An Interview with Bill Kanengiser
By Tony Morris
The following interview was conducted on at 1:00am on April 13, 1997 at the KMFA
studios in Austin, Texas. Bill Kanengiser had just performed a solo concert earlier that
evening for the Austin Classical Guitar Society. Bill proved to be a thoughtful, witty, and
intelligent interviewee with a good-natured sense of humor. He also is an incredible
mimic! In addition to being a wonderful musician, he also happens to be a naturally gifted
comedic storyteller who can very accurately mimic the voices of a lot of well-known
On a technical note, I have to thank my friend Jay Wilbur for painstakingly transcribing the
text of this interview. Transcribing interviews is slow, time-consuming work that requires
a good ear, sustained concentration, and good typing skills! I'd also like to thank another
friend, Matthew Hinsley, for bringing Bill Kanengiser to the radio station for the interview
and for acting as studio engineer during the interview.
ANTHONY MORRIS: Let me start by saying I really admire what you've done with both
your solo career and with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. It's a real treat to have you on
WILLIAM KANENGISER: It's a pleasure.
AM: The LA Guitar Quartet is enormously popular and in great
demand, but you've also got a busy solo career. Does one of these careers have a
precedence over the other? And how do you manage both of these?
KANENGISER: It is kind of tricky to manage and juggle the two careers.
And, I'm also teaching and I have a family. But I don't think the solo career and the
quartet career have to be mutually exclusive. I think my model for all this was my teacher
Pepe Romero. He's able to excel in both and seeing the way he handled it was my
In the last few years the quartet has definitely taken the lion's share of my time, my
time on the road especially, because we're doing lots of gigs. The solo career has quieted
down a little bit. Part of that is by design. It's not that I don't want to further my solo
career, but it takes a lot more personal effort and time to work out all kinds of new solo
things. And I also felt that right now the quartet needed my attention to push us to the
next level. And its starting to happen.
The thing about solo versus quartet is that they can actually help each other, to feed off
each other. My early quartet experience helped my solo playing immensely. It helped me
learn how to be on stage; helped me learn how to project, when I have to play louder than
three other guys. It helped my stamina and taught me about chamber music. Plus, the solo
playing helps my quartet playing, like working on chops and arrangements. But its all fun.
It's just a very different aesthetic on stage doing one or the other. It's a totally different
AM: I have to ask the obvious questions. How did the LA Guitar
Quartet get started?
KANENGISER: We all met when we were students at USC in Los Angeles.
And it was the most banal circumstance. We were in a guitar ensemble class that was
required. So we had to play together.
It's a little bit more complicated than that. I met Scott Tennant the summer before he
came to USC at a Pepe Romero masterclass in Houston. There was this buzz, even before
he came that there's this guy who is just unbelievable. My first instinct was, "Oh boy,
somebody I've got to be competitive against." I went to this masterclass and met Scott
and in ten minutes we were sight reading through the madrigal concerto together and we
just immediately hit it off. That was the core of the group right there when Scott and I hit
John Dearman was in the class and played with us. He was a student of Celine's. And
at that time Anisa Angorola was playing with us. That's how we got started.
It started off with no grand scheme to be together 16 years later making records and
touring. It started off slow. We got a few little gigs where USC would represent the guitar
department. We'd go and play for some thing in LA city somewhere. We got a little tour
that they set up in Mexico. That was our first tour. We did 48 school concerts in 5 weeks
in rural Mexico with no translator in a bus. It was sort of a trial of fire. I learned how to
speak Spanish in that five weeks.
And then we got a manager and we cut a record with a local guy in LA. Then we had a
lean period where we lost the manager and I learned about the business, about
management and promotional materials and the importance thereof. And then after
sticking with it for all those years we just kept working on it. It's kind of baffling to all of
us that it's worked.
AM: It's worked very well, obviously. Records on the Delos label sell
very well and get a lot of airplay. They certainly do on my program and a lot of other
stations too. When did things start to change, when you started to realize you might have
something different? When things got exciting for the quartet's career?
