The Georgia Tech Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, 2016

guthman poster scaled

On March 3, 2016, the Center for Music Technology program at Georgia Tech (the Georgia Insitute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia), held the finals of its eighth-annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, as a public performance. This event is both international and world-renowned. Designers of musical instruments compete for cash prizes and recognition by going through an extensive multi-day interview process with a panel of judges, culminating in the evening concert for the finalists.

This was my first time attending this event, world-famous among those who develop new musical instruments. Several instruments that have appeared in the competition over the years have gone on to become mass-produced, commercial products. On the other hand, many instruments and their creators are in it for something entirely different — they hand-build one instrument for their own use. And this leads to the Guthman competition’s multiple-personality problem.

Is this an event to foster technological innovation, or is it a competition for individual performers to show off their unorthodox skills using impractical instruments that you couldn’t imagine anybody else wanting to play? It’s both. The range of instruments and performers were so wide that I cannot understand how the judges could select winners. Regardless, this dichotomy made for a great evening of avant-garde musical entertainment.

One instrument was entirely acoustic, others acoustic with simple pickups or contact microphones. Other instruments made use of digital sounds and cutting-edge computer software in artificial intelligence, algorithmic composition and the like, in combination with novel implementations of hardware such as motion-capture cameras, wireless controllers, lasers and optical sensors.

The judges for the competition were the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, American music journalist Allan Kozinn, and Marcelo Wanderley, professor of music technology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

The Ferst Center seats over 1,000; the hall was full of curious Georgia Tech students, who cheered on and warmly encouraged this very motley crew of inventor-musician-madmen, some of whom must have spent their last €0.10 to get here from the four corners of the globe.  Everybody felt entertained and enlightened.

Now on to the amazing instruments and performances, most of which inspired a well-deserved sense of wonderment from the audience.

A general comment: You can find information about each of these instruments online, but even recent photos and videos you see may not reflect the state that the instrument was in at Georgia Tech. I get the impression that each of these inventors was constantly modifying and tweaking their prototypes right up to performance time.

Yaybahar, Görkem Şen, Turkey

Second Place Award
Audience Award: Best Instrument

Yaybahar
Yaybahar

This imposing instrument, which is entirely acoustic, creates its own deep reverberation, while the performer plays it both as a pair of bass drums and as a fretted, bowed instrument with about the dimensions and range of a Turkish bağlama or saz. The neck of the stringed instrument is coupled through two long, loose springs to the two bass drums which provide both resonating chambers and acoustic spring reverb. Görkem Şen spun out enchanting, haunting, wistful melodies that set the stage for the evening.

The Sound Space, Greg Beller, France

Judges’ Award: Technical Excellence

The Sound Space
The Sound Space

Greg Beller performed as a human beat box. He created percussive and melodic sounds with his voice into a head-mounted microphone, sampling, triggering and modulating the sounds in real time using his body’s gestures in three-dimensional space. This was sensed by a motion-capture camera and triggered by controller buttons on gloves on each hand, with computer software that handles all this behind the scenes. His performance was entertaining and humorous and warmly received.

Claudeatron Mk IV, Claude Woodward, Australia

Claude Woodward is a veteran tinkerer with the soul of a street busker. His enigmatic clear Plexiglas hand-held instrument enables him to perform expressive melodies by manipulating wheels and buttons, controlling parameters in virtual instruments in Apple’s MainStage program for the Macintosh. He was really into the performing shtick, cranking out a medley of show tunes and operatic themes with a wild, wooly vibrato on what might be called an information-age theremin. He explains it all in his demo video above.

Kalichord Strum, Dan Moses Schlessinger, California

An earlier prototype of the Kalichord Strum: This is NOT the instrument in the form that it was being performed at the Guthman competition.
An earlier prototype of the Kalichord Strum: This is not the same instrument in the form that it was presented at the Guthman competition.

Dan Moses Schlessinger is an engineer with the Sennheiser microphone company. The Kalichord is his home-brew array of piezoelectric sensors that can be plucked and strummed by one hand while notes are played on a keyboard with the other hand. The latest prototype is in a wooden box that sits on a table. Behind the scenes is a computer-based physical modeling virtual instrument which creates string sounds, processed through the Max/MSP music programming environment. The Kalichord could enable a keyboardist to mimic the performance of a guitar, but he went beyond that, starting out with New-Age harp and zither sounds and ending with an endearing attempt to crank out a classic 70s Motown riff.

Stimulierte Emissionen Klingen, Leo Bettinelli, Argentina  and Austria

Third Place Award

Stimulierte Emissionen klingen
Stimulierte Emissionen klingen

Leo Bettinelli came from the Andes and crossed the Alps. His instrument (it means “stimulated emission sounds” in English, but that takes us no closer to understanding its function) is a two-meter-square vertical two-dimensional array of laser beams and photo sensors creating a grid of eight beams on a side, which define 80 different sensor points. It is played by a performer waving his hands, feet or any other part of his body inside the grid to trigger sounds and musical phrases. The laser grid is interfaced to an Arduino microcontroller kit and thence to computer-based sound generation. Playing it seems to be as much of a dance as a musical performance.

La Diantenne, Dianne Verdonk, Netherlands

diantenne

Possibly the simplest instrument in the competition was played by Dianne Verdonk, who is also a cellist and bass player. Her latest prototype is simply a sheet of metal with a contact microphone which Verdonk plays by striking the center with her hand or with a mallet while warping the shape of the sheet. This is a variation on the old “musical saw” or the device used in theater sound effects for centuries to simulate the sound of thunder. Verdonk, however, uses her instrument to skillfully produce slow, sonorous bass lines with deep, sweeping portamento and mysterious overtones. Verdonk was the only performer in the competition to sing while playing, making her own statement about do-it-yourself instrument building for a singer-songwriter. She won no award, but I cast my ballot for her in the category of audience award for best performer.

Electric Mbira, Josh and Wes Keegan, Colorado

The mbira, also known as the African thumb piano or the kalimba, is a folk instrument with a long history. The Keegans, doing business as Colorado Soundscapes, were the only finalists with an instrument which they manufacture and sell, rather than the one-offs or prototypes every other participant was playing. But the format of the live concert presentation let them down. For eight minutes one of the Keegans stood on stage and played his mbira held motionless in his hands, which is not a visually exciting thing to do, and the audience was at a loss to understand why this instrument was significant. But when I looked them up afterwards, I realized that they have re-designed and re-engineered this folk instrument, crafting every component in unique ways to make it more professional and reliable. They have carved a wooden soundboard that acts like tuned speaker cone; they have designed and custom-machined an original mechanism for precision-tuning the tone bars which seems to be innovative. Many craftsmen make mbiras, but the Guthman competition recognized the Keegans for their refinement of the design. I suppose you could call it the Fender Stratocaster of mbiras.

MotionComposer, Andreas Bergsland and Robert Wechsler, Norway

Special Recognition Award

Motion Composer
MotionComposer

Robert Wechsler is a dancer from New York who got his start with Merce Cunningham. Andreas Bergsland is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. As they say, “The MotionComposer is a hardware-software device being developed for persons with disabilities. It allows anyone a clear sense of musical expression through creative gesture and movement.” Wechsler added, “We even work with people who can only move their eyes.” To demonstrate their system, they brought out a “local kid” named Eirc Naindouba. Eirc appears to be about twelve years old and lives with a condition that I am guessing is cerebral palsy. Eirc performed from his wheelchair. I gather that he and his family are immigrants from an African nation who live in Atlanta. Details are scant, but from what I can gather, the MotionComposer operates using motion capture from a single camera box, with three-dimensional range, without the need for any physical sensors attached to the performer. The performer’s gestures trigger what I gather to be a computer-based real-time algorithmic composition system with pre-determined musical phrases mapped to different kinds of gestures that the performer can trigger. It also seems to take its tempo and rhythmic phrasing from cues in the performer’s gestures. I think MotionComposer was truly inspiring and empowering; it was given special recognition by the judges.

