Conference Report: International Guitar Research Centre Conference, Hong Kong, July 2019

The International Guitar Research Centre (IGRC) at the University of Surrey (UK) held its 2019 research conference from 14th to 20th July 2019 at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. This event brought together guitar researchers and practitioners from around the globe, with a focus on the theme of improvisation but open to all topics within the area of guitar research, regardless of style or genre. The Conference was held alongside the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts’ International Guitar Forum (IGF) with a theme of 19th Century Performance Practice, and the Altamira Hong Kong Guitar Symposium and Competition.


IGRC 2019, Day 1:

In session 1, the first lecture-recital of the conference was given by Vladimir Ibarra (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México),  entitled “The interpreter as co-creator: open forms and improvisation systems in “Del Crepúsculo” – Fantasía (“On Twilight” – Fantasy) No.1 Op.12 by Ernesto Garcia de Leon”. In his lecture, Vladimir offered an interpretation of the analysed musical composition, in order to exemplify the way in which an interpreter can assimilate the ideas of the composer and become his co-creator.


Kenneth Kam (Eastman School of Music, USA) then presented a lecture-recital focused on his on-going research into Walton’s ‘Bagatelles’. In his presentation, Ken gave an analysis of Walton’s guitar writing, through study and comparison with Anon. in Love (1959), Capriccio Burlesco (1968), Scapino: A Comedy Overture (1940), and his two symphonies.


In Session 2, Ken Murray from the University of Melbourne (AUS) presented a lecture- recital entitled “In the loop? Classical guitar and new technology”, exploring the recent proliferation of the loop pedal in both popular and art music contexts. Implications for the use of loop pedals with the solo classical guitar were drawn with particular reference to the creation of his own composition, “Loop Sonata” (2016)


Following Dr Murray, David Cotter from the University of Cambridge (UK) gave a lecture-recital,  “New Work for Classical Guitar & Live Electronics with Dynamic VR Score: Structuring improvisation in a three-dimensional virtual environment”, which focused on David’s own collaborative project exploring the interface between physical and virtual realities in the context of classical guitar performance; principally through a semi-structured improvisational approach using instructional and notated material displayed in 3D space using the Oculus Rift system


To end the session, Greg Stott from the Australian National University (AUS) presented a lecture-recital entitled “Beyond the Echo Chamber – A Rhythmic Praxis for Guitar”, in which he offered details of his own research that explores the abstraction possibilities of drum-set vocabulary and methodologies for use in guitar composition and improvisation. In the presentation, Greg performed recent works and gave an overview of Procedural & Representational Abstraction methodologies arising from his research, in particular their application to drumming concepts to generate new vocabulary for guitar composition and improvisation.


In session 3, Jonathan Leathwood (University of Denver, USA) Stanley Yates (Austin Peay University, USA) and Stephen Goss (IGRC, University of Surrey, UK) presented a keynote panel session, “Improvisation as a Way of Knowing: Towards a New Pedagogy of Notated Repertoire”. In this session, the three scholars/practitioners demonstrated a series of practical approaches to improvisation from the 18th century to the present day. They demonstrated how musicians in the baroque and classical periods trained with complete formal units, and how improvisation can inform present-day preoccupations, from memorising pieces in autonomous atonal languages to collaborating with composers on new works.


The final session of day 1 began with Sophie Marcheff (University of Melbourne, AUS) presenting a paper exploring the emergence of the classical guitar in Australia, Sophie’s paper, “Anything That Plinks Just Isn’t Classical:” Early Critical Reception of the Classical Guitar in Australia, 1968-1980”, traced the shifting status of the “classical guitar” in Australian musical society from the foundation and early years of select societies through to the eventual use of the guitar in contemporary classical composition.


The final paper of day 1 was offered by Eric Johns (University of California, Riverside, USA), entitled “Jazz al tango: Stylistic Shifts in Late-Golden-Age Tango Guitar”. In his presentation, Eric demonstrated the often-overlooked influence of jazz on Golden-age tango guitar styles, with a particular focus on increased levels of chromaticism as well as a shift in harmonic possibilities in the performance of tango.


