet tackled were the string quartets of Philip Glass.

They zeroed in on his third quartet “Mishima” to the delight of the composer.

“Arranging for guitars is a very tricky business and you really have to know what you are doing, so I have never done it, but Dave Flynn and Brian Bolger have made these arrangements and they're really quite beautiful,” Glass is quoted as saying on the group’s website.

Glass liked their adaptation of “Mishima” so much that his record label approached the Dublin Guitar Quartet about releasing a recording of their transcriptions. It came out in 2014.

“We just brought ‘Mishima’ back into the repertoire and are performing it again after nine or so years on this tour. We've also added some of his ‘Piano Etudes,’ ” said Bolger.

At Wednesday’s concert, the group will open with music by Bryce Dessner, who performs with the National rock band.

“This was originally for string quartet. But you can hear how once it makes the jump to guitars how it was definitely written by a guitarist in a rock band,” said Bolger, noting that the group is developing the electric side of the guitar quartet repertoire with works like “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich. 

The newest piece in Wednesday’s set is Wojciech Kilar’s “Orawa.”

“Kilar is great. Most people know him from his movie soundtracks. He did Francis Ford Coppola's ‘Dracula’ and Roman Polanski's ‘The Pianist’ and ‘The Ninth Gate.’ Actually, three of the composers in the program have worked for Hollywood at a high level: Dessner on ‘The Revenant’ and Glass with ‘The Truman Show’ and ‘Kundun,’ to name a few.”

The group also performs music by Chicago’s Marc Mellits, who has been caught playing something of his own at their performances.

“We're good friends and he came to our show in Syracuse this week,” Bolger recounted. “He was caught watching the Giants game on his phone in the back row. Only putting the phone away when his piece came up! Big sports guy!”


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