Tag: guitar

James Moore: The Hunt for Sonic Solutions

“I’ll warn you, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist,” guitarist James Moore confesses to sound engineer James Dellatacoma as they set up to record a complete performance of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads, a challenging collection of 35 etudes. “I’ll probably be like, ‘Well, it said that’s supposed to be a high whoop not a low whoop; I better do it again’.”

This scene—captured as part of an absorbing CD/DVD recording of the work that he released last month on the Tzadik label—is overlaid with Moore’s self-effacing laughter, but his performance of the music itself sees him navigating reams of such non-traditional tasks with remarkable focus. While the etudes are billed as being composed for solo guitar, their presentation actually requires an additional arsenal of sound-making tools which Moore also manages, here including “fifteen balloons, two violin bows, three mbira keys, a slide bar, nail file, spring, metal rod, ratchet, pipe cleaner, talking toy, finger cymbals, thirty grains of rice, some Styrofoam, and an extra string.” With a supply list like that, it perhaps goes without saying that some serious interpretive powers on the part of the player serve an essential role in the presentation of the music as well.

It also neatly frames Moore’s talent and enthusiasm for solving musical problems in order to bring engaging sounds to life. This applies whether he’s working as a solo artist playing a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar (which could be acoustic, steel-string resonator, electric, or classical) or working in one of the wide variety of ensemble situations he’s a part of, such as the Dither electric guitar quartet or his mixed band The Hands Free.

“I guess that idea of problem solving is something that’s always intrigued me. Now I’m older and jaded and a little stuck in my ways in some ways, but I hope I still have that desire to solve things and to seek out new sounds.”

It’s an instinct that he can actually trace back to his early studies.

“I was sort of always drawn to the more unconventional side of things,” Moore says, recalling an anecdote from his grade-school days. “I went to my piano teacher and said that at the school Christmas concert I wanted to do a medley of carols, but I wanted to put all sorts of things inside the piano to make noises and stuff. And my piano teacher said, ‘You know that’s been done before?’ and handed me John Cage’s Silence. So I was already finding some of these weirder corners of the musical world.”

Just before the release of his Book of Heads recording, Moore also put out Gertrudes, an album of duos with violinist Andie Springer that were written by a range of composers including Larry Polansky, Paula Matthusen, Ken Thomson, Lainie Fefferman, Robert Ashley, and Moore himself. Moore and Springer began collaborating while touring with a theatrical production and developed their project during their down time, eventually reaching out to friends and colleagues and booking shows as they passed through town.

“It’s very eclectic, but I think it works,” Moore acknowledges, highlighting the social strengths of the project and the fun of building its foundation out of just what they had at hand while traveling. As his myriad instrumental interests underline, “I’m most happy being a musician and trying anything that’s given to me.”

While Moore continues to fine-tune his professional focus as he gathers experience, he also keeps an ear open to what may find him when he’s not actively looking.

“It’s not necessarily that you pick it. You maybe find yourself having a tendency towards different types of music or certain genres, but sometimes these things pick you.”

Sounds Heard: Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces (New World 80748)
Featuring work by: Karl Berger, Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Joel Ford, Daniel Goode, Clinton McCallum, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff

I have a “less is often more” world view, and in keeping with that ethos I’ve long found something particularly engaging about “small” art—eight-inch canvases, brief poetry—as if the space constraints actually cleared more room for a spectator to form a deeper, interactive connection with the work at hand.

So it was easy for me to fall into the concept of Belgian/Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm’s release Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces, since in a way they were developing that sort of relationship with the included music. In each case, the quartet began with the parameters of the piece presented through these brief scores, and the recoding then served as a document of their own exploration and dialog, both with the work at hand and with each other.

Their release of pieces by American composers on New World Records provides that label’s typical brand of thorough booklet notes. For the curious, Amy C. Beal explores the pieces one by one, with each of the scores reproduced for the listener to examine—works that rely on everything from more-or-less traditional notation to what one might characterize as “Marvel comic super heroes battle a graphic score” (h/t to Nick and Leo Didkovsky for that one).
The increasing circular chaos of Joel Ford’s Gauss Cannon (2006) opens the disc before the wistful sweet romance of Alvin Curran’s Underwater Princess Waltz and Her Waltzing with Her (both 1972) take over—a bowed saw adding the liquid character to Curran’s tracks.

