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Have guitar, will trek

Guitar Trek members Tim Kain, Minh Le Hoang, Bradley Kunda, Matt Withers. Photo: Supplied by Guitar Trek Guitar Trek members Tim Kain, Minh Le Hoang, Bradley Kunda, Matt Withers. Photo: Supplied by Guitar Trek

An Australian classical guitarist who was handpicked to play with the great John Williams, Tim Kain’s career has been a combination of performing at the highest international level and quietly building up a legendary teaching tradition. Since the 1980s, Tim Kain has been based at the Canberra School of Music, now Australian National University (ANU) School of Music, where he leads what is regarded nationally and internationally as an outstanding school of guitar teaching. As well, he created and leads a unique ensemble, Guitar Trek, now in their 27th year, who will perform in Dubbo this October.

What led to the formation of Guitar Trek?

Instrument maker Graham Caldersmith approached me in the early 1980s with the idea of a guitar quartet based around different sized instruments. This hasn’t been the tradition; the guitar didn’t develop different sized instruments, or a family of instruments like the classical strings with violin, viola, cello and double bass.

This seemed like a good idea to me. There was a resurgence of guitar ensembles at the time but this type of a guitar ensemble would be completely new and exciting.

We were fortunate to have the support of Australia Council grants; first an innovation grant to develop and build the instruments and then over time grants to commission music for our ensemble, as well as grants to record; we have five CDs with ABC Classics.

The members of Guitar Trek have been your graduate students. Where have your students ended up? Are they also teaching as well as performing, like you?

An unusually high number of my students have gone on to make careers in music. The majority have become successful performing artists, which is really quite remarkable as it’s such a tough business. I’ve had lots of students win international competitions, too many to keep track of really, but I don’t dwell on that as I definitely don’t teach to win competitions.

Many of my students are out there teaching: at the Victorian College of the Arts, at University of Newcastle, and Minh Le Hoang is continuing the school of guitar I established in Canberra at ANU.

My student from Dubbo, Campbell Diamond, is now studying in Germany at a very prestigious school and just came third in the Daejeon International Guitar Competition in Korea.

As well as teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students of classical guitar, you’ve also taught students at the pre-tertiary, school age level. Is that important to you?

Yes it’s very important because the early years of music education are the crucial ones. It’s a much specialised area, teaching from beginner to intermediate levels. I did a lot of teaching myself of young students when I first came to the Canberra School of Music, and then as the school grew, I handed the younger students over to teachers who were graduate students of mine but I always kept a close interest and mentored the teachers, who used my methods.

Who were your teachers?

I come from the Segovia school of guitar playing. Segovia was the major figure in classical guitar in the twentieth century, a Spanish musician who performed across the world, recorded extensively and taught over a very long period. My first teacher, Australian Sadie Bishop, studied at Segovia’s summer schools and Sadie also learnt from Len Williams, father of the famous John Williams. I went on to study in Spain with Jose Tomás and in Manchester with Len Williams as well.

That led to my relationship with the great guitarist John Williams. We played together for a number of years, as a classical guitar duo and also in a group called Attaca, a seven-piece band. I would have to say that performing with John Williams was a big highlight of my career.

Back to Guitar Trek: can you describe the special guitars the ensemble plays?

The guitars we use from highest to lowest are: a treble guitar, a standard guitar, a baritone guitar and a bass guitar. That gives a similar sort of range in pitch and tone colour as you might find in a string quartet with two violins, a viola and a cello. Our bass guitar is the most different to the standard guitar – it has only four strings and is tuned like a classical double bass.

Guitar Trek also plays with different combinations of those instruments; sometimes we play on four standard guitars, or maybe three standard and the bass guitar, it varies. And sometimes we use other instruments as well: a piece we will play in Dubbo called Six Fish, by Australian composer Nigel Westlake, is for standard 12-string guitars, and a dobra, which is a blues guitar, and they all use steel strings which give a different sound.

Because of the unusual guitars the group uses, do you have to arrange the music you play?

Yes, you can’t just take music of the shelf! We make arrangements ourselves, of Spanish and Latin music that suits guitars, but lots of other music as well. We have always promoted Australian composers and commissioned them to write for us. Most composers seem to really enjoy writing for our family of instruments; it gives them a lot to play around with.

Are there other groups like yours using the different sized instruments?

Yes, there is a Melbourne Guitar Quartet and another one in the US and one in England. Where the different sized guitars have really taken off is in guitar orchestras, which are a community or amateur form of music-making; they are huge in Japan.

How would you describe the level of interest in classical guitar at the moment?

It has grown and grown over the past five decades, it may be still to peak. What has really changed from when I started out is the sheer number of really virtuosic professional guitarists from all parts of the world, although the down side to that is a bit of trend for speed and fireworks instead of real musicality. And the interest is very strong in Australia. In fact I’ve christened ABC Classic FM, ABC Guitar FM, because they play so much guitar music, including our records, which is fine by me!

What are your future plans?

I’ll be leaving my formal teaching role at ANU at the end of this year, other than supervising PhD students, but my colleague and former student Minh Le Hoang will stay as the head guitar teacher there. That will give me more freedom to go back to what I did before I started teaching at the Canberra School of Music: more concert performances, I have several recordings that need editing, and continuing all the Guitar Trek projects. I think I’ll be quite busy!

- AS TOLD TO Vivienne Winther

>> Guitar Trek performs at Macquarie Conservatorium Dubbo on Friday, October 24, at 7.30pm and give a Guitar Masterclass on Saturday, October 25, at 11am. Visit www.macqcon.org.au for bookings.