Guitarist Jonathan Fitzgerald, currently based in Perth, Australia, releases an engaging collection of premieres for electric guitar, with and without electronics, solo, and in chamber settings. This collection reflects the broad range of aesthetics at play in new guitar music, with fresh perspectives from three composers from Australia and New Zealand that give a glimpse into a distinct musical scene.
|01||Svart-Hvít Ský á Himni|
Svart-Hvít Ský á Himni
|Jonathan Fitzgerald, electric guitar||8:05|
|Jonathan Fitzgerald, electric guitar||7:19|
|Jonathan Fitzgerald, electric guitar||11:11|
|04||until it blazes|
until it blazes
|Jonathan Fitzgerald, electric guitar||6:04|
|Jonathan Fitzgerald, electric guitar, Shaun Lee Chen, violin, Ashley Smith, bass clarinet|
|05||I. Threads Of Sunlight|
I. Threads Of Sunlight
|06||II. Wine-dark Depths|
II. Wine-dark Depths
|07||III. Drifting Constellations|
III. Drifting Constellations
Australian based Jonathan Fitzgerald releases this collection of new works for electric guitar informed by his background primarily as a classical guitarist. These works approach the wealth of possibilities that the classical guitar’s amplified cousin affords composers. Featuring music with and without electronics by Gulli Björnsson, Alison Isadora, Victor Arul, Eve Beglarian, and Moses Kington-Walberg, Luminescence is a refreshing snapshot of how composers are approaching this relatively young instrument and exploring its potential. Several of the works also have a corresponding audio-visual component linked to in the program notes, providing evocative imagery to accompany these colorful works.
The album opens with Gulli Björnsson’s atmospheric Svart-Hvít Sky Á Himni (Black-White Clouds in the Sky) for guitar, live electronics, and visuals. Björnsson focuses on the dual nature of clouds, beautiful and willowy in good weather, but often harbingers of violent weather. The live electronics manage the trajectory of this transformation, gradually morphing the ambient harmonies of the opening into pulsations and later into rough, rhythmic timbres that strip the initial texture of nearly all their pitch content. The piece closes with the halo of sound with which it began, as the ominous face of the clouds turns docile once again.
Alison Isadora’s For Wiek shares much in approach with contemporary classical guitar works, making use of a wide timbral palette, rich harmonies, implied counterpoint, and harmonics. Isadora uses an octave pedal to expand the register of the instrument, an e-bow to extend the sustain of select notes, and a whammy bar to modulate the pitch. The work has a searching, improvisatory character that remains throughout, framing even its more pointed moments within a pervasive melancholy.
Victor Arul’s Akrasia for two electric guitars, live processing, and live visuals, contains the most avant-garde music on the album, involving placing one of the guitars on a table, prepared with alligator clips and played with a metal rod, twine, and a bass bow. Influenced by the temporal experimentation of Morton Feldman and the New York School of composers, Arul subverts conventional expectations of linear direction in structure. The opening section centers around a ricochet gesture on the prepared guitar, developing it into evaporating, swirling gestures through processing. Ethereal long tones signal a transition to an expansive middle section of tolling notes and dramatic, multi-timbre swells. Cathartic distorted sonorities mark the final section, obscuring a sense of direction within their dense mass of pitch information. A virtuosic ascending tremolo figure closes the work with a performative flair that Arul consciously avoided in the piece’s initial eleven minutes.
Eve Beglarian’s Until it Blazes has become a staple in the electric guitar and effects repertoire, its iconic relationship between insistent rhythmic motifs and layered, polyrhythmic delays defining a now familiar profile of an expanded guitar. Fitzgerald brings a finely honed sense of dynamic and articulation to his performance, creating a hypnotic three dimensionality to the texture.
