Joe Jones with his musical machines, sometime in the 1970’s
Note: This is a revised and expanded article, originally published on the-hum.com in mid 2014.
Since having resuscitated my series The Unaccompanied Guitar (Soli, Raga, and Beyond), the instrument around which it orbits has spent a great deal of time in my thoughts. Despite the affection on which those articles draw, my relationship to the guitar is as complex as it is long – flirting equally with love and hate. One of the first pieces I wrote on the original Hum site, as I found my feet and began to sculpt the ideas which have guided my independent efforts over the last few years, attempted to navigate this complex relationship. It seemed like a perfect moment to revisit it.
My writing, with what I expect of it, has evolved in the time since the Inescapable Tone initially appeared. In the midst of working on the aforementioned series, I realized that I could do better than I had, and that a revision might offer an interesting counterpoint. I am also slowly migrating my early articles onto this blog – clearing the original site, with the hope that it might host a more expanded and ambitious platform down the road.
For nearly anyone born in the seventy plus years since the close of the Second World War, the guitar has been the dominant sound of cultural life. It is the backbone of Rock & Roll, the Blues, Soul, and Funk, and threads its way through the history of Jazz, avant-garde music, and countless traditions from across the globe. It is the inescapable tone. Its cross-cultural dominance is so accepted, that even its absence feels pregnant. Early in my life as a listener, the ubiquity of the guitar – rising toward a generic expectation, with even its players often taking it for granted, caused me to rebel – pushing its sounds from my life. My desire to avoid it, or at least constrain its presence, provoked my teenage explorations of Jazz and the avant-garde. A positive result, without resolution.
Given its current place in the cultural landscape, it’s remarkable to think how fast the guitar took hold. A century ago it was rarely heard – almost exclusively limited to rural American folk music, a few European traditions, and as a generator of rhythm in Jazz. Origins are argued. There are undeniable connections to the lute, a number of African instruments, as well as the setar, tar, and oud, but its early iterations found form in Medieval Spain – drifting across Europe over the centuries, embedding itself, and evolving as it went. The guitar, as we understand it today, was a 19th century American innovation – slowly gathering popularity, being accessible enough to become an aural bond within a disparate cultural melting pot. As it threaded through the last century, it darted and weaved, developed cliches, dropped them, and then exploded into the world. Its idioms and universal popularity exceed all others. Its tones now reside in countless musical traditions within North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the divergent cultures of Europe, Asia, Africa, India, and beyond.
There are unavoidable ironies in my evolving relationship to the guitar – how I came to view and approach it as the years wore on. I am intuitively drawn to the underdog, and this instrument – particularity in the hands of Rock & Roll, is the jock, the prom king or queen, of popular music. It is hegemonic, and often macho – a phallic extension. The ego and arrogance it regularly projects, repelled me. As such, the guitar became the underdog of my own taste, sparking a paradoxical curiosity and draw – its very exhaustion, the focus of a new quest.
The guitar presents a bizarre challenge for players disposed to exceptional creative ambition. In the face of such familiarity and over use, radical innovation is a near impossible feet. Such a position, can provoke remarkable things. Where is the new ground, when so much has been explored – when reference and cliche seem impossible to avoid? It was figures who had manged such a thing, against all odds, that returned the instrument to my life – who sidestep culture and influence, reinventing it in a vision all their own.
Of course, especially depending on how you rigorously frame and define innovation, there are countless artists who have reinvented the guitar. When I wrote the initial incarnation of this piece, I didn’t attempt a survey, nor even to indicate my favorite players. Its focus was to draw attention to the those who had provoked me to return – to hear their instrument anew, who had opened the door to so much pleasure and joy. When approaching this revision, I was tempted to expand – to include others who deserved credit for the remarkable challenge they overcame. I decided not to complicate things – to retain the original list of LPs, and to keep within the personal narrative from which it sprang.
These six albums, as wild as they can be, and as incongruous the links, are responsible for ushering countless guitar musics into my life, particularity those from Africa, India, and parts of Asia, which hold a very special place in my heart. Because of the astounding challenge they overcame, they entirely changed what I expect of inescapable structures and tones.
Derek Bailey- Improvisation (1975)
Derek Bailey is by far the most famous, and historically important, of these entries. He is a titan of musical thought and instrumental attack. He completely rewrote the guitar, and in many ways, the entire structure of music. How it was played. How it sounded. How it was understood. He is one of the great fathers of free improvisation, and of experimental music at large.
