William Kanengeiser is a guitarist and founding member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. The "LA Guitar Quartet" is set to perform a brand new work by Pat Metheny "Road to the Sun", written specifically for the quartet. They will be performing this 6 movement 25 minute piece in three select cities. October 20 - Denver at the University of Denver - Newman Center. October 28 - Santa Barbara at the Lobero Theater. November - New York City at the 92nd St. Y. Pat will be on hand for a pre-performance lecture at the Denver and New York locations. I recently talked with Bill Kanengeiser about his career as a guitarist and educator.
R.V.B. - Hi Bill... this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island. How are you today?
B.K. - I'm good. How are you?
R.V.B. - Thank for taking the time out. I just want to let you that I heard about you as I was listening to a local public radio station WSHU, which is Sacred Heart University. I was driving in my car and I said to myself "What is this? This is great". They're one of the few classical music stations that are left. I was very impressed with the piece that I heard, and they mentioned that it was a piece that you wrote with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. So classical guitar... how did you become a classical guitar player and not a standard guitar player?
W.K. - I think of myself as an all-around guitarist who just happens to be classically trained. When I was just nine or ten years old, I got very interested in the records my older brothers were playing: The Beatles, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, all featuring a lot of acoustic guitar. I just loved the sound of it. My brother had already tried to play the guitar but failed rather miserably at it; I begged him to let me try it, and finally he let me. Even though I was three years younger than him, I got the hang of it right away. One of the first songs that I was able to learn was "Blackbird" by The Beatles. It has a fingerpicking, classical guitar kind of feel. Later on, when I was taking some informal lessons, my teacher suggested that I try to learn Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor". I had never heard of it, but when he played it for me I said: "I know that piece! I want to learn that!" I recognized it because I had heard a Jethro Tull cover of it on one of my brother’s albums. So you might say that rock turned me onto Bach.
By high school, my tastes got a little more sophisticated, and I really got into the band Yes. Their guitarist Steve Howe became a hero of mine. He liked to mix in classical/flamenco pieces in with his jazz, country and fusion rock styles. One particular piece from the “Fragile” album was "Mood for a Day". I painstakingly tried to figure it out off the record, almost wearing out the grooves of the LP. After I performed it at a family dinner, one of my cousins, a classically trained pianist, suggested that I should get formal training at the school he attended, the Mannes Preparatory School of Music in Manhattan. Every Saturday I would the bus into Manhattan and take guitar lessons; I also studied music theory and ear training which ended up being invaluable in getting me ready for college.
R.V.B. - You grew up in New Jersey right?
W.K. - Yes, in Livingston, in Essex County. Four years later I was at USC studying with Pepe Romero. Shortly after that, I started playing in a guitar ensemble that would become the LA Guitar Quartet. And by the time I graduated, I had won a couple of international competitions.
R.V.B. - Did you go to Los Angeles because of school?
W.K. –Yes, I decided to leave the East Coast and move to California for college. I would love to say that the main reason was that I wanted to study at USC with the great Spanish virtuoso Pepe Romero. He’s one of the greatest teachers and players in the world, and working with him truly changed my life. But the truth is that when I had to choose where to go to college, I didn’t even know who Pepe was; I just wanted to go to back to LA. Back when I was seven, my father’s job resettled us in the San Fernando Valley, and we lived there until I was eleven. I fell in love with California and always wanted to go back. So a somewhat random decision ended up placing me exactly where I was meant to be.
Another small determining factor I was that I still thought of myself as a jack-of-all-trades player, like my hero Steve Howe. USC was unusual in the fact that it had one of the only studio guitar programs in the country, along with a great classical guitar department. I thought it was really cool that I could study jazz, blues and rock as well as classical. Well when I got to USC, I realized that I may have been competent in those styles, but I was nowhere near as advanced as the studio guitar majors. It did turn out, though, that I was pretty good at classical guitar, so with Pepe’s encouragement I stuck with that. But years later, my interest and ability in styles other than strictly classical wound up serving me well; both in solo and LAGQ projects I explored non-classical influences which helped me stand out a bit from the crowd of other classical guys. LAGQ actually won a Grammy for an album called "Guitar Hero's"... where we paid tribute to players who inspired us when we were young. Not all of them were classical... Chet Atkins... Jimi Hendrix... Pat Metheny… Frank Zappa. Things came full circle for me with my tribute to Steve Howe: an arrangement of "Mood for a Day" for LAGQ in a true flamenco style, complete with dancers clapping and stomping. I think it's interesting that I left studio guitar to become a classical guitarist, and years later I re-visited those styles with the technique and the discipline of classical.
