Amy Brandon ©Brett Delmage, 2016
The 21st century guitar conference in Ottawa, directed by Amy Brandon, will examine how the musical horizons of the guitar are expanding. Brandon is seen here at the launch for her electro-acoustic album Scavenger ©Brett Delmage, 2016

This week, you can get a glimpse into how guitar music is expanding in the 21st century.

An 48-piece orchestra of electric and classical guitars, with an improvised light show playing in sync on the ceiling above them. A free six-hour small-concert showcase of guitar music by dozens of Canadian composers, performed by many different guitarists. Feature concerts by jazz guitar masters Gord Grdina and Miles Okazaki, and lectures by composers Mike Rud, Tim Brady, and Trevor Babb. Jazz, electro-acoustic, new music, and modern classical music, and many points in between.

These are all part of the 21st century guitar conference, running from Thursday to Sunday at the University of Ottawa and the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. The conference will also focus on guitar skill acquisition and guitar pedagogy, using new advances in cognitive science and neuroplasticity.

The interdisciplinary conference is the brainchild of guitarist Amy Brandon, who is currently working on her own PhD, examining “the cognitive aspects of how we navigate the guitar when we're performing”. Although she now lives in Nova Scotia, Brandon was raised here and is a long-time member of Ottawa's jazz scene.

The idea first came to her about three years ago. “I had been to a couple of guitar conferences as part of my PhD and I noticed that a lot of them were focused mostly on music from about a hundred years ago or further back. I thought that was really interesting because I know of so much incredible new music for guitar. I just wanted to have a conference that was focused exclusively on that.”

Crossing genre boundaries

The conference will concentrate on “all the new, interesting types of compositions that have been developed for music in the last 20 years,” Brandon said. New techniques and technologies, including video and electronics, will be prominent.

“There is an implication of using new technologies. For example, a lot of the music at this conference focuses on guitar in electro-acoustic music. And there is also a bit of a focus on new compositional approaches to writing for guitar, and also a bit of focus on new types of ensemble work. For example, we have a big feature on large guitar ensemble pieces. So we have a double guitar orchestra, electric guitars and classical guitars playing together.”

It's a natural expansion for the instrument, she said, because many guitarists already cross genre boundaries – for example, playing both jazz and chamber music.

“The guitar is an interesting cross-pollinator. Most practitioners will have their feet in more than one world. That's not always the case in a lot of different styles of music. So we have performers who are coming to this conference from the jazz world, from free improvisation, from classical, and all the variations in between.”

Brandon said she thought the conference would be of interest to both guitarists and listeners. The conference price has been kept deliberately low – $42 plus tax for the entire four days – in order to attract a wider range of attendees. Thursday evening's music marathon will be free and open to all.

“I think that there's a lot of concerts and lectures that are going to be of interest to amateur or hobbyist guitarists. And I think that there is going to be also quite a lot of interest for people who are interested experimental music.”

The biollogical and cognitive processes underlying jazz performance

For guitarists, there will be conference sessions examining issues relating to teaching and learning guitar. “There's going to be quite a lot of interesting information about how we practice and what are the biological and cognitive processes that underlie this kind of guitar performance.”

“For guitar in particular, many practitioners are also researchers and they're also pedagogues. There's a lot of interesting new research that's coming out in terms of how we teach guitar and what can we draw from other fields: for example music cognition, motor control, those sorts of fields. They shouldn't be separated from how we teach an instrument because they're very much related.”

Many sessions will bring in ideas from other disciplines. “When we teach guitar, often we're teaching from our own experience. But I think that you can learn quite a lot from … a good example would be sports medicine. For athletes, they will rely very heavily on scientific research in order to make themselves into the best athletes they can be. That's not always quite the case with musicians.”

Dr. Jonathan De Souza, a music theorist at the University of Western Ontario, will give a keynote talk about learning guitar from the perspective of cognitive science – examining how “playing the guitar develops manual habits but also habits of thought” and what it means “to think like a guitarist”. Brandon said that De Souza's recent research has looked at “how our interactions with the instrument shape the music that comes out of it.”

Concerts which push the boundaries

The conference will feature both larger-scale evening and more intimate daytime concerts. The daytime concerts will range from classical to jazz.

Vancouver guitarist Gord Grdina, who won a JUNO this year for China Cloud, a live album of solo guitar improvisations, will perform an hour-long solo concert of acoustic guitar at noon on Sunday.

Grdina is an extremely good fit for the conference, “as someone who's always pushed the boundaries of what's possible ... He plays a variety of music on a variety of styles of guitar and fretted stringed instruments. He's somebody who's really a pioneer and is trying to expand the instrument as much as possible,” Brandon said.

Also of interest to jazz fans will be NYC-based guitarist Miles Okazaki, who, over the last two decades, has played with everyone from Kenny Barron, Jane Monheit, and Stanley Turrentine, to John Zorn, Steve Coleman, and Darcy James Argue. He's released four albums of his own compositions, and a six album recording of the complete compositions of Thelonious Monk for solo guitar.

Okazaki is “is someone who is expanding what a guitar performer is capable of and what kind of music we can expect from a guitarist,” Brandon said, “He's a virtuoso. He works a lot with rhythmic components and microtiming. He's someone who is also pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a jazz guitarist.”

On Saturday at 1 p.m., Okazaki will play a one-hour concert of pieces from his latest double album, Work. He will also be giving a lecture that morning at 10 a.m.

Montreal composer Tim Brady will perform one of his own compositions in the marathon program on Thursday, and will talk about his own trajectory in Canadian music over the last few years, and also his work with large-ensemble guitar projects.

