Electric dream lights new fire

13 March 2023

Jonathan Fitzgerald was a self-confessed snob when it came to electric guitar. Until he fell down a visual rabbit hole. The UWA Chair of Guitar tells Greg McFerran how he saw the light that led to his new album.

Surrounded by music in a school of music, with nothing but music on the resume, classical guitarist Jonathan Fitzgerald looked to another realm for inspiration – the unfamiliar world of visual projections.

The performer, teacher and Chair of Guitar at the UWA Conservatorium of Music has recorded a mind-bending, at times confronting, album entitled Luminescence, which seeks to add to a limited discography of electric guitar works and visual projections. 

“I’m a classical guitarist — it’s kind of my thing. And I was actually kind of a snob when it came to electric guitar, if I am totally honest,” Fitzgerald explains.

Luminescence, cover artwork by Lyle Branson.

“But in 2019, I stumbled just by accident on one of Gulli Björnsson’s electric guitar works. It was a multimedia piece, so for electric guitar, but with incredible electronic processing and then all of these related visual projections. And it was totally unlike anything I had ever seen before.”

Björnsson is an Icelandic guitarist and composer whose work explores how visual processing of electronic and live instrumentation can be combined to reflect nature.

Fascinated by his discovery, Fitzgerald contacted Björnsson to see if he would write a work specifically for him. 

“And he agreed – that’s what has sent me down this rabbit hole of works for electric guitar and visuals,” he says. 

The opening track to Luminescence, Björnsson’s Svart-Hvít Ský á Himni (black-white clouds in the sky) is a musical representation of how peaceful clouds can quickly become harbingers of doom when the sky turns dark and menacing.

Fitzgerald scoured new music databases, looking high and low, in search of works that fit the repertoire he was suddenly obsessed with. “I found that there wasn’t much at all. There was like under a hundred existing works.”

Jonathan Fitzgerald teaches music at UWA. Photo: Gregory Paul

So he decided to make his own, a huge departure for a musician previously tied to his classical guitar, culminating in Electroluminescence, an exploration of electric guitar and visual projections he created and performed at Fringe World 2022.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Fitzgerald began his musical education at the Preparatory Department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, at the age of four. He stayed there for many years, before eventually going on to complete a Bachelor and Master of Music degree under the guidance of classical guitar virtuoso and Grammy Award winner Jason Vieaux.

He made the move to Australia in 2012, soon after completing his doctorate of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music, in New York, partly for his Australian wife and partly because the American job market was still recovering from the financial crisis.

Fitzgerald soon began sessional work at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and teaching one-on-one lessons in local secondary schools to pay the bills. In 2016, he joined the UWA Conservatorium of Music.

His office at UWA reflects his eclectic sensibilities – there’s a vintage-watch poster, futuristic coffee machine, speakers (which music people call monitors) and a classical guitar case.

Intrigued by the sometimes haunting nature of Luminescence, I ask Fitzgerald where that came from. “Well, I didn’t write the pieces,” Fitzgerald responds with a hearty chuckle. 

Alison Isadora’s For Wiek and Eve Beglarian’s Until it Blazes predate Luminescence while Victor Arul’s Akrasia was commissioned specifically for the album. The title track was composed by Moses Kington-Walberg for Fitzgerald, Ashley Smith (bass clarinet) and Shaun Lee Chen (violin) for chamber performance.

Fitzgerald credits the cohesiveness and feel of the project to the team at New Focus Recordings, who fine-tuned the content, selecting pieces that would work together as an album.

The seven recordings fall into different sub-genres under the broader umbrella of contemporary classical music — a genre which the guitarist says is a bit of a misnomer, considering “contemporary” is constantly shifting with the times.

“You have noise music, which elements of Victor’s piece touch on, with three minutes of just wall-of-sound distortion at the end; the minimalism in Beglarian’s piece; the washy, textural, pulsating post-minimalism in Gulli’s piece, and then the very straight-ahead, almost classical-guitar-like sound of Alison Isadora’s piece,” he says.

Fitzgerald is clearly in his element, his enthusiasm for Luminescence infectious. He lights up when he reveals that as far as he is aware, For Wiek has never been released commercially and that the three-part Luminescence (the work, not the album) won the 2021 Dorothy Ellen Ransom Prize for Chamber Composition. 

Alison Isadora’s ‘For Wiek’ takes shape visually. Photo: Lyle Branson

And what are his feelings towards the electric cousin of his beloved classical guitar now?

It was certainly an adjustment initially, with the sound coming not from the instrument, but rather an amp, sometimes on the other side of the room.

“It’s a very different way of thinking about getting a sound out of a guitar – every sound that you get out of classical guitar you have to make,” he says.

“You can get a huge variety of sounds but there is obviously a hard limit to what you can do with just an acoustic instrument.

“(With electric) you have all of the electronics to manipulate in ways which just aren’t possible on an acoustic instrument.”

The unique marriage between electric guitar and visual projections that first prompted him to go out and buy the instrument has also enabled him to explore the boundaries of sight and sound.

When performing Svart-Hvít Ský á Himni on stage, for example, he can use the guitar to create complex visual projections in real time, adding to the overall experience in a way that his beloved acoustic can not.

If Fitzgerald is surprised at the turn his musical interests have taken in the past few years, he’s also excited about releasing Luminescence into the world.

“I’m just glad to have it out there,” he says, “they are really cool pieces and I think that they deserve to be heard.”

Luminescence is out now through New Focus Recordings and available on all major platforms.

Pictured top: Classically trained Jonathan Fitzgerald discovered a world of possibilities with the electric guitar. Photo: Melissa Fitzgerald

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Author —
Greg McFerran

Greg McFerran is a postgraduate journalism student at Curtin University studying journalism. He completed an undergraduate degree in Electronic Music and Sound Design (Hons) at UWA. As a child, he enjoyed the playground monkey bars the most, mainly because he preferred to walk upon them instead of swinging underneath them — much to his mother’s displeasure.

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