Michael Tanenbaum, on guitar, and Stephen Fox, on the hammered dulcimer, of the duo, "String Theory," rehearse for their upcoming concert at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Pair strikes
right chords

Sweet surprises arise via
dulcimer and guitar

'String Theory" will be put into practice tonight, courtesy of two musicians eager to perform on instruments not usually associated with them.

Both Michael Tanenbaum and Stephen Fox made their initial reputations on piano and shakuhachi/bamboo flute, respectively. But strings will be the thing at their debut concert at the Honolulu Academy of Arts' theater, as both men have found a fresh, new voice through the guitar and, of all things, the hammered dulcimer.

'String Theory'

Featuring Michael Tanenbaum, Stephen Fox, and special guest Makana and others

Where: The Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts

When: 7:30 p.m. today

Tickets: $15 general, $12 seniors and students

Call: 532-8701

Also: Tanenbaum solo 9:30 p.m. to midnight Monday and March 22 at Hale Noa, 766 Kapahulu Ave.; with guests 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Muddy Waters Espresso, Aikahi Park Shopping Center in Kailua; and with the Sand Water Moon ensemble 8 to 10 p.m. March 19 at Soullenz Gallery, 186 N. King St.

Fox pulled out the folk-related instrument back in July 2002 when he realized that the funk band he was in wouldn't be an appropriate musical choice for playing in the Contemporary Museum's gallery during its annual Art Spree event. So instead he brought down the hammered dulcimer he occasionally played, and invited Tanenbaum to join him, having originally met him a couple of years before at an open-mic night at Anna Bannana's.

The sounds of the hammered dulcimer and finger-style acoustic guitar blended in an unexpected way that excited and delighted the duo -- so much so that the two working musicians-composers have been waiting nearly a year-and-a-half to follow up on that initial gig.

"We definitely connected that day," Fox said, "and because of our work in films and television, we almost have a cinematic approach to our pieces. It's the start of a journey that, because of our similar aesthetic, we hope we can develop into a touring show."

Tonight's concert will also feature saxophonist Randy Wheeler and violinist Jennifer Nacke, a friend and accompanist from Los Angeles that Tanenbaum plays with during his time that he lives and works there.

Tanenbaum is also pleased that the young, slack-key player Makana will be joining him and Fox as well. "He was a tremendous influence for me to go back to the guitar after playing piano for so long," he said. "I'm one of his biggest fans. I like how he pushes the boundaries of what is generally thought can be done with a six- and 12-string guitar."

Fox has also played with Makana in the past, backing him up on keyboards on some of his gigs.

"The concert will be acoustic-based," Fox said, "kind of multiethnic and folky. Mike and I share a musical eclecticism -- he plays some in the Celtic style, with me occasionally bending the strings of the dulcimer, like what you hear in Asian music.

"This is the first time we'll be performing in an ensemble setting -- Mike usually records as a solo guitarist. We're mostly taking Mike's pieces and adding melodic and textural layers to them."

Fox said the hammered dulcimer (an instrument he first picked up more than 20 years ago during his self-described hippie days) "probably originated in Persia about 2,500 years ago, and then went worldwide throughout Europe and Asia. The British Isle settlers then brought it to America."

"Stephen approaches it like a piano and a percussion instrument," Tanenbaum said with admiration. "It's such a different and unique approach, and his velocity of playing is so fast and accurate."

"I just like to take what's usually been considered a sweet, folky instrument to something with more guts," Fox added.

"Mike and I are both trying to move up our musical profiles with this concert. I can't think of any other venues like the Academy's theater that can do this kind of stuff. It's very much listening music, geared for concert performance."

Tanenbaum mentioned that those familiar with the music of Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, the world fusion jazz band Oregon and the Turtle Island String Quartet would probably enjoy "String Theory."

Both musicians attribute the added years of life and school experience to understanding their relatively new and respective instruments better.

"It's been like a congruence of truths," Tanenbaum said. "Right now, at this time, the guitar feels like my calling. I just had to go through the discipline of playing the piano."

"What we found out playing together," Fox said, "and of being of such 'advanced age,' is that it shows how similar we approach the music. We share the interest in ethnic stuff, also the years of composing for both film and choreography have taught us how to be subtle yet emotional in the voicing of chords."

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