Mobius Trio combines acoustic and electric guitars in afternoon program

Mobius Trio #7
Mobius Trio

There’s no shortage of enterprising young chamber ensembles who, in some fashion or other, are on a mission to blur or erase the boundaries between classical music and other genres.

According to guitarist Matt Holmes-Linder, Mobius Trio has a unique advantage when it comes to exploring genres where classical players typically fear to tread. He pointed to crossover string quartets like Kronos and Turtle Island as examples.

“The context in which (bowed) string instruments are known is relatively narrow,” Holmes-Linder said. “The common assumption is that when there’s a string quartet, they’re playing classical music.”

Guitars, on the other hand, are harder to pin down.

“Guitars are used in just about every type of music under the sun,” Holmes-Linder said. “That gives us a unique flexibility to span genres.”

Mobius, comprising guitarists Holmes-Linder, Robert Nance and Mason Fish, will perform a program of works they’ve commissioned at 4 p.m. Monday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.

All three members of Mobius studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music under classical guitar legend Sergio Assad. They learned Bach transcriptions and the great concertos by Mauro Giuliani, Joaquín Rodrigo and others.

“But at the same time, we play new music that’s based on drones and heavy metal sounds,” Holmes-Linder said.

Mobius is similar to other unorthodox groups, like the Akropolis Reed Quintet and Eighth Blackbird, in that they commission new music to fit their instrumentation.

“Guitar trios are pretty rare,” Holmes-Linder said. “Duos and quartets are much more common.”

The group also makes a point of performing works for both acoustic and electric guitars. Sometimes, they use electric instruments to perform works originally written for classical guitars, like Adrian Knight’s “Bon Voyage.” The piece is almost entirely written using harmonics, a technique in which the player lightly places his or her finger at specific points on the string to create a thin, pure tone.

“The signal that comes out of an electric guitar is a bit simpler than the acoustic signature of a classical guitar,” Holmes-Linder said. “There’s a kind of simplicity and purity that doesn’t exist in acoustical space. It takes on this other-worldly, pure sound.”

Mobius doesn’t stop at transplanting classical guitar repertoire to the electric realm. They also commission works specifically for electric guitars. Pieces like Mario Godoy’s “Infinite Earths” employ effects ranging from relatively mundane, Hendrix-style equalization tricks to different types of distortion. The fourth movement, for example, includes passages in which all three players play the same notes, but each player uses a different type of distortion.

“There’s this subtle sense of differentiation,” Holmes-Linder said.

Mobius’ program will almost entirely be pieces they’ve commissioned in their seven years together so far. But they will also perform a new take on an old classic, Maurice Ravel’s “String Quartet in F major.” According to Holmes-Linder, composer Winton White decided to arrange the quartet’s second movement for Mobius as a sort of “dry run” before writing an original piece.

“A lot of composers are a bit intimidated by the guitar. It’s a very strange instrument to compose for,” Holmes-Linder said. “You’ll give two very similar chords to guitarists and one of them will go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s easy and feels natural’ and the other one will say, ‘Oh no, that’s impossible.’ ”

Holmes-Linder said composers will often bring the trio their work in progress to make sure everything is idiomatic and playable.

“There isn’t really a precedent,” Holmes-Linder said, noting the scarcity of guitar trio repertoire. “It’s not like a string quartet where you can say, ‘I’ve heard this in a string quartet before.’ ”

The Ravel quartet’s second movement seemed like an ideal candidate for a guitar trio arrangement because it asks the players to play pizzicato through most of it.

“It’s got this very plucky sound,” Holmes-Linder said. “We’re pluckers, so it matched.”

Guitars can also play multiple simultaneous lines more easily than bowed instruments, so Holmes-Linder said reducing the quartet’s four lines to three players wasn’t a problem.

Programming the Ravel arrangement in the middle of markedly contemporary works demonstrates the versatility of the guitar trio as a crossover medium. Holmes-Linder compared guitars to chameleons.

“They appear everywhere and can blend into every context,” he said.

Of course, the members of Mobius still play Bach. But at any moment in their concerts, “if you just walk in the room, you may not know that’s a classical guitar trio in front of you,” Holmes-Linder said.

Tags : Mobius Triomusicstring trioThe ArtsWeek 6

The author Philip de Oliveira

Philip de Oliveira reports on the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Logan Chamber Music Series for the Daily. He is the Walton D. Clarke Fellow at NPR member station 89.7 WKSU in Kent, Ohio, where he has filed stories for local newscasts and statewide for Ohio Public Radio. He occasionally contributes to Cleveland Scene magazine and Cool Cleveland.