The title track in three movements by Moses Kington-Walberg is the only chamber piece on the recording. Like Akrasia, the score calls for two guitars, one of which is placed flat and played with e-bows, glass rings, and a MAX patch, as well as violin, and bass clarinet prepared with paper. Inspired by underwater bioluminescence, Kington-Walberg writes cinematic, evocative textures that capture the wonder of the marine landscape. The opening movement, “Threads of Sunlight,” opens with luminous pitches and slow glissandi played on guitar with the e-bow before introducing delicate arpeggiated chords that usher in a final spry violin flourish. The bass clarinet plays a solo introduction in “Wine-Dark Depths,” with repeated low notes that gradually evolve into skittering gestures mixing key clicks with growling articulations. When the violin and guitar join, they develop a texture of swells that evoke hollow marine mammal calls and drier gestures that conjure images of crustaceans. As in the first movement, lush guitar arpeggios create an expansive contrast to the more timbrally based material. In the final movement, “Drifting Constellations,” fragile, droning textures allow individual pitches to emerge and recede. A looped siren-like swell gesture in the guitar processing lays an unsettling foundation for nervous figures in the violin and guitar.
Despite the broad range of aesthetics on display on Luminescence, the album retains a sensual orientation throughout, highlighting the electric guitar’s capacity for creating enveloping, textural sounds. Fitzgerald handles the subtle demands of this repertoire beautifully, and gives listeners a window into how the repertoire for this evolving instrument is developing in the unique musical landscape of Australia, standing apart from but certainly responsive to more centralized new music communities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded at the University of Western Australia February—July 2022
All images © Lyle Branson
Hailed as “a virtuosic talent in the guitar world” (X-Press Magazine), American-Australian classical guitarist Dr. Jonathan Fitzgerald is a multi-award winning performer and educator, maintaining a career at the intersection of performance, teaching and research. Jonathan’s artistic interests are diverse, ranging from traditional classical guitar repertoire to experimental multimedia works for electric guitar, electronics and visual projections.
An in-demand performer, past concert highlights include performances with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Opera (Verdi’s Otello), radio performances for ABC Radio National, RTRFM (WA), WXXI and WCNY (New York), and solo concerts across the United States, Australia and Europe.
His playing has been recognised through numerous awards, including the Great Lakes International Guitar Competition in which he was a prize-winning finalist and winner of the “Audience Choice” award.
A dedicated educator, Jonathan serves as Chair of Strings & Guitar at the University of Western Australia’s Conservatorium of Music. He received his formal education in the United States, earning Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music.
Shaun Lee-Chen is the Concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, and holds the position of Simon Lee Artist in Residence at the University of Western Australia.
He has appeared as soloist and concertmaster with orchestras nationally and internationally, and is demand as an artist on both Baroque and Modern violin. He has been guest Assistant and Associate Concertmaster with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
In 2015, the ABO’s album Brandenburg Celebrates, which included Mr Lee-Chen as a featured soloist, was nominated for an Aria Award for Best Classical Album.
Described as “Incandescent... a masterly display of skill and insight... as an apologist for contemporary music-making, you would search hard to find this young clarinettist’s equal” (The Age), Ashley William Smith has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Australia, USA, Europe and Asia.
He performs regularly with ensembles including the Southern Cross Soloists and the Calder, Dover, and Australian string quartets.
He is a laureate of prizes including the APRA Performance of the Year, the Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship, an ABC Symphony International Young Performer Award, and a Churchill Fellowship.
A graduate of Yale University, the University of Western Australia, and a Fellow of the Australian National Academy of Music, Ashley was awarded prizes as the most outstanding performance graduate of each institution.
Gulli Björnsson is a guitarist and composer from Iceland whose music typically ties electronics, live instruments and visuals to experiences in nature. Gulli’s music has been described as “hypnotic” (News Gazette) “a knockout – wondrously inventive” (Soundboard Magazine) and “Virtuosic, modern, occasionally discordant, but still accessible” (Classical Guitar Magazine). He has written for renowned musicians and ensembles such as: Aizuri Quartet, Sō Percussion, Iarla Ó Lionáird, New Jersey Symphony, Alarm Will Sound, Contemporaneous, Amanda Gookin, Dither, Jiji, Vicky Chow, Steve Cowan and Mirror Strings.