Golf club sitar/tabla and associated hybrid instruments, Ken Butler, New York

First Place Award
People’s Choice “Most Unusual”
People’s Choice “Best Performance”

Ken Butler and one of the many instruments he entered under the title "Golf Club Sitar/Tabla"
Ken Butler and one of the many instruments he entered under the title “Golf Club Sitar/Tabla”

Ken Butler closed the show and blew everybody away. I was amazed but also baffled by every minute of his performance, which largely defies description. He was certainly the most interesting performer, to the point that his instruments seemed to be an incidental detail compared to his musicianship. He swept the awards. His performance was howlingly funny and, well, baffling. What he did was to rapidly work through short performances on a series of instruments which he crudely home-made from found items, literally junk with strings and contact microphones attached, in the finest American tradition of the gut-bucket bass or the homemade slide guitar. He played astonishing melodies and percussion interludes, running everything through a Fender vacuum-tube guitar amplifier and grungy guitar pedals for that essential lo-fi vibe. This culminated in a percussion solo played on an ordinary toothbrush with a contact microphone scrubbed across his teeth, and then clamping down on the contact microphone inside his mouth and drumming out a solo with his fingers on his balding head. Forget all the computer software and the motion capture technology. Country-rocker Mack Davis had a song in the 70s that went, “Poor boy don’t need electronics to make no rock and roll. Poor boy got boogie woogie born right in his soul.” The Guthman judges agreed.

Semi-finalists (not performing in concert)

Contriverb, Ed Potokar, New York — Judges’ Recognition Award
The BladeAxe, Romain Michon, California
Pocket Operators, Teenage Engineering, Sweden
Kinefy, Federico Visi et al, England
The Big-Eared Scrambler, Greg Hendler and Mark Crowley, Georgia Tech
Reflexive Looper, François Pachet et al, France
Exp.Inst.Rain, Balam Soto, Connecticut
mi.mu gloves, Imogen Heap et al, England
The Spiral of Fifths, Ruben Dax, Massachusetts
The SolidNoise Ensemble, Jiffer Harriman et al, Colorado
ShohamMX, Amit Shoman, USA
Acoustic Additive Synth, Krzysztof Cybulski, Poland
ACPAD, Robin Sukroso, India
Instrument 1, Artiphon, unspecified location

Comments and criticisms

There were things about the event that I found frustrating.

My biggest problem is that the judges and the organizers knew all about the competitors and their instruments, but the audience had to scrabble for clues. For instance, what is the most basic thing you would want to know about a performer at an international musical event? Where that person is from. But this information was not made obvious to the audience. The printed program gave short “Entrant Biographies” but each one was free-form and there was no editing for consistency in the information provided. I was interested in the instrument “La Diantenne” played by musician Dianne Verdonk, but neither the program nor anything said on stage revealed what I was only able to infer by listening to her accent as she spoke briefly in English: she is from the Netherlands.

The most annoying thing about the event, for me, was the moderation by John Biggs, New York-based journalist for TechCrunch, who approached the entire event as a stand-up comedian who made endless little jokes but couldn’t be consistent in imparting useful information about each instrument and performer.

Each of the nine finalists gave an eight-minute performance on their instrument. Each one was amazing and beautiful, but during each performance I had a nagging what-the-heck-is-that-thing-and-what-am-I-listening-to? feeling. Then the moderator would come out and ask the performer to sum up in one or two sentences what it was we had just heard and how the instrument worked. This was always inadequate. I’m telling you that I had to go home and look up further information about each of these instruments on the Internet the next day in order to adequately understand myself what it was that I saw and heard the night before.

There was no good reason for this. The event organizers could have provided a proper introduction for each performer and instrument, printed in the program or presented verbally and with slides on the numerous projection screens on stage. They could have succinctly explained the principles involved and pointed out the innovations before the performance took place. This would have increased the audience’s appreciation for what they were hearing, and it need not have been tedious.

Setting aside my complaints, this was an exciting evening of the wild and wonderful, showing us the possibilities in the future of musical performance. People travel from across the nation and across the world to participate and to observe. I would recommend that you check out next year’s competition if you are able.

Bach’s Motets in English Translation

Last night I attended a performance of six motets by J. S. Bach, performed by the superlative Georgia Tech Chamber Choir, Jerry Ulrich, director, with Timothy Hsu, Baroque organ and Erin Ellis, Baroque cello.

So once again I’m revisiting a series I’ve done here that’s been quite popular; I’m providing my own translations of the texts, in this case from Bach’s German into modern English. I should restate my purpose:

My translations are intended only for English-speaking singers who are rehearsing and studying these pieces for performance in the original German.

My translationsare not for singing the piece in English. They are also not translations for printing in a concert program to be read by an audience during a performance.

What they are is more of a word-by-word translation to help singers who do not speak German to study the lyrics they are singing, and to find the emphasis of specific words within each line of melody. Therefore many grammatical structures in my translation will sound strange to a speaker of English, because German word order and modern English word order are very different.

If you are a music listener and you want a smooth-reading, easily-understood translation of the lyrics of these Bach motets, you can find those online in other places. If, however, you are a singer who is rehearsing and studying these pieces for your own performance, you might find my translations very useful.

I have labeled the Bible verses and source material in Bach’s texts. They are either from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible (circa 1522) and are therefore un-rhymed, or they are rhyming lyrics from hymns; in that case I have identified the lyricists.

I encourage you to look up each of the Bible verses in the translation or version of the Bible to which you are accustomed. When there are Bible verses being used, I have not simply copied-and-pasted text from one particular English translation of the Bible, as many would do; rather, I have attempted a word-for-word translation of the German text that Bach himself set. My approach will necessarily sound awkward, but it will help the singer identify the important words according to the German sentence structure; that’s why I suggest that you look up the verses in your own Bible to get a more coherent understanding of the meaning.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225

Sing to the Lord a new song

Hymn texts by Johann Gramann (1487 – 1541). Movement 3 is from “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (“Now praise, my soul, the Lord”), which is based on Psalm 103.

1. (Psalm 149:1-3)
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!
Die Gemeine der Heiligen sollen ihn loben,
Israel freue sich des, der ihn gemacht hat.
Die Kinder Zion sei’n fröhlich über ihrem Könige.
Sie sollen loben seinen Namen im Reihen,
mit Pauken und Harfen sollen sie ihm spielen.
1. (Psalm 149:1-3)
Sing to the Lord a new song!
The congregation of the saints shall him praise,
Israel rejoices itself in him, who has created it.
The children of Zion are joyful over their king.
They should praise his name in dances,
with drums and harps should they play to him.
 2.
Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an!
Denn ohne dich ist nichts getan
mit allen unsern Sachen.
D’rum sei du unser Schirm und Licht,
und trügt uns unsre Hoffnung nicht,
so wirst du’s ferner machen.
Wohl dem, der sich nur steif und fest
auf dich und deine Huld verläßt!
 2.
God, take you from now on us (to you)!
For without you is nothing to be done with all of our belongings.
Wherefore be you our protection and light,
and if deceives us our hope not,
So will you us happier make.
Happy is one who strictly and tightly
to you and your mercy submits!
3.
Wie sich ein Vat’r erbarmet
Üb’r seine junge Kindlein klein:
So tut der Herr uns Armen,
So wir ihn kindlich fürchten rein.
Er kennt das arme Gemächte,
Gott weiß, wir sind nur Staub.
Gleichwie das Gras vom Rechen,
Ein Blum und fallendes Laub,
Der Wind nur drüber wehet,
So ist es nimmer da:
Also der Mensch vergehet,
Sein End, das ist ihm nah.
3.
As a father has mercy
upon his young children small:
so does the Lord does with us poor ones,
So we respond to him with childlike fear pure,
He knows his poor creations,
God knows, we are but dust.
Just as the grass that is mowed,
a flower and a falling leaf,
the wind only over it blows,
So is it no longer there;
So the person passes away,
His end, it is is near to him.
 4. (Psalm 150:2, 6)
Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten,
loben ihn in seiner großen Herrlichkeit.
Alles was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn,
Halleluja!
4. (Psalm 150:2, 6)
Praise the Lord in his works,
praise him in his great lordship.
Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,
Hallelujah!

Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226

The (Holy) Spirit helps our weakness

Movement 2. Hymn text by Martin Luther (1483-1546)

1. (Romans 8:26-27)
Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf.
Denn wir wissen nicht, was wir beten sollen, wie sich’s gebühret;
sondern der Geist selbst vertritt uns aufs beste mit unaussprechlichem Seufzen.
Der aber die Herzen forschet, der weiß, was des Geistes Sinn sei,
denn er vertritt die Heiligen nach dem, das Gott gefället.
1. (Romans 8:26-27)
The Spirit helps our weakness.
For we know not, for what we should pray, what we should pay (in fees);
rather the Spirit itself intercedes for us in the best way with unutterable sighs.
He, however, who his heart examines, he knows, what the Spirit’s intention is,
because it intercedes for the saints according to that by which God is pleased.
2.
Du heilige Brunst, süßer Trost,
Nun hilft uns fröhlich und getrost
In dein’m Dienst beständig bleiben,
Die Trübsal uns nicht abtreiben!
O Herr, durch dein Kraft uns bereit
Und stärk des Fleisches Blödigkeit,
Daß wir hier ritterlich ringen,
Durch Tod und Leben zu dir dringen.
Halleluja, halleluja!
2.
You holy fire, sweet comfort,
Now help us joyfully and confidently
In your service firmly to remain,
Trouble to us is not aborted!
O Lord, through your strength us prepare
And strengthen the flesh’s bashfulness,
So that we here like knights may wrestle,
Through death and life to you can penetrate.
Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227

Jesus, my joy

Hymn text by Johann Franck (1618 – 1677)

1.
Jesu, meine Freude,
meines Herzens Weide,
Jesu, meine Zier!
Ach wie lang, ach lange,
ise dem Herzen bange
und verlangt nach dir!
Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam,
außer dir soll mir auf Erden
nichts sonst Liebers werden.
1.
Jesus, my joy,
my heart’s pasture,
Jesus, my treasure!
Ah how long, ah long,
has my heart feared
and longed for you!
God’s lamb, my bridegroom,
besides You should I (hold) on earth
nothing dearer.
2. (Romans 8:1)
Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches an denen,
die in Christo Jesu sind,
die nicht nach dem Fleische wandeln, sondern nach dem Geist.
2. (Romans 8:1)
There is now nothing damnable in those,
who in Christ Jesus are,
who do not after the flesh walk,
but rather after the Spirit.
 3.
Unter deinen Schirmen
Bin ich für den Stürmen
Aller Feinde frei.
Laß den Satan wittern,
Laß den Feind erbittern,
Mir steht Jesus bei.
Ob es itzt gleich kracht und blitzt,
Ob gleich Sünd und Hölle schrecken,
Jesus will mich decken.
3.
Under your protection
Am I from the storms
And all enemies free.
Let Satan rage,
Let the Enemy fume,
By me stands Jesus.
Whether it now crashes and flashes,
whether now sin and hell terrify,
Jesus will me protect.
 4. (Romans 8:2)
Denn das Gesetz des Geistes, der da lebendig machet in Christo Jesu,
hat mich frei gemacht von dem Gesetz der Sünde und des Todes.
4. (Romans 8:2)
For the law of the spirit, which alive makes in Christ Jesus,
has me free made from the law of sin and death.
 5.
Trotz dem alten Drachen,
trotz des Todes Rachen,
trotz der Furcht dazu!
Tobe, Welt, und springe;
ich steh hier und singe
in gar sichrer Ruh!
Gottes Macht hält mich in acht;
Erd und Abgrund muß verstummen,
ob sie noch so brummen.
5.
Defy the old dragon,
defy death’s vengeance,
defy fear as well!
Rage, world, and attack;
I stand here and sing
in altogether secure peace!
God’s power holds me in watchfulness;
Earth and abyss must fall silent,
However much they might rumble.
 6. (Romans 8:9)
Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich,
so anders Gottes Geist in euch wohnet.
Wer aber Christi Geist nicht hat, der ist nicht sein.
6. (Romans 8:9)
You, however, are not of the flesh, but rather of the Spirit,
since otherwise God’s Spirit in you lives.
Anyone, however, who  Christ’s Spirit does not have, is not his.
 7.
Weg mit allen Schätzen,
du bist mein Ergötzen,
Jesu, meine Lust!
Weg, ihr eitlen Ehren,
ich mag euch nicht hören,
bleibt mir unbewußt!
Elend, Not, Kreuz, Schmach und Tod
soll mich, ob ich viel muß leiden,
nicht von Jesu scheiden.
7.
Away with all treasures,
you are my delight,
Jesus, my desire!
Away, you vain honors,
I want to you not to listen,
remain to me unknown!
Poverty, misery, torture, shame and death
shall to me, although I must suffer much,
not from Jesus part me part me.
 8. (Romans 8:10)
So aber Christus in euch ist,
so ist der Leib zwar tot um der Sünde willen;
der Geist aber ist das Leben um der Gerechtigkeit willen.
8. (Romans 8:10)
So however if Christ is in you,
so is the body indeed dead indeed for sin’s sake;
the Spirit, however, is life for righteousness’s sake.
 9.
Gute Nacht, o Wesen,
Das die Welt erlesen!
Mir gefällst du nicht.
Gute Nacht, ihr Sünden,
Bleibet weit dahinten,
Kommt nicht mehr ans Licht!
Gute Nacht, du Stolz und Pracht!
Dir sei ganz, du Lasterleben,
Gute Nacht gegeben!
9.
Good night, nature,
that the world cherishes!
You please me not.
Good night, you sins,
Stay far away,
Come no more to light!
Good night, you pride and glory!
To you utterly, you corrupt life,
Good night be given!
 10. (Romans 8:11)
So nun der Geist des, der Jesum von den Toten auferwecket hat,
in euch wohnet, so wird auch derselbige,
der Christum von den Toten auferwecket hat,
eure sterblichen Leiber lebendig machen,
um des willen, daß sein Geist in euch wohnet.
10. (Romans 8:11)
Therefore now the Spirit of him, who Jesus from the dead raised,
in you dwells, so will therefore that same one,
Who Christ from the dead has raised,
Your dead bodies alive will make,
for the sake, that his Spirit in you will dwell.
 11.
Weicht, ihr Trauergeister,
denn mein Freudenmeister,
Jesus, tritt herein.
Denen, die Gott lieben,
muß auch ihr Betrüben
lauter Zucker sein.
Duld’ ich schon hier Spott und Hohn,
dennoch bleibst du auch im Leide,
Jesu, meine Freude.
11.
Hence, you Spirits of sadness,
because my Master of joy,
Jesus, comes here.
Those, that God love,
must even their troubles
(seem to be even moreso) pure sugar.
Endure I already here mockery and shame,
nevertheless you stay with me even in suffering,
Jesus, my joy.

Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228

Fear not, I am with you

Hymn text in Movement 3. by Paul Gerhardt (1607 – 1676)

1. (Isaiah 41:10)
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir; weiche nicht, denn ich bin dein Gott; ich stärke dich, ich helfe dir auch,
ich erhalte dich durch die rechte Hand meiner Gerechtigkeit.
1. (Isaiah 41:10)
Fear you not, I am with you;
recoil not, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you also,
I sustain you through the right hand of my righteousness.
2. (Isaiah 43:1)
Fürchte dich nicht, denn ich habe dich erlöset; ich habe dich bei deinem Namen gerufen, du bist mein.
2. (Isaiah 43:1)
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.
3.
Herr, mein Hirt, Brunn aller Freuden!
Du bist mein,
ich bin dein,
niemand kann uns scheiden.
Ich bin dein, weil du dein Leben
und dein Blut,
mir zu gut,
in den Tod gegeben.
Du bist mein, weil ich dich fasse
und dich nicht, o mein Licht,
aus dem Herzen lasse!
Laß mich, laß mich hingelangen,
wo du mich, und ich dich
lieblich werd umfangen.

Fürchte dich nicht, du bist mein.

3.
Lord, my Shepherd, fount of all joy!
You are mine,
I am yours,
no one can us part.
I am yours, since you your life
and your blood,
for my sake,
in your death have you given.
You are mine, since I hold to you
and you (I do) not, O my light,
from my heart let go!
Let me, let me attain unto,
where You to me, and I to you
lovingly will embrace.

Fear not, you are mine.

Komm, Jesu, komm! BWV 229

Come, Jesus, come!

Hymn text by Paul Thymich (1656 – 1694)

1.
Komm, Jesu, komm, mein Leib ist müde,
die Kraft verschwindt je mehr und mehr,
ich sehne mich nach deinem Frieden;
der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer!
Komm, komm, ich will mich dir ergeben,
du bist der rechte Weg,
die Wahrheit und das Leben.
1.
Come, Jesus, come, my body is tired,
the strength wanes more and more,
I long for your peace;
the sour path becomes for me too hard!
Come, come, I will to you myself yield,
You are the true path,
the truth and the life.
2.
D’rum schließ ich mich in deine Hände
und sage, Welt, zu guter Nacht!
Eilt gleich mein Lebenslauf zu Ende,
ist doch der Geist wohl angebracht.
Er soll bei seinem Schöpfer schweben,
weil Jesus ist und bleibt
der wahre Weg zum Leben.
2.
Therefore enclose I myself in your hands
and say, World, to you good night!
Hurries my life’s run to its end,
is certainly my spirit fully prepared.
It shall with its Creator soar,
because Jesus is and remains
the true path to life.

Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230

Praise the Lord, all heathens

(Psalm 117)
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden,
und preiset ihn, alle Völker!
Denn seine Gnade und Wahrheit
waltet über uns in Ewigkeit.
Alleluja!
(Psalm 117)
Praise the Lord, all heathen (nations),
and extol him, all peoples!
For his grace and truth
rule over us for eternity.
Hallelujah!

 

Please write to me and let me know if you have found this translation helpful. Let me know where in the world you live, and tell me about the choir that you sing with or the school where you study.

Progressive Rock, The Program Notes

prog rock jam banner

On Saturday, February 13, 2016, I will join over 30 musicians in the Prog Rock Jam, an epic jam session at Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs, Georgia, described thusly in my Facebook post:

Come hear me tomorrow night as I sing in the most over-ambitious jam session ever attempted by thirty-odd of the best rock musicians in Atlanta! Thrill as we, live, without a net, pay tribute to Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Kansas, Rush, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Gentle Giant and more. Twist and turn as we rip through epic, triumphant, grandiose, pompous, intricate, baroque arena-filling anthems in a cozy folk music club. Colossal musical train wrecks and widespread collateral damage are predicted. All superlative adjectives will be exhausted. If you survive, you’ll have something to tell your grandchildren about. You might even send them to us for music lessons.

At these jam events, the musicians are beginning to look to me to fill in time between the numerous set changes by telling stories about the history of the music. So I wrote the following 3,000 words, what I call the “program notes” although they aren’t going to be printed up and handed out to the audience. There will probably be very little time for me to use any of it, as we are looking at a 4-hour performance, so I thought best to post it here.

This show is focused on what is referred to as British progressive rock, a movement within rock music that spanned a rather narrow time period, circa 1968 through 1979.

The great Louis Armstrong, especially in the early days, was sometimes asked by professional journalists if he could explain what jazz is. He was said to reply, “If you have to ask, I can’t explain it to you.” Progressive rock is like that.

The most effective way to understand progressive rock is to listen to the actual music itself. More work for you, but as Billy Joel said in “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”: “There’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”

In a nutshell, however, it is this: In the 60s and 70s, British rock was bands appropriating American blues and rhythm and blues (“R&B”) and doing things in their own style. But there was a group of bands that came to be known as the British Progressive Rock movement, and what they were doing was this: They used the musical instruments of a rock band, but they sought to compose original music that drew on every musical influence they could muster, with the exception of American blues and R&B and rock and roll. My essay below goes into some of that, and provides a background for our concert.

What is progressive rock?

To talk about it in 2016 is a bit of an oxymoron: what we are concentrating on here is the British movement that took place in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Looking back from 40 years in the future it seems a bit strange to refer to it as progressive, but at the time, it was avant-garde. My esteemed colleague Sean Tonar, founder of the ProgressiveEars.org music fan forum, explains progressive rock in this fashion: There was a time in the early 70s when the music business was such that certain bands in the genre of rock were financed and enabled to create music that was experimental and non-commercial in nature; they were free to create a kind of music no one had heard before, and the record labels were willing to promote it. Some of these bands did indeed achieve worldwide commercial success. This was a unique time that was brief and would never be repeated.

However, to look at it only that way is to assume that the musicians in these bands created the music entirely on their own in a vacuum. That’s never the case. While it’s true that many of us musicians today go no further back than the original compositions by Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the like, it’s certainly not true that the musicians lacked prior influences for their songwriting. Let’s talk about that.

In the 1960s, British musicians got into “rock and roll” by blatantly copying American delta blues and Chicago blues from the earliest massed-produced recordings in the 1920s up through their period in the 1960s – the music of working-class black Americans recast for middle-class Brits, updated with the instruments they had on hand. Acts like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin all owed a tremendous debt to African-American music. All through the 1960s and 70s, the dominant form of British and American rock was heavily influenced by African-American blues.

But there is a clear line between these bands and progressive rock acts, and it is this: progressive rock bands wrote music that drew on everything that they could find to listen to except for the blues. In this way they defined themselves against the mainstream of pop music. But where did they get their ideas?

The Beatles, thanks to Paul McCartney, injected a thread of British Music Hall, a kind of adaptation of big-band jazz that went all the way back to the New Orleans Dixieland jazz of the earliest part of the 20th century and flourished into its own unique style through both world wars and up until the ascendency of rock. The Beatles’ more avant-garde excursions using tape loops are due to the influence of an early style of electronic music called Musique Concrète, specifically the 1950s and 1960s recording of classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from Germany.

King Crimson was clearly influenced by 20th-century European classical composers such as the Hungarian Béla Bartók. Crimson seemed to be creating 20th-century classical chamber music but with amplified rock instruments at ear-splitting volume.

Yes started out with an infatuation for the American vocally-oriented pop of bands like the Association, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, but throughout the 70s they strove to create an orchestral, symphonic sound using the instruments of a small rock band. Jon Anderson listened to the symphonies and tone-poems of 20th-century composers like Finland’s Jean Sibelius and the ballet music of Russian-French-American composer Igor Stravinsky, while guitarist Steve Howe listened to the 300-year-old chamber orchestra concertos of the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman has had a life-long love affair with the music of 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, whose style and sound pops up all through everything Wakeman has done.

Keith Emerson went a bit further back; he is known for adapting a monumental piano work of the 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, called Pictures at an Exhibition, and going from there.

It was the 20th-century European classical composers who were the first to incorporate a musical element that would prove essential to the British progressive rock sound: the use of odd time signatures and frequent changes in meter throughout a song. Ultimately these ideas came to the classical composers from the traditional folk music of Eastern Europe, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. Writers like Tony Banks of Genesis, members of Yes and King Crimson made a careful study of how 20th-century Western composers made use of these exotic rhythmic ideas.

A core element of most of these bands was a keyboardist, and those keyboardists, almost without exception, got their musical direction from one source: being trained as an organist for worship services in the Anglican Church. The great electric bass guitarist John Wetton, a featured performer in several prog rock bands, said further, “I learned from the greatest bass player of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach. My brother was a church organist, and I would sit next to him and study Bach’s bass lines as he played the organ.” Similarly, some singers in these bands were known to have been trained as church choirboys. Chris Squire is a well-known example, but I would be remiss if I did not add that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was an accomplished church choirboy as well.

British folk music and British classical music played a large role. Jethro Tull is probably the best-known band with obvious British folk-music roots. Tull started out flirting with African-American blues but found exploring British folk music, going back hundreds of years, to be more fertile ground.

When Pete Townsend of The Who wrote “Pinball Wizard” from his ground-breaking rock opera Tommy, he explained that the pedal-tone bass arrangement for the song came straight out of the works of British composer Henry Purcell, from the same time as Vivaldi. Likewise, Paul McCartney explained that his guitar composition “Blackbird” was his attempt to emulate J. S. Bach’s lute music.

Gentle Giant was a band that probably went further back for ideas than all the rest. They made great use of a style of musical composition that came well before the Baroque chordal music of Purcell, Vivaldi and Bach. Gentle Giant drew upon the 500-year-old Renaissance methods of counterpoint and polyphony, which is to say writing several simultaneous independent melodies that weaved together intricately to create a whole. Some of Gentle Giant’s music sounds rather Renaissance in tone, but they adapted these compositional ideas into their own take on funky American-sounding rhythm and blues as well.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, there is another element that characterizes progressive rock, and that is the compositional idea of the suite. Most pop music, then and now, is in the format of the song, which is a short composition structured into verses and choruses. Commercial radio in the 1950s and 60s dictated that popular songs needed to be no more than three minutes in length. Progressive rock, on the other hand, used a more classical model for much longer compositions. In a suite, one piece of music is divided up into a sequence of different musical sections, played one right after the other. Each section can have its own different keys, tempos, or musical moods. Many British progressive rock compositions are thus around twelve minutes or more in length. Now the use of the suite goes back to my colleague Sean Tonar’s point about bands having the creative freedom to experiment: in many cases, these classic suites, some of which we will be performing tonight, were composed on-the-fly during monthlong stints in a recording studio, where the band would compose only eight or sixteen measures of music, then record it, then compose a few more bars, then record that, and have the engineer splice it all together to create a final long-form suite. Only then would the band address learning to actually perform the piece live. This is why it’s often said that certain bands’ live albums contained better, more cohesive performances of these long suites than can be found on the original studio recordings.

