Back in the Sixties, Columbia initiated a series of releases under the rubric Music of Our Time on both its “primary” label (thanks particularly to Leonard Bernstein) and its “budget” Odyssey label. In retrospect, even though many important avant-garde composers and performers were able to benefit from this project, the whole thing felt a bit like an effort to appeal to what LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) was attacking in his Down Beat columns as the middle-brow mentality. I have to wonder whether or not anyone at Columbia ever realized that the acronym for their series was “MOOT,” suggesting that the content had too little to offer to be of any practical significance.
Nevertheless, the most important thing I learned from John Cage is that one can always find something of value in even the bleakest of situations. Where Music of Our Time was concerned, I quickly came to value an album featuring David Tudor entitled A Second Wind for Organ. This presented Tudor performing two highly unconventional organ pieces by Mauricio Kagel and Christian Wolff, respectively, and a piece for bandoneon by Gordon Mumma. I found myself thinking about this album while listening to guitarist Giacomo Fiore’s latest self-produced release, iv: american electric guitars, currently available from Amazon.com as either a vinyl disc or an MP3 download.
One reason may be that this album also contains a Wolff composition. However more relevant may be how the four compositions selected each present an approach to the electric guitar that departs from convention in its own way. I almost thought it would be worth while to play Columbia’s game in the interest of coming up with a clever title: Restringing the Electric Guitar?
Along with Wolff the composers presented are Eve Beglarian, Anthony Porter, and Larry Polansky. All of them are Americans; and all of their pieces were composed in the 21st century, the earliest being Beglarian’s “until it blazes” (2001) and the most recent being Porter’s “hair of the thing that bit you” (2011). All of these have been included in programs of recitals that Fiore has given over the last several years and constitute a shift of his own interests from acoustic to electronic instruments.
The one piece I have been fortunate enough to hear in performance I have actually heard on two different occasions. This is Wolff’s “another possibility,” composed in 2004. Back in 1966 Wolff had decided that he wanted to learn to play electric guitar; and Morton Feldman wrote “The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar” for him. Wolff learned this piece and played it frequently until his guitar was stolen with the only copy of the score in its case. “another possibility” may thus be viewed as both an apology and a memorial piece for Feldman.
Musically, one may describe “another possibility” as a study in amplification techniques. Many of the sonorities arise for tones sustained over durations far longer than those produced under acoustic conditions, but the performer also has to vary the amplitude of some of those tones while they are sounded. Consistent with many of Wolff’s other compositions, “another possibility” is also a study in indeterminacy. The opening pages present melodic fragments with all pitches specified exactly. However, by the final pages specifications have been stripped down to rhythms and indications of plucking either open or fretted strings.
Of the remaining three pieces on the album, only one is explicitly for guitar. Porter’s piece was written on a commission from Matthew Holmes-Linder, one of the three guitarists in the San Francisco-based Mobius Trio. It is a study in the real-time interplay of solo performance with sampling and looping software. Like Wolff’s composition, it is almost pointillist in its attention to individual moments. As a result, the effect of real-time playback only vaguely resembles the trendy “beats” rhetoric that may have emerged from some of the early minimalists but now seems to have established itself in the club scene.
Beglarian’s piece also works with real-time capture and playback; but the instrumental scoring is specified loosely as “for any plucked or keyboard instrument” (which, presumably, would include one of Tudor’s “second wind” organs). In this case the rhythms are much more strongly defined; and, because the melodic content is limited to six notes, the sampling technology allows the synthesis of textures through which motifs emerge from a background of repetitive textures, somewhat in the spirit of Steve Reich’s early experiments with phase shifting applied to a repeated motif.
The final track, Polansky’s “freeHorn,” was composed in 2004 “for any instrument and live electronics.” This is one of a series of pieces Polansky has created as a vehicle for composing with the frequency ratios of natural harmonics rather than any of the more conventional scale systems. When played on electric guitar, the performer is required to retune the strings over the course of the composition. This expands the possibilities for fundamental pitches, while amplification then enhances the audibility of upper partials. The result is a back-to-basics study of the fundamental properties of sound itself realized through a thoroughly contemporary rhetoric allowing for extended improvisation.