THE DIASPORA PROJECT
Throughout human history, people have been uprooted from their homelands, either by force or by choice. A common thread of this experience is the prejudice, if not outright persecution, that they frequently encounter in their adopted countries. After fleeing to unfamiliar lands and societies, immigrants have often used their indigenous music as a vital means of retaining some measure of cultural identity. Music can then be viewed as an important marker for defining one's sense of "home"; for displaced people, it can serve as a visceral connection to an ancestral source even as they attempt to assimilate. Thus it is the ideal means of expressing the untethered feeling of being "neither here nor there". With the current urgent focus on refugees and migrants across the globe, these issues of musical identity are especially poignant.
As a way of encouraging focus on the historical and contemporary issues surrounding the immigrant experience, I have embarked on a personal journey to create new works for guitar that reflect this theme. In addition to “The Walls”, I have so far commissioned six other composers to contribute works that somehow address their perspective on the Diaspora theme. Bryan Johanson composed “The Bootlegger’s Tale”, relating his grandfather’s experience as an Irish-American keeping one step ahead of the law during Prohibition. Dusan Bogdanovic wrote “Castle in the Cloudland” a set of Balkan blues variations on a melody from his childhood in Serbia. Iranian composer Golfam Khayam penned “Lost Land”, a monodic mediation on an ancient Persian mode and the feelings of cultural indeterminacy. Forthcoming projects include Carlos Rafael Rivera focusing on ancient Mayan themes from his maternal homeland Guatemala, Matte Dunne exploring the Cuban émigré experience, and Tibetan music expert Andrea Clearfield adapting the dramyin music of the Tibetan court for guitar.
Over an informal lunch in early 2017, Sergio Assad and I began discussing the tumultuous political events of the recent past, and the increasing drumbeats of tribalism and nationalism echoing across the world. Both of us, feeling rather helpless to do anything to stem the rising tides of fear and hatred, wondered what we as humble musicians could do in the face of such powerful forces. We decided that, as artists, our only positive act must be a creative one, and I asked Sergio to write a piece for me that would express our shared sentiments. We spoke about how music can be particularly well-suited to represent different cultural influences, and we wanted the work to somehow reflect the migrant/refugee experience. Our discussion ultimately gave birth not only to this piece, but to a whole series of new compositions for guitar in “The Diaspora Project”. It was Sergio’s brilliant wife Angela who suggested the idea of “The Walls”, conjuring up images of infamous historical barriers to migration and cultural assimilation. The work that finally emerged, scored for Solo Guitar and Guitar Orchestra, presents musical representations of four of the most recognizable walls in human history: The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, and the West Bank Wall in Jerusalem. And an epilogue, “No More Walls”, comments on the current debate about the existential need for such physical barriers.
The piece opens with….
Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the many issues that affect Musician’s Health and Wellness. I’ve amassed a sizable library of books on a variety of subjects, including anatomy, neurology, Alexander Technique, psychology, and contemplative practice. One result of this path of study has been a desire to pass along knowledge that might be useful to other musicians, to help them avoid or at least recover from the many Wellness challenges we can face. I co-founded the Thornton Wellness Committee in 2011, and since then it has become a positive force for healing at our school. We have initiated a series of public forums on topics as diverse as: Injury Prevention and Recovery; Hearing Protection: Performance Anxiety; Music and Mindfulness; Drum Circles for Stress Relief, and many others. We also have begun pre-screening programs, including laryngeal scopes for singers, hearing tests for high-decibel instrumentalists, and musculoskeletal analyses for potential Overuse Syndromes. Perhaps most importantly, the Wellness Committee has welcomed expert health professionals from across the Keck USC School of Medicine; these dedicated physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, audiologist, otolaryngologists, mental health counselors and sports psychology practitioners have richly enhance the well-being of our students.
I’m exceedingly proud of the course that I developed in 2017, which continues to be a learning experience for me every year I teach it. The increased emphasis that it’s cause me to place on the physical, mental and spiritual health of musicians has made me, I believe, a better teacher, player, and human being.
It kind of amazes me that almost 39 years after our humble beginnings in Guitar Ensemble class at USC, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet still tours, records, and hangs together! LAGQ has been a huge part of my creative life, and I’m very grateful for all of the opportunities and inspirations that it has given me. There are so many great memories and important project over the years: Playing with the Boston Pops (watch here), getting our Grammy for “LAGQ’s Guitar Heroes”, our Brazilian-themed collaboration with Luciana Souza, and most recently, the incredible “Road to the Sun” that Pat Metheny wrote for us - watch here. Over the years I’ve created tons of arrangements and even written a few originals for the group, and gotten to work with some incredible musicians, producers and conductors along with my three LAGQ brothers.
The project that perhaps meant the most to me is the magnum opus I put together for our collaboration with John Cleese on Monty Python: “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote”. It started out as a pretense for getting the four of us onstage with Sir John, after he heard us at a gig in Santa Barbara and expressed a desire to work together. I ended up spending almost two years on it, adapting Cervantes’ classic novel into a three-act play script, and arranging music from the Spanish Renaissance as a kind of film score accompaniment to the narrated action. We premiered it with John Cleese in 2009 at the Lobero Theater (incidentally, the same location that the first Los Romeros concert took place, as well as the West Coast Premiere of Road to the Sun) and went on to tour it extensively with another comic hero of mine, Phil Proctor from the legendary Firesign Theater troupe. We released a live performance of it, filmed at the Sheldon Auditorium in 2011 - available here.
My interest for working with guitar orchestra was really begun with my collaboration with my dear friend and Kyoto-based composer Shingo Fujii, when he composed “Concerto de Los Angeles” for me in 2006. Since then, I’ve performed with guitar orchestras nearly a hundred times, and premiered new works not only by Shingo, but also Hungarian composer David Pavlovits - watch Pavlovits: Guitar Concerto ft. W. Kanengiser 3. Danza de la Mancha here. I’ve also been conducting the USC Thornton Guitar Orchestra for over 12 years, and conducted groups at GFA Conventions and Symposia. I firmly believe in the importance of giving young players a chance to develop strong ensemble skills, professionalism, and rarefied performance experience. Over the years, I’ve invited thousands of young players to join me onstage in public performances. I believe that no amount of practice can simulate the real-life experience of playing under pressure, when it counts. And I love to share my joy of performing with these aspiring players and the listening public.
Film & Game Recording
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to play as a recording artist on soundtracks, including…
Films: Crossroads (Ry Cooder, with arr. by Kanengiser), Sommersby (Danny Elfman), Catch Me If You Can (John Williams), The Man from Elysian Fields (Anthony Marinelli), The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Daniel Licht), Pride & Glory (Mark Isham)
Video Games: ElemenTerra (composed by Penka Kouneva - virtual reality video game)