Tom Kerstens' G Plus ensemble, 2010

'Utopia' is the debut recording of Tom Kerstens with his newly formed G Plus Ensemble. The group was created specifically for the recording of newly commissioned writing. Here Tom Kerstens discusses the background the making of 'Utopia'in conversation with Tony Davis:

"For over one hundred and fifty years, the guitar has been languishing on the periphery, overlooked by composers and out of touch with mainstream developments. Solo classical guitar does not have the high quality repertoire available to other instruments. Nor, since ensembles grew louder during the 19th century, has the quiet voice of the guitar had much written for it. It is a highly idiomatic instrument and is difficult to write for if you are not a guitarist and do not know its qualities and limitations.

I was able to commission some leading composers, such as Howard Skempton, Giles Swayne, Terry Riley and Kevin Volans. However, I needed to adopt a fresh approach so I targeted talented young UK composers such as Joby Talbot, Errollyn Wallen, Philip Cashian, John Metcalfe and Graham Fitkin. I have been working with some of them for 10 years now.

The need to create repertoire for the guitar is one of the great pleasures of contemporary music. I have commissioned work from composers who operate outside as well as within the classical world. This openness is also part of my campaign to get compositions for the guitar listened to by a much wider range of people than those who you would normally expect to attend a chamber recital in a concert hall.

The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. However, informed interpretation, the essential characteristic of western classical music, is only possible if you have a repertoire of the highest quality to interpret. The gap between popular and classical guitar culture is huge and I have been eager to begin to bridge it, as well as to add to the range of contemporary music repertoire.

G Plus means guitar with something else. It is an evolving term. This can be guitar with other instruments, (e.g. the G Plus ensemble) or guitar with electronics (e.g. the three movements of The Third Fire). Both versions can be found in this recording. The G Plus ensemble here consists of two guitars, strings and percussion. This line-up was discovered by chance and works extraordinarily well. I was first drawn to it following my collaborations with string quartets.

This instrumentation combined with the quality of recording offered by Real World in its atmospheric studio and the lack of compression and quality of reproduction means that there can be real clarity and warmth. For once, a recording can adequately reflect the range of sounds that the listener should be able to hear.

In the G Plus ensemble, the guitar's plucked sound decays quickly; this contrasts with the sustained string sound. Combined with the vibraphone and in the absence of an inevitably dominant piano, the G Plus ensemble sounds quite magical. John Metcalfe says there is no other ensemble like this and that it reverses the role of the guitar. A rock guitar offers a vertical way of playing; there are chords and the guitar usually determines the key and how a piece modulates. John has deployed the quartet in that vertical role for some of his G Plus pieces; he has used the guitar as a linear, horizontal instrument that does not just play chords but, instead, plays melodic lines. For John, this can make the guitar line much more fluid and interesting; the guitar can act as a more harmonic instrument - the role usually taken by the piano.

It is no accident that the two composers featured on this first G Plus recording both come from a background that combines art rock and classical training.

John Metcalfe, from New Zealand, was, in an earlier incarnation, the viola player for Manchester-based sonic adventurers Durutti Column and came later in his career to composition. John plays viola with the Duke Quartet, and is the arranger for Peter Gabriel's new 'Scratch My Back' album. He was introduced to Peter at Real World whilst producing his compositions on 'Utopia'.

Joby Talbot was a key member of passionate ironists The Divine Comedy - both of them cult bands. He is one of the brightest and most sought after young composers around. He has written for classical artists as well as for film (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), TV (League of Gentlemen, which won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Title Music) and co-written a string of hits as member of the 'art rock' group The Divine Comedy. As an arranger/writer he has worked with a wide variety of top musicians such as Paul McCartney, Travis, Ute Lemper and the White Stripes. He is currently working on a new ballet score for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden ' to be premiered in July 2010 ' the first new ballet score commission from ROH in over 30 years.

Both John and Joby have roots in a variety of musical backgrounds and have written music which dares simply to be itself without reference to hackneyed 'cross-over' or disjointed pick & mix concepts.

The exciting thing about composing for G Plus is that, as John Metcalfe says, "it is purely about the music". In a culture where so much has already happened, how refreshing it is to see that composing for the guitar is still a new departure".

Utopia: Track Listing

1. Utopia composed by Joby Talbot
A delightfully sprightly opening for the G Plus ensemble, which progresses through a meditative mid-section and then keeps building through to a vibrant and rather gorgeous end. In Joby Talbot's words, 'the four square nature of the opening ostinati is gradually undercut by obstinate syncopations which refuse to obey the simple rules of eight bar phrasing.'

2. Croydon Grand Prix composed by Joby Talbot
In case you were wondering, there is no grand prix in Croydon. However, the first guitar; the cello and the second guitar jostle for position from beginning to end. This shimmering piece articulates guitar lines against a ground of resonant vibraphone and discretely ambient strings. Suddenly it begins to pick up speed, progresses towards an ecstatic climax and then slows down for an exquisite coda.

3. Cyanide composed by Joby Talbot
'Cyanide's beautiful chords are gradually poisoned by a rogue F flat.'

4. Dead Space composed by Joby Talbot
'Dead Space is really two pieces combined. A slow hauntingly repeated figure is rudely interrupted by the relentlessly driven middle section before making an uneasy return as the piece fades into the final movement.'

5. First Day of Summer composed by Joby Talbot
This piece exudes joy, a feeling of lightness and a sensation of beginnings. Avenues are explored, possibilities emerge and there is a sense of delightfully natural energy that arises from its charming tonality. It ends with a moment of reflection and a slight fading away, as though that much innocence and simplicity cannot be sustained for too long.