Bailey began his career playing in large Jazz dance ensembles – a million miles from where he landed. He was known to be cranky, dogmatic, and principled to a fault – free improvisation and creative singularity maintained with the faith of a religion, complete with disgrace and excommunication. His playing was so remarkable and unique, that it became embedded with paradox. Bailey, in the true spirit of his faith, never wanted to cross the same territory twice. He was so successful, creating a approach that was so unique and personal, that you can hear him from a mile out. In other words, by creating such a singular music, it nearly always sounded like him.
I am particularly fond of solo performance – when a player strips away everything but their instrument, allowing themselves to be vulnerable to the ear. Among Free Jazz players, this practice has long stood as a benchmark of skill. Having what it takes to be out there alone. Bailey possessed this to such a degree, that his solo recordings often outshine those within groups and ensembles. There’s nothing between him and your ear. The brain blisters. Among my favorites, is Improvisation – released by the legendary Cramps imprint in 1975, only his third recorded venture into this risky terrain. It is an archetypal document of Bailey’s playing. Clusters of staccato notes and carefully controlled tone and resonance. It’s a flurry of playing and intellect that leaves the listener on the edge of their seat, struggling to understand where they’ve been lead.
Derek Bailey- Improvisation (1975)
Remko Scha – Machine Guitars (1982)
Remko Scha, who passed away in 2015, was a fascinating figure in European intellectual life. He was a composer of algorithmic works, as well as computational linguist – making a number of considerable contributions to the field of semantics, specifically the treatment of plurals and discourse analysis, as well as establishing the groundwork for Data Oriented Parsing.
Scha’s performances and recordings where the product of motor-driven machines, as is the case on Machine Guitars, where a cluster of guitars are played by saber saws and a rotating wire brush, all without any human intervention. The album falls within the murky middle ground between fine art, and avant-garde music – ultimately being purely conceptual music, where the outcome is secondary to its generative ideas. I adore this album, and spent years trying to track down a copy. It took over a decade, but was worth the wait. Rather than Scha playing, you are faced with the interactions of objects he orchestrates, to mesmerizing result – sounds imbued with an inexplicable sensitivity. The interplay of notes appear responsive – delicately intricate, considered and thought out. Beyond its architecture, there is no thought, only machine executing a task, yet it is a towering emblem of creativity and idea, pushing the ear outside itself and into the world beyond.
Remko Scha- Sweep, from Machine Guitars (1982)
Hans Reichel- Bonobo (1976)
Hans Reichel is a figure most often encountered, while exploring the out reaches of European and German improvised music. Not only did he alter the way the guitar sounded and was played, but he altered the guitar itself – creating mutated versions to realize his ideas, where two necks are joined end to end by six continuous strings. Bonobo is an incredible piece of work – a window into the possibilities presented by veering off the beaten path. While entirely played by Reichel’s hands, the closest references exist within musical fields which exploit machines – Nancarrow’s player pianos, synthesis, tape and computer music. It’s incredible, otherworldly, and unlike anything else. The sound of an epileptic guitar, played by someone tripping their face off – as consuming and wonderful as it gets.
Note: While the LP is long out of print, and not easy to find, Corbett vs. Dempsey has recently reissued Bonobo on CD, while Destination Out has released it as a digital download.
Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) (1983)
Glenn Branca’s music, bridging the worlds of punk and the avant-garde, had a great deal to with my later willingness to approach the guitar. Despite my affection for his two records for 99 – The Ascension and Lesson No.1, I’m particularly drawn to his symphonies – especially Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), issued on cassette in 1983, and reissued on LP by Roir last year. Perhaps even more than Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, Branca represents the best example experimental music’s influenced on the mainstream. His tone and approach course through contemporary Rock & Roll.
Symphony No. 1, a driving, metronomic world of dissonant detuned guitars, premiered in 1981 and marks the beginning of a fascinating conceptual transition in Branca’s career – not to mention, for avant-garde music at large. In retrospect, Branca’s ideas, as they realized themselves across the work, were remarkably simple. He heard the obvious. Others did not. What made Symphony No. 1 so unique – even beyond its singular structures and sounds, was that the album reactivated the avant-garde’s counter-cultural conceits, which, by the early 80’s, were slipping away. Branca broke with the institutions, returning energy and relevance – marrying Punk and Minimalism in remarkable ways. The album is elegant and visionary, as it is uncompromising and pure.