KANENGISER: Well, there were a couple of landmarks along the way. When
we did our first New York concert, that was a big thing for us. We started doing concerts
in Europe because we met the Assad brothers. They came to town to do a masterclass at
USC. For some reason they came over to John Dearman's dorm when we were
rehearsing. That's how they heard us. We were just punks. It was really intimidating
having the Assads watching us rehearse. We were not very good. They hooked us up with
Odair's wife, who has a record company (G.H.A.Records). That eventually led to our first
European release and then she managed us in Europe. It got us exposed over there and
that really started the ball rolling.
Then we spun our wheels for a few seasons, getting a good number of dates and doing
some recordings, but we were definitely in a rut. When we changed membership and Andy
York joined the group, that was the seminal moment for the quartet, because it very
deliberately took us away from the role model of the Romeros and toward this uncharted
territory. Our chamber music heroes were more like the Kronos Quartet or the King's
Singers, some kind of group that's not doing what you would normally expect. In a sense
we still haven't decided what our true direction is. I think we've decided we're not going
to be the Kronos Quartet of the guitar; we're not just modern music folks. Andy's coming
brought not only his own arrangements and transcriptions, but more than anything it freed
us to explore our true musical roots. For me, while I am a classical guitarist, I'm also a
rock player, a jazz player. I like all kinds of stuff. It allowed us to explore what we as
American guitarists have in our deep dark past. Labyrinth was the record that let us burst
out of the mold.
AM: Speaking of rock, it even has a Variations on a Theme of Led
KANENGISER: Yes, that's Ian Krouse, who we have a long collaboration
with. I think he's one of the most brilliant composers around these days. He writes
unrelentingly difficult pieces. Difficult for the audience, difficult for the performers, but
they're amazing pieces. We had to stop playing that piece because it was killing us, and
our guitars. We were putting holes in our guitars strumming with picks. But that project
meant a lot to us personally.
And for our new directions, right now we're preparing a new record for Sony that's a
World Music record. I'm really excited about it. We've already got some really cool
AM: Can you say some of the pieces on it, or is it a secret?
KANENGISER: No, I don't think it's a secret. We're doing some Inti-
Illimani tunes, Chilean dances. We're doing a set of African things. Right now I'm just
researching a whole bunch of Indonesian music. I want to do some Gamelan stuff; figure
out ways to make the guitars sound like Gamelan gongs. And we're doing a couple of new
pieces that Andy wrote that are not specifically World Music pieces, but they're crossover
kind of things. We're still searching for all the right stuff, but we're really excited. It's
probably the biggest thing that's happened in our careers, that we've signed with Sony.
We'll see what happens. We're.. real happy about it!
AM: Let me talk about your solo career a little bit. Aside from some
impressive wins in some major international guitar competitions, one of your early claims
to fame was that you got to be in a major motion picture. Can you tell a bit about that?
How it happened?
KANENGISER: Yes, well... "I'm the classical guitarist from Crossroads", for
whatever it's worth. I think I actually play a total of 46 seconds on that movie. It's a
pretty small contribution, but hey, I'm on it. It was one of those luck of the draw things,
literally. The producer of the film knew a piano instructor at USC. He called him and said,
"We desperately need a classical guitarist today." And the guy called me. So it was just
dumb luck. I don't know if I deserved it or not; I was just lucky enough to be in the right
place at the right time. I was also lucky enough to have a piece in my repertoire that was
pretty good for what they wanted. I played the Turkish March, that arrangement I did on
Rondo Alla Turca.
AM: And that's also the name of your first solo CD, Rondo Alla
Turca. Let me ask you about that. You play, of course that Rondo Alla Turca and that
entire Mozart piano sonata. When you make an arrangement for solo guitar of a piano
piece obviously you can't play all the notes that a piano can. How do you make the
decisions what to leave in and what to take out?