Gulli currently teaches Electronic Composition at the University of Kansas and holds degrees from Manhattan School of Music, Yale School of Music and Princeton University.
New Zealand-born composer Alison Isadora relocated to the Netherlands in 1986 to study violin and composition at The Hague Conservatorium, and post-graduate performance theatre at DasArts in Amsterdam. She has been a performing composer or a composing performer within numerous Dutch groups including Hex, Gending, Nieuw Ensemble, the Maarten Altena Ensemble and the multi-medi duo SYNC. Her works have been performed by diverse ensembles in the Pacific, Europe and North America including Ensemble Klang, David Kweksilber Big Band, Matangi Strijkkwartet, Nederlands Blazers Ensemble, Array Ensemble (Canada) and STROMA Ensemble (NZ). As well as composing for music ensembles, Isadora also creates music-theatre performances, audio walks and installations. In recent years she has become increasingly interested in the possibilities of connecting music to other disciplines, with her works often incorporating elements of story-telling and participation while addressing social issues.
Victor Arul is a researcher and composer from Perth, Western Australia, currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is a PhD candidate at Harvard University. Whilst Victor’s broader research interests pertain to analyses of Western art music, his current predilections delve into Bourdieusian field theory, English and American rock figures associated with 1960s counterculture (particularly the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Jimi Hendrix), and functions of human embodiment within musical environments. In terms of his upcoming compositional work, Victor is fortunate to be involved in various collaborations that will lead to performances of his works in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, the USA, and Australia. Victor holds undergraduate degrees from the University of Western Australia and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
Moses Kington-Walberg is a composer and musician based in Boorloo/Perth. He completed undergraduate studies in orchestral composition at the University of Western Australia, where he studied under Dr. James Ledger. Moses’ practice resides at the intersection of composition, improvisation, and sound installation. His work indulges in experimentalism and evocation, often employing elements of graphic and indeterminate notation to generate volatile and avant-garde atmospheres.
Moses is a recipient of the Dorothy Ellen Ransom Prize and West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) Bendat Scholarship, and has had works performed by the UWA Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, Wind Orchestra, and New-Music Ensemble. He is an alumna of composer development programs with WASO, and has collaborated with a variety of groups including Strut Dance, Tone List, and Outcome Unknown. In 2021 he co-founded Resonant Fields, a collective of composers and performers concerned with showcasing experimental improvisation and connecting emerging artists with the WA improvisation scene.
Surrounded by music in a school of music, with nothing but music on the resume, classical guitarist Jonathan Fitzgerald looked to another realm for inspiration – the unfamiliar world of visual projections.
The performer, teacher and Chair of Guitar at the UWA Conservatorium of Music has recorded a mind-bending, at times confronting, album entitled Luminescence, which seeks to add to a limited discography of electric guitar works and visual projections.
“I’m a classical guitarist — it’s kind of my thing. And I was actually kind of a snob when it came to electric guitar, if I am totally honest,” Fitzgerald explains.
“But in 2019, I stumbled just by accident on one of Gulli Björnsson’s electric guitar works. It was a multimedia piece, so for electric guitar, but with incredible electronic processing and then all of these related visual projections. And it was totally unlike anything I had ever seen before.”
Björnsson is an Icelandic guitarist and composer whose work explores how visual processing of electronic and live instrumentation can be combined to reflect nature.
Fascinated by his discovery, Fitzgerald contacted Björnsson to see if he would write a work specifically for him.
“And he agreed – that’s what has sent me down this rabbit hole of works for electric guitar and visuals,” he says.
The opening track to Luminescence, Björnsson’s Svart-Hvít Ský á Himni (black-white clouds in the sky) is a musical representation of how peaceful clouds can quickly become harbingers of doom when the sky turns dark and menacing.
