It’s bringing builders and buyers from all over the world into town; features workshops, performances, and master classes; and is aimed at celebrating the world’s most popular musical instrument. So, as a title, “Vancouver International Guitar Festival” seems perfectly appropriate—if a little subdued, for what’s really going on could just as easily be called “The Art of the Guitar”.
Yes, celebrated six-string artists such as Australian superpicker Tommy Emmanuel and his local counterpart Don Alder will be featured on festival stages. But the event will also showcase a cabal of luthiers who are boldly blurring the line between form and function.
“In terms of design, I didn’t want to just have regular instruments at the show,” says event coproducer Meredith Coloma, whose own fretted creations often incorporate art-deco motifs. “I wanted to have premier instruments that crossed that boundary between art and skill. But we have a guitar for everyone at this festival.…and some really interesting acoustic builds that are nothing like anything I’ve seen.”
Among the featured luthiers are several who, after apprenticing with the godfather of Canadian lutherie, Jean Larrivée, have gone on to international acclaim.
Take, for instance, Grit Laskin, who’s known for ergonomically advanced and ornately inlaid guitars that can be read like a graphic novel. Often starting from a client’s idea, Laskin uses every part of the guitar as his canvas, working with engraving and staining techniques that he has had to invent for himself.
“For me, it’s all about the concepts,” he says in a telephone interview from his Toronto workshop. “I dig into my clients’ psyche. I start by asking them about what’s important in their lives: ‘Why is this or that thing important? What does it mean to you?’ Then I can come up with a story line and a narrative. And that’s the key for me: it’s all got to connect in a seamless way.”
Combining visual poetry with sonic excellence comes even more naturally to Laskin’s peer Linda Manzer, whose custom creations for her friend and patron Pat Metheny have encompassed everything from guitars that sound like sitars to an elaborate, 42-stringed creation that was quickly dubbed “the Pikasso” after its debut.
“When you’re building a guitar, you really have to separate into different personalities,” she says, in a separate telephone interview from Toronto. “You have to think about it acoustically, and you also have to be a bit of an engineer and think about it structurally. You also have to be really aware that somebody’s going to be playing it, so it has to be physically comfortable.…Once you’ve got those three things out of the way—and they’re really the priorities—then you can play with what it looks like.
“For me,” Manzer continues, “I had been an artist before I was a guitar-maker, and I was also a bad folksinger. I was never going to be a success in either of those fields—I wasn’t really talented enough as a folksinger, and making a living as a painter was always going to be a problem. But I had all that training, and I loved doing it, and I loved how I felt doing it—and now I get to play with that in my guitars.”
Most recently, Manzer has been responsible for a McMichael Canadian Art Collection exhibit for which she and six other luthiers each built an instrument inspired by a member of the famous Group of Seven; hers pays homage to Lawren Harris’s Arctic and mountain landscapes. Alas, these won’t be at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival—but Manzer and fellow Group of Seven luthiers Laskin, Larrivée, and Sergei de Jonge will, with instruments on hand that are no less inspired.
“These are artists,” says Coloma, “through and through.”
The Vancouver International Guitar Festival takes place at the Chinese Cultural Centre and other venues from June 23 to 25. For a full schedule, visit the Vancouver Guitar Festival website.