KANENGISER: Well, I have a glib comment about arrangements. The
two most important decisions you have to make are picking the right piece and picking the
right key. After that a lot of the decisions make themselves. If you pick the wrong piece,
it's just not going to work.
With that Mozart sonata, there were definitely some compromises that had to be made.
Obviously a lot of the tessitura, the range of the melody, had to be compressed. There's a
few spots where you just can't possibly keep the left hand ostinato going and keep a
melody going in the top part. I just try to go for the gesture overall. The technical term is
the composite rhythm. If the overall flow of the notes is the same, somehow the ear fills in
the gaps. If you have to make too many compromises that's when you realize, okay this is
I was really lucky with that Mozart sonata. There were a few times where Mozart
could have made it impossible on the guitar. But for some inexplicable reason he chose
some kind of melodic fragment or harmonic change that made it possible. All the way
throughout, it was really fortuitous. That's not to say it's the easiest thing in the world to
play. It's really pretty hard arrangement to make work. I played it for a number of years
very awkwardly because it was so hard. After a while I realized this only should be played
if it sounds easy. Mozart shouldn't sound lugubrious.
AM: Something every piano teacher says.
KANENGISER: Yes, and I put the piece away for about five years. I've been
playing it for the last year and actually enjoy playing it now. That's a nice experience.
AM: Did you feel trapped in that piece since it was so famous from
your being in that movie? Did you feel you had to play it?
KANENGISER: I didn't feel that I was compelled to play it. I felt it was
definitely something that represented me as a soloist. It was something that not many
other people were doing on guitar. So it was a novelty. But also it's just great music. That
was the reason I did it. I didn't say, "Gee, what can I do that's going to be really
impressive and people are going to say, "Wow! That's really neat.""I did it because I
thought it was a beautiful piece. And I was a little frustrated. There are some fine classical
guitar pieces from that era written by guitar composers, but it's not Mozart.
There's something just magical about that piece. On the one hand it's great to play a
piece that masterful, but then you've got the onus of living up to it and being compared to
the greatest pianists when you play it. It's really pretty daunting. But I try not to worry
about it. Just play it.
AM: Well, it sounds great. Another piece off of that same CD Rondo
Alla Turca that you seem to really connect well with is the Brouwer piece, El Decameron
Negro. That's a fairly recent composition, I think written in 1980. Do you remember the
first time you heard that piece?
KANENGISER: Actually I do. I was teaching at USC and there was a guy
working on his doctorate who played it. It was the first time I heard it. I thought, "That
piece is really something." It just really struck me and it spoke in a modern language I
could really relate to.
I have to confess that I'm not much of an Avante Guardist when it comes to guitar
music. It's not that I'm a traditionalist, but I have trouble resonating with some of the
more academic, more dodecaphonic or aleatoric or atonal pieces. They don't speak to me
personally. So I feel I would have trouble presenting them in an honest way to an
audience. Whereas Brouwer's language is in some spots Rock and Roll. There are some
spots that are unabashedly New Age. It's folk music. It's got jazz harmonies. It's got
Brazilian rhythms. It has all these different pop elements, but it's still a really serious piece
and it's got a good program. The echo effects in that second movement are a perfect
programmatic representation of what an echo is like. So it just turned me on. I thought it
was a really neat piece and at that point not that many people were playing it so it was a
new thing. Then it became a real standard. That happened with Koyunbaba too.
AM: That's Carlo Domeniconi and another piece you've recorded. Tell
us a little about that one.
KANENGISER: I can't take any credit for discovering that piece. I heard
David Russell play it. It blew me away. He was touring it all around the US, blowing
everybody away with it. And I just said, "I've got to play this piece. This is really fun." My
prediction at that point when I first heard it was, "This is going to become the Leyenda of
AM: I can verify that, judging by the amount of CDs of that piece that
KANENGISER: Its unfortunate in a way, because when a piece gets too over
saturated it starts to wear pretty thin. But there's something about that piece. It's
incredibly simplistic in a way. It's like a Rock and Roll improvisation. That piece has such
a direct impact on audiences. I'll work my tail off trying to play this Mozart thing and
back stage everybody is saying, "Wow, that Turkish thing you played was something!"