My final observation is that British progressive rock happened at a unique point in music technology. It came to use sounds that nobody had ever heard before, made by a new and rapidly-evolving kind of electronic musical instrument called the synthesizer, which first appeared on the market circa 1968. They had been around in experimental recording studios for a few decades, but it was only at the very end of the 1960s that synthesizers were designed and built that were portable and suitable for use in stage performance. Progressive rock bands were especially eager to exploit this new technology. The first synthesizers, however, in addition to being staggeringly expensive, were only capable of playing one note at a time, like a flute or a trumpet, and not chords, as on an organ or a piano. Thus the synthesizer fell naturally into the role of providing a bass line or a solo melodic instrument for the keyboardist. It was not until the late 1970s that synthesizers became available which could play full chords like on an organ or piano.

Now let’s look at some of the individual bands on our program.

The Moody Blues were founded in 1964 as a party band that simply did covers of African-American music, hence their name. But after a radical change in the lineup, they became a kind of composer’s club bent on psychedelic, consciousness-expanding music centered around a cumbersome and unreliable magnetic-tape-based keyboard instrument called the Mellotron, played by their member Mike Pinder, who happened to work for the British Mellotron factory and thus got the old employee discount. The story goes that in 1967 their record label asked the Moody Blues to make a demonstration album for a new technology that the record company wanted to market: this was called stereo. The record label hired the Moody Blues an orchestral arranger and a pick-up orchestra and asked them to make an original album of their own adaptation of the 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s popular orchestral work called the Symphony out of the New World. However, the Moody Blues won the orchestrator over to their side and recorded and delivered an album of all-original compositions. Fortunately the record label was forward-thinking enough to put out Days of Future Past, which became an instant classic and a best-seller. The Moody Blues were on their way to create their own progressive rock.

King Crimson is a band with a revolving door of musicians, the only constant being guitarist Robert Fripp. (Fripp grew up with and took guitar lessons from the same teacher as guitarist Andy Summers of The Police, who came to prominence more than a decade later.) With Crimson, each new album consisted of an entirely different lineup of musicians. Their sound went through many permutations, most all of them very serious, very hard, and very loud. However, tonight we are performing two rather atypical Crimson songs. The first, “I Talk to the Wind”, is a gentle acoustic piece of music that might have more to do with the Beatles that with the bone-crushing proto-heavy-metal that they included on the same debut album in 1969. The second, “Cat Food” is one of their only singles, and it’s clearly a tongue-in cheek throwback to the British blues-rock that all the proggers seemed bent on avoiding. We also must acknowledge that “Cat Food” bears a clear debt to the Beatles’ “Come Together”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer was prog rock’s enduring “supergroup”. Keyboardist Keith Emerson, while never having been to music college, brought to bear a formidible understanding of concert classical piano and orchestration as well as bebop jazz. “Karn Evil 9” is a wide-ranging suite covering everything from psychedelic space-rock to acoustic piano jazz, and covering themes of human suffering in the face of technological oligarchy. The lyrics came from Pete Sinfield, who also worked with King Crimson. We’re doing the movement in the middle, which is a whimsical stab at carnival entertainment and a shout-out to the great American Tin Pan Alley songwriter Irving Berlin and his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from the year 1911.

Yes is a band that never accepted any limits on what kind of influences they could incorporate into their music. They are know for their gorgeous three-part vocal harmonies, in a close-harmony style reminiscent of the Beach Boys. But they also freely drew from American country music and jazz, psychedelic science-fiction themes, and built their lyrics on Eastern mysticism, while they strove through the keyboards and the bass to approach making a five-piece rock band sound as big as a symphony orchestra. They might be said to have the biggest arena-filling sound of all the prog bands.

Genesis started out as a cadre of friends from the same high-school, adapting British folk music to the rock idiom. Their earlier music is characterised by intricate layers of rather simple chords played on two or three twelve-string guitars. Lyrically they drew on classical Greek mythology, fairy tales and flights of science fiction. “Watcher of the Skies” is something that speaks to young men of my generation who read all they could of the “golden-age” science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Even Marvel Comics had a character called “The Watcher”, an immortal and supernatural being whose job it was to observe everything that humans did throughout the history of Planet Earth, without ever interfering. “Watcher of the Skies” is a story on a cautionary tale that was common at the time: that of Planet Earth being totally worn-out and uninhabitable, and human beings having to migrate from the planet into a new home elsewhere in space. Neil Young wrote a song called “After the Goldrush” which is on the same theme. “Squonk”, on the other hand, is based on a whimsical folk tale that they say comes from Appalachia. Sonically, Genesis was striving toward the epic sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.

If Yes was a monolithic wall of sound, then Gentle Giant was a stainless-steel chain-link fence. Rather than huge chords sustained on organs and guitars, Gentle Giant played nimble, intricate interlocking melodies that are, let’s be honest, really hard for musicians following them to figure out how to play. That’s why you don’t hear of Gentle Giant cover bands. Yet tonight we’re attempting two songs from their 1974 album The Power and the Glory, which are meditations on the theme of political power and control. Say a prayer for us.

Jethro Tull is all about their sole songwriter and front-man: singer, flutist and acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson. He started out with the blues, but took a sharp turn into loud, powerful rock built on British folk music, with a continuous dose of whimsy, and a knack for Dickensian characters and narratives in the lyrics. Tonight we present one of their most lyrical and “pop”-sounding pieces, “Living in the Past” and one of their darkest, heaviest works, “Aqualung”.

Kansas is the sole American band on our lineup tonight. They started as friends and fellow musicians from small-town Kansas, but as soon as they broke out they relocated to Atlanta, Georgia; several members still live here although they aren’t seen around town very much as they continue to tour heavily all these years later. Kansas is one of the very few rock bands to feature a solo violin throughout its history, giving its arrangements a penchant toward orchestral sounds. Kansas was the brainchild of songwriter Kerry Livgren. His early musical inspirations came from trying to identify with the plight of Native Americans and their history; he progressed through New-Age spirituality and settled on Christianity, which became a theme that put him at odds with other members of the band. Tonight we also feature one of Kansas’ best-known pop hits, “Point of Know Return”, which was actually written by other members of the band without Kerry Livgren’s contribution.

Rush is here tonight representing Canada. Our musicians on  this jam come from two active, working Rush tribute bands here in Atlanta: The Spirit of Rush and Permanent Waves. Rush had a unique sound that nobody tried to emulate for a long time. They were a power-trio veering on heavy metal but very much into Yes and King Crimson. Somehow they managed to find tremendous commercial success, an enduring fandom composed of working-class people and not intellectuals, and just about the longest continuous career of making new music of all the bands we are paying tribute to tonight.

Copyright © 2016 by Wheat Williams, Unpublished. All rights reserved. 

Sun vs. Chess Jam with the BadAsh AllStar Team

Photo courtesy LibroMusica.com
Photo courtesy LibroMusica.com

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog — the good news is that I’ve been up on stage. Over the past four months I’ve fallen in with a motley crew of professional jazz and rock musicians who do jam sessions in jazz clubs in Atlanta, Georgia. They are called the BadAsh AllStar Team. Their jam sessions are all based on a specific theme. I’ve sung in shows paying tribute to Elton John, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Motown and Stax, and most recently Sun and Chess Records.

On Tuesday, February 5, 2016, I performed in the Sun vs. Chess Records Jam, which gave me the opportunity to share my 20 years of study on the subject with the audience, as well as to sing some early Elvis and Carl Perkins. I’ve published a 1,200-word article about this at a new music website called LibroMusica.com, so I’ll just give you a link and you can read my article there.

Sun vs. Chess Jam, Part I

Sun vs. Chess Jam, Part II

My Interview with Steve Howe of Yes, 1999

This article Copyright© 1999 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Steve Howe in 1999
Steve Howe in 1999

In 1999, I was commissioned by Guitar Player Magazine to do a short feature on Yes guitarist Steve Howe. I got an interview with him, in person, while he was on tour with Yes. Unfortunately, Guitar Player was only able to run a very short piece. I contacted Progression Magazine, a publication for fans of progressive rock, and they agreed to publish an edited version of my full interview with Steve Howe. What follows is the manuscript that I submitted to Progression; it’s a bit longer than what they actually published.

