Massive guitar gathering at uOttawa mixes music and the scientific method

Amy Brandon hard at work on her guitar. The uOttawa PhD student is one of the organizers of a massive conference on the instrument in the 21st century that begins this week.

The oldest image of a person playing something that resembles a guitar is believed to be a 5,500 year old Hittite carving found in the Middle East. People have been plucking stringed instruments ever since in a variety of forms. But what about today. What does the guitar mean in the 21st century?

A unique conference at uOttawa this week will offer some answers to that question.

The gathering of guitarists, composers and researchers begins Aug. 22 and runs until Aug. 25. Officially the University of Ottawa School of Music, in collaboration with the International Guitar Research Centre (University of Surrey, England), the Canadian Music Centre and the Ottawa Guitar Society, is sponsoring the event in Ottawa which will focus on composition, performance and pedagogy and the permutations of the axe from classical to modern and beyond

There will be panels and papers presented on everything from music cognition to the politics of nostalgia as it relates to music and the guitar.

Oh, but there’s more. There will be concerts featuring new works for guitar duo, guitar orchestra and electronics showcased at Carleton’s Dominion-Chalmers Centre, uOttawa’s Freiman Hall and in other venues. Special guest jazz guitarists Miles Okazaki and Gordon Grdina will deliver separate concerts at uOttawa’s Freiman Hall.

The biggest event, both in number of participants and in terms of time, is a free six-hour concert that starts at 5 p.m. on Aug. 22. Some 40-plus guitarists, including Ottawa’s Louis Trepanier and Adam Cicchillitti, will play a slew of new works by Canadian composers written for classical and electric guitar and electronics.

The conference is a mission of sorts for Amy Brandon, one of the co-directors of the event.

“I am doing this for a couple of reasons. When I started working on my PhD, I started going to guitar conferences to present work and I noticed that with some exceptions, a lot of the music and research presented focussed on repertoire, artists and composers from at least 100 years ago.

“As somebody who performs and writes new music I knew there is so much incredible new music written for the guitar that is adventurous, that pushes boundaries, that is wonderful to listen to, that I wanted to put a spotlight on that.”

She noted in an interview with ARTSFILE that in Canada there is a long history of collaboration between guitarists and experimental composers. “I also wanted to feature that.”

She started thinking about a conference almost three years ago and with her colleague Dr. Gilles Comeau, her PhD supervisor and the head of the uOttawa piano pedagogy lab, applied for a SSHRC grant. They got $40,000 and that started the ball rolling downhill.

“The money allowed us to put on the broadest possible vision of conference. So we can touch upon a range of things” including new music, psychology and the physical nature of playing the guitar.

“I wanted to have a conference that focused on academic subjects as well as the artistic side. My PhD is half science, half artistic research and that kind of interdisciplinary focus is something that I think brings a lot of value to both sides.”

When Brandon is talking science in the context of the gathering she is primarily thinking about “music cognition and motor control.” The conference will look at the ways our brains and our bodies work together to perform music on the guitar.

One of the keynote speakers will be Jonathan de Souza who will address what it means to think like a guitarist from the perspective of music theory and cognitive science. (Editor’s note: De Souza is also performing with Ottawa’s Gypsy Muse on Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Adishesha Yoga Zone at 99 Fourth Ave.)

Brandon noted that the guitar is not studied much in research on such things as music cognition, so one of the goals of the gathering is to focus on guitar.

The organizers issued a call for papers and have selected 26 from around the world. Some of these papers will focus on repertoire too.

One of the presenters is the composer and academic Stephen Goss coming from the International Guitar Research Centre in Surrey, England. He’s the one talking about the politics of nostalgia and how that affects composition and guitar repertoire in the classical context.

Brandon noted that Miles Okazaki is one of the stars of the event.

“Most people (in the know) feel he is really pushing boundaries of contemporary jazz guitar. His last album is a double record of Thelonious Monk pieces called Work. He is fantastic composer and player.” The JUNO winner (for his work on the album China Cloud) Gordon Grdina is another star of the gathering.

But the marathon is a key event.

It kicks off the conference.

“When we put that program together I discovered there is such a collaborative connection between the guitar and experimental music in Canada going back decades. For example, we have a couple of pieces by Robert Bauer that premiered in the late ’70s and we have pieces up to this year” including two by Brandon herself.

One of those is called Prometheus which she wrote for a Brahms guitar which has eight strings and a resonator box on the floor. It’s played upright like a cello. The instrument was developed in late ’90s.

To showcase what can be done today, the marathon opens with a piece by Toronto composer and guitarist James Duff who has an installation that features robotically controlled synthesizers along with a guitar.

The marathon also reveals that the demographics of the guitar is changing. There are more and more female players and composers and that is certainly featured in the event.

Brandon’s own research is examining how we control the guitar when improvising. And it also looks at how we plan where that improvisation might go.

When musicians practice over a long period of time the connections between the motor centres of the brain (those areas that control plucking the strings for example) and hearing become closely connected, Brandon said.

Guitarists also talk about being able to project a pattern on the fret board of the instrument, much as a chess player thinks several moves ahead. She is trying to see if there is a biological basis for this.

Brandon comes by her interest in the guitar honestly. She did her undergraduate work studying jazz guitar at Carleton University. After graduation she headed to Nova Scotia and worked as a jazz guitarist and teacher for a couple of years. She returned to get a Master’s in composition at uOttawa and has stayed there for her PhD.

James Duff kicks it off with an installation featuring robotically controlled synthesizers plus guitar.

The 21st Century Guitar conference runs from Aug. 22 to 25 at various locations in the city. It is open to the public. For more information on events, tickets, times and locations, please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.