Bradley Kunda and Matt Withers from Brew Guitar Duo on their stunning new album of Australian guitar music Landscape.
You’ve chosen to name your second album Landscape – the title of one of the tracks. Is there a particular reason for choosing that title?
Bradley: The album title Landscape is a direct reference to Robert Davidson’s evocative masterpiece, entitled Landscape. I was privileged to have Robert’s endorsement to arrange this work for two guitars from its original setting for guitar and string quartet. The work is a stunning evocation of the natural landscape surrounding the Glasshouse Mountains area in southeast Queensland, from which the composer drew inspiration. In Robert’s words, “there is a great variety of topography in Landscape’s landscape, including large placid lakes, ocean, wide plains, rainforest and scrubby bush. The music reflects this diversity with a range of contrasting textures.” Matt and I thought that the title Landscape nicely captured the overall vision of our disc, which, like Robert’s piece, is characterised by incredible diversity. When you look at the range of music on this disc, you’ll see that no two composers are writing in the same style; every piece is unique. In this way, Matt and I wanted the disc to capture our vision of Australia’s musical landscape, which is just as diverse as the natural landscape we see all over the country.
For this album, you’ve concentrated on Australian guitar music. Do you think there’s a particularly Australian sound in the pieces you’ve chosen?
Bradley: I think there is a certain homogeneity in the sound of the pieces we’ve chosen that exists by virtue of the instruments we’re playing: two guitars, made in Australia with Australian wood, the “Australian way” – with their massive, colourful and sonorous sounds. I often wonder whether any of these pieces would have the same effect if they were played on European guitars! Naturally, the “Australian guitar sound” is one that a lot of Australian composers writing for guitar have in their minds – it’s a sound that may almost be the ‘trademark’ Aussie sound thanks to the hugely valuable contributions to Australian guitar music by players like John Williams and Timothy Kain, to name only two. In a more “compositional” sense, I think there is a distinctive element of freedom that the composers represented on this disc have all, perhaps subconsciously, adopted. What I mean is that you never get the feeling that any of these composers are trying to prove anything: they’re not trying to create a new harmonic universe or musical language; they’re not afraid to use conventional harmonic progressions; and, most wonderfully of all, they’re not afraid to bung in a damn good melody where it’s appropriate! If there is one thing that, compositionally-speaking, ties all this music together, it’s that it is inviting, colourful and evocative. It’s never pretentious, and it often reserves the right to laugh at itself. It’s also extremely imaginative, which is why Matt and I love it so much.
What inspired you to record an album of Australian music?
Bradley: Throughout our guitar studies with Professor Timothy Kain at the Australian National University, the decision to play Australian music arose very naturally – almost by logical coincidence, you might say. Perhaps this makes a lot of sense when you look at Tim’s career and see the incredibly significant role he has played in Australian music over the years. When we were ready to record, we only had to look at the repertoire we were playing at the time to discover that we had a whole disc of new music by Australian composers, practically ready to go! Certainly studying under the Duo’s mentor, Timothy Kain, and now performing alongside him in Australia’s premier guitar quarter, Guitar Trek, has made the whole concept of playing “Australian music” seem very innate: it’s not like we do it to distinguish ourselves in any special way from the rest of the world. It’s just that for us it’s the natural and logical thing to do as Australian musicians making a career in Australia. To this end, Matt and I have made it a point to actively seek new commissions for the duo from both established and emerging composers. We believe it is so important to endorse the creation and performance of music from our home turf rather than from exclusively overseas, and so we are always on the lookout for composers who share our passion for promoting Australian music.
Looking at the composers featured on Landscape, some, such as Houghton and Charlton, are very accomplished guitarists while Westlake is a clarinetist, Davidson a bassist… Can you tell when a piece has been written by a guitarist?
Bradley: Certainly, a sound understanding of how to play the guitar well contributes enormously to a composer’s ability to create idiosyncratic musical textures. I believe (and am currently writing a PhD thesis to prove it!) that it all lies in the approach to guitar fingering, or what fingers we use to play what notes where, which makes the difference between a musical texture that sounds “guitaristic” and one that does not. For this reason, it would perhaps be a very dull world if the only composers writing for the guitar were guitarists! Many non-guitarist-composers have demonstrated time and again new textural potentialities for the guitar, with a little bit of careful guidance from an experienced player. This is why we include a range of works written by guitarist and non-guitarist composers because, in a way, there is a difference. The difference is what makes the guitar such a wonderfully diverse instrument for which to write!
Was any of the music written especially for Brew?
