Craig Visser

Guitarist & Composer

Canadian Music for Guitar

For Canada Day 2017, I thought I could write a little bit about the Canadian contribution to the classical guitar repertoire.  Canada actually has quite a rich history when it comes to the classical guitar.  Toronto alone can boast having one of the oldest guitar societies in the world, one of the oldest guitar programs in North America (University of Toronto), and an international competition and festival that was predecessor to the GFA.  Most of this can be credited to two very important people in the classical guitar world, Eli Kassner and Norbert Kraft.  Between the two of them they built what is one of the strongest communities and foundations for future generations of classical guitar players to grow and build on the tradition.  They also had a hand in commissioning a considerable number of pieces by Canadian composers and other important figures.  I thought I would list off a bunch of these Canadian composers for those who are interested and write a little bit on the few that I happen to know well or who have contributed a significant amount to our repertoire.  I hope it gives anyone who is interested in exploring the guitar repertory of Canada a point to start off, but it is by no means an exhaustive survey.  I’ll attach links to websites and direct you to where you can hear some of the music.

John Armstrong:  John once described his body of work to me as “everything from thorny atonality to music my grandma would like”.  Along with this musical diversity, he has also written for diverse ensemble combinations that include guitar.  Everything from challenging concert-length works (‘Last Waltz in Boston’) to smaller studies (‘Ghosts’) are in his guitar solo catalogue, while pieces like ‘Circles End’ (guitar and strings) and ‘Fanfare’ (guitar quartet) represent his ensemble work.  I had the opportunity to play his piece ‘Vistas’ for flute and guitar in my masters.  We received a coaching from him and performed it only once, but it was a satisfying work to play and is according to him one of his more accessible pieces.  Professor Armstrong will be performing a lot of his guitar music in the Ottawa Guitar Society’s upcoming 2017-18 season for those who are interested in hearing more.  In the meantime, you can check out the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) website or his own website to hear some of the music.

Milton Barnes:  Liona Boyd had a hand in commissioning and performing one of Milton Barnes’ works for guitar.  It’s a fantasy on the aboriginal tune ‘Land of the Silver Birch’.  You can hear the piece on the CMC website.

William Beauvais:  William Beauvais is a veteran player-composer and teacher at York University in Toronto.  I make the distinction of ‘player-composer’ because he has never really identified exclusively as one or the other, he has always been both.  Because of this, he has recorded a good amount of his own music, most of which can be heard on his Centrediscs recordings ‘Invisible Cities’ and ‘Old Wood, New Seeds’.  Most of his pieces are also available through Les Productions D’Oz or the CMC.  Recently, he has delved into some more altered-tuning, steel-string playing in addition to the traditional classical playing.  Both styles can be heard on the recordings.  He has also collaborated with John Armstrong and Brian Katz in separate duo projects and has been an active chamber musician in general.  I had the pleasure of doing a mentorship program through the CMC with William, who had lots of insight and wisdom to offer me.  I’ve performed a couple of his ‘Juxtapositions’ for guitar trio (it’s on ‘Invisible Cities’ CD) and would like to play more in the future when I can.

James Brown:  All I know about Toronto-based James Brown at the moment is that he has a fantastic little piece in the RCM Bridges repertoire book 3 called ‘Bells’, but has also written larger, more demanding pieces (at least one Sonata and maybe more).  As I understand it he has a significant jazz background and this obviously seeps into a lot of his music.

Omar Daniel:  Omar Daniel has written a significant amount for guitar considering that he is not a guitarist.  A number of his pieces were championed by guitarist Rachel Gauk back in the 90s, but one solo piece in particular has recently been getting performances from both myself and guitarist Steve Cowan.  The piece is ‘Piangiamo quel cruel basciare’ and it is a truly moving and dramatic work that features a rather unconventional form and a couple novel effects and techniques that make it a memorable piece on many levels.  It’s also Daniel’s personal favourite.

Roddy Ellias:  Roddy Ellias has contributed a substantial solo guitar sonata entitled ‘Emptying’.  Written for guitarist Andrew Mah, this piece contains a good amount of jazz influence, but also has some polyphonic writing and other more classical conventions.  I included this piece in my final masters recital and had a great time preparing it even when I was really working out the difficult passages – of which there are many.