R.V.B. - I can hear the different influences in your music. It's great to have that balance and versatility. It kind of gives you your own voice.
W.K. - There are a lot of wonderful and amazing virtuosos in our field, but not all of them can imitate a blues or a jazz player when it calls for it musically. I love imitating all these other styles on classical guitar.
W.K. - I did. The first one was in 1981. I had just graduated with my Bachelors degree when I entered the Toronto Competition. I had never been in a major international competition before, so I had no idea where I stood or what to expect. I was insanely nervous, but somehow I played well when it counted. I felt good about the performance and luckily the judges liked what I did. It was an important moment for me, kind of putting me on the map, but it didn't really make me an overnight success either. The real prize I got from it was that it forced me to practice like I never had in my life. It taught me to be really disciplined... really focused... and to have a thicker skin on stage. In a way, it taught me how to become a professional.
R.V.B. - You earned your Bachelor’s and then you went back for your Master’s?
W.K. - Yes. Then very fortunately for me, just when I finished my masters, a small teaching position opened up at USC. It was a little odd going from a student one year to being on the faculty the next year. I was very lucky and I've been there ever since. At the beginning of next school year, in 2017, it will be my 40th consecutive year at USC.
R.V.B. - Wow! You look like a young guy. (Haha) Now you networked yourself in to the teaching field that way... how did you network yourself into the professional world of a performing and recording musician?
W.K. - I would say that guitarists, and classical guitarists in particular, have to be entrepreneurs. In order to develop a career, you don't look in the paper for “Classical Guitarists Wanted” ads. You have to figure out what you have to offer and what it is that people want... how to present yourself... how to get and capitalize on opportunities. So the quartet got some early success; we were a little bit unusual and somehow people gravitated toward it. That opened doors for us that may have not been opened right away. I was also lucky that I won a Gold Medal in the 1987 Concert Artist Guild Competition. Its open to all instrumentalists, not just guitarists. The prize for CAG really was a career booster, in that they become my booking manager. I ended up getting quite a lot of concerts and touring.
R.V.B. - I gather you met the members of the LA Quartet at school?
W.K. - We were all drawn to USC because of Pepe Romero. As I said, he's one of the most famous touring classical guitarists and a legendary teacher. There was quite a group of super-talented players at USC in the late 70's. It started in a pretty innocent way. We were enrolled in a guitar ensemble class, a class that I teach now at USC. Pepe and our other professor James Smith put the four of us together, and soon we were playing gigs around town. We did an educational tour of Mexico, played at schools and libraries around LA, and wound up getting a local manager. We recorded a record and performed a recital at the Andres Segovia Masterclass at USC in 1981. Our name started getting around in the guitar world, and we were lucky to have some established players help get our career going. Do you know the Assad brothers?
R.V.B. - Sure... I've heard of them. They record for Nonesuch, right?
W.K. – That’s them They’re originally from Brazil, and they’re arguably the greatest guitar duo in the world. They tour with Yo-Yo Ma and they are amazing. We played for them in those early days when we were still students, and they took us under their wings. Odair Assad’s wife ran a guitar recording label (GHA Records), and she had a small management company in Europe. That's how we got our first concert tours in Europe. With their help, we became pretty well known in Europe. It was a combination of self-hustling, management help, and friends who would put in good words for us. A sequence of small lucky breaks and opportunities that we were able to capitalize on, and thirty-six years later, we’re still doing it!
W.K. - The quartet and the solo work makes up the lion’s share of what I do, but I also love playing chamber music and soloing with orchestras. I had a really fun experience earlier this year: I performed with an orchestra from Riverside, California, playing some Baroque concertos by Vivaldi. The conductor asked if I would be willing conduct the orchestra myself while I played the guitar part. Since these concerti are a bit more like chamber pieces than a traditional concerto like the Aranjuez, it made sense. It was a blast for me. I was giving them cues and cutoffs, communicating with them while I was playing. Since I have lots of experience doing that with the quartet it felt very natural, and actually made me more relaxed.
W.K. – Wow, there are so many! Doing the Boston at Pops on PBS, playing at the Aranjuez Castle in Spain for Rodrigo’s 100th birthday celebration….We did play at the Hollywood Bowl a couple of times, which was quite a thrill. Looking up and seeing 17,000 people is a hoot, even though most of them are buzzed on Chardonnay.
R.V.B. – Any new projects in the pipeline?