Zwerm doesn’t allow the listener to sink too far into this daydream, however, before diving into the above-mentioned Didkovsky score Mayhem (2012). Presented in three interpretations spaced out over the course of the album, each one-minute version assumes as its subtitle one of the weapons depicted in the score—hammer, bow, and blade. Where “The Hammer” takes Didkovsky’s word at the encouragement to “be brutal,” what actually impressed me here is the nuance Zwerm brings to subsequent perspectives—”Blade” is given a sexy, high-speed car chase danger and “Arrow” a Wild West horror. (The banjo certainly helps things along there.) This quirky spirit also tints Daniel Goode’s The Red and White Cows (1979), a narrated mathematic story problem leading into a bluesy meditation on “the girl I love” for rhythm guitar, solo guitar, samples, and voice.
Larry Polansky’s tween (k-tood#2) (2002) may give some musicians exercise flashbacks as short phrases roll over and over in delicate complexity, whereas Clinton McCallum’s round round down (2012) starts in sonic bedlam and then just keeps climbing.
The most texturally diverse performance on this disc might be found in Zwerm’s interpretation of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, Part VII (1970-71), as the musicians react to one another while old radio samples climb the dial and other recorded sounds color the field, often ratcheting up the tension. A solo version of Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) resides at the other end of that spectrum, a steady flicker of pitches nearly always blaring their way across a more than eight-minute span, solid yet malleable, with the artfully sculpted sound only thinning out for brief moments of recovery until it reaches a clear summit and quickly drops off into a lengthy decay.

After this imaginative tour, Zwerm brings the show to close with Karl H. Berger’s Time Goes By (1975). When it first began, the simple organ and hand percussion tricked my ears into thinking that iTunes had somehow skipped over to a Yo La Tengo album elsewhere in my library. But actually the track is an appropriately extended meditation on the piece’s title, the simple words sung over and over, up and down and up and down the scale again. The meditative trance it induces is broken apart by the guitars a third of the way in, and the instruments continue to claw at the choir until they fully shrouded it completely in their curtain.

Other Guitars

It’s not hard to find a guitarist in Austin. Like breakfast tacos and new condo developments, they can be found on just about any corner and every day more of them show up. To stand out among the six-stringers in this town is quite a challenge, a challenge that was met at two shows I heard recently. The first was Austin Classical Guitar’s final show of the calendar year, and the second was a one-night-only appearance by one of the giants of improvisational music, Henry Kaiser. Both were examples of the diversity in the guitar world in Austin, a world that too often is perceived through the lens of blues, rock, and indie music alone.

Les Freres Meduses

Les Freres Meduses
Photo by Arlen Nydam

Austin Classical Guitar is among the most dynamic arts organizations in Austin, and though it was founded in 1990, ACG really hit its stride with the appointment of Executive Director Matthew Hinsley in 2003. In the past ten years, it has grown from a modest collective curating a few concerts a year into the premier guitar organization in the country with an incomparable international concert series, an educational program serving hundreds of students in and outside of Austin, and an outreach program in the prison and juvenile detention systems. Part of Hinsley’s artistic vision is that of collaborator, and to that end ACG has in the past worked with the Alamo Drafthouse, the Miro Quartet, and most recently teamed up with Texas Performing Arts to commission a new work from Nico Muhly for next spring. New music has always played a role in the world of guitar in general and the world of ACG in particular, and their most recent concert featured the guitarists Benoît Albert and Randall Avers as duo Les Frères Méduses performing an entire program by living composers (the oldest born in 1955) as well as a world premiere of Memória by ACG composer-in-residence Joseph V. Williams II.

Opening the concert was the ACG Youth Orchestra. They played a strong though brief set, an aural amuse-bouche of sorts and a reminder of the organization’s dedication to community outreach. Following the YO’s set, Les Frères Méduses took the stage and began their portion of the program with Prelude “Mekankisk” by Avers. A bright, shining, technical showpiece, the work pulsed along in an unrelenting 7/8 with only a brief interlude as respite. Though only together for four years, the communication between the two looked like that which you might find in a duo with much more history.  Following the Avers were works by Dusan Bogdanovic and Atanas Ourkouzounov, both beautifully rendered and, though quite distinct, had a similar DNA (perhaps because both guitarist/composers are from the Balkans) almost sounding like bookmatched movements.