IGRC 2019 – Day 2

Day 2 began with a lecture-recital from Dr Paulo Olivero of Belmont University (USA). Dr Olivero’s presentation focused on the incorporation of jazz improvisation vocabulary into the daily technical routine of a classical guitarist. This included a study of scales, arpeggios, chord voicings, and licks associated with the practice of technique, such as slurs, shifts, hand placement, polyphonic control, legato, and sound projection. He then went on to perform some original arrangements that contained sections open for improvisation and demonstrated how to develop an improvised solo using the concepts presented.


The next lecture-recital was given by Dr Rich Perks of the University of Kent (UK). The presentation, entitled “The Expansion of Improvisatory Techniques and Sound-Palette Specific to the Fretless Electric Guitar” offered discussion of various performance techniques specific to the fretless electric guitar, as well as discoveries of new techniques and sounds which have emerged from Dr Perks’ personal practice. This was followed by a solo, part-composed/part-improvised performance, demonstrating how such techniques and sounds might be used in a contemporary music context.


Session 2 began with a lecture from Dr John McGrath (IGRC, University of Surrey, UK) entitled “Ghost Guitars in the Machine: The Affordance and Philosophy of Loops in Live Improvised Performance”. In his paper, Dr McGrath interrogated the concepts and practice of improvised live granular synthesis, offering an analytical and philosophical insight into its prevalence today, through the lens of repetition theory.


Dr Marc Estibeiro (Staffordshire University UK) then offered details of his research, in a presentation entitled “Improvising with Electronics: Encouraging Classical Guitarists to Reframe and Explore the Natural Sound of the Guitar Through the Use of Digital Instruments”. Dr Estebeiro presented a software environment which encourages classical guitarists to improvise with electronics, arguing that models which exploit the existing skillsets and performance practices of classical guitarists are most likely to be successful, whereas models which rely too heavily on external controllers and interfaces can discourage engagement and improvisation.  He then gave a demonstration of the software environment to show improvisation through real time control of the digital instrument using the natural sound of the guitar as both the source material for electronic processing and to control the electronics


The final paper of the session came from Dr Milton Mermikides (IGRC, University of Surrey, UK). In his paper “Plucked from Thin Air: Guitar Improvisation as the Intersection of Composition, Performance and Cognition”. Dr Mermikides argued that improvisation should not be considered an adjunct skill to the conventional activities of performance, composition and analysis, but an active and central agent in their development, pedagogy and creative application. Further, he demonstrated how the constraints and peculiarities of the guitar fretboard could be shown to be a vehicle for improvisational expression.


For the final session of the afternoon, I presented a paper entitled “Stand By Your Man: Les Paul, Mary Ford and the Guitar in Mainstream Popular Music” in which I offered an initial assessment of the key elements of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s instrumental idiolects, their collaborative approach as a duo and subsequent influence.


Following my presentation, Dr Tom Williams (Academy of Contemporary Music, UK), delivered a paper entitled “Strategy Based Improvisation in Jazz Guitar: Post Vocabulary Approaches to Improvisation Analysis, Practice, and Pedagogy”. Drawing on generative theories established by Clarke, and studies of improvisation in practice by Berkowitz and Hargreaves, Dr Williams’ paper demonstrated the benefits of considering a schema-based approach in relation to contemporary guitar improvisation.



The final paper of the day presented research from Amy Brandon (Dalhousie University, Canada), in a paper entitled “Perceptuomotor Encoding of Complex Movements and the Feedforward Process of Jazz Guitar Improvisation”. In this paper (read by Dr Mermikides), Amy explores the literature of visual or perceptual encoding of complex hand movements, examining the possible cognitive processes and brain areas involved in the encoding and recalling of improvised guitar movements, and factors as to why visuo- or perceptuomotor encoding seems heavily present in jazz guitar improvisation.


IGRC 2019, Day 3

Day three began with a paper presented by Andreas Aase (Nord University, Norway) entitled “Nordic Folk Tunes as Building Blocks for Jazz-influenced Improvisation”. As a practitioner and researcher, Andreas argued as to whether pieces of dance tunes from Nordic folk music, organized according to principles from jazz, could provide source material for building an improvisation language.