Fitzgerald scoured new music databases, looking high and low, in search of works that fit the repertoire he was suddenly obsessed with. “I found that there wasn’t much at all. There was like under a hundred existing works.”
So he decided to make his own, a huge departure for a musician previously tied to his classical guitar, culminating in Electroluminescence, an exploration of electric guitar and visual projections he created and performed at Fringe World 2022.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Fitzgerald began his musical education at the Preparatory Department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, at the age of four. He stayed there for many years, before eventually going on to complete a Bachelor and Master of Music degree under the guidance of classical guitar virtuoso and Grammy Award winner Jason Vieaux.
He made the move to Australia in 2012, soon after completing his doctorate of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music, in New York, partly for his Australian wife and partly because the American job market was still recovering from the financial crisis.
Fitzgerald soon began sessional work at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and teaching one-on-one lessons in local secondary schools to pay the bills. In 2016, he joined the UWA Conservatorium of Music.
His office at UWA reflects his eclectic sensibilities – there’s a vintage-watch poster, futuristic coffee machine, speakers (which music people call monitors) and a classical guitar case.
Intrigued by the sometimes haunting nature of Luminescence, I ask Fitzgerald where that came from. “Well, I didn’t write the pieces,” Fitzgerald responds with a hearty chuckle.
Alison Isadora’s For Wiek and Eve Beglarian’s Until it Blazes predate Luminescence while Victor Arul’s Akrasia was commissioned specifically for the album. The title track was composed by Moses Kington-Walberg for Fitzgerald, Ashley Smith (bass clarinet) and Shaun Lee Chen (violin) for chamber performance.
Fitzgerald credits the cohesiveness and feel of the project to the team at New Focus Recordings, who fine-tuned the content, selecting pieces that would work together as an album.
The seven recordings fall into different sub-genres under the broader umbrella of contemporary classical music — a genre which the guitarist says is a bit of a misnomer, considering “contemporary” is constantly shifting with the times.
“You have noise music, which elements of Victor’s piece touch on, with three minutes of just wall-of-sound distortion at the end; the minimalism in Beglarian’s piece; the washy, textural, pulsating post-minimalism in Gulli’s piece, and then the very straight-ahead, almost classical-guitar-like sound of Alison Isadora’s piece,” he says.
Fitzgerald is clearly in his element, his enthusiasm for Luminescence infectious. He lights up when he reveals that as far as he is aware, For Wiek has never been released commercially and that the three-part Luminescence (the work, not the album) won the 2021 Dorothy Ellen Ransom Prize for Chamber Composition.
And what are his feelings towards the electric cousin of his beloved classical guitar now?
It was certainly an adjustment initially, with the sound coming not from the instrument, but rather an amp, sometimes on the other side of the room.
“It’s a very different way of thinking about getting a sound out of a guitar – every sound that you get out of classical guitar you have to make,” he says.
“You can get a huge variety of sounds but there is obviously a hard limit to what you can do with just an acoustic instrument.
“(With electric) you have all of the electronics to manipulate in ways which just aren’t possible on an acoustic instrument.”
The unique marriage between electric guitar and visual projections that first prompted him to go out and buy the instrument has also enabled him to explore the boundaries of sight and sound.
When performing Svart-Hvít Ský á Himni on stage, for example, he can use the guitar to create complex visual projections in real time, adding to the overall experience in a way that his beloved acoustic can not.
If Fitzgerald is surprised at the turn his musical interests have taken in the past few years, he’s also excited about releasing Luminescence into the world.
“I’m just glad to have it out there,” he says, “they are really cool pieces and I think that they deserve to be heard.”
— Greg McFerran, 3.13.2023
By its very nature the electric guitar is not just louder than an acoustic guitar but also capable of the raucous behavior endemic to rock concerts. Its familiar role can be extended without limit, however, through the use of electronics. To that end, the collection under review “run[s] the gamut from ‘traditional’ and accessible, to downright frightening alien sound-worlds which are totally unrecognizable as a guitar,” says the performer, American-Australian guitarist Jonathan Fitzgerald. Although he is normally a classical guitarist, Fitzgerald became fascinated with the New Music possibilities of the electric guitar after stumbling across works by Icelandic guitarist/composer Gulli Björnsson.