The main attraction of the evening was the eagerly anticipated premiere of Williams’s Memória. Williams has worked with ACG ever since his first commission Austin Pictures, but his appointment as composer-in-residence has allowed him to expand his involvement beyond a single work to participate in the educational and outreach programs that are part of ACG’s core mission. While Austin Pictures was a concerto grosso of sorts pitting the Miro Quartet against a small guitar army, Memória was a smaller and more intimate affair. “My ancestors come from Hungary, and Memória freely employs elements of Magyar folk music,” said Williams, and this Eastern European flavor paired nicely with the preceding works. The first of two movements, Prelude opened with block chords in wide-open voicings. Guitarists are wired to arpeggiate even the most static of chords—we can’t help it!—but Albert and Avers played these with precision and none of the rolling that is to guitarists what over-pedaling is to pianists. A move to the minor mode accompanied thoughtful and well-paced trading of parts between the two guitarists; a smooth compositional transition made stronger by the attention to matched tone and attack by both players.

Along with their solo and orchestral experience, string players (here I’m thinking more of the rosin and bow variety than us pickers and grinners) traditionally come up in a chamber tradition as well. This is generally not the same for guitarists (thought ACG’s educational wing is working hard to change that) and as a result guitar duos can sometimes sound simply like two guitarists playing at the same time instead of as an integrated unit. Les Frères Méduses sounded like one guitarist, seamlessly alternating lines and phrases with only the occasional glance to facilitate their communication. The second movement, Fantasy, featured a more active texture and an insistent bassline that pushed the work forward to its conclusion, resulting in a standing ovation from the crowd. This sort of reaction has become pro forma at many contemporary shows, but I’ve been happy to see that recently when they occur they are typically genuine and well-deserved, as was the case here. The commissions, outreach, and integration with the best that Austin has to offer are why ACG has consistently packed auditoriums with devoted followers, but it’s not the key to their success. Hinsley’s philosophy is simple, “The primary role of a great classical guitar nonprofit organization is not to play concerts, teach classes, bring guest artists, or compose new pieces.  The primary role of a great classical guitar nonprofit organization is to serve the community.”


Henry Kaiser has been around the block. The guitarist, improviser, film composer, and research diver was in town for one night only to perform at The Owl, a small venue on the east side of town which features experimental music. A longtime collaborator with Fred Frith, Kaiser has gone through a variety of stylistic changes in his career. Early improvisational work gave way to a retro-rock phase in the ’80s, a long-term project involving the work of Miles Davis, and a number of projects with musicians around the world.

At the core of Kaiser’s creative output is experimental free improvisation, and it was a set of this material performed with local and regional players that I saw at The Owl. Walking into the venue felt more like walking into a friend’s funky house than entering a conventional club or hall. Once through a modest foyer, I took a quick turn around a corner and boom, there was the stage. Several dozen people filled the small space, eager to see a legend work his magic. Kaiser was joined by percussionist Nick Hennies, trombonist Steve Parker, and bassist Damon Smith for an extended improv set.

From left: Henry Kaiser, Nick Hennies, Steve Parker, and Damon Smith

From left: Henry Kaiser, Nick Hennies, Steve Parker, and Damon Smith

The distinction in this set was (from my perspective) the degree of deference paid to Kaiser by the rest of the band. While certainly a mostly democratic affair, it seemed that Kaiser’s lead was followed by and large by the other performers. Having said that, Hennies, Parker, and Smith all have extensive and significant improv experience in a variety of settings, and at no point did any of them seem to be shy about the idea of leading the group down one path or the other. Kaiser coaxed scratches, percussive raps, and ebowed keening from his seven-string archtop while Hennies bowed his snare and occasionally took to playing the bottom of the drum. Smith took Kaiser’s lead, tapping out a Morse code rhythm on the bass before weaving a drumstick through the strings creating an adjustable bridge of sorts. In the course of the set, Parker’s trombone was assembled and disassembled, at times leaving him with only the slide to whistle through.