Denis Gougeon:  I also had the chance to play Denis Gougeon’s ‘Lamento-Scherzo’ in my final masters recital along with the Omar Daniel piece.  This piece, which was commissioned for the GFA competition in 2010, really struck me.  It is well-written and idiomatic, but it is also very challenging musically.  There is an odd tuning (6th string E-flat and 5th string G) that makes the already advanced harmonic language and accidental-heavy score hard to decipher at first, but the musical payoffs are worth it.  It is mysterious and unsettling, visceral and exciting, and the technical command of Gougeon shines through in the smart polyrhythmic accents and strange chordal resonances.  A highly recommended piece.

Steven Gellman:  I know that there exists some chamber music and a guitar concerto from the renowned and respected Steven Gellman, but I have yet to hear any of it or explore his larger catalogue.  Hopefully I’ll have the chance to do both in the future, but in the meantime, here’s a link to his website.

Jacques Hétu:  Jacques Hétu is one of Canada’s most well-known composers outside of the country.  Some of his important guitar music include a Suite Op. 41 for solo guitar, a concerto for guitar and strings, and a commission for the GFA competition (‘Intermezzo’).  Here’s a link to fellow Ottawa-based guitarist/composer Nathan Bredeson performing some of his Suite Op. 41.

Brian Katz:  Brian Katz is one of the rare breed of guitarist-composers that can live comfortably between the jazz and classical worlds.  His solo music, which you can hear on his most recent release ‘Leaves Will Speak’, is either fully composed or asks the player to improvise in parts, but is always imbued with lush jazz-type harmonies, sort of related to the style of Ralph Towner.  Brian also happens to be the first classical guitar teacher and mentor that I studied with at York University.

Anne Lauber:  Anne Lauber has the distinction of composing the first set piece for the GFA competition.  It is an atonal work entitled ‘Arabesque’ and you can hear a great performance by Emily Shaw in this link.  I’m only aware of one other piece by Lauber, which is a concerto in a sort of Spanish style.

John Oliver:  I’ve only recently come across John Oliver’s name, but he has written a fair amount of music for guitar, most of which you can hear on his website.  He has serious training as a composer and is as I see fairly well-known for his work.

Sid Robinovitch:  Robinovitch’s music for guitar covers everything from guitar solo to other chamber music combinations that include more guitars, clarinet, cello, voice and others.  I have only played a few of his shorter songs for high voice and guitar (‘Song of Songs’) and can say they work very well on the instrument and are very accessible.  You can hear most of this music on a portrait CD of guitar works available through the CMC.

Patrick Roux:  Patrick Roux has written many pieces that have really caught on in the guitar world.  Some of his ensemble pieces like ‘Carnaval’ and ‘Comme un Tango’ are especially well-liked and often performed.  His earlier work is heavily inspired by the work of Astor Piazzola, but his most recent solo work as exemplified by his ‘Scénes Panoramiques’ collection has moved in another direction.  As his colleague and fellow Canadian Guitar Quartet member Louis Trépanier puts it, one of the reasons for his music’s popularity in the guitar world is its ability to appeal to both the serious musician and the average listener, which is not always easy to do.  I had the chance to study with Patrick extensively for my masters in Ottawa, but did not get the chance to play any of his music for him (maybe some day).  I did get to hear lots of it though and can say that some of his more recent solo work has influenced a piece of my own (‘Evocation’).

John Weinzweig:  Our list ends with one of Canada’s most important composers.  Weinzweig’s style (at least when it comes to guitar) is a truly unique one that has an honest directness in the transparency of ideas and seems to convincingly blend blues influences with the more ‘serious’ techniques and elements of 20th century classical music.  His music is also humorous and borderline vulgar at times, but never unmemorable.  I’ve performed some of his ’18 Pieces for guitar’ and got a great deal out of them as a composer and as a player – visit my SoundCloud page to listen.  I even had a lesson with the original player that premiered the pieces, Philip Candelaria.  Beyond the ’18 Pieces’, I believe there is another substantial piece for solo guitar (‘Contrasts’) and a trio piece entitled ‘Conversations’.  The 18 Pieces are suitable for players of many different levels and will expose you to really novel extended techniques and unconventional notations, but also to really appealing rhythmic grooves and visceral gestures.

I should say that I haven’t included Harry Somers or R. Murray Schafer, but both are important Canadian names.  I’ve left them out because I’m only aware of one guitar piece that each have written and know next to nothing about the pieces, so it seemed unnecessary.  CMC may have the recordings.  For every composer that I have not included a website or video link for, you can most likely find their music on the CMC website.  You will have to register with an account in order to access the online audio library, but the two minutes it takes is worth the hours of listening you will have access to.

Happy Canada Day!

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