From Fingerboard to Fretboard: Philip Glass's String Quartets on Guitars

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Philip Glass's aesthetic is famously lean—there is very little fat on his harmonies—and like lean people, it tends to be most attractive in a slim-fitting getup. He has written enormous symphonic works and bona fide grand operas, but as satisfying as those can be, his works for solo instruments or chamber ensembles are even livelier and more thrilling. The harmonies may advance only slowly through repeating harmonic patterns, but there is seldom the sense that a single sound is being wasted.

Among the most exquisite works in his generous oeuvre are String Quartets Nos. 2 through 5, of which this is hardly the first recording. The Kronos Quartet made a benchmark recording when the Fifth was brand new, and later traversals have even included Glass's early, experimental First. This is, however, the first recording by a guitar quartet.

After hearing these works performed by some of the best string quartets in contemporary music, experiencing the same music by the Dublin Guitar Quartet reveals that the sound of these works can get leaner still. The lyrical intensity built into in the voice of a bowed string instrument is replaced by something sweeter and more delicate. 

The transition from fiddles to guitars is a natural one. Glass's heavily arpeggiated language is more native to the keyboard than the fingerboard anyway, and so the shift to a fretboard comes as no great shock. And the Third Quartet is drawn from Glass's music for the film "Mishima," which uses the sound of an electric guitar in the first place. But it is surprising to hear the ways in which the quartets sound less guitaristic, somehow, when they're performed on actual guitars.

String Quartet No. 5 is full of plucked and bowed chords that sound like wild strumming even on violins, but the cool, restrained interpretations of the Dublin Guitar Quartet speak more like a virginal harpsichord with an unusually sweet voice—a glowing tone, not a flashy one. And of course, it helps that their flawless rhythmic unison and tonal blend makes the four instruments sound like one. Listen to the entire album below. 

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