Typically when musicians perform instrumental music, they are either looking at each other, at their music, or at something in the distance. Kaiser is not a typical musician. At times he stood and stared at the audience, not in a confrontational way but almost as though he had asked a question and was waiting for an answer. It wasn’t uncomfortable strictly speaking, but when the room is only five rows deep, it’s a bit unusual at least. However, if lasers had shot out of Kaiser’s eyes it would not have been weirder than what happened next, at least for me. Kaiser put away the archtop (from which he had elicited all sorts of otherworldly sounds) and brought out a Klein electric guitar. As I indicated above, in a former life I was a guitar player and for many years I was a rabid gearhead. I’d never seen a Klein in captivity, and frankly if he had simply set it on a stand I probably would have sat there doing my best RCA dog impression. The Klein is built to be ergonomically sound and includes a locking tremolo which allows for all sorts of pitch bending, dives, and other microtonal play. Joining the Klein, Kaiser added to his already wide sonic palette with an array of pedals and other outboard gear.  During this portion of the set (the music did not stop during the instrument change) Kaiser often “played” the dials on his foot pedals more than he did the strings of the guitar. By doing so he created a large analog synth of sorts, one in which the guitar was a driver and provider of raw material to be altered, chewed up, and spit out by the various processors. The result was that Kaiser was sort of his own opening act, with a relatively subdued first set that proceeded attacca into a nuclear meltdown of bizarre tones, distorted riffs, and altered states.

Somewhere out on Sixth Street, a dude is playing some righteous blues, and that’s cool. I’m glad he’s out there. Folk singers are populating coffee shops and filling the air with songs of lost love while indie bands are beating the hell out of a handful of barre chords a few doors down. Fantastic, and I mean that quite sincerely. I’ve been in those places and, on more than a few occasions, I’ve played those roles. And when I quit doing it someone else came along and filled my shoes, and I don’t think that trend will change anytime soon. However, I’m very glad there are people out there looking at all the things you can do with six strings.

Whether it’s a delicate touch with nail and flesh or vicious pick scrapes run through seven stompboxes, there are whole worlds of great sounds being created by guitarists you’ve never heard of. Put down that taco and go check ‘em out.

Sticks and Strings: Houston’s Liminal Space

In the new(ish) world of bootstrap new music development, big things can come from the smallest of starts. In contrast to (or perhaps in response to) the slow-to-change, large-scale organizations that are dodging strikes, lockouts, and other potential extinction events, smaller, more nimble groups that are able to hide from the nuclear winter of dried-up funding, atrophied audience, and fracturing infrastructure are thriving. In contrast to the large institution model which involves the performance of largely 18th- and 19th-century warhorses to an audience whose average age is moving steadily upward, ensembles like San Antonio’s SOLI and Houston’s Musiqua have combined smaller forces and adventurous programming to engage with audiences old and new. Emerging from the rubble, these groups find new life in new forms, and though the Pierrot ensemble has emerged as one of the leading configurations, other families are taking shape as well. While the Pierrot is comprised of traditional instruments, the catch-all potential of the “plus percussion” option is quite compelling and has played a significant role in the development of music for the ensemble. When the percussion is taken out of this traditional context and placed alongside another primarily 20th-century chameleon, the guitar [1], a potent new pairing is created. A few months after seeing the potential of this duo during the Living Earth Show this past spring, I stopped in to hear Houston’s Liminal Space (guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley) present a concert that included two commissioned premieres.

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater
Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

I arrived at the Frenetic Theater just outside of downtown Houston about twenty minutes prior to the show and had a chance to survey the facility and the crowd. The multi-use venue geared towards dance and theater held a good-sized Sunday night crowd. Spread out in the 100-seat theater, some patrons had taken their chairs while others stood chatting, and it was in this relaxed setting and with little fanfare that Liminal Space walked onstage to start the show.

Originally written in 2008 for two bass clarinets, Mark Mellits’s Black has since been rearranged for a variety of duos and lent itself well to the guitar and marimba incarnation. Rolling lines and punchy riffs which brought to mind a mid-’80s King Crimson were couched in symmetrical phrases and sections, their rock and roll roots showing. Both players were all in for the bulk of the work, and Heathco’s clean guitar tone with just a hint of overdrive for body [2] complimented the mellow tone of the marimba.
The evening’s concert was the closer of the inaugural season, and Hubley took a minute to describe the genesis of the group, which made its debut with a John Cage centenary concert last September. Among their goals is the regular commissioning of new music for the ensemble, and to that end Liminal Space has commissioned nine composers in the Houston area to compose new works for guitar and percussion. The next piece on the evening’s program, Apparatus by Mark Buller, was the second of two world premieres of work written for Liminal Space as part of their 2013 New Music Initiative. Apparatus started with a simple additive process played in unison, the two slowly expanding lines diverged recalling Reich’s Piano Phase, only to eventually return to their original position. The second movement began with pulsing dyads outlined in crescendos and decrescendos, hairpins rising and falling while an initial symmetry gave way to odd groupings and smaller divisions. This lead to a clearer separation of the parts as arpeggios in the marimba formed a framework for leaping octaves in the guitar. A recollection of the first movement had the guy behind me tapping (a bit loudly…) his feet and bopping his head, though it was funny to hear him lose the rhythm as the patterns began to phase once again.

