The Austin Chronicle

Brazilian Guitar Quartet: Capturing the Unexpected

By Barry Pineo, July 25, 2008, Arts

For most of us noninstrumentalists, the word "guitar" evokes the sounds and images of popular music: folksingers playing acoustic solos; heavy metalists playing so hard, fast, and loud that they seem to set their instruments on fire; or the Edge commanding a stage despite the presence of an overwrought, overacting Bono. Or perhaps, if you're like me, the word "guitar" most immediately recalls memories of lessons taken above a pharmacy in a small town in Connecticut, making numerous failed attempts at playing Beatles standards in the early Seventies. As Austin Classical Guitar Society Executive Director Matthew Hinsley pointedly says, "The guitar is the ubiquitous pop instrument of the world." But while many if not most of us consciously consider the guitar a modern instrument, its origins reach far back to the mid-18th century, and you'll find those origins palpably embodied should you attend this week's performance by the Brazilian Guitar Quartet, hosted by the Austin Classical Guitar Society, in cooperation with the Austin Chamber Music Center.

The ACGS has been around, in one form or another, since the Sixties, but it's made its presence felt most keenly over the last five years, both in performance, hosting practically every well-known classical guitarist in the world, including John Williams, Pepe Romero, and Christopher Parkening, and in education, through its outreach program, which this year will be in residence at 12 Austin-area schools, teaching more than 600 students. Perhaps most impressively, the ACGS is the largest classical guitar organization in the country, and the performance of the Brazilian Guitar Quartet is the latest feather in its organizational cap.

"One of the strengths of the classical guitar," says Hinsley, "is that it is involved with so many diverse genres. Roland Dyens writes jazz-inspired and even avant-garde music for classical guitar. Carlo Domeniconi writes music that combines Turkish harmony and rhythm with Western rock & roll. Tangos, like those of Astor Piazzolla, are increasingly programmed as concert music for all instruments, not just the guitar. Historically there's a strong romantic classical guitar tradition throughout the 19th century, and so we have analogs to Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin. And it has a particularly strong presence in Spanish, Italian, and German repertoires."

And while all you'll see onstage is four guitarists, playing in such exquisite harmony that they sound like one instrument, you may think the instrument you're hearing is not a guitar but a harpsichord or even a piano. "I think some musicians quite consciously imitate a harpsichord when they play certain types of music on the guitar," says Hinsley. "Guitar belongs in the harpsichord, piano, and harp family, and one of the most unique things about the ensemble is that they have two eight-stringed instruments. So you hear some notes in ranges that you don't often hear on guitars, because they've got one extra-low string and one extra-high string. And when you get four guitars playing together, two of which have an extended range, you can capture the unexpected."

The Brazilian Guitar Quartet performs Friday, July 25, 7:30pm, at Northwest Hills United Methodist Church, 7050 Village Center Dr. For more information, call 300-2247 or visit

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