March 17 2010 12:00 AM

L.A. Quartet finds strength in numbers

Most people think of the classical guitarist as a solitary bird, found under a tree somewhere in Spain.

But the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, coming to the Wharton Center Sunday, March 21, proves conclusively that these temperamental animals also flock.

Since the group got its start in 1980, LAGQ founding member William Kanengiser and his colleagues have taken maximum advantage of the guitar’s tonal range to conjure a diversity of styles and effects.

“We can be a string quartet,” Kanengiser said. “We can be an African drumming ensemble.”

Or they just can dig in and channel a rock band. “One guy’s the bass player, one guy’s the drummer, one’s the melody and one’s the rhythm guitar.”

The members first met in 1980 at University of Southern California, in a class taught by Spanish virtuoso Pepe Romero. “He put us in a quartet, and we’re still trying to get a A in that class,” Kanengiser said.

Kanengiser, Scott Tennant and John Dearman are founding members. Matthew Greif, a student of Kanengiser and Tennant, replaced original member Andrew York in 2006.

With arrangers like Kanengiser in the group, the entire universe of music is theirs to pillage, with one restriction: no electronics. In addition, all of the quartet’s material — old, new, borrowed or blue — has to make guitar sense. On Sunday’s slate, for example, is a crowdpleasing arrangement of six pieces from Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”

“It wasn’t written for guitar, but it’s about the most guitar-istic music you could imagine,” Kanengiser said. “Even the keys he chose are all guitar keys. He was thinking about one big guitar when he wrote it.”

Can four guys be an opera?

“Compared to other instruments, we have one of the largest color palettes,” Kanengiser said. “You can play incredibly bright tones, nasal tones or rich and deep ones. You can bang on it like a drum, you can slap it like a bass.”

Check out “Pachelbel’s Loose Canon,” on YouTube, and watch the quartet run a classical chestnut through whirling blades of rock and roll, rumba, bluegrass, flamenco, jazz, pulverize, and frappe.

“If you play with the same general guitar pluck all night long, it can get a little bit desensitizing,” Kanengiser said. “We learned a long time ago how important it is to modulate our sounds.”

The group’s stylistic variety often expands into sonic tinkering. By inserting objects between and under the strings, or pinching them with alligator clips, guitar players can reproduce the bell-like tones of Balinese gamelan music, African thumb pianos, and many other exotic sounds.

Sunday’s concert includes music from the group’s newest projects: a set of Brazilian tunes from the CD “LAGQ Brazil” and a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time of “Don Quixote” creator Miguel de Cervantes.

Python” comedy titan John Cleese contacted the quartet two years ago
and suggested they collaborate on a theatrical presentation, with the
quixotic Cleese reading Cervantes while the equally quixotic quartet
played evocative period music.

Kanengiser selected and arranged the 16th-century music, he discovered
a startling rhythmic drive and vitality. “Some of it sounds like South
American folk or rock-n-roll,” he said.

quartet still does the 71-minute recital with Cleese’s successor,
Firesign Theatre member Phil Proctor. Kanengiser hopes to bring Proctor
and Quixote to Lansing some day, but locals will have to be content
with excerpts, minus narration, for now.

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

3 p.m. Sunday. March 21
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $14/$35 (800) WHARTON