There's definitely something he caught there, some kind of atmosphere.
AM: Your second CD is called Echoes of the Old World. On the CD it
says, "Dedicated to the peoples of the Near East." So many people are obsessed with this
idea that the guitar is exclusively a Spanish instrument. But then you put out this Eastern
European and western Asian music CD. Where did you get the idea for that?
KANENGISER: In a sense, Koyunbaba was the starting point. I had that
piece and I thought, "This is like a whole new language for classical guitar. What else is
out there?" I had already played the Bartok years before. So I thought, "Okay, I've got this
Hungarian thing and Turkish thing.." All of a sudden the whole idea just clicked. Then I
started really searching. Looking for pieces to arrange and talking to composers. I talked
to Dusan Bogdanovic and commissioned Ian Kraus to write the Hassidic thing.
It was an interesting process making that record because I knew exactly how it was
going to be right from the very beginning. I knew the whole feel of it. I just had to fill in
the pieces. I think it was the way it should be and I'm happy with the way it came out. I've
gotten a lot of feedback that people are fascinated or surprised by the range a guitar can
have. Part of the mission there (and it's pretty obvious) is that I'm trying to expose people
to new possibilities that the guitar can have. There are more pieces to play than just
Leyenda, or Bach, or Villa Lobos. I'm not saying that's bad stuff to do. It's great stuff.
But the guitar (and this is also a direction the quartet is going) is a universal instrument.
That sounds kind of trite, but it can play music from almost any culture, almost any style,
almost any form. It has so much range. Its when we limit it and when we pigeon hole it,
put it into one little box, that it becomes boring. That's the thing that's going to carry the
guitar to the next century. I sound like a politician now!
AM: You have the kind of career that a lot of guitarists dream about.
You're in an enormously popular ensemble, the LA Guitar Quartet, performing and
recording, and also doing the solo career. Do you feel like you've arrived, or are you
looking for more mountains to climb?
KANENGISER: My perspective has changed in the last couple of years, now
that I have a daughter. Things really have changed. I used to be pretty aggressive about
things. Now it's, the good news is I've got a gig, and the bad news is I've got a gig. I
really don't want to be away from home that much anymore because I'm missing all this
great stuff. I'm not saying that the hunger has gone away, but I have to balance things
now more carefully. But, in terms of musical projects and directions I want to go I'm still
always thinking. I've actually got a solo project in the works that I'm really excited about.
I just haven't had the time to get it on tape. I'm doing a lot of research for it right now. it
seems to me that the Quartet is going to take on a life of it's own after a while and that's
going to continue without too much work. I mean without having to push and push the
energy into it. So, I'm at the point now where I feel like I have to redouble my efforts in
the solo realm to keep that from disappearing, because the quartet is really busy and takes
a lot of time and energy.
AM: About how many concerts will the L.A. Quartet be playing?
KANENGISER: It varies between 40 and 60 a year. The funny thing is we
seem to play more now outside the US than in. We just did a three week tour in Europe.
We're going to England in the summer. We're going to Japan in December. It's funny
how that works. You have to go farther and farther away from L.A. to hear the L.A.
AM: Well, since you play so many concerts, what's the most unusual
thing that's happened in one of your concerts?
KANENGISER: I'll just tell you something that happened on our last tour.
We were in Austria and we played in this castle that is in the coldest part of Austria. I
don't think we've ever played on a stage that was colder in our lives. We got up to play
and I couldn't move my hands. It was unbelievable. We started laughing while we were
playing because it was ludicrous. It was also a strange situation because there were only
about 20 people who showed up for the gig anyway. So the whole thing had this air of
surrealism. The night before we played in Vienna to a packed house, so it was really weird
that tonight weÕre playing for 20 people in this meat locker! We had no alternative.
