Even before the Los Angeles Electric 8 hit the SOhO stage, we knew something completely different was in store early on Saturday night. There, in a varied array across the stage, were eight different model amplifiers, for eight different model electric guitars. We weren’t in rock and roll Kansas anymore. Booked for opening night of the ongoing “International Guitar Festival,” organized by the Santa Barbara Symphony and running through Sunday, the L.A. Electric 8 offered a fresh view of contextual possibility using this overused and under-mastered instrument.
It’s an out-of-the-ordinary group in more than one way, with classically trained players plugging in and creating a new sound in the multiple electric guitar mode, with arrangements of existing classical pieces and more conceptual new music pieces. Theirs is not a culture without precedent. Consider the massed, collective electric guitar projects of the Robert Fripp-launched League of Crafty Guitarists, and Glenn Branca famous, brute force “guitar army” projects, including his 100-guitarist “Hallucination City” project which filled the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall a few years back. Just recently, Canadian guitarist/composer Tim Brady staged his own 20-guitar work at REDCAT in Los Angeles.
Yet the L.A. Electric 8 is a distinctive chamber group, the unique format of which holds promise for luring rock and guitar fans into the wonderful world of “serious music.” At SOhO, the group, led by director Ben Harbert, bravely performed customized arrangements of classical pieces - including movements from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, and music of Shostakovich this night - with its parts dutifully distributed around the ensemble. While the sound was less smooth or graceful as it could be, the novel tang of the sound compensate with its own peculiar charm.
More impressive were the experimental “new music” pieces, written for this setting and capitalizing on the electric guitar’s indigenous character. Randall Cole’s rippling “Balinese canto de los changes” opened the set with a Fripp-meets-Balinese textural weave. Wayne Segal’s extended but effectively hypnotic “Domino Figures” followed a gamey minimalist notion of one guitarist passing on parts to the next in line, adding to the cumulative sonic cumulous effect. Tensions and resolutions flow in circular, spatial patterns across the group and across the stage.
A high point of the second set came with noted new music composer-prankster Phil Kline’s “96 Tears,” which cleverly - and beautifully - exploits the sustained-tone sound of the magnetized gadget called the E-bow, to the power of eight. The electric guitar, supposedly a tool of the musical revolution, too often lapses into the domain of conservatism and cliche. Count the Los Angeles Electric 8 among the ranks of gifted electrists aiming to restore our faith in its wild side, but with discipline and music stands in tow.