Before a single note or an ensemble melody sounded, the members of the Dublin Guitar Quartet had established a vision for the music they wanted to play.
Although conservatory-trained, the four guitarists — Brian Bolger, Pat Brunnock, Michael O'Toole and Tomas O'Durcain — had little interest in a strictly classical repertoire. Instead, they looked to the works of established modern composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt.
"There was a consensus even before the first rehearsal," Bolger said by phone from his home in Dublin, Ireland. "There was a particular curiosity we had. The question was, 'What would the music of American composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass sound like on guitars?' It hadn't really been done. Also, 'How would a guitar quartet that specializes in contemporary music fare?' So we kind of saw a guitar-shaped hole in the contemporary music scene."
That fascination led to a deeper challenge — adapting and arranging compositions that were never intended as guitar pieces. Works by Reich, Glass, Pärt and other modern classical composers have been adapted for numerous instrumental settings, but never for four guitars.
"I suppose we're kind of limited in a certain respect in that the music of people like (contemporary composers Mark-Anthony) Turnage or (Alfred) Schnittke, music that is very idiomatic and has lots of special techniques, doesn't really work. It doesn't make the translation. The music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt translates the same way that the music of Bach translates to the guitar. It's really kind of melodic and harmonically oriented, so it works well that way."
The lengths to which the Dublin Guitar Quartet travel in a finding a new voice for contemporary music can be found in its arrangement of Eastern European composer György Ligeti's Musica ricercata, to be featured in the group's performance Wednesday at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. The piece, originally written for piano, was reworked for wind and even saxophone quartets. All of the incarnations figure into the version that the Dublin Guitar Quartet will perform.
"Ligeti is mostly known for his soundtracks," Bolger said. "His soundtrack music was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, so people might recognize him from that. But Musica ricercata is from earlier in his career, so there is more explicit melodic content and more traditional things going on. It's quite a jolly piece as well, but still very modern. It kind of sticks out in the set a little bit, but it's nice to have that variety."
The Danville performance will include music by Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer, former quartet member David Flynn (whose Chimurenga is a tribute to famed South African artist and activist Thomas Mapfumo) and the Irish rock troupe The Redneck Manifesto, along with works by Pärt, Reich and Glass. The Dublin Guitar Quartet's next album is devoted to guitar arrangements of Glass's string quartets.
It all represents a marked progression from the music — what little of it there was — that Bolger heard at home during his youth.
"Growing up, we only had two records in the house. One was the 1812 Overture — that really famous recording that explained how they made the cannons on the B side. The other was Cabaret. Those were the only two records in the house for a long time. Then I hit my teens and it was Metallica and thrash metal. I kind of found the guitar that way. I also liked a lot of post-rock music such as (the Louisville band) Slint and Tortoise, stuff like that."
"It's important for us today to find a common kind of message for any listener and not have an overemphasis on anything. When you overemphasize, you kind of sell yourself short. I like to mix things up and keep them changing so there is something there for everybody."