6. Iliac Crest composed by Joby Talbot
A Spanish sounding motif on the guitars leads to a piece that seems to echo and morph the spirit of flamenco and tango. In this piece, the guitars' and the strings' Iberian plaintiveness and deft rhythms interweave. Col legno (played with the back of the bow) and plucked strings provide an edginess to offset the guitars' search for resolution.

7. Polarisation composed by Joby Talbot
This opens with strong guitar figures set against hallucinatory vibraphone and yearning strings before picking up both tempo and volume to present a powerful sequence. This shifts to a jaunty section combining jagged and gently sequenced music, which sustains the promise of dramatic events. As it advances, there is a sensation of troubled melancholy and passion, which leads almost to a resolution.

8. Incubator composed by Joby Talbot
'A C minor ticking clock is underpinned by brooding bass chords rocking to and fro with the ominous regularity of a life support machine.'

9. The Third Fire: Never Even composed by John Metcalfe
The Third Fire is a trio of pieces for solo guitar and digital delay. John Metcalfe has composed a piece for Tom Kerstens that is inspired by his love of electronic music and his time with the Manchester band Durutti Column, whose guitarist, Vini Reilly, is a master of this way of approaching guitar music. The three titles relate to that period of John's life, for example, Palatine refers to the original address of Factory Records.

During Never Even, Tom Kerstens' guitar traces out a delightfully syncopated and intricate motif, a kind of courtship dance with itself. The piece unfolds with grace as the guitar embraces a rich variety of sounds while it is being played with extreme dexterity.

10. The Third Fire: The Number 88 composed by John Metcalfe
A kind of interrupted rhythm opens up spaces for the digital delay and, as with Never Even, the guitar displays an orchestral range of sounds.

11. The Third Fire: The First Trip to Palatine composed by John Metcalfe
This place begins at speed with a trance-like, flowing beauty. The flickering and rippling delicacy of Tom's playing and John's writing are hugely expressive, yet gentle.

12. Silent Westway composed by John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe says that he starts from a sonic perspective and tends to bolt titles on after he has composed a piece. Despite that, he describes the source of this dreamy and haunting piece, as one inspired when he was mastering an album at a studio that overlooked the Westway, the raised section of the A40, in central London. The studio's soundproofing insulated him from the noise of the traffic that hurtled past. We hear a kind of serenity, a dislocation from the busy-ness of the silenced urban highway in this sprightly and warmly melodic reverie.

13. Ochre Orange Freeway composed by John Metcalfe
In Arizona and Colorado, the squat crag-like buttes jutting out of the desert add to the burnt orange sense of a landscape that is primeval and parched beyond imagining. John Metcalfe says, 'I have always enjoyed road trips in America' This is the kind of thing I might listen to in a thoughtful moment with my feet up on the dash and the roof down at sunset'.

14. As She Fell composed by John Metcalfe
This piece is for string quartet and one guitar. Again, unusually, this piece does have an origin in something that happened. It is inspired by his mother's death and is a way of imaging the moment she fell. It is an emotional piece both for him and for Tom Kerstens, whose father died at about the same time. It begins gently and hesitantly as though leaves are rustling in gusts of wind before it establishes a strange, almost overheard, sense of uncertainty. It rises in volume half way through but never quite asserts its presence. There is a moving sense that you are dreaming as you appear to overhear this piece.


  • Tom Kerstens and his genre-defying G Plus Ensemble are in their perfect place This is not a 'classical; CD as such; in fact, it defies easy categorisation. Both Joby Talbot and John Metcalfe are composers whose practices straddle numerous genres - for example, the former was a member of the cult band The Divine Comedy, the latter a voila player with post-punk Manchester band the Durutti Column. And yet there's a definate minimalist aesthetic running through these atmospheric works, all of which were commissioned by that tireless proselytizer for the contemporary classical guitar, Tom Kerstens for his G Plus Ensemble. From the obsessive ostinatos and tricky syncopations of Talbot's 'Utopia' through the same composer's radiant 'First Day of Summer' and Latin-inflected 'Iliac Crest' to Metcalfe's superb 'The Third Five' a triptych for solo guitar and digital delay, and the sombre, elegiac 'As She Fell', this is music that for the most part eschews complicated musical development in favour of hypnotic cascades of sound and visceral, rhythmically vibrant accretions. Kerstens and friends play with a precision that seems to grow out of the nature of the material rather than being imposed on it - interpretation at its most natural. It's also great to hear Kerstens on bass guitar, as the music sometimes requires. As Kerstens says in his booklet-note, "Rather than engaging in dubious 'cross-over' projects I wanted music that, whilst incorporating pop, rock, jazz and classical elements, simply is 'itself': expressive, individual and open to a potentially wide audience." Mission accomplished. - William Yeoman Gramophone Magazine (UK)
  • Tom Kerstens Utopia ...delicate textural footing, infectious minimalist drive and remarkable lyricism. The peice's dedicatee, Tom Kerstens, plays it with style on this disc. Classic FM (UK)
  • ...shimmering strings and beguiling harmonies. Joby Talbot combines both art rock and classical in his music, something the enterprising Dutch guitarist Tom Kerstens was keen to harness with commissions for his excellent ensemble G Plus....Inventive, eight-movement work that fuses driving mimimalism in the style of Michael Nyman with poppy, shimmering strings and beguiling harmonies. John Metcalfe's music, particularly The Third Fire for guitar and digital delay, is more mainstream classical - modal harmonies and syncopated rhythms lend a Spanish/latin feel: Albeniz or Villa-Lobos scattered by a dazzling, 21st-century prism. Classic FM (UK)