During intermission they were serving wine to the people there so we went out into the
lobby and had some wine during intermission. I couldn't think of any other way to warm
up my hands. So we were very relaxed during the second half. Actually it made the whole
thing nice because we got real chummy with the folks in the audience. We had a great time
AM: When you were a student at USC you played in one of the last
masterclasses of Andres Segovia. What was that like?
KANENGISER: I played for him in 1981. He came back to USC in 1986. I
have to say, in a sense that experience of playing for Segovia was a decisive moment for
me as a soloist. Not so much because I gleaned any specific advice or knowledge from
him. It was more like a character building experience. All of us were pretty terrified and it
was a difficult situation..
AM: Let me interrupt here. How would you prepare for that, because I
know of some guitarists that have played in a Segovia masterclasses where they studied
the records and tried to copy the mannerisms and play the same pieces exactly like him.
Did you do that?
KANENGISER: You know, I was so naive that I didn't do that. My
background with classical guitar at that point was incredibly shallow. I was really new to
it. I came from a different tradition. I studied with Pepe Romero who was very much
outside the Segovia tradition.
There was a logistic problem for me too. A month before the Segovia classes I was in
the Toronto competition. I remember talking to Pepe and saying, "IÕve got this
competition and then I've got the masterclass with Segovia right after it. They're both
really important. What should I focus on?" He said, "Bill, you have to focus on the
competition. DonÕt worry about the class. You will be fine."
AM: By the way, you do sound exactly like Pepe!
KANENGISER: (speaking as Pepe) "Its true!, it's true! You know.. it's
incredible.. the way.. that he talks.. with intensity..about the guitar!"
(Smiling, and now talking as Bill Kanengiser) Sorry. You're not allowed to broadcast
AM: That sounds exactly like him, by the way. I have him on tape,
that's pretty good.
KANENGISER: (grinning, and somewhat embarrassed) Thank you.
AM: Can you do Segovia?
KANENGISER: (as Segovia) "It's not so terribly difficult, William.. Kanen-
(speaking in his normal voice again) So Pepe recommended that I focus on the
competition and not the class. But also I was incredibly naive. I didn't know that if you
wanted a positive experience you would do that kind of preparation.
I was coming in there playing the most non-traditional repertoire. I was playing Quatre
Pieces Breves by Frank Martin, I was playing my own arrangements of Bach violin sonatas,
Rodrigo's Invocation to the Dance, all these things that you shouldn't do. So I was
heading for a fall anyway and my experience was a difficult one.
But for all of us it was terrifying because there was an audience of 500 people and the
way he like to run it required everybody to sit on stage the whole time. So, if you were the
sixth guy to play that day you went for about four hours without touching your guitar and
then ... you're on. So, it was hard, but I did learn a lot.
I learned a lot from watching him teach other people. I was pretty freaked out when he
was teaching me. But when he was teaching me the issues that kept coming up were,
"Why are you playing this arrangement? Why are you playing this piece?" We never got
past those issues to find out how he felt about my playing. But I learned about grace under
pressure. That was an important lesson. I didn't crack and I didn't fight back or retaliate.
It would have been inappropriate to do so. I have immense respect for what he's
accomplished. His efforts have made it possible for us to have... anything.
AM: Let me ask you about that, because I've heard a lot of people
wrestling with the whole Segovia legacy. Some people saying that while he did do a lot for
the guitar, it would have been done by someone or some people anyway. So, is it
necessary to idolize this one person for something that was inevitable?
KANENGISER: It's a touchy subject. It was such a different time for the
guitar. I think that he was a special individual that did something really monumental for
the guitar on the world stage. Maybe it would have been done at some point by someone,
but not as quick and not as universally. He had an incredible power of communication. He
also understood the classical music world and the business side of it to get himself out
My own personal feelings about it are a little skewed because I was only exposed to
him when he was extremely old. He was way past his prime. I also came from the Romero
tradition. The Romero family resented Segovia because of two reasons. One was the
singular credit that Segovia got, but there was also the political scenario. I can imagine
being Celedonio and being imprisoned for being anti-Fascist. It would rankle you if this
guy becomes famous for playing for, for,..