Yes press photo, 1999
Yes press photo, 1999

In 1999, Steve Howe was amazingly prolific, seeing the release of his solo albums Quantum Guitars and Portraits of Bob Dylan, in addition to Yes’ 18th studio album, The Ladder. And the 1968 album from his pre-Yes band, Tomorrow, became available on CD. As a fitting tribute, Martin Guitars released a limited edition of 250 Steve Howe-model acoustic guitars, based on his beloved 1953 00-18 model. Beyond Sound also released the Steve Howe Interactive three-CD-ROM package for Windows and Macintosh computers. It contains extensive interviews with Steve, and demonstrations where he performs his signature licks, as well as “Clap” and “Mood for a Day” in their entirety, on high-resolution video. This would be useful to any guitarist trying to cop his licks. The third CD in the set is a digital version of his 1994 coffee-table book, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, with audio narrations.

I spoke with Steve Howe at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 16, 1999, hours before Yes’ second performance of the American leg of their tour supporting The Ladder. I had a specific mission: to learn about Steve’s formative influences as a guitarist, and how he brought those influences to Yes. I posed the daunting question, “What is progressive rock?” As you’ll see, if you want to really understand where Steve’s playing comes from, it’s not just jazz; you’re going to have to go out and get a lot of country music from the 50s and 60s. And after more than two years of having Billy Sherwood as a full member of Yes, Steve shares his not-so-cordial reservations about having a second guitarist in the band.


Wheat: I just spent the afternoon going through the Steve Howe Interactive CD-ROM collection. The information on there was so good that I feel that I’ve already interviewed you, and in my own office.

Steve: Great!

Wheat: I guess the CD-ROM project started two or three years ago?

Steve: Yeah, at least. It took awhile. We kept thinking it was going to be this, and it was going to be that, and then we redid a lot of it, so it all had continuity. At one time we’d done some shooting. I thought I was done, but it didn’t really turn out good enough. So we got clever and the ideas got better, and we did it again. Hopefully it was worthwhile.

Wheat: So how is the material from the new album going over with audiences?

Steve: Well, we’ve done a bit in South America and we’ve done just one show here. Obviously America’s had a chance for some people to listen to it, and that helps us when we play. In South America they didn’t know what we were playing. Sometimes the language lost them a bit because it makes transitions difficult. In the weak space between songs they would start shouting.

We were going to so many new countries in South America that we decided to drop a few new songs because we felt they were struggling. We’d never played there before, so we stuck “Close to the Edge” back in there instead. We wanted to give them the kind of show that they were hoping for, not too much–you go to see a band and you’ve been itching to see them, and they don’t play your favorites. So we just worked, you know, to be as audience-friendly as we could.

Judging from last night, I would think it’s going to go reasonably well. I mean I think we’re going to find out what’s good and bad in it. Not every track that we record always necessarily works on stage.

Wheat: How would you define progressive rock? What is it?

Steve: Well it’s a pretty dangerous thing to try to decide. It’s almost about not having such a clear definition, but it being the beginning, if you like, toward much more openness towards crossing the music. Psychedelic music sort of started that; Indian music came in, and jazz then got kind of on the fringe of it because it was improvisation. Then psychedelic improvisation was brought in to jazz players. And then a lot more things started happening, I guess. Progressive seems to be more of a continuation of psychedelic, in my mind, than anything else, because it just opened up the idea that you could bring in influences that were much broader. Whereas classical music is part of a convention, progressive rock was broadening the music by bringing in something that was unconventional to be made a part of it, but in a way a convention of its own: classical music. I think that’s part of what happened.

But you could blame it on synthesizers. You could blame it all on Bob Moog!

Joining Yes was the opportunity for me to start fulfilling a dream of being in a group that had high musicianship, had strong individuality. And certainly we were a part of that progressive movement because we were allowed, or we allowed ourselves, if you like, to expand it into things like Close to the Edge and Relayer for instance.

When Patrick Moraz came into the band, we realized that in a way the band was like an orchestra, because it wasn’t limited by its personnel. The personnel could change and we could still kind of carry on the same concepts. So we had a certain style.

We did shut ourselves off from Genesis. They were a bit close for comfort after awhile. We didn’t want to hear them too much because in a way we didn’t want to be influenced. We didn’t want to be like them. Because they were formulating their own sort of style, you know. It was great for me later when I wasn’t in the middle of it to look back on what Genesis did, in particularly on the albums that Steve Hackett played on, and to find out more about what they were like after the fact.

Wheat: When I think of Genesis I honestly feel that their music is just very, very English.

Steve: Yeah.

Wheat: I mean anything from William Byrd up to Edward Elgar or this whole long line of British classical and church music composers. I seem to find some sense of that in there.

But specifically looking at things like multiple odd time signatures that change, frequent key changes, long form compositions: do you think that the people that were the architects of progressive rock, even the members of Yes before you joined, were they consciously looking to Bartók and Stravinsky and that sort of thing, or did that come afterwards?

Steve: Well, I think people just brought their ingredients. When I joined, and Jon and I began to talk about music over the first few years, we found we had quite different things we listened to. He liked classical music but a different era. And I was still kind of caught up in the Baroque era at that time and really influenced by Telemann and Vivaldi. Not influenced necessarily, but I listened, and I thought it was really bright and pure, and then the moody things I liked. The second movements from all those concertos was the other side of it. I liked those contrasts.

So I don’t know. I really can’t define it. But certainly as much as it was one kind of music, it was another kind of music. It was jazz as much as one thing, for me to come in and find that Bill [Bruford] was really into jazz. What he was talking about was something I enjoyed. And you know when we played “Siberian Khatru,” when we played that tune (hums second theme) that was one of Bill’s. When I play that, I still feel like I’m playing Bruford as much as I’m playing Yes.

Yes is hopefully a useful musical melting pot, where people just mix their ideas. I think that we weren’t really governed by what progressive rock was supposed to be. It didn’t almost exist. We were helping to invent it. We weren’t that conscious that we were doing something that was going to be called a name like that. We were certainly aware when we got to the mid seventies that there were two kinds of success for Yes. There was the immediacy of Fragile, and The Yes Album. Then Close to the Edge surprised everybody first, by just having three titles on it. We realized by the results of [Tales From] Topographic Oceans that a division was happening. Our popularity was going to the dedicated fans. The common man was going to say, “Oh no, Yes have got too much for me now.” So we just worked with the fan base and they seemed to be enormous. And in America so loyal, and in Europe so deceptively loyal.

Wheat: How’s that?

Steve: Yes didn’t pay a lot of attention to Europe. It was conceived that they weren’t really than interested in it. But as soon as we started to work there, and I did solo tours there, as well, then we realized that the Yes audience were really just dormant, waiting for Yes to return. So we did very well last year when we toured Europe. And we’ll go back next year. So that’s the kind of plot, why we do that thing: because people stuck with us and people kind of developed along with it. And clung to the memories that are surely deep in our minds. When we played “Perpetual Change” last night I was very surprised at how I felt about thinking that we wrote that song, and we played that song, and we arranged that song.

Wheat: That’s my favorite cut off that album.

Steve: Good. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

Wheat: If I can go back to one more question about the birth of this whole thing, would it be accurate to say that you guys were trying to avoid the Delta blues-influenced Rolling Stones to Cream and Eric Clapton kind of thing when you were starting, that you were trying to skirt around those blues-rock clichés and find something that was entirely different, but still used the same instruments?

Steve: Yeah, I mean, that affected me a lot because obviously I played guitar, and everybody else was playing guitar in a different style–and I wasn’t. I had done that in the early Sixties, and I was in a couple of blues bands then. And it was great fun. I dearly loved the blues. I want to return to the blues at some time. But the thing is that I got so caught up in not playing other peoples’ cliché guitar lines, but actually working out other guitarist’s lines, very short parts. I mean, I couldn’t concentrate on the whole track, so I’d learn maybe thirty-two bars from Tal Farlow, from Kenny Burrell, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian. I learned little bits from all of these guys but I didn’t attempt to learn vast amounts of each of them. I listen to them. I hear them. And I learned a few things.

