“Austin Tango,” one of the final pieces played March 30 during the UCA Guitar Ensemble spring concert, combined the separate and intricate sounds of 15 guitars.
Guitar Ensembles I and II, directed by UCA guitar instructor Smokey Emerson, performed the hour-long recital in Snow Fine Arts.
Emerson said Ensemble II consists of new student non-majors who are simply interested in classic guitar; Ensemble I is composed entirely of guitar majors.
Emerson said ensembles give students a chance to play guitar in an unfamiliar communal fashion.
“Mostly with classical guitar, [students]play solo. You can get so tunnel-visioned that you lose sight of your ability to play with others. With ensemble, you can work with other performers. You learn to listen outside of listening to yourself,” Emerson said.
The concert featured duets and pieces written for larger groups; pieces ranged from compositions created specifically for guitar to classic orchestral works rearranged for guitar. The last few numbers were jazz numbers performed on electric guitars.
“You want to have a balance when you program one of these concerts,” Emerson said. “You have to include small pieces like duets, and then large ones with a dozen or so guitars. You need … a balance between the number of players and transcriptions versus original compositions.”
Emerson said it is important to program transcriptions of Bach or Henry Purcell pieces, which are easily recognized by the audience member with an ear for classical music.
Emerson has rearranged several pieces for guitar, two of which were performed during the concert.
“If you really want to [transcribe]it right, you need to find the original manuscripts,” Emerson said. “So if it’s Bach you’re wanting to write, you need to refer to the original document. Guitar ensembles don’t have a long history. It’s a relatively recent idea … a 20th century novelty.”
“Austin Tango,” which combined a variety of sounds from hand-clapping to twangy, bar-talk pizzicato, was a piece Guitar Ensemble I members learned last spring when they attended Guitars Galore, hosted by the Austin Classic Guitar Society.
Anderson said Guitars Galore was the congregation of 12 guitar ensembles; during the one-day festival the ensembles performed for each other and rehearsed “Austin Tango,” a piece written for the event by Roland Dyens. During the event’s finale, all the ensembles, nearly 100 guitars, played the piece together.
Shawn Hartley, a senior guitar major, said, “Though I don’t want to play strictly classical after I graduate, it helps build a good technique that makes learning other styles easier. After learning [classical], my hands are able to play most things I want.”
Emerson started teaching guitar at UCA in 2005 when there were only two guitar majors.
“Our ensemble started in 2006. We add a couple players every year, even when people graduate, we come out with more players,” Emerson said.
Emerson, who played in an orchestra during college, has tried to build his ensembles like orchestras.
Emerson’s vision of more classic guitar music in Conway is not confined to UCA.
He created the Conway Guitar Guild, which allows anyone interested in guitar to meet and perform with others. Several members of the guild joined the ensemble for some of Tuesday evening’s performance.
“The guild is aiming to get younger students. At age 10 or 11, that’s when hands are like sponges and you can learn anything,” Emerson said.
The guild meets at the Faulkner County Library on the first Sunday of every month; meetings consist of presentations on particular guitarists or styles, eating free food, and playing guitar. The club’s next meeting is May 2 at 2 p.m.
Justin Legris, a sophomore music education major, primarily plays trumpet at UCA, but has been practicing electric guitar with the jazz guitar ensemble.
“I love to explore the world of jazz guitar. At first I was playing with the jazz bands here, but I decided I wanted to challenge myself so I started playing with the guitar ensemble,” Legris said.