AM: ..for Franco.
KANENGISER: That's a real thing that has been swept under the carpet. I
can't begin to understand what my feelings are about that. It is what it is and Segovia's
contributions are there and they are tangible.
A lot of people say, "Yes, he created this great repertoire, but he was two tables away
from Stravinsky and Bartok and Debussy. Why didn't he ask those guys to write for the
guitar instead of Tansman, etc." But for all his foibles he did do an immense thing for the
guitar, and no one is perfect.
Today's world of the guitar is different. The state of pedagogy is different. I think it's
more positive. Guitar, the way it's taught and the way it's understood, is more in line with
the way other instruments are taught. At one point when I was studying with Pepe I asked
him, "What do I need to work on, and how can I get as good as you?" He said, "Bill,
don't try to be a second best Pepe Romero. You have to be the best Bill Kanengiser."
That was really important. I have to give him a lot of credit for that. He was saying, at
some point you have to stop emulating me. You have to become your own person, your
own artist. You have to discover your own voice.
AM: What was it like studying with Pepe? I can't think of anybody
that can get more sound out of a guitar than Pepe Romero. It's kind of frightening to be in
the same room with him playing the guitar, it's so loud.
KANENGISER: Right. I've sat this close, as close as I'm sitting to you now.
I used to go over to his place for lessons. He had two couches about three feet away from
each other and he would sit there and say, "Bill, watch my hands and play with me." Then
he would just do scales slowly. I would just do what he was doing and try to become him.
It never quite happened. But it was an incredible lesson, that kind of modeling. My lessons
with him were always inspirational. We would get involved talking about these arcane
little technical details, and then turn around and talk about poetic expression and how to
give yourself up to the spirit of the performance. It ran the gamut from the most technical
thing to the most philosophical. He's my guitar guru. He's the person I owe all the credit
to. He was really inspirational.
AM: Let me ask you some more about the quartet. When you're
traveling with three other people, and you have to live with them and play with them, how
do you get along in basically a four way marriage where you spend so much time on the
KANENGISER: Separate hotel rooms. That's the one thing we have to have.
[laughter] Actually, itÕs really important. We're good friends. We get along really well.
There have even been times when we'll get home from a tour and then we'll have a
barbeque. We'll get together again when we don't have to. But it's really important that
we have our own personal space that we can retreat to. Very important. Each of us has
our own distinct personality. We have a long history together and there's good things and
bad things about that. Like you said, it's like a marriage.
One thing that a number of people say to us when they see our concerts is, "Gee, it
really looks like youÕre having fun up there." We hear that a lot. Some times we're not
and we try hard to look like we are, but most of the time we really are having fun. It really
is kind of a kick. Especially in the last few years I think. We seem to have arrived. We're
playing repertoire that's really working for us and that we feel good about and like.
We're.. "kind of in a groove" now. Things are.. "jammin". When things are going well
like that, when it feels fulfilling musically, then all the other stuff just works.
Obviously we have scheduling difficulties. Scott, Andy and I have active solo careers,
and John's starting to do solo work too. We all teach. Andy's got his composition
responsibilities to try to figure out. So, it's a difficult thing. But we've been able to make
it work without any major conflicts so far. I think the reason is that there's this larger
thing that we're all aware of. It's like, "Hey, we're a band." We even use amps now.
AM: Yes, I heard about that.
KANENGISER: They sound pretty good. We're very picky about it. We try
to make it sound pretty natural. ItÕs not Marshall Stacks. We're not going for the KISS
thing. [tongue in cheek] Except make-up. Maybe make-up.
AM: I remember reading a quote from Steven Spielberg. He came to a
point in his career with all these great films where he realized, no matter how busy he is,
there's definitely a finite number of films that he's going to make.
