BERKELEY -- The world's most-played and arguably most popular instrument, the guitar, will expand its auditory sweep when the Pacific Guitar Ensemble appears at a L@TE: Friday Nights program on Feb. 1 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
The eclectic group of pluckers traces its genesis to 1998, when founders David Tanenbaum and Peppino D'Agostino crossed paths -- traveling 6,000 miles from their homes in the Bay Area to meet for the first time at a world guitar event in Germany. Several tours and tempting ensemble experiences later, they began recruiting for a home-based group in 2010.
"What excited me about the idea of ensemble was all the possibility in sound," Tanenbaum says in an interview from his studio in Emeryville.
The 56-year-old musician, despite a solid solo career and prolific discography to match, says, "It's a stretch for me to be a guitar geek," then launches into an attempt to pinpoint PGE's wide-ranging sound.
"We have homogeneity, but the different colors of the different instruments mean we can be quiet and sustained; low and semi-acoustic; Middle Eastern, with sliding, quick onsets and tremolo to support. You know, guitar ensembles are proliferating everywhere, but I don't know of any that has this kind of range. That's what has excited my ear."
PGE's multilayered textures and sonorities spring inevitably, breathtakingly, from exotic and traditional instrumentation, including the sazouki, a relatively new hybrid of a bouzouki and a Turkish saz; a Middle Eastern oud; and baroque, bass, 11-string, electric and classical guitars. Unlike guitar quartets and orchestras largely tooled with only the latter, the result is best described as "unified individualism."
That doesn't mean achieving unity is easy.
"What I've learned is how immensely difficult it is to get guitar musicians to play together," Tanenbaum admits. "With string instruments, there's room for the sound to come together. With guitars, it's 'pluck,' then the sound dies instantly."
Because solo guitarists tend to push the sound, ensembles, where every artist has a different touch, require pulling back and playing lighter to achieve precision.
Transcribing a classical piece written for string ensemble or orchestra occasionally means making peace with the transfer of medium. Tanenbaum recalls struggling with a Brahms sextet, then realizing they were reaching new territory.
"There's quite a bit of waste. There are times we struggle, then reject a piece knowing we couldn't add to it. The Brahms -- we certainly didn't perform it with our tail between our legs," he declares. "We hope Brahms would be intrigued by what we created."
World-renowned Brazilian guitarist and composer Sergio Assad became fascinated with the group and has written several original works now in its repertoire.
"There is beauty in opening a PDF and seeing a work for the first time," Tanenbaum says. "It's still thrilling, the process of combining performers' instincts with the composer's."
He sees new music crossovers everywhere. So many that, "You can't tell where it comes from. There's pop, Eastern Indian, seven and 11 beats instead of fours, groove. There's less straight up modernism and 12-tone writing, but there's still cutting edge, dissonant music."
Losing the "isms," like modernism and serialism, frees each piece to be explored on its own terms, but with the average Internet surfer spending only five seconds per YouTube hit, he feels the pressure to have an impact.
"We're in the most rip-offable art form, too," he says, "but there's nothing that will ever compare to live music and listening to a group tune up, or how they change (their sound) for each piece."
The Berkeley program begins with 14 students and one alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Tanenbaum is chairman of the guitar department, performing Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint."
Immediately following, six members of PGE will play the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, a transcribed piece whose original score offers two midrange viola lines accompanied by low strings, making it well-suited for bass, steel and baroque guitars.
"Alkioni," a work Tanenbaum says is "exotic, Greek-sounding," precedes D'Agostino's "Jump Rope," a piece inspired by clawhammer banjo playing.
Wrapping it up is Terry Riley's "Y Bolanzero" and an Assad-arranged selection, "Verano Porteño," by the master of guitar, Astor Piazzolla.
Pacific Guitar Ensemble performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb, 1, 2013 in Gallery B of the BAM/PFA galleries, 2626 Bancroft Way in Berkeley. Tickets and details: www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/late020113.