I did make a conscious decision not to play blues after The In Crowd changed to Tomorrow. When I was working with people who wrote songs, then it was much easier to put original guitar into new songs than it was to put in old songs. So Keith West and I started writing songs, and then I wrote with another group before Yes called Bodast. That experience wasn’t enough for me because there wasn’t the instrumentation going [Bodast was a power trio].

When you first mention progressive, I think of King Crimson. I think Yes were conscious that Crimson were very close to them in the timing of it.

Wheat: Much darker, though.

Steve: Yes. I suppose that was what intrigued Bill, and we lost Bill, because he wanted to play in Crimson. We learned a lesson from Crimson in a way. We learned about music and certain people. And peoples’ decisiveness about their musical direction. We all admired Bill for his decisiveness. But he actually thought that Yes were getting too commercial. To think that we could have gone into a stage of writing Tales from Topographic Oceans with Bill might have been very unlikely in a way. Besides the fact that it’s not more commercial, which is kind of what Bill thought, it was certainly more time consuming. It was more meandering and more structurally fragile in its scale [spreads out arms wide]. For Bill it most probably would have been hard work on that record. But he may have been good for us.

Wheat: I have noticed one thing, though. I’ve met Robert Fripp on a couple of occasions. Both he and you state very clearly that [Elvis Presley’s original guitarist] Scotty Moore and [Ricky Nelson’s guitarist] James Burton were very motivational. Not necessarily for the licks but just because that made you want to run out and get a guitar and play it.

Steve: But it did also make me want to play exactly like them, which I couldn’t! You know, Scotty, and James Burton, and also, the other guitarist I’ve realized plays a big part in that is a guy called Jimmy Bryant.

Wheat: He played with Tennessee Ernie Ford, is that right?

Steve: Yeah. I know that Albert Lee often mentions him and Hank Garland. Make sure you get the mono version of Hank Garland’s The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland. It’s moving. It’s so brilliant. On the fake stereo version, it’s swamped with reverb and you can’t hear the guitar. It just begs the question. There’s been so many brilliant guitar records made. And Hank Garland is definitely one of the most brilliant.

Hank Garland
The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland

Jimmy Bryant’s records have come out on CD now, from the label. You should get those. Jimmy Bryant is just one of the all-time greats. Well, a lot happened before the 50s.

That guitarist Roy Smeck, he played some very inventive stuff. He played stuff overdubbing on records and playing multi-guitar family instruments way before it. But when you get to the electric guitar era, somebody invented the guitar solo, the brilliant guitar solo. Obviously Charlie Christian was one of those people. Django was doing it almost before as well, but then there’s Jimmy Bryant. He made the guitar solo stunning. A guitar break in a song from Jimmy Bryant was all over the guitar. It was so great. I can’t say how much that inspired me. And everybody else was only almost as good as him. Every rock guitarist after Jimmy Bryant. But he was really a cross between hillbilly, R&B, and just great guitar.

Wheat: I was privileged three years ago — DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore came out of retirement and did an album. I got to interview them, and spend a day in the studio with them.

Steve: Yeah? I played with them not long ago. They came to England with a band. Yeah, I played with them. I played one song, Scotty played “I Got a Woman.” Yeah, and a lot of guitarists popped up with him that night.

Wheat: Did you record?

Steve: I think they videotaped it, yeah.

Wheat: Meeting him was the most unbelievable thing. I was absolutely frightened.

Steve: No, he’s lovely. I wouldn’t have thought. I met him about three years ago for the first time and he was fantastic. Just fantastic.

Wheat: How is it working out playing with Billy Sherwood? I know that he’s been associated with Yes in some form or another going back to the Union album. He’s obviously been around a long time. And he’s also brought a lot of engineering and producing skills. But what is it like having him as a second guitarist on stage?

Steve: Well it kind of varies. I mean, things in the Open Your Eyes period were a little bit of unknown territory. We had to forge a different kind of Yes. Certainly Chris [Squire] was backing this idea of having two guitarists.

I said, if I want to play with another guitarist, how about [Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple guitarist] Steve Morse? Because to me there’s world class guitarists who I’d like to spend a lot more time with. Steve is one of the people at the top of my list. Because he’s amazing. But the concept here wasn’t to have two dazzling guitarists.

I had to redevelop where I should be in the group, and hope that Billy’s position wouldn’t either intimidate, threaten, or undermine me. He’s providing more fundamental parts than me, with my embellishments and solos and anything like that. So when we got to The Ladder, we kind of defined it a little more clearly. We couldn’t really go into the record not knowing who was playing what kind of guitar. So I suggested that we clarify it and make it fun for me, not to have to consider Billy in the lead guitar area at all.

But when we got back on stage, other things start to come into it. And other threats come into it and things get confusing. And it sometimes can remind me of the Trevor Rabin era a little bit and that’s obviously a problem for me. So I’m kind of working towards it all working out great. But I mean given the opportunity this group works for me better with one guitarist. The fact that Billy’s in the band as a full-time member is not a problem unless his guitar work interferes with what I’m doing. I imagined that he was going to become more of a multi-instrumentalist within the group. Because he has that capability. And that’s what I believe we were opening ourselves up to.

Wheat: Playing keys, playing bass?

Steve: Yeah. A variety of things all of which he does with a nice style. So seeming that guitar’s rather inseparable, obviously there are times when I’m watching how things are going. So it is a fluid situation where we need good intent, and fair use of what this group is. Optimizing on the group. That’s about all I can say. It hasn’t worked, it has worked, it can work, it is working, but it might not work. Not that it might not work, but that it might not be as easy as people would like to think.

When I played “Perpetual Change” last night, I was hit emotionally about the fact that we were playing that music in 1970. We wrote it in this beautiful place that I lived nearby. There was a lot of sentiment in it, a lot of romantic thoughts and a lot of awesome concepts of what life was like then, and how much time we had and how much space we had, and how much freedom we had. It’s quite an eye-opener when you find yourself playing a piece of music that somehow encapsulates some of that era. Deep, deep!

Wheat: You seem to be in a phase where you’re not interested in working with the latest technology. You’ve never gotten into the Roland VG-8, that physical modeling device that takes an input from any electric guitar and creates the sound of other types of guitars and amplifiers?

Steve: Oh, that stuff. Well, you know, I was very excited when I first heard of it, but then I saw David Bowie and his guitarist [Reeves Gabrels] using it. I thought, that’s very nice, but I’m not going to go over to it. It would be a fascination to use that stuff. And I reckon I could use it pretty well, but, the strange thing is, I’ve got really back into what amps are all about. What two guitar amps are supposed to sound like. And I think I enjoy that more. The purity of the mike. So a DI sound going into the PA doesn’t really interest me compared to the sound of an amp. A good guitar going into an amp; somehow that’s the sound I want to hear. I’m not using a great deal of processing, either. It comes in now and again, where it has incredible effect for me. But look at the gear. There’s the guitars, you know, I mean one or two effects might be on the standby making a stereo delay, but there’s basically the guitars, the amps, and a simple pedalboard I’ve been using since Keys [to Ascension]. I’ve still got a huge pedalboard that’s 24 switches, three volume pedals, lovely. It’s a bit big, and it’s really for the larger venue work. So on this tour I’m relying much more on what I like, which is the guitar and an amp.

steve howe book
The Steve Howe Guitar Collection coffee-table book, published in 1994

Wheat: Have you got any new guitars, since your Steinbergers, for instance?

Steve: Well, I got a lovely present from Scott Chinery; he gave me a marvellous Martin 00-42H, a Hawaiian guitar from the 1930s, and that was stunning. ESP gave me a beautiful Telecaster a couple of years ago that I like very much. And also Sans Amp gave me a very nice Tech 21 amp. Roland have been great and they’ve supplied me with two Jazz Choruses–the amp I never thought I’d use. But it’s actually a terrific amp. I like Jazz Chorus amps now.

Wheat: Still using a Fender Twin?

Steve: Yep. Can’t seem to replace them, but certainly for the solo shows the Jazz Chorus is great.

I think that guitars have become more a discovery of what I’ve got than the constant search for something else that I haven’t got. And that’s something that you realize in a collection. That by keeping on collecting and expanding you never really get to the core of why you did it. So I went back and started moving parts of my collection at various times. And I like that because it gets smaller, more manageable, and the things that are there I’ve got time for. Because the other maybe eighty guitars I used to have I didn’t have time for. I had no time at all for. Can you imagine how to get time for those guitars? It’s impossible, really. So a player’s collection, which mine’s becoming more and more, is more refined. And once a guitar has been tried numerous times for a particular various ideas and it doesn’t really do anything to you then there’s actually no point in keeping it. Because somebody else might find something in it.