KANENGISER: But there's not a finite number of money he's going to
AM: That may be true! Anyway, do you have a concept of what kind
of body of work you want to leave behind, that says what it is that Bill Kanengiser did?
KANENGISER: That's interesting because these days, with CDs, they're
kind of permanent. On the one hand you might say, let's record, we're just spitting these
things out, but on the other hand you're creating this documentation, a legacy. It's kind of
scary when you think about it. I can't claim that we're trying to lay down some kind of
testament. It's much more banal than that. A record company wants us to make a record
and we come up with an idea. Then we play it as well as we can that day and they edit it
and we hope it sounds okay. That's basically whatÕs going on.
AM: Actually, that's the way a lot of the Beatles records were made.
KANENGISER: There you go. The only problem is we don't have George
Martin. But actually, on the Old World record I made, the solo one, I was thinking along
those lines a little bit. I had the idea that this is different. This is something nobody has
done before. So, I did have a global idea about it. But now that I stand back and look at
what the quartet has recorded, it is surprising. Wow! weÕve got seven albums out. When
did we do that?
AM: I have to share something. Each year on Classical Guitar Alive!, always do this Christmas program. I always play the L.A. Quartet's version of
the Nutcracker Suite. I had a lady call me at the station. She said, "I'm not a big fan of
guitar music, but I have to say that recording was really incredible."
AM: I think it's great that the quartet is putting out records that don't
rely on the novelty of the guitar. I noticed a quote from one review that said, finally there
is a guitar quartet that can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the great string
KANENGISER: I don't know if I agree with him. Of course there's not that
many guitar quartets in the world.
AM: There's a lot more now. There's a lot more now.
KANENGISER: Yes. And it's kind of neat in a way. I don't mean to take
credit for it, but when we first started there were a lot of trios. We would go to Europe
and there were lots of trios and very few quartets. But now there are tons of quartets out
there. Maybe we've inspired some folks to get together. I think its an important thing for
guitar players to do.
Getting back to what we were talking about before. "Why did you guys get together in
the first place?" "What's the balance between solo and quartet?" Guitarists for a long time
only played solo. They were loners. We'd sit in a little room by ourselves. We'd play for
our teacher in a little room or we'd get up on stage all by ourselves and we'd leave. It was
lonely. The idea now is that we can make chamber music and interact with other
musicians. I think if you never do that as a musician it's pretty one dimensional. Also for
audiences it's so much more interesting. Solo concerts can be very interesting too, but
there's this antiphonal thing, this body language thing. Who's playing that? Now itÕs
coming from this guy.
AM: Right. It seems like most of the top-rated soloists are also really
active in chamber music. John Williams has played with everybody. There's a harpsichord
and guitar record. There's even an organ and guitar record. I hate to ask this question but,
how did you get started playing the guitar?
KANENGISER: The way I got started was my older brother wanted to learn
guitar. This was in the days when they had those S&H green stamps. Remember? Your
mom would go shopping and youÕd get page after page of these really sticky stamps.
YouÕd lick them and put them in these books and collect the books. Really disgusting. But
if you got 46 books, or something, you could get a guitar. My brother got a guitar at an
S&H green stamp redemption center. He tried to learn it, but after about three months he
gave up. I said, "Oh, I'd like to try that." In about a week I had gone through the book.
That was my first guitar. My brother was really mad at me that I excelled at it.
AM: Do you still have that S&H green stamps guitar?
KANENGISER: I smashed it. We played El Kabong one day on the back
porch and I smashed it. It deserved to be smashed. It was coming apart, as one might
expect. I talked with a guitar importer once who brings in some really fine instruments.
But he said, "Well, we really make our money with the G.S.O.'s. WhatÕs a G.S.O.? A
Guitar-Shaped-Object.Ó This was a Guitar Shaped Object. So, I don't have it. It would be
a nice heirloom. "Hey this is Bill Kanengiser's first guitar." [laughter]
The first guitar lick I ever learned was the opening gliss from [James Taylor's] Fire and
Rain. That thrilled me. I learned Blackbird by the Beatles and I just thought that was
great. So I was into the Beatles and Joni Mitchell and folks like that. Then later on I got
really into Yes. I was a huge Steve Howe fan in high school.