Symphony No. 1 features an ensemble made up of 9 guitarists, a number of percussionists and keyboard players, French Horn, Saxophone, Baritone Horn, and Trumpet – joined in a series of carefully calibrated relationships, forced into rigorous structures. Within it, Branca does something that few composers have done as well. He took the kind of dissonances that were favored by Serialism, and later embraced by Punk, recognized their topical character, stripped them of elitism, expanded them (well beyond twelve tones), and forced them into the structures laid out by the generation of composers that proceeded him (the Minimalists). Though this might seem like a small leap, Branca effectively combined nearly every important music development (with the exception of Free-Improvisation, and Indeterminacy) of the Twentieth Century into a sonic and structural pallet that had never been preciously heard – making Symphony No. 1 one of the most important works composed in the last half century. Even after all these years, it makes my heart skip a beat.
Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) (1983)
Joe Jones – In Performance (1977)
This is not a guitar record in the strictest sense, rather recordings of an artist and a number of machines playing instruments – guitars making up a large part of the the ensemble. Joe Jones is a seminal figure in the history of Fluxus, and to the legacy of sound practice within the context of fine art. Like many of his peers, his name has been largely lost to the shadows of time. An inconvenient iconoclast. An artist who cut his own path and never fit in. His album In Performance is a startling gem – long coveted by collectors of artist records, but known to few beyond that small circle of fans. A student of Cage and Brown, Jones was early to sidestep the constraints of musical categorization – attempting to free himself through the use of machines. In 1961 he began a practice to creating orchestras of self playing instruments. Called the Tone Deaf Music Company, this assembly generates the sounds on In Performance. It is astounding piece of work – bridging conceptual practice, a world slipping out of control, and the rising wonders of sound. It’s an ensemble record, and a solo performance. A percussion record without percussion instruments. Undermining authorship and the idea of the performer, it’s a reverberate, shimmering cacophony.
Note: Superior Viaduct has reissued In Performance in recent months, and worth tracking down.
Joe Jones – Untitled, from In Performance (1977)
Loren Mazzacane (Connors)- Five Points (1993)
Within the history of experimental music, there are three towering names associated with the guitar – figures who entirely defined new approaches to the instrument, and laid the groundwork on which so many others built – Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, and Loren Mazzacane Connors. There are others, but these three arguably took the most ground, establishing what have evolved into individual schools of thought and approach.
Given the re-framed context of this article – placing as a counterpoint to The Unaccompanied Guitar (Soli, Raga, and Beyond) series, Loren Mazzacane Connors offers the perfect place to end. Of any American guitarist, he work is arguably the closest to the true (under-recognized) spirit of what John Fahey began – taking it further into the unknown. Not unlike Fahey, Connors is a deceptive player. His approach to the guitar is more linear than most others working within the idioms of experimental music. Rather than making a radical break with the past, or other musical forms, as was the case with Bailey and Rowe, Connors’ playing draws on countless diverse traditions – particularly the blues. Comparatively, he takes on a greater pallet of structure, tone, and texture – leaving the listener with far more to deconstruct. It is almost as though he distilled the entire history of his instrument, through a profoundly individual self.
In 1993 and 94, Table of the Elements issued two connected series of 7″s, dedicated to radical and diverse approaches to the guitar. They were among the first releases by a label which changed my life, and when I began to encounter them after moving to Chicago in 1996, their effect was equal to anything on the remarkable imprint. Within the second series, was Five Points by Loren Mazzacane Connors – my first encounter with its artist, and thus, for the obvious personal reasons, the dearest to my heart.
Conners is a player who is impossible to nail down – always shifting toward new necessary sounds. Despite this, Five Points is a near quintessential snapshot of what makes him incredible. It doesn’t shatter convention or paradigm. It doesn’t scream for attention. The guitar is unmistakably a guitar – every tone familiar. Conners’ radicalism is his ability to draw unique beauty out of his instrument’s own terms – to make it entirely personal despite the weight of the history he takes on. The delicacy and sensitivity of his playing is overwhelming – like no one else. Beautiful, minimal, and drenched in staggering broken melodies. In a single gesture, reopening an entire world of possibility for the guitar.
Loren Mazzacane (Connors)- Moonyean, from Five Points (1993)