Alexander String Quartet and guitarist William Kanengiser | Credit: Felix Salazar

The British Invasion of the 1960s was a cultural phenomenon that began when The Beatles appeared on national television in the United States and radically changed the course of popular music. Guitarist William Kanengiser and the Alexander String Quartet celebrate this event and more in their delightful new recording, British Invasion, which pays tribute to the British musicians who conquered the musical world of their time with revolutionary explorations.

The pop music stars Sting, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, as well as the Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland all made a lasting impact far from the shores of England. On this recording their music serves as inspiration for compositions for guitar and string quartet by the contemporary composers Dušan Bogdanović, Léo Brouwer, and Ian Krouse.

None of the performances are slavish covers merely imitating the originals. The contemporary composers approach the work of the original artists with respect and love while at the same time using their classical heritage and personal voices to make new, compelling statements. They seem to have succeeded. Sting, after hearing Serbian composer Dušan Bogdanović’s Prisms: Six Songs by Sting, wrote:

“How exciting to hear these new compositions arise from the broken fragments of my songs, unfettered by the necessity to avoid dissonance, and freed of the dictatorial chains of common time and rudimentary harmony, to soar like a flight of starlings into a limitless sky.”

Bogdanović’s first movement, based on “Every Breath You Take,” is a beguiling blend of a cello ostinato reminiscent of the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No.1, his own beloved asymmetrical Balkan rhythms, and Sting’s immensely popular song. The result is breathtakingly fresh and emotionally touching.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Cuban composer Leo Brouwer grew to love the music of The Beatles as well as classical music. After Fidel Castro’s revolution, a Cuban minister of culture undertook a program of avoiding “Western” influence and banned Beatles’ recordings. Brouwer responded by arranging seven Beatles songs in a set called Beatlerianas. Brouwer starts “Eleanor Rigby” with a quasi-fugal exposition of the tune. He begins “She’s Leaving Home” with a fluid introduction of his own invention. The setting makes beautiful use of Kanengiser’s sweet upper register and has haunting string quartet refrains. Brouwer captures the energy of “Penny Lane,” with the Alexander Quartet sounding like a rock band while Kanengiser uses bent strings like a bluesman. Brouwer’s “Yesterday” is set as a chorale-like dialogue between soloist and quartet, finishing with delicate plucked arpeggios over fading string sonorities.

Ian Krouse’s Labyrinth on a Theme of Led Zeppelin begins with an exact transcription of the song “Friends,” by Jimmy Page, known for its odd meters, bent pitches, and exotic scales. Krouse’s composition, over 20 minutes in length, has Kanengiser playing both classical and steel string guitar in altered tuning, at times with his fingers and at others with a guitar pick. Kanengiser also uses a bottle-neck to execute slides in the manner of the classic blues artist Robert Johnson, plays microtonal string bends evoking Robert Plant’s vocals, and executes rock-style strumming alongside counterpoint and rapid passagework in an impressive display of versatility. The Alexander Quartet is magnificent in matching Kanengiser’s expertise in this compelling and unusual music, and they seemed to enjoy themselves a great deal.

Like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Sting, John Dowland’s music was popular throughout the then known world but 400 years earlier. Ian Krouse’s Music in Four Sharps is a set of variations on John Dowland’s song, “Now, O Now, I Needs Must Part.” The triple meter and repeated harmonic progression, similar to Pachelbel’s Canon, made it very popular in its day. There are many beautiful effects in this composition, my favorite being the combination of string tremolo with Kanengiser’s rasgueados.

The guitar, or its cousin the Renaissance lute, was the primary instrument of all of the British innovators that inspired this recording, and now it has inspired Kanengiser and the Alexander String Quartet to bring to life this felicitous collaboration. This recording is highly recommended.