Matt: A number of Australian composers have written works for the Brew Guitar Duo including Richard Charlton, Harold Gretton and the duo’s own Bradley Kunda. Two Guitars Dine Out: A Musical Degustation, composed by Charlton and commissioned by the Duo, is a feature of this album incorporating a culinary idea with musical taste. It is in seven “courses” using quotes from other composers including Mussorgsky & Rossini. In the program notes, Charlton apologises in advance for all the musical “puns”… like Satay for Erik…
Opus 4: The Brood You Owe was the first piece ever written specifically for the Duo. This piece was composed by Harold Gretton, a prize winning classical guitarist himself and a very close friend of ours. If you say the title a few times out loud, you may begin to understand the humour behind Gretton’s work. In Gretton’s words, “this piece is an opus with four musical ideas; hence the title Opus 4. It does not treat the two guitars as a duet in conversation, but as a single instrument. It is a shy instrument; with a sensitive and mercurial singing voice, but can scream from time to time, and when asked, dances like a duck on a hotplate.”
For Waterlilies, Bradley drew inspiration from the series of paintings of the same name by Claude Monet, and specifically the one hanging in the National Gallery of Australia’s permanent collection. Waterlilies employs a “live-delay” effect, where one guitarist plays the same musical material as the other, only slightly later. The piece is imbued with a delicate feeling of water, light and colour.
Do you feel that there are enough contemporary composers writing specifically for the guitar?
Matt: There are many established Australian composers who have written substantial works for the guitar, though Bradley and I feel that it will always be necessary for younger composers to continue to write and experiment for the instrument, drawing influence from the many aspects of Australian life. We believe there is always fantastic new music just waiting to be performed. To this end, our local Canberra Classical Guitar Society has been fundraising for what we hope will be an ongoing Composition Competition for young, aspiring writers interested in writing for the Guitar Ensemble medium. In its current form, the guitar is a relatively young instrument, compared to other popular classical instruments. In this way, it lacks the breadth of repertoire that other instruments can boast. To this end, the Duo has commissioned, composed and arranged new works to contribute to the growth of the repertoire. This process also ensures that our concerts are balanced with a rich mix of old classics and modern compositions.
These days, the majority of kids who pick up a guitar do so with a view towards playing more commercial styles. How did you develop a passion for the classical repertoire? Is there a way to make it more appealing to other young players?
Matt: The guitar is such a versatile instrument and has the capacity for many styles of performance, from rock to baroque! Neither of us began with classical – each finding a passion for the classical repertoire through very different avenues at separate ages. Bradley began playing at age 6 and found his passion for classical music after several years of playing flamenco guitar. I picked up the guitar with classic rock influences at age 10, as many other young players do. After a few years experimenting with styles, we both found ourselves under the tutelage of the same teacher in Adelaide, András Tüské, who developed our classical skills and led us towards the Australian National University School of Music for tertiary study under the Duo’s mentor, Professor Timothy Kain. We have both found that there is so much exciting repertoire in each era and style of music to limit ourselves to one particular genre. We have thrived on the blend of music that is available on the guitar with the technical basis of the classical training. There are particular community forums that help foster and nurture young talent and expose them to the exciting new world of the classical guitar in a way that is inspiring and engaging. The Canberra Classical Guitar Society, as well as other similar organisations around Australia, offers a great opportunity for younger players to find enthusiasm for the classical guitar, for example from workshops that showcase new luthiers’ innovations through to playing with a guitar orchestra and performing with their peers.
Your first album was a real mix of pieces, traditional and more contemporary. Your second, however, had a much more specific focus. What can we expect next from Brew Guitar Duo?
Matt: The music on Brew’s first album, Songs & Dances, featured a mix of favourites from Spain & Latin America and some arrangements of contemporary pop songs – very different to our second album, Landscape: Australian Guitar Duets. The Duo is in the process of planning to tour Landscape nationally throughout late-2011/early-2012. We will perform a selection of the works from our current discs. Expect more details on our website in the coming months. We also perform as soloists and in chamber groups in collaboration with other musicians. For example, I have recently released my debut solo album simply titled Solo. The Duo is also planning further collaboration with soprano Rebecca MacCallion and other instrumentalists. Bradley and I are also members of Australia’s premier guitar quartet, Guitar Trek led by Professor Timothy Kain. Amongst other exciting commitments, the quartet is looking forward to working on an upcoming new work that Nigel Westlake is composing especially for Guitar Trek.
To read a review of Landscapes, check out the March issue of Limelight, on sale February 16.