Taking a quick break from the duo action and a modest step back in time, Heathco performed the solo plus tape version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. The work holds up well 30+ years later, and the relative ease with which an enterprising guitarist can record and playback the parts on a laptop should allow for more performances than ever before. Hubley then took his moment in the spotlight to perform Cage’s In a Landscape. Written for dancer Louise Lippold in 1948, its modest range and bifurcated octaves give the work a controlled and harmonically segmented sensibility. A pleasant, quasi-pentatonic sound resulted as scales rose and fell in comfortable mid-tempo eighth notes, every one taking its place from a list of dance counts provided to Cage by Lippold.
The closer for the evening was the second NMI world premiere of the night, Eric Martin’s You didn’t build that!, which was a nod to some of the rhetoric of the last presidential election cycle. A guitar intro which begged to be joined by drum kit [3] was interrupted abruptly by the marimba, part of the concept of the piece in which each instrument attempts to one-up the other. This led to a more traditional back and forth of sorts, with the guitar backing the marimba for a time and the marimba returning the favor. Harmonically straddling the modal/white-note world, the two instruments morphed comfortably from foreground to background before reaching the work’s conclusion.
Liminal Space put on a terrific show for a clearly enthusiastic audience. The guitar/percussion combo is quite approachable and particularly versatile, and while the idea that the use of these more familiar instruments will make inroads with those outside the new music community is debatable, it can’t hurt. When a traditional string trio or brass quintet takes the stage, adventurous new music converts may be inclined to check out before the first note. However the familiarity of the guitar (or the laptop) has the potential to bring something from an audience member’s world into the one they are about to experience, and who doesn’t like watching someone beat on things with sticks? [4] Regardless, the music on tap that evening was certainly as rich and involved as any one might hear from more traditional instruments, and with the 2013-2014 season lined up, Liminal Space is in a great position to be at the vanguard of a whole new ensemble movement.


1. In another life, I was a classical guitarist and am well aware of the rich pre-20th century repertoire for the instrument. I’m also aware that a few guitarists out there read that sentence and immediately began harrumphing all over the place, so just relax.

2. It’s a tone I’ve always associated with jazz, but given that I’ve listened to and played very little jazz, you can take my evaluation of this “jazz tone” with a big old grain of salt. Heathco was playing a gorgeous red hollow body, and it’s certainly possible that the hint of overdrive was just a result of the pickups coloring the sound. Or aliens.

3. I’ve played in approximately a million rock bands, so you can take this estimation to the bank.

4. It’s been brought to my attention that there is more to percussion than this.

The Art of the $100 Guitar

Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Image of signed guitar courtesy Steve MacLean

Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara had something of a running joke going when it came to expensive guitars. The men would often taunt one another via email, trading ads for various high-priced instruments as they came up for sale alongside the suggestion that the recipient consider making the big ticket purchase. So Didkovsky says he was surprised to open “Subject: The Guitar of your Dreams” and find a link not to a $100,000 Fender, but to a nameless electric guitar going for $100 on the respected vintage guitar site Elderly Instruments.

“Maybe three or four of us should buy it together and share it,” Didkovsky fired back, but the joke turned onto a serious conversation, and he and O’Meara sent out a few emails to colleagues to gauge interest in a possible project. “By the next day, and this is no exaggeration, we had 25 guitarists on board who said ‘I would love to do a track with this.’ And we didn’t even own the guitar yet.”

On Oct 20, 2010, they made their buy. “It’s a very unique object,” Didkovsky explains, pointing out that the instrument’s one surviving pickup resembles an old radio. There is no brand name on it; though many have opinions, no one is really sure of its pedigree. And it has seen some wear and tear. “It’s replete with failures,” he admits. “You have to meet it on its own ground.” It’s the antithesis of guitar fetishism—it’s attractive because it’s so cheap.

