The Singing Guitar: An Interview with Janet Grohovac

ACG turns 30 this year! In celebration, one of our generous supporters is matching every gift up to $50,000 between now and our opening concert with maestro Pepe Romero on September 26th! Make a gift today.

Five years ago we had the chance to be part of a spectacular event at Bass Concert Hall when Texas Performing Arts commissioned a work from preeminent young composer Nico Muhly for Austin Classical Guitar and Austin’s very own Grammy-winning choir, Conspirare.

It was a night to remember! Complete with a massive thunderstorm right in the middle of the last movement when the kettle drums entered!

Now Conspirare has recorded the work as part of their new album: The Singing Guitar.

The work features Conspirare under the direction of maestro Craig Hella Johnson, with the LA Guitar Quartet, Texas Guitar Quartet, Austin Guitar Quartet and cellist Douglas Harvey. It’s set for release this Friday, September 18th. Plus, there will be a release party this Tuesday, September 15th via Youtube live, and you can join here.

Looking forward to the event, we got the chance to speak with member of the Austin Guitar Quartet, Janet Grohovac, who shared some beautiful insight on the music in the album and her experience in being part of the artistry of this amazing piece of work. 

It is remarkable to experience Muhly’s voice through the unique ensemble of a choir of voices and a choir of twelve guitars. We were curious to know how it felt to be part of the magic. Janet shared:

 “It was incredibly enriching and inspiring to collaborate with a large scale ensemble and such wonderful talent. During our first large ensemble rehearsal, Craig positioned all of us guitarists in a semi-circle on stage and then had the chorus completely surround us. Hearing their heavenly voices and the sheer beauty of sound that enveloped us as we began that rehearsal was an unforgettable moment. We became so excited and enthralled by the beauty of Muhly’s composition.”

Janet continued on to share the experience of being directed by Craig Hella Johnson.

“Craig found a way to bring the best out of you and would often say something like, “It would be a gift if you could....” (playing louder, or softer, or more lyrical, etc). His approach was uniquely uplifting and changed us in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. By the end of the journey, we knew we had captured something special together.”

Janet also shared with us the details of Nico Muhly’s composition How Little You Are.

“Muhly’s composition is based on the 19th century texts of the everyday life of two pioneer women. He brings to life the descriptions of nature and hardships of prairie life based on letters by Elinore Pruitt Stewart in all of the movements except for one. Part four of the work is based on the text of Mary Alma Blankenship, from which the “How Little You Are” title is derived. Her description ‘But when you get among such grandeur you get to feel how little you are, how foolish is human endeavor, except that which unites us with the almighty force called God’ is the text upon which the work was inspired and features solo soprano.”

As musicians, artists, and human beings we naturally connect ourselves in deep and meaningful ways to the art we observe, experience, and are part of. We had the pleasure of having Janet share her personal connection with Muhly’s composition and the ensemble:

“The fact that each of us individually, particularly as guitarists, were just a little part of the whole, because the texture was so large. Each little microcosm within each group has it’s own function, but it was the three groups coming together with Conspirare that carries their meaning and gives you the full picture, and at the end of it, you truly get the sense of how little you are.”

We are so excited to be able to enjoy and share something this beautiful and unique with our community. We hope that you can join us in listening to samples of this remarkable work, and connect with Craig Hella Johnson, the artists, and fellow listeners this Tuesday at the release party.


Interview: Brandon Carcamo - Composer and Guitarist

Brandon Carcamo is a New Orleans based composer and guitarist. Carcamo recently won the 2020 ACG composition competition with his piece 'Solace' for guitar choir. 'Solace' was planned to be premiered during ACG Fest; however, due to current circumstances the festival has been cancelled. Instead of letting the premiere die, the piece has taken new life through the SOLACE PROJECT. In this interview, we discuss Brandon Carcamo's experience in the time of COVID-19, his compositions, and specific challenges composing for guitar ensemble.

How did you get into classical and jazz guitar? 

I first got into jazz guitar when I was around 12 years old. For a few summers, I used to go to these jazz camps where I was introduced to the musical culture of New Orleans and where I was able to learn directly from experienced musicians in the city. I also went to a performing arts high school called the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), which was also instrumental in my growth as a musician. My transition to classical guitar is actually very recent. I decided to take a stab at it about halfway through college, and after I had my first lesson, I knew that it would play a big role in my life. I was very fortunate to have some amazing teachers who pushed me in the right direction. After that, I started gravitating more towards classical guitar, but I do go back and forth with classical and jazz sometimes.

When did you start composing? 

I first started composing when I was in college, and it was mostly for film scoring. I wanted to be a film score composer for a time, and so I would try to find any opportunity where I could write music for someone else’s project. I eventually did get the chance to work on a few student films and even partake in a few film scoring competitions, all of which were invaluable experiences for me as a young composer. They really helped in honing my composing “chops”. Besides that, I haven’t written too much music that isn’t related to film scoring. I’m only just now starting to write music for classical guitar, and I’m getting more comfortable with it the more I grow as a player.

What inspired you to write “Solace”?

I wrote this piece thinking of the things we tend to turn to in a time of distress and how that itself is a beautiful expression of our humanity. I used some minimalist textures because I wanted the piece to sound sort of dreamlike, as if the things we find solace in put us in this trance of comfort.

What are some challenges you faced writing for guitar ensemble? 

I think the main challenge that I faced in writing for guitar ensemble was just keeping each part as interesting and engaging as the others, especially when you have to consider how to make each part slightly different in the level of difficulty. The other big challenge for me was creating interesting textures on guitar. I’m more comfortable with the variety of orchestral textures coming from my experience with film scoring, but with guitar, it’s something I had to think about. After writing this piece, I’m starting to think more now about how I can translate orchestral textures to guitar. 

We are living in an unprecedented time due to COVID-19, how has this pandemic affected you both personally and as a musician? 

Obviously this pandemic has been traumatizing to us all worldwide. My father tested positive for COVID-19, and while he is fully recovered now, it was difficult to see him in the state he was in. Like so many others right now, I’m just trying to get by emotionally. As for music, all gigs in the universe have been cancelled for every musician, and I am no exception to that. I’m just trying to share music online right now and do my best to stay connected with others. 

What are some ways you’ve seen musicians pivot during this time of social distancing that has inspired you? 

It really makes me happy to see the output of music that fellow musicians have been sharing over the internet. It’s been really inspiring to watch all of the solos, duets, and orchestras perform virtually. I think this is encouraging more people to share their music and connect with others online. It has definitely inspired me to do just that.

For the health and safety of the guitar community, Austin Classical Guitar has had to change the approach to premiere your piece. What do you hope musicians gain from performing “Solace” in a time of social distancing? 

I know this is cliché, but my hope is that this experience brings us closer together during this pandemic. I know it’s an unusual way to premiere a piece, but we are living in unusual times, and we just have to make the most of it. Even though we are living in a time of social distancing, we don’t have to stay disconnected. I also don’t think there are too many virtual guitar orchestras out there, so I really think that this piece can do something special for us and the world. I’m really hoping that this performance inspires others to share their art, especially our own members of the classical guitar community.