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6-String Synthesizer

By Marc Weidenbaum

Despite relentless death knells sounded for rock’n’roll, three CDs released in late 2001 and early 2002 reveal that the guitar, at least, is far from dead. Apparently, the instrument simply took a nap after rock’s supposed funeral and woke up with renewed vigor and a fresh sense of purpose.

All three albums in question utilize the guitar — electric and acoustic varieties — in the pursuit of a personal vision of ambient/electronic music.

On Steve Roach’s Streams and Currents (Projekt Records) the guitar is reported to be the primary instrument, but it’s almost unrecognizable; the result of much electronic processing is an album rich with an undercurrent of spiritual, almost shamanic intent.

On Keimar Sky (Coombe Records), by a British duo called Dual, the focus on the guitar as a source of droning ambience resembles Roach’s recording, but with entirely different textures and sounds.

And on Greg Davis’s Arbor (Carpark Records) the presence of an acoustic guitar is self-evident; Davis’s strumming appears to be virtually the only non-digital sound amid computerized drums and samples. That the various elements work together so seamlessly is a testament to Davis’ artistry as a composer and producer.

That the guitar should surface today as a useful instrument in a genre more closely associated with synthesizers, samplers and turntables makes sense, given the history of electronic music. One of pop’s first flirtations with classical minimalism came about from guitarist Pete Townshend’s fascination with the music of composer Terry Riley, while the Who was still at the height of its powers. The Beatles’ George Harrison, famously, took the vocabulary he developed in his study of open-ended Indian ragas and applied it to the electric guitar.

And Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music, made one of his first forays into the formless genre in a project with guitarist Robert Fripp; in 1973, half a decade before Eno produced his landmark Ambient 1: Music for Airports album, he and Fripp recorded No Pussyfooting, a record of beatific soundscapes and voluble dissonance.

The recent albums by Steve Roach and Dual most closely resemble the work that Eno and Fripp were doing almost three decades ago: treating the electric guitar with all manner of electronic effects in order to wring beautiful tones, dense with harmonic complexity, more akin to the vast spaces of choral music than to the elegant structures of chamber composition — and, most importantly, entirely devoid of the momentum that rock demands of its guitarists. There are no riffs on these albums, no songs for that matter, certainly not in the traditional sense of the word.

Only two things matter in this sort of music: tone and drone. Tone is the ineffable pinnacle of sound, a sonic flavor pleasurable unto itself. Drone is the Zen beauty of that sound sustained at length, either on its own or overlapping with other sounds. Both Roach’s Streams and Currents and Dual’s Keimar Sky have these two ingredients in abundance.

The guitar is, by no means, the primary focus of Steve Roach’s work. Perhaps America’s premiere ambient figure, he has summoned ethereal sounds from all manner of source material, including didjeridus, percussion and synthesizers. Since the late ’70s he has released approximately 40 albums. The guitar has made numerous appearances on Roach’s records, especially in the hands of others. He teamed with guitarist Roger King in 1998 for Dust to Dust (also on Projekt), a duo album that summoned the desert spirit of the American southwest, with an obvious debt to Ennio Morricone, the great film-soundtrack composer. Roach has also recorded with David Torn and Michael Brook, two musicians who use the guitar as an ambience-generator.

Streams and Currents, however, is Roach on his lonesome — and not just alone, but recording live, equipped with (to quote the album’s liner notes) “2 electric guitars, Ebow, various live looping and sound processing equipment.” This “live in the moment” recording process is essential to Roach’s belief that performing music is a kind of ritual. Streams and Currents should be heard as the document of a service, a heavenly accumulation of sounds that ebbs and flows, like some dreamtime current. He’s sort of like a Les Paul for the 21st century. Whereas Les Paul astounded us with the guitar’s various sonic possibilities, and with the powers of multi-track recording, Steve Roach astounds us with how much one person can do, all alone, without the benefits of post-production or overdubbing.

Dual, which consists of Colin Bradley and George Richardson, has an apparent affinity for silence. Several tracks on Keimar Sky, such as the opening “Pe-gglass” and another one titled “Nucell,” either fade in or out at an extreme length, taking minutes to work up to a low hum, or to dissolve into nothingness. Fripp and Eno aren’t the only evident influences on Dual’s music. About two minutes into the second cut on Dual’s album, a track titled “Kattus,” you can hear the beading — a kind of pointilist reverb — that Pete Townshend employed on “Baba O’Riley” (and, much later, “Eminence Front”). That is about as visceral as the album gets. Like Roach’s record, Dual’s indulges in gravitas — it could easily be the soundtrack to an existentialist remake of Blade Runner, all of the dread but minus any of the action sequences.

It must be understood from the outset that Greg Davis’s album, Arbor, is a breed apart from the work that Roach and Dual are up to. Davis’ album is included here as evidence of the guitar’s varied roles in electronic music, not to suggest some single-minded guitar-ambience movement. Davis’ music is far more difficult to classify than the tone-for-tone’s sake ambience of these other two recordings.

For one thing, the acoustic guitar he uses throughout Arbor sounds like an acoustic guitar, not like a vast swath of atmospheric ether. He plucks the thing, he plays rhythmic figures on it, and he comes close, at times, to sounding like he’s working out an exercise of “Dust in the Wind,” with circular picking motifs that are downright folksy.

On a track titled “Nicholas,” he initially sets the guitar against a tasty, automated backbeat, the sort of hip-hop-derived rhythm you might expect from Cornershop or the Gorillaz, with just enough of a psychedelic flavor to qualify as Britpop. (Though Davis played most of the guitar on Arbor, the sample on “Nicholas” is from Nick Drake, late legend of the British folk-revival movement.) Later on, the song reaches a chaotic plateau, the drums flailing like drum’n’bass at its most frenzied, and random sound samples appearing like ET has convinced the telephone operator to break into your call. On a song titled “Eleven Eight” Davis’ playing recalls the backward-taped guitar solos of George Harrison and, for that matter, Adrian Belew.

Davis is a master arranger and editor. What makes Arbor great is how all these little elements — tiny drum beats, the sound of a finger against a guitar string, an otherworldy effect — balance against one another.

Not all the tracks on Arbor have evident guitar elements — the brief opening cut, for example, is a bauble of dulcet samples. However the album’s last cut, from which it takes its title, is almost entirely acoustic guitar, resplendent in its echoes of John Fahey’s philosophical folk music. Only toward the end of the nearly nine-minute song do other elements (little globules of sounds, like day-glo chimes and a child’s piano) appear. The song can be heard as a reversal of the rest of the record, in which the ratio of acoustic elements to digital ones is flipped. The lesson is clear: all of these sonic items are just tools, none more important than any other, in the composer’s toolbox.

Originally published in the February 8, 2002, issue of epulse.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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