Next, Prof Goss and Dr Mermikides led a discussion on the nature of improvisation, inviting participation from the audience of practitioners, researchers and pedagogues from a variety of streams. The topics ranged from the problematic issues of defining improvisation to the benefits of embedding improvisation in all curriculums, covering much insightful ground in a short session.

In the second session of the day, Dr Bill Thompson (IGRC, University of Surrey, UK) offered a lecture-recital entitled “Mongrel Practice: Improvisation and the Moog Guitar as Found Object”. Dr Thompson presented aspects of his on-going investigation of the Moog guitar as ‘found object’ for improvisation, and centred around a live performance using the Moog guitar, found objects and various pieces of electronic equipment.


Following Dr Thompson’s improvisation, Pierre Bibault (Brussels Royal Conservatory) presented the Sabrina Vlaskalic Prize Lecture-Recital, in which he examined two pieces: “Tellur” (1977) for classical guitar, by Tristan Murail (commissioned by Rafael Andia), and “Kahraba” (2017) for Electric Guitar and Electro-Acoustics, by Zad Moultaka (commissioned by Pierre Bibault). Both works were written by composers who are not guitar players, and who have been collaborating with the IRCAM (a major Institution for Contemporary Music in Paris). The lecture first presented the ways in which improvisation can be included in notation, and culminated in a performance of both works.



IGRC 2019,  DAY 4

For the first session of the day Ari van Vilet (Cumuli Foundation, The Netherlands) gave a lecture-recital entitled “Napoléon Coste: Guitarist in Parisin which he examined the approaches and influence of Coste, elucidating the ways in which the composer took the musical foundations of Sor, Giuliani and Aguado to a higher level, making his music central to the repertoire of Romantic guitar music.


Ari was followed by independent scholar, Neil Caukins (USA), who gave a lecture-recital titled “Resurrecting The Improvised Prelude Using Early Nineteenth-Century Guitar Methods”. In his presentation, Neil examined in detail the methods of Bathioli and Boccomini, as well as Opus 1 by De Ferranti and chamber works by Pettoletti and Blum to introduce and analyze less-familiar examples of improvisatory preludes. Cadence examples from these works were presented as a foundation for constructing historically-informed “improvised” preludes for either the solo or chamber music context.


In the following session, Francesco Teopini (Hong Kong Baptist University) offered a paper entitled “Elusive Allusions in Giuliani’s Le Rossiniane: The Case of Op. 123”, analysing Guiliani’s allusions to two outside musical texts belonging to Rossini. Francesco unveiled new hypotheses about certain historical and interpretive issues concerning both Giuliani himself and Le Rossiniane Op. 123.


Piotr Bąk (Academy of Performing Arts, Prague) presented a lecture on Baroque lute music written in Bohemia and Poland at the turn of 17th and 18th century. The paper, entitled “Bohemian Baroque lute music from a guitarist’s perspective” shed light on the turbulent historical background of the aforementioned works, in addition to introducing nine Czech and Polish baroque lute composers, reflecting on their lives and works.


For the final lecture in the session Dr Milton Mermikides presented a paper entitled “Music, seen: Visual Representations of Musical Rhythm, Harmony and Structure” in which he illuminated salient aspects of musical mechanisms otherwise hidden by standard notation. Through an examination of the process behind his artwork for Theorbo Concerto (Stephen Goss, Deux Elles 2019) – entirely driven by the structure of the work – Dr Mermikides demonstrated the opportunity for music notation, analysis and visual art to be fused, enhancing each of these disciplines.


IGRC 2019 – Day 5

On day 5, Professor Stephen Goss presented a thought provoking session on the topic, ‘The Guitar and the Politics of Nostalgia: the Mutability of History Through an Arcadian Retrotopia”. Prof Goss explored how the guitar, through its 19th, 20th and 21st Century history and repertoire, became an emblem for nostalgia.



In conclusions, what an amazing week of guitar research! Many thanks to all the delegates for sharing your knowledge and artistry and to Prof. Goss and Dr. Mermikides and all at HKAPA and Altamira Guitars for hosting a wonderful conference.


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