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

Q2 Music Album of the Week for May 5, 2014

Monday, May 05, 2014

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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Comments [4]

Tiffany from Lawn Guyland

I am a huge Glass fan. (His music has helped and does help any kind of term paper writing!) And even more so, I love when various artists in other instrumentation take on his works. So this is right up my alley. It's a stunning album and I think even more so drives home the minimalist aspect of his work, without taking anything away or losing any of the effects. Thank you so much for sharing it!

May. 07 2014 03:02 PM
Jared from Greenwich CT

Greetings & thanks for the reply! I'm happy to hear that the DT album will be added amidst the other gems in the Q2 library; I'm sure it will bring much curiosity and happiness to those who get to discover it! -One of my literal "desert island discs" as they say is also on New Albion (with David Tanenbaum, William Winant, the most enchanting percussion ensemble, and others) and is called "The Perilous Chapel". It's all music of Lou Harrison. The title piece is for flute, cello, percussion and harp, and has much of Lou's East meets West exoticism. The real highlight and magnificent chamber masterpiece on the album (Imho) however is the "Harp Suite" which can indeed be played on guitar, harp, or harpsichord; the composer designed it for any of them. Here is it blissfully played for guitar, and percussion (including Indonesian percussion, and tibetan rice bowls-the clinking tintinnabulation of the bowls gives me chills still!!) and it's sublime. I had the pleasure of meeting Lou Harrison at a birthday concert for him @ the 92nd St. Y, and had him sign my copy of the disc I'm speaking of. As far as Hovhaness-don't get me started! I was about to make a "pilgrimage" to Seattle to meet him years back but then he passed away a month before I could make it. Happily I have learned much about AH, beyond cd notes or documenteries thanks one of my dearest friends, the tragically unplayed and practically unknown Arnold Rosner (who passed away recently), a true American master of the 20th-21st century. I shall try to contain myself and not write on and on about him-no person or music has moved me more, ever. Q2 should look into his discs on Albany records (thank god they championed his music as much as money would allow) or the muscular Concerto Grosso on Laurel records. WQXR has the Laurel but only plays "A Gentle Musike" from the disc-maybe once a year. -Kind regards

May. 07 2014 11:29 AM

Great tip, Jared. We will certainly add that CD to our library and Q2 Music's programming rotation as soon as we can. We love all those artists mentioned, and Hovhaness is deserving of much more attention. Keep on listening and thanks!

May. 06 2014 02:18 PM
Jared from Greenwich CT

I do look forward to hearing this release; I am not an across the board Glass fan however I like all of his operas and simply love the string quartets. They are some of the finest in the repertoire imo, I adore them as much as I adore the quartets of Schubert, Shostakovich, Vagn Holmboe, Bartok and so on... The L.A. Guitar Quartet has made several intriguing and very fine recordings/transcriptions over the years, and I imagine that this new Glass release by the Dublin Qt. will be of that caliber. -I would strongly encourage anyone who loves the guitar to check out Dave Tanenbaum's early album on New Albion (self titled) which has a transcription of Steve Reich's "Nagoya Marimbas" called "Nagoya Guitar" which is fantastic, indeed I like it much more than the original. Also contains pieces by Riley, Zappa, and 2 guitar sonatas by Hovhaness, the reason I originally bought the disc.

May. 05 2014 06:04 PM

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About Q2 Music Album of the Week

Q2 Music's Album of the Week is our weekly review of the newest and most dynamic contemporary classical releases. It focuses on musical discovery, world premiere recordings and fresh perspectives on today's classical landscape. Read our review and stream the album on-demand for one week only at


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