for electric guitar (with e-bow) and string quartet.
Duration: 9 mins.
Premiered by Dave Flynn (guitar) and the ConTempo Quartet, NUIG Galway, May 2022.
E-Bow is a work in 3 movements for Electric Guitar and String Quartet. There is a long history of Quintets for guitar and strings, dating to the late 18th century. Antonio Vivaldi and Antoine de Lhoyer composed baroque ‘concerti’ for guitar and strings which were played as quintets at the time. The first real master of the form was Luigi Bocherrini. Among Bocherinni’s 6 Guitar Quintets is the Flamenco-flavoured ‘Fandango’ which remains the most famous work for guitar and string quartet. The repertoire was expanded through the ages by composers as diverse as Mauro Giuliani, Mario Castulnuevo-Tedesco, Leo Brouwer and Aaron Jay Kernis.
With this work I bring the Guitar Quintet tradition in new directions by using an electric guitar, with the addition of an ‘E-Bow’, a string-sustaining device invented by Greg Heet in 1969. ‘E-Bows’ became essential tools for rock guitarists in the late 1970’s and their distinctive tone is heard on songs by Blondie, U2, Radiohead, Big Country, Genesis, Pink Floyd and R.E.M.
They are less common in classical music, probably because they simply don’t work on nylon string classical guitars! E-Bows only work on steel or brass strings as they rely on metallic vibrations. Interestingly, one of the first uses of an E-Bow by a renowned classical composer was John Cage’s 1982 work A Postcard from Heaven which was composed for harp, rather than guitar.
In this new work I primarily use the E-bow to create sustained string sounds to sonically blend with the string quartet. The guitar part contains improvised sections, so this enables the guitarist to experiment with the various sounds that an E-bow can create.
Musically the work is a new development of the style of modern classical music I have been developing for over 20 years. This style merges elements of Irish traditional music with modern classical music and other genres. ConTempo Quartet have been crucial collaborators with me in developing works like The Cranning, The Keening and Calmly Awaiting the End. E-Bow marks a new juncture in our work together, as the use of guitar enables me to perform as a soloist with ConTempo for the first time.
In the work’s three movements I have aimed to move away from directly ‘traditional’ sounding material, so whilst there are clear influences from Irish traditional music, the sound is more firmly in a modern classical style than some of my recent works.
This is clear from the opening of the first movement, entitled ‘Unrelenting, except….”. Here the first violinist, Bogdan Sofei, launches unrelentingly into a virtuoso opening which draws on Irish reel rhythms and ‘treble’ ornaments, without sounding directly like Irish trad. The effect, to my ears, is almost as if Shostakovich took lessons from legendary fiddler Tommy Peoples! After the unrelenting opening the E-bow guitar sound is introduced in briefly a slower style, it causes a sudden time-shift that hints at the influence of Sibelius in my work. This is the ‘except’ part of this otherwise unrelenting movement.
The second movement ‘Foggy Fugue’ is more serene and baroque-influenced. It uses material from the opening of the first movement as the basis for a simple fugue. The frenetic opening melody of the first movement is slowed down and transformed into a major key setting. This melody and counter-melodies move around the quartet whilst the guitarist improvises a soloist line using the E-bow.
The final movement is titled ‘Macalla – Oro’. These are the Irish and Maori words for ‘echo’ and this title reflects how this movement is essentially a study in musical echo effects, composed by an Irishman in New Zealand. Repetition and variation drive the movement forward towards a joyous conclusion, influenced as much by rock guitar as it is by the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The e-bow is ditched in this movement for rock guitar textures influenced by Andy Summers from The Police and virtuoso ‘shredder’ Joe Satriani. This connects my current music style with my formative years as an electric guitar-wielding teen! The work ends by quoting the opening of The Cranning, a subtle nod to acknowledge how that nearly 20 year-old work influenced aspects of this new piece.