Since that initial pitch, a wide spectrum of guitarists have responded to the siren call of the $100 Guitar Project, the players arriving through a network of friends and colleagues. No curatorial bar was set, no competition encouraged, no stylistic walls erected. It has been a community exercise, each musician taking ownership of the instrument for a week, encouraged to come to the project without preconceived ideas and to simply explore whatever the guitar suggests to them. Each participant is asked to record a short composition “that honors the guitar in some way,” then sign the guitar’s body (it now hosts archeological layers of signatures) and pass it on, often in person. After 65 participants opted in—enough music to fill a double CD release—the project stopped accepting more names. Bridge Records will release the complete set of recordings in December 2012.

“It’s really the story that is so beautiful about this,” says Didkovsky. “People have been very generous and that exchange has been spectacular.”

Tracking the $100 Guitar Map

Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Tracking the $100 Guitar

Much like the initial call, Didkovsky sent out word that a NewMusicBox story on the project was being filmed (see video above) and, on less that 24 hours notice, he and five of the project participants crowded into his Midtown practice space in New York City for a chat.

Mark Solomon quickly honed in on the element of nostalgia that pervaded the project in his mind. “What touched me about this particular conception is that every guitarists on the planet remembers their first guitar; it’s like your first love. And it’s generally a piece of crap—a $100-ish instrument.”

Blowing up that idea of the uniquely personal experience with the guitar, Bruce Eisenbeil pointed out that the resulting compositions will give listeners the chance to explore the styles of all kinds of musicians. “This one instrument is being used as a mode of expression. What is it that informs all of these people at this time? How do they make music? Why do they make music?”

Still, was this a gimmick, a serious art project, or did it encompass elements of both?

Caroline Feldmeier wasn’t shy about admitting that she was “crazy, crazy obsessive” about her composition. “I received the guitar from Nels Cline. So I knew there was a very high bar, and I definitely wanted to produce something that would be consistent with the high level of talent that is part of this project.”

Jesse Kranzler agreed, pointing that he “had to take it seriously to some extent,” since he was more accustomed to working alongside bandmates than playing alone in a solo context. Still, he acknowledged, “it’s kind of hard to take it too seriously when it’s such a fun, light-hearted project.”

Distilling down the enthusiasm in the room for the scope and talent the project encompassed, Joe Berger said plainly, “I think it’s going to be one of the most talked about guitar projects when it comes out. I’m certainly going to be talking about it.”

For his part, Didkovsky seems to have recovered his investment and then some. “Putting it out in the world, letting networking take it over, seeing it tumble from hand to hand, player to player, and without guiding it too much seeing what came out…It’s enriched my life tremendously.”

Sounds Heard: Mary Halvorson Quintet—Bending Bridges

One of the most excellent things about the music of guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson is that every composition percolates with a charming sense of unpredictability. Bending Bridges is the second release from Halvorson’s quintet, which features members of her original trio—John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums (plus, of course, Halvorson on guitar)—and adds to the ensemble Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone. Although there are plenty of groups comprised of this instrumentation, Halvorson’s preference for a very dry, close recording style lends a hand in giving this album a unusual sound, and in bringing to light instrument balances that serve to highlight her quirky (in a good way) melodic and harmonic sense.

Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22) begins as a relaxed, even lounge-worthy chorale scored for the whole quintet, giving way to solos for guitar and bass. Before you know it, Halvorson has quietly flipped the distortion switch on her guitar, and busts out a series of fat, grunge-laden power chords propelling trumpet and saxophone through an altered version of that initial chorale, which transforms before our ears into full-tilt improvised chaos.

Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25) has a catchy opening groove, with rhythmic guitar and a repeating melodic series for sax and trumpet. The energy continues with a sax solo, and then another for trumpet, placed in front of tinkling guitar and percussion textures. The improvisation sections are contrasted with the initial musical material in a verse/chorus format. Ches Smith contributes interesting and tasteful drum set performances throughout the disc.

Four of the nine tracks on Bending Bridges set aside the brass instruments and feature the original trio of Halvorson, Smith, and Hébert. Stepping-stone style bass and drums in Forgotten Men In Silver (No. 24) follow an impressionistic opening guitar solo, and later a background wash of guitar serves as a blanket for an energetic bass and drum improvisation, rife with extended techniques on both instruments. The next trio work, The Periphery of Scandal (No. 23) features a wacky guitar melody that becomes increasingly intense and distorted throughout the course of the track. The aptly titled That Old Sound (No. 27) does indeed open with an ever so slight Western twang—I kept visualizing a dusty corral and cacti during this mellow track, which sports an elastic sensibility, with instrumental lines expanding and contracting in turn. Deformed Weight Of Hands (No. 28) is an energetic back and forth between a spunky guitar and drum figure, and noisy, frenzied improvisation.