Wheat: What was your reaction when Eric Clapton got $450,000 for his first Strat in the auction? I thought tha was pretty terrifying myself. I thought, well, I’ll never own one, will I?

Steve: I suppose I’ve got a lot of feelings about that as a one-off thing that Eric did. I understand that it wasn’t something he thought of automatically, and it wasn’t something that was easy for him to do. Having said that there were some reasonably conventional guitars in there that did go for some astronomical prices. But I think that just shows what the spirit of giving can be in this world. And it’s something that Eric, bless him, has always had, ever since I’ve known him, or met him, back in the 60s. He’s always been very generous and kind in that situation. So to see him do something like that wasn’t so much of a surprise as you might have thought. That says more than what’s already been said about Eric, so I feel admiration and respect for him and for the pleasure that he raised so much real money in terms of supporting his cause. And serious money it was. But I think that collection is so exceptional that one can’t relate it to any other sales. It wasn’t a sale so much. It was much more of an event.

Wheat: And a charity also.

Steve: That’s right. That’s what I mean. It was a multi-media thing that helps a need very much. But some of his obviously great guitars, and ones that he used, like Blackie and Brownie, and all those, deserve to go for very, very high prices. Those are high prices that they went for. They’re very high, truly top end, but then again, who did you think could sell guitars for more?

You know, it does show something, like when David Bowie went on the stock market with his songs. It shows that in reality a musician has to think what he’s worth, because he’s got bills to pay, and he’s got ideas to fulfill. You can’t just sit on wealth. It’s very negative. So in a way Eric’s a leader in a cause again, like [Princess] Diana was. I just love him. He’s a wonderful guy.


This article is Copyright © 1999 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Arietha Lockhart and Todd Skrabanek, February 17, 2015

Arietha Lockhart and Todd Skrabanek
Arietha Lockhart and Todd Skrabanek. Photo by Sid Hetzler.

Arietha Lockhart, Soprano and Todd Skrabanek, Piano
February 17, 2015, 7:00 pm at Inman Park Church, United Methodist, Atlanta, Georgia

  • “Our World” and “Las estrellas” (2014) from Worlds of Beauty by Amy Leventhal
  • “Of Being” (2013) and “Caedmon” (2001) from The Believers by Mary Lynn Place Badarak
  • “A Man Who Showed the Way” (2007)  by Douglas Tappin
  • “Little Lamb” (2015) by Mary M. Boyle; text by William Blake (1757-1827)
  • “Love Ritual” (2009) by Dr. Sharon J. Willis
  • “Let There be Peace on Earth” (2007), Travis Vaughn, III
  • “Laughing Monkeys of Gravity” (2003) by Curtis Bryant, text by Stephen Bluestone
  • “Hold On” (2007) and “Soon I Will Be Done” (2004) by James V. Cockerham
  • “from Isaiah 40” (2014) by Michael Kurth

In a historic but bare church sanctuary in need of renovation, backed by a little upright piano, Atlanta coloratura soprano Arietha Lockhart gave a Tuesday-night recital of recently-composed pieces by Atlanta composers. She was accompanied by the prodigiously-capable Todd Skrabanek (known as “The Skrabanek Philharmonic” for his ability to pull an orchestra’s worth of textures out of a single acoustic piano). It was the kind of rather impromptu recital where most of the members of the audience are the composers themselves and their friends and families. But a range of interesting music was performed nonetheless.

A couple of stand-out pieces were notable for their comedy. “Love Ritual” by Dr. Sharon J. Willis is a five-movement monologue of a vain, coquettish contemporary young woman relating her story of meeting a man, instantly being infatuated with him, and fretting obsessively over his failure to call her on the phone for a couple of days. Ms. Lockhart obviously enjoyed slipping into this role, with a lot of sly winks, visual and musical.

“Laughing Monkeys of Gravity” is Curtis Bryant’s setting of four poems by Stephen Bluestone on the films of iconic comedic movie stars: Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Charlie Chaplin. The performance of voice and piano was all the more impressive when I spoke to the composer and learned that he originally composed this piece for a “Pierrot Lunaire” sextet: soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. This performance was a piano reduction. Todd Skrabanek bore up admirably under the challenge.

The recital concluded with the premiere of “from Isaiah 40” by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bassist and composer Michael Kurth.  He wrote an art  song that nonetheless keeps a “contemporary worship” feel, down-to-earth yet ascending to the absolute heights of pitch and expression that a coloratura soprano can create. Ms. Lockhart provided the ideal vehicle, soaring on the eagle’s wings in song.

O Little Liturgical Candle of Syracuse

This Christmas eve at church, I looked down in my hand and realized something. For virtually every single Christmas Eve in my 49 years, wherever I was, in whatever church I was, I was handed exactly this: a small white candle with a paper guard that read “Candlelight Service: Muench-Kreuzer Candle Co. Syracuse, N.Y.” And the candle that I have been handed every year is exactly the same, and so is the printing on the paper guard.

The Muench-Kreuzer Candle Co., Syracuse, N.Y.
The Muench-Kreuzer Candle Co., Syracuse, N.Y.

In Christian churches all over the USA and probably farther afield than that, on Christmas eve, congregants get handed these little candles, which they light one by one from a central flame while singing “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) until everyone is singing in a dark sanctuary lit only by these candles. That must be many millions of candles over the many decades of the tradition.

The moment I was contemplating this, last night, I remarked aloud, “Who are the Muench-Kreuzer Candle Company of Syracuse, New York?” and immediately, right in front of me, was a couple who are almost 80 years old, who happily told me that they both grew up in Syracuse, and that they have seen the Muench-Kreuzer Candle Company factory many times. It is at least a hundred years old, they told me. Apparently, when they built the interstate highway through Syracuse, they built a ramp for it, leaving the Muench-Kreuzer Candle Company factory undisturbed.

What a strange and wonderful business they must have. I assume they sell something other than these millions and millions of completely identical and disposable small white candles which are only used one night of the year, every year. But the fact that the design of the candles and even the Spartan artwork on the paper guards has essentially never changed — that means that they must have found themselves a niche and held onto it for dear life for a century.

Then there’s the name. “Muench” and “Kreuzer” are proper surnames for German-American immigrants. “Muench” means “monk”, and “Kreuzer” means “crusader”, and comes from the same German root word as the word for “cross”. So it’s the Monk-Cross liturgical candle company. That worked out well.

I have deliberately not Googled the Muench-Kreuzer Candle Co. of Syracuse, N. Y. before writing this reverie. Now maybe I will.

Don’t spill hot wax down your hand and arm next Christmas eve. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

UPDATE:
Added December 29, 2013

Sadly, the era has already ended. I came across a newspaper article from April, 2012 that says that the Muench-Kreuzer Candle Company, started in 1925, shut down its Syracuse factory, and the article implied but did not explicitly state that the company was out of business. The factory building in Syracuse was sold, and was to be renovated for loft apartments, although they promised to keep the historical exterior.

One of Syracuse’s last candle factories to become apartments

A further chronicaling of the decline of the company is found in another article from the same Syracuse newspaper dated May 10, 2010.

Syracuse candle company laying off up to 38 of its 46 workers

Cecilia McDowall’s “Christus Natus Est” in English Translation

In recent years, as I’ve learned another major sacred choral work and performed it, I’ve done my own study of translating the lyrics (usually from Latin) into English, and researching the source of the texts and Bible verses used as source material. As I’ve come up with each one, I’ve posted it here on my blog.

In the past few years, this has lead to my being contacted by musicians and music directors all over the world, and I’ve made some friends!

Here is my latest installment. If you would like to make use of, or reprint my work, please do me the courtesy of sending me an email first, asking for permission, and telling me how you will use it. Please introduce yourself and tell me about you, where you live, and about the choir you are working with. I look forward to hearing from you.

And in this case, my Latin and French are not the best or the most correct. If you have expertise in these languages and would like to send me corrections or suggestions for improvement, I would welcome them.

Copyright © 2013 by Wheat Williams. All rights reserved.

This season I’m preparing to sing in a production that includes Cecilia McDowall’s 2007 suite of ancient Christmas songs, Christus Natus Est. (Oxford University Press)

I have prepared a study of English translations of the texts she chose:

  • Personent Hodie (Latin, from Prague and Germany, 1300s)
  • Entre