AM: How did you start playing classical music?
KANENGISER: I learned Mood for a Day off of Fragile. My cousin, who is a
classical pianist, heard me play it at a Rosh Hoshanah party at my uncle's house. He said,
"Bill, you should study classical guitar." I started from there. It was Mood for a Day that
made me a classical musician.
But I was so disconnected from classical guitar that I didnÕt even know any other
classical guitarists, except for my teacher, when I was in high school. When I went to
USC, those were the first other classical guitarists I had ever met. I'm ashamed to admit
this, but I didn't even know who Pepe Romero was when I went to study with him. Who
is this guy? It was such unbelievably dumb luck that I stumbled onto the greatest virtuoso
on the planet and the greatest teacher. It was just ridiculous how it worked.
AM: That was good luck for the rest of us too.
KANENGISER: One of the main reasons I went to USC wasn't necessarily
because of the classical program. They had a program in studio guitar too. At that point I
didn't see myself as a specialty guy. I wanted to do pop music and rock and everything.
That's why I started there. Then after a couple of months, Pepe said I had to focus on
classical. He said, "Bill, the electric guitar is like a cupcake. ItÕs very sweet, but it will not
fill you up. You need to study classical." So, I sold my Les Paul and my Boogie amp, got
a real classical guitar, and that was it. I started to learn how to make a sound.
AM: I always ask, is there something you want to talk about? Oh!
What about your videos? You have some instructional videos.
KANENGISER: Yes. Actually, that was the best thing that happened to me
from doing Crossroads. I met Arlen Roth. At that point he was the coach for Ralph
Maccio. He runs this company called HotLicks, which is great. At that point they made
audio tapes and were just starting to get into video tapes when I met him. All the great rock players have done tapes for him. Tons of jazz players. Joe Pass did some. He's got keyboard tapes and harmonica tapes and hand exercise tapes, everything you can imagine.
I bumped into him at a N.A.M.M. [National Association of Music Merchants] show and I knew him from Crossroads. He asked if I wanted to do a classical video and I said sure. Then I started thinking. I'm going to do an instructional video. How do you do that? I gave it a lot of thought and I tried to think of what things I could cover that would address and audience that's unknown to me. I've no idea what the level of the student is who is watching, so I can't teach him how to play a particular piece. That might be a total waste of time. So I focused on general issues, but in a specific way.
The first one has to do with how to relax, how to play with less tension, basically all the things that Pepe taught me and a lot of ideas I got from the book called The Natural Classical Guitar, by Lee Ryan, which I highly recommend. It's a great book.
Then six years later they asked me to do another one. It just came out about a year ago. Classical Guitar Mastery. The first one's called Effortless Classical Guitar. I should be sued for false advertising because of that title. On the second one, the most recent one, I talk about tone production, how to file your nails, how to control your sound, control dynamics, control vibrato. It's all about control and refinement.
I'm really happy with them. I've never thought about writing a book. There are so many books out there. There are some really good ones. Scott Tennant has a great book out called Pumping Nylon. But I never felt compelled to do a book, because I felt like I'd be just tossing my little couple of paragraphs on top of the pile. What's the point? But I'm very proud of the videos. There are some issues I'm addressing that are really hard to address in a book or in a tape. It's really hard to describe how to make a stroke. On a video you can show it. You can do it in real-time [no pun intended, "reel time"]. I came up with some ways of highlighting the fundamental concepts that work really well. So, I am proud of them. I've had a lot of good feedback. Some folks have said, "They really helped me out."
AM: That's Effortless Classical Guitar and Classical Guitar Mastery on HotLicks.
WILLIAM KANENGISER: Right. That name sounds a little suspect. It sounds like a porno thing [laughter], but it's totally legit. I'm fully clothed during the whole thing.