Returning to the quintet format, Love In Eight Colors (No. 21) is one of the more traditionally “jazz” sounding composition on the disc, and there might even be some quotes lifted from other tracks to discover in this one (I will leave that part to you!). All The Clocks (No. 29) also seems to fit well within the realm of guitar-based jazz, featuring lead guitar with spinning melodic material that is complemented by the ensemble performing driving, rhythmic music.

Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26) strikes my ear as especially thoughtfully composed, and showcases the most successful brass writing of the entire disc. A winding guitar line is offset by shifting repeated-note riffs in the brass that develop gradually and are later joined by a funky, almost Latin beat. The established groove is then again transformed into a rollickingly fast drum and sax duet, and winds up in a bending, spindly solo guitar line.

Halvorson has cited in interviews how large a role the simple element of time—spent playing and performing together—plays in her compositions for the quintet. She is gaining confidence in writing for the entire group, and they are all playing together increasingly well. Although I think the trio sounds more musically integrated (and indeed it should, since they have been together longer), the addition of saxophone and trumpet as she treats them in her compositions brings a wonderfully offbeat sound world into the music. It will be very interesting to hear how her writing for the quintet evolves in the future. Whatever form it takes, I have no doubt that there will be plenty of surprises in store.

Six Skinny Strings: The Reason for the Season

Two weeks into the virtually undodgeable 24/7 Winter Wonderland sound collage that is this time of year, I’ve been looking for something without sleigh bells, warm brass, and mixed chorus. Though we’ve finally cooled to a seasonally congruent temperature here, it’s still odd to hear all the Christmas tunes when only a few weeks back people were still wearing shorts and sandals in the beer gardens (I’m looking at YOU, me). I don’t mean to come off all Scroogey. For the most part I enjoy all the seasonal goodness, but my search for sanctuary from the rising Yuletide led me to Skinny’s Ballroom in the heart of downtown Austin for a bit of improv holiday cheer. After paying a sliding scale cover ($5-$10, pay what you can), I found myself in a physically typical and fairly swanky shotgun shack of a downtown bar (though one that had been thoroughly renovated) with a bar to port, a half-dozen church pews to starboard, and the requisite booths, stools, and dudes. A cursory glance at a stage decorated with drums, monitors, guitars, and all the typical gear—including a guy checking levels on a red Gibson 335—seemed to indicate a place that was prepped for any of a number of Austin’s indie bands.

The show was curated under the auspices of Ten Pounds To The Sound by Chris Cogburn (whose No Idea Festival will be covered here in the very near future) and featured three guitarists—Jonathan Horne (Austin), Lucas Gorham (Houston), and Mexico City guitarist and improviser Fernando Vigueras in his first ever U.S. tour. Kicking off the festivities was Horne, who started his set in a sort of gonzo, quasi-Hendrix fashion, steeped in feedback and blurred scale runs, head lolling around like a rag doll. Standing mute before a microphone, Horne smeared blues licks mixed with arpeggios in a flurry of messy, expressionist fretboard gymnastics. The second tune featured bowed sextuple stops and heavily textural elements—think of the first minute of Penderecki’s Threnody… without the following minutes, for about six minutes. In a screeching left turn, Horne followed up with an instrumental cover of the Carter Family’s version of “Wildwood Flower,” the melody peeking out through the madness like a country mouse lost in the big city. A brief encore echoing the gestural elements of the first piece wrapped up Horne’s set.