Brady can be heard playing solo and in his quartet, but has also created and directed extremely large ensembles, Brandon said. “One of his more recent projects was a piece for 150 guitars. He's a very skilled conductor and a wonderful composer and is very used to this sort of new and adventurous ensembles for guitar – the idea of composing for a large massed group of instruments, of guitars. And that's something he's done quite a bit of.”

Other talks include

  • Montreal jazz guitarist Mike Rud will explain how studying psychology made him a better musician.
  • Mark Simos, who teaches songwriting at Berklee College of Music, will speak about his experience in teaching songwriting to guitarists in “The Net of Jewels: An Exploration and Shape Based Guitar Pedagogy for Songwriters”.
  • American guitarist/composer Trevor Babb, whose work looks at “alternative methods of organizing music in time, the cross section of improvisation and composition, and unconventional instrumental performance practice”, will contend that “The Electric Guitar is Dead: Long Live the Electric Guitar”.
  • Brandon will take part in the conference's “Guitar and Cognition” round table, and give a lecture on her thesis research involving perceptual motor processes in guitar improvisation.

39 pieces in a six-hour guitar marathon

On the opening Thursday evening, listeners will be able to move between four spaces in Perez Hall at the U of O, listening to a wide variety of compositions by Canadian composers, played by soloists and small ensembles. Running from 5 to 11 p.m., this free guitar marathon will feature performances by Ottawans Garry Elliott, Wayne Eagles, Andrew Mah, Louis Trepanier, and possibly Roddy Ellias, plus many conference attendees.

“We have about six hours of music, so I think there would be something for everyone in a concert such as that,” Brandon said. “For example, we have quite a variety of music from guitars which are being controlled by robots, to music for electric guitar and live electronics, to classical guitar with electronics.”

One room will be devoted to electric guitar and electronics; another to classical guitar and electronics; a third to guitar and visuals; and the Perez Hall outdoor amphitheater will host improvised music for electric guitar. The evening will open with “Composition for Guitar, and Robotically Controlled Auxiliary Sympathisers” by James Duff.

In the video room, “we have wonderful guitarist coming up from Montreal, Michal Seta, who's going to be doing a piece called 'Fadeferra' where his improvisations are going to be influencing the video that's shown. We also have a couple of pieces that include video that is being performed by An-Laurence Higgins: Thais Montanari's 'Me and the girls inside the boxes' uses actual video projection boxes, so there's not only going to be video on the screen, there's going to be video on objects surrounding the performer.”

With the evening's exclusive focus on Canadian composers, Brandon said, she “wanted to showcase how closely connected the guitar worlds and the experimental electronic worlds are in Canada. Canada is a pioneer in electro-acoustic music, and the connection with guitar performance hasn't always been showcased – and that's what I wanted to do with this concert.”

Researching music for this evening was “a lot of work but it was fun work,” she said. “Some people I knew already and I also did quite a bit of research at the Canadian Music Centre who are a sponsor of the event. Some of the pieces we're going to be highlighting in our listening rooms go back to a guitar conference in Toronto, Guitar 76, where a number of new experimental guitar works were commissioned and performed. So it's interesting, this trajectory of Canadian guitar and electronic performance threads through music history in Canada.”

A giant ocean of sound and lights

The Friday and Saturday evening concerts will be held at the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre downtown. They will be immersive audio-visual spectacles, Brandon said – an opportunity to be “washed away by a giant ocean of sound and lights.”

Both concerts will feature a double-guitar orchestra – both electric and classical guitars – made up of musicians from Ottawa and visitors attending the concert. She expected at least 48 musicians, and quite possibly more, to take part. The electric guitarists (about 20) will play from the main stage, while the classical guitarists (20 to 30) will be on the centre's balconies. Their music will reach the audience via speakers around the room, in eight-channel sound with spatialized electronics.

“We also have a projectionist who's going to be illuminating the entirety of the Dominion Chalmers ceiling. And those projections are improvised with the music. So it's going to be quite a sonic and visual experience.”

On Friday, guitarists Steve Cowan and Adam Cicchillitti (Iceberg New Music) will also present several duo compositions. But most of the pieces on the two nights were written for the double-guitar orchestra, Brandon said. On Saturday, all the pieces are new and written for varying strengths of these guitar orchestras.

Most of the pieces the double-guitar orchestra is playing are “designed to be put together in a small period of time”, Brandon said, so guitarists still can join the orchestra (more information at www.21cguitar.com/index.html#content4-1j) . The orchestra will be rehearsing Thursday morning, and late afternoon Friday and Saturday.

The conference is being organized by Brandon and the University of Ottawa Piano Pedagogy Research Lab, in collaboration with the International Guitar Research Centre (University of Surrey), the Canadian Music Centre, and the Ottawa Guitar Society. She said they'd been planning it since last October, when they received confirmation of a SSHRC grant for the conference.

In 2013, Roddy Ellias and Wayne Eagles organized a Guitar Now! Conference at Carleton University. Brandon attended Guitar Now! and said it was an inspiration for this conference – in particular the way it crossed genres. “One of the things I loved about Roddy's conference was again that he saw this cross-pollination between instruments and invited many different styles. And I think, as a guitarist, you're naturally inclined to be interested in all kinds of different styles of music for your instrument.”

Brandon said this week's 21st Century Guitar conference was the first of its kind that she knew of. “Other people have also mentioned that they hadn't seen anything quite like this before.” But it won't be the last. She'll be organizing a similar conference next year in Portugal together with that host venue.

“There's definitely an interest, I think, in this conference and its particular focus on new music for guitar.”

The 21st Century Guitar conference will be held at Perez Hall (50 University Private) at the University of Ottawa, and at the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre (355 Cooper Street) from Thursday, August 22 to Sunday, August 25. See www.21cguitar.com for more information.

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