A project began that resulted in this album, which contains three world premieres alongside two older works. Besides the contribution of electronics, three pieces became part of an audiovisual presentation, which adds an immersive aspect to them (the abstract visual element can be experienced online at a dedicated website: vimeo.com/showcase/10029674).
Fittingly, the program opens with a new work from Björnsson. His Svart-hvít Ský á Himni (Black-White Clouds in the Sky) was originally conceived for electric guitar, electronics, and visuals. The work conveys “the beauty and terror” of clouds, in the composer’s words, the black clouds in the title referring to the threat of storms. The depiction of storms has a long tradition in classical music, so the contrasting weather in Björnsson’s piece comes as no surprise. Two things do offer a degree of surprise. First, the sounds being generated bear no resemblance to an electric guitar, and second, the mood doesn’t explode into tempestuousness. The texture of sustained and staccato notes is mild-mannered and pleasant by the standards of New Music or traditional heavy metal.
The first of the two older works is Alison Isadora’s For Wiek from 1994. Billed as the most traditional piece on the program, the music sounds very close to a tonal elegy for acoustic guitar, even though the electronic techniques behind it include “octaviser, e-bow and whammy bar.” For Wiek develops a lyrical mood that is fairly anodyne, to my ears, and proceeds without memorable purpose.
The listener’s ear is unlikely to gain more than a hint of the technology behind Victor Arul’s new piece, Akrasia, from 2021, written for “electric guitar, live electronic processing in Ableton, and live visuals in Max/MSP/Jitter.” (Although uncredited, I assume that Arul, who is still in his early twenties, is the electronics performer.) One electric guitar is played conventionally while a second, laid flat on a table, is connected electronically with alligator clips and “played at various points with a piece of twine, a metal rod, and a bass bow.” Since Arul was inspired by the experimentalism of the early New York avant-garde, there is no expectation that Akrasia will have any conventional musical expression. In the event, its soundscape ranges from soft plucking and pulsations to screaming feedback and white noise, in an organized/disorganized chaos.
Incongruously, the other older work here, Eve Beglarian’s Until it blazes from 2001, is based on a quotation by Jesus (the text isn’t fully disclosed) found in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Gnosticism is an unexpected source for this “minimalist work of variable duration for piano or plucked string instrument, digital delay, and optional visuals.” Individual notes bounce between the left and right channels, an effect described as “a perpetual antiphonal polyrhythm, against which short melodic patterns are repeated.” The guitar sounds nearly acoustic, and true to its Minimalist aesthetic, very basic chords are repeated with small, often insignificant, variation. Some listeners might not find the results numbing, but the main issue for me is that nothing original happens in the slightest.
The final work is the title track, Moses Kington-Walberg’s Luminescence, the third of the world premieres. Its three movements lasting 10 minutes include a violin (Shaun Lee-Chen) and bass clarinet (Ashley Smith) in the mix. The work is a prize-winner and was premiered at the University of Western Australia, where Fitzgerald teaches. Somehow it seems very Australian to be inspired by the spectral bioluminescence emitted by deep-sea creatures. The interplay of light and water gives the piece its sonic texture, which is mostly limpid and undulating but with shocking, abrasive intrusions of electronically distorted sounds. The otherworldly and the underwater are effectively evoked.
I don’t have a settled opinion about this release, which varies so extremely from the conventionally pleasant to the disruptively cacophonous that it feels like a potpourri. In that light, I’d recommend the disc for a narrow band of listeners whose interest in electric guitar overlaps with a taste for New Music. For the general listener, however, I’m afraid none of the music is memorable enough for more than one listen.
— Huntley Dent, 7.22.2023