Lucas Gorham

Lucas Gorham
Lucas Gorham began playing almost imperceptibly with a lap steel signal hissing like the start of a record. Volume and wah-wah swells developed so quietly you could actually hear him pick the string before the swell, and the audience (in a bar which required no such reverence) was drawn in and church quiet. These were actual Cageian moments in which the ambient sounds of the room (sounds at the bar, front door opening, someone walking to the back) mixed with the music in a truly compelling counterpoint. Granted, you might get a similar mixture of sounds at your local coffeeshop’s singer/songwriter night, but the impact here was different, perhaps because of the improvisatory and non-lyric-oriented nature of the music. As the piece developed, reverb explosions[1] morphed into lonesome tritones in a captured sound-on-sound texture. A layered figure not unlike cello tremolo was created by beating the bridge of the guitar, and as the sound-on-sound looped round and round, Gorham dumped the lappy and moved to a Strat to begin playing bass notes over the repeating texture. These notes had a multidimensional quality that I can only describe as the opposite of overtones—“undertones” maybe? Swelling power chords[2] oozing distortion spoke to their metal roots while shrugging off any sense of hipster appropriation as sixteenth note strumming lent a percussive rhythmic element to the pulsing mix. A shift to a hoedown rhythm marked a move back to the pedal steel, which Gorham used to play somewhat more traditional licks over the Strat groove-soup that still boiled around him. It was striking that despite the use of these instruments and fairly idiomatic techniques, the music never sounded like borrowed stylistic material. Gorham continued by picking behind the bridge and manipulating a delay pedal, which when done in real time (typically these pedals are “set it and forget it”) created a magical toy piano effect mixed with something of a microtonal glissando. This was followed by a return to the grumble roar of distortion which sort of tore the whole thing a new one. When the sound had faded and Gorham looked up, the audience responded with long and loud applause. There was even a guy in the back who did that “whipping your cowboy hat around in a circle” thing[3], which I can safely say I’ve never seen except in the movies.

Fernando Vigueras

Fernando Vigueras
Fernando Vigueras’s background includes conventional guitar playing and training, but his performance at Skinny’s was anything but conventional. He came on stage with a nylon string acoustic guitar and a small portable fan (the tiny handheld kind you might see around the pool) and sat down on a chair surrounded by foot pedals and other electronics. He began by detuning the bass strings while using the spinning fan blades to create a tremolo so severe that the loosened strings began to slam against the fretboard repeatedly like Bartók pizz trapped in a MAX patch. This quasi-percussive sound gave the impression of a drum roll as opposed to a pitch event, and as the sound evened out, Vigueras captured it with a loop pedal. Above this texture, he gave the same fan treatment to the treble strings which came off like a giant harpsichord or press-rolled hammered dulcimer in a horror film. He then began stick-rubbing, pick-sliding, and finger-tapping the strings against the fretboard, the last of which looked a bit 1980s but sounded really quite 2080s. Against the slow decay of this large texture and in a wash of reverb, he began plucking the strings and adjusting the tuning pegs, providing the first substantial (and melodic—a term I use loosely here) pitch material of the piece. Harmonies began to form from the extended single lines, which in turn formed beds for further melodic material. During the bulk of the performance Vigueras held the guitar in a more or less conventional fashion, but as the piece progressed he pulled the guitar up such that the neck was nearly parallel with his own, with the lower bout (the bottom of the guitar) in his lap. As both arms wrapped around the body, one hand made its way up the fretboard and moved above the nut, plucking the parts of the strings which are only a few inches long between nut and tuning pegs. The other hand moved down to the bridge and began touching the strings, creating sounds through the pedals like the striking of super-tight drum heads or (as it says in my notes) “popcorn in Satan’s microwave.” Finally, Vigueras pulled out a bow, carefully pulling across the highest strings[4] which created impossible overtones that, while quite beautiful, must have completely freaked out any dogs within several blocks.

A few weeks ago, I said that my experience at the Green House show was one that was “uniquely Austin,” and while I stand by that statement, I have to say that my idea of new music in this town (particularly in terms of venue) has been somewhat broadened. This show was really spectacular, pulled no punches, and was only a block from the Austin Convention Center. I’ll never tire of shows in funky little out-of-the-way venues, but to see a full-fledged improv show in an otherwise conventional bar in the middle of the week was heartening. Maybe it’s the season that’s raised my spirit, or maybe it’s Vigueras’s impossible overtones still ringing around in my head, but it’s good to know that I can duck into a downtown bar and hear looped and layered improv guitar alongside the backbeats and blues licks that have echoed through the air in Austin for so many years.



1.     Anyone who has ever moved a powered-on guitar amp with a spring reverb knows this sound (at about 0:08.)

2.     It’s just a root and a fifth, but with distortion they are, well…quite powerful. Just ask the Scorpions. Do not ask Twee.

3.     It was sort of like this. Sort of…

4.     A technical note for the uninitiated. Unlike the strings of the viola and violin (which describe an arch) the strings of the guitar live on a plane, so for the most part you can either bow the lowest few, the highest few, or all six. Horne was conjuring a big texture hitting all six, while Vigueras (for the most part) was shooting for more precision.