Jersey Boy

by J. Andrew Dickenson
March 2006

With one of the most recognizable faces in the classical guitar world, William Kanengiser has developed a reputation for programming and recording out-of-the-ordinary material — and doing it well — and is steadily gaining a worldwide audience. Always one to stretch musical boundaries, his career has flourished both as a soloist and as a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet by raising the bar for musical expression, technique, and repertoire, even creating new genres that defy classification.

Kanengiser’s eclectic discography includes Echos from the Old World, music inspired by the sounds of Eastern Europe, and Caribbean Souvenirs, music from the Caribbean and Mexico. His most recent album, Classical Cool, is a compilation of jazz-inspired tunes that includes music by some notable New Yorkers — “Missing Her” by Fred Hand and Gene Bertoncini’s arrangement of “My Funny Valentine.” I began our conversation with a question about his choice of repertoire for this album.

In your program notes for Classical Cool, you talk about the “Third Stream” of music that defies classification by standard Tower Record categories. Your album is dedicated to the cross-pollination of jazz and classical, but do you see other trends emerging that mix styles?

I’m certainly not the first classical guitarist to “mix and match” with styles; John Williams did rock-influenced stuff in the ’80’s, Bream played with Ravi Shankar, Barrueco played with Al Dimeola, etc. Certainly the direction we’ve headed with LAGQ is along the lines of exploring these hybridizations, so it was a natural avenue for me to traverse in my solo playing.

Why do you think there is so much genre-hopping these days? Are musicians or the public simply bored with the traditional fare?

The classics will never go out of style, and it’s imperative for our instrument to remain rooted in its core repertoire base. However, I think that many artists and some audiences are craving new directions in programming to spice up concerts. As with anything, the devil is in the details: A cross-over effort can be either intensely creative or incredibly cheesy, depending on how it’s done. The trick, it seems to me, is to venture into a style that resonates with you personally, and isn’t done with a pandering, market-driven impulse behind it. I think audiences can sense if an artist isn’t emotionally committed to a project, and they will reject it subconsciously if it somehow doesn’t ring true.

This isn’t the first time you’ve crossed picket lines — your album, Echos of The Old World, for instance, was heavily influenced by exotic eastern sounds. Even, dare I say, your work on the movie Crossroads. And of course your work with LAGQ. What has drawn you to explore repertoire outside the “usual” classical pieces throughout your career?

When I was just a student, working with Pepe Romero, I focused on a lot of traditional repertoire, and rather emulated Pepe in my style and choice of music. He sat me down one day, and in a remarkable show of artistic maturity on his part, told me: “You can’t become the second-best Pepe Romero in the world, but you can become the best Bill Kanengiser in the world!” He was confident enough to encourage me to strike out on my own and define my artistic individuality. So, I realized that I didn’t want to do pieces “almost as well” as Pepe, or Russell, or Williams, but to do repertoire I was drawn to, in my own way. Music from other cultures has always fascinated me, and it seemed natural for me to explore them in those various projects. In the process, these artistic ventures have set me apart a bit from my colleagues who favor more traditional fare.

Were there any early pioneers of this “Third Stream” that influenced you?

Among classical guitarists, Dusan Bogdanovic, the brilliant composer/improviser comes to mind as an early role model, as does Roland Dyens the French arranger/composer, and my LAGQ cohort Andy York, of course.

Most people know Bill the soloist and Bill the member of LAGQ, but is there a Bill that is more clandestine? For instance: Do you play in other chamber groups, or play another instrument, or compose music, or collect Star Trek figurines?

I suspect my non-guitar persona is a bit boring, but I do enjoy cooking and hanging out with my wife and daughter. I suppose my most notable alter-ego is my penchant for imitation, specifically famous personalities of the guitar world. I did a stand-up comedy routine at the last GFA convention where I imitated 22 guitarists, a sort of “career suicide” that was surprisingly well received!

Tell me about growing up in NJ. Any fond memories of NY? Lessons, concerts, memories, random acts of violence?

I grew up in a pretty sheltered suburban area (Livingston) and had a fairly uneventful childhood there. Perhaps the strangest thing was how little interaction I had with any other classical players; I commuted into the city every Saturday to study at the Mannes Prep School, but other than my teacher, I didn’t hang with any other players until I showed up at USC.

I read somewhere that you bought your first guitar with S&H Greenstamps. What kind was it? Do you still own it?

I hesitate calling it a guitar, it was more of a “GSO”: guitar shaped object. I guess my sentimentality with it didn’t run very deep; after the bridge popped off, my brother and I played “El Kabong!” with it and did a Jimi Hendrix guitar-smashing imitation with it.

You’ve come a long way since Jersey. Have there ever been times when you just wanted to chuck it all in and become, say, a lawyer- or maybe join the Mafia?

Fuhgettaboutit!! Although there were some lean times along the way, I never could see myself doing anything other than music. I didn’t really expect to be a performer, but I was willing to be involved in any aspect of the music business, publishing, recording, teaching, production, payola racketeering, whatever. I only wanted to make my living in some way centered around music.

Thank you so much for your time, Bill. Everyone in NY is eagerly looking forward to your visit.

Me too!