Review: Minneapolis Guitar Quartet – Thrum

This is my very first experience of Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, who have actually been performing as a collective since 1996. It feels like a great place to start. Even if the quartet’s talents extend beyond what can be heard on this disc, the collection is an allusion to this very fact; a demonstration of virtuosity and versatility with the promise of yet more, and a glimpse into a mindset that makes these four guitar players a most expressive and malleable artistic channel.

The results are beautiful and often bizarre. Thrum collects works by four composers, all written for and performed by the quartet – personal experiences of an individual splayed across strings and thumbs and plectrums, audio theatrics that recast the quartet as actors and then fictional characters, ancient tradition unearthed in a warm and immersive twang of present tense. The quartet aren’t lifelessly compliant with the composer’s directions; they charge these pieces with their own thoughts and stories, unashamedly flecking the compositions with personality and subjection. One can even hear the players breathe and shuffle around in between the notes: little reminders that the quartet exists as more than four limp marionettes waiting to be musically animated.

Daniel Bernard Roumain’s works comprise an audio photo album of sorts: four pieces inspired by his previous home spots of Detroit, New York and Haiti. They are vibrant and go-getting, rendered energetic by rowdy, rattling downstrokes and dollops of sunbaked pop – virtuosic and yet care-free, soaking up the surrounding landscapes and dreaming blissfully into them.

David Evan Thomas tightens the reins to grant more focus on intricacy and ornamental detail. The cohesion between the four players is astonishing – the quartet scatter quickly into harmonic duets before swooping together again to create what sounds like one gigantic harp, dipping and rising in tempo and dynamic with the expressive fluidity of a theatrical monologue.

Van Stiefel re-introduces Roumain’s fusion of music and location, reimagining the quartet as travelling cowboys swapping tales around a campfire. No longer is the guitar a means of re-conjuring home – it is home, acting as a constant in a landscape of transitory blur. Unsurprisingly his work is the most conversational of the four composers, with luscious lines of melody complementing and re-enforcing the strums of the player before, and dissonant slanging matches erupting through stabs of buzzing nylon. The players’ voices even enter at one point – with choral “aah”s and “ooh”s arcing over the top of the guitars in surreal, off-axis harmonic combinations.

Finally, the introduction of Gao Hong’s Chinese pipa (a pear-shaped lute) demonstrates how the quartet’s collaborative capabilities extend beyond merely co-ordinating with eachother. The pipa’s bright, gracious tones take centre stage as the collective congregate around the edges, receding into gently stifled harmonies and lunging forward in oaky body thumps and percussive knocks – manifesting as an Eastern-tinged dance at one moment and a meditative garden the next – and even though these pieces are clearly composed with the utmost attention to each tiny detail, the immediacy of the performance makes the quartet sound prophetic and telepathic, with each player anticipating every small change as though guided by primitive spiritual sensation.