W.K. – Yes, one we’re really excited about right now. LAGQ is about to do the world premiere of a major new piece written for us by Pat Metheny. It’s called “Road to the Sun”, and it’s quite unprecedented in its scope and style. We met Pat in 2013 at a guitar festival in Montana. The last thing we expected one of our “guitar heroes” to say was "I'd like to write something for you guys". It took a while for him to carve out the time in his crazy touring schedule, but he finished it at the end of 2015. He told us that he was planning to write a fairly short piece,maybe 10 or 12 minutes. But when he started writing it, he said “it just poured out of me”. It ended up being a 25-minute, 6-movement suite, with almost symphonic proportions. It's such an honor to have a living legend write something just for us; even the parts are named “Bill”, “John”, “Matt” and “Scott”, not just Guitar 1,2,3,&4. It has some pretty serious extended harmonies and moody textures, but also some of his “Patented” Metheny grooves and melodies. When he was in LA recently we had the chance to work together, to show him what we were doing with it and get his advice on it. So cool for us! We’re premiering it at the University of Denver on October 20th, and then again at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara on October 28th, and then at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on November 5. He's going to be in the audience in Denver and New York, and we’ll do a pre-concert lecture with him.
W.K. –We’ve been pretty lucky that we’ve had the chance to play overseas quite a bit. Over the years we’ve hit most of Europe, especially Spain, France, Italy, the UK, but we seem to have a particularly dedicated audience in Germany. We've played more concerts there than any other country except the U.S.. There’s a big guitar scene there, especially with some wonderful guitar festivals that we’re regulars at. This past year we went a little off the beaten path, going to Lithuania, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. Next year we're going to do a little tour of Scandinavia. Every once in a while it works out that you can combine business and pleasure. This past summer we had a one-week gap between gigs in Germany and Ireland. I took my wife along and we squeezed in a little Irish holiday. It's great when you can do that. Sometimes we go to places that sound so wonderful and exotic to visit, but when we get there we have no free time to enjoy it. The quartet once did a10-day of Hawaii... sounds great, right? We basically saw airport terminals, hotel lobbies and green rooms the whole time. I'm not complaining though. It's a joy to share your music, and meet people from different cultures, in different parts of the world. Hopefully we represent something positive that this country is producing.
R.V.B. -You mentioned Spain... was there a little added extra pressure because of the history of the guitar there?
W.K. - I think we used to feel that a long time ago. Our audiences are pretty eclectic now. We used to be nervous about playing Bach in Germany. We thought: “who are we to tell them how it's supposed to go?” But it seems that we've been accepted by audiences all over the world. We realized that as long as you're genuine about what you want to communicate, people will respond to it. Part of it is the way we program our concerts. We try to have an eclectic mix of music: we figure if someone didn’t like the piece we just played, they'll might like the next one.
R.V.B. - I saw the video of you on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKKCr6Hi4gQ ) mimicking other classical guitar players. It was pretty funny and you seemed to have their mannerisms down. Have you always been a showbiz type of guy?
W.K. –I’ve always enjoyed that kind of comedic aspect. I never had any formal training or experience as an actor or comedian, but I’ve always liked to kid around and imitate people. It’s something I do for fun. On that video, I was doing a show at a classical guitar festival, so the audience was pretty familiar with the different personalities I was imitating. I suspect that that very few people outside of the classical guitar world would know most of these people, but I’ve been told that it’s still kind of funny even if you don’t know them.
W.K. - Yes, but not so much these days. Most of my time is devoted to my work at the university at USC. I have a full load: I teach private lessons, I conduct the Guitar Orchestra, I coach guitar ensembles and I have a performance class. Next semester I’m starting a new course for general music majors called “Musician’s Health and Wellness.” It's a more scientific approach to the body, and a holistic approach to how we practice and cope with performance stress. Hopefully it will be helpful for young college music students who are just learning to deal with the issues of being a musician. If students understand the importance of things like good posture, taking breaks, hearing protection, etc., it can not only help them avoid injury but it can also improve their performance. I've been doing a good deal of research on it and I've amassed a sizable library of books in this field. I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned with students.
R.V.B. - What are you most proud of about your accomplishments up to this point?
W.K. - I feel happy that I've been able to balance my life so that I can make people happy as a performer, I can share knowledge with students, and at the same time I've been a good father, and a good husband.
R.V.B. - That's awesome. All those things are important. Thank you for taking this time to talk with me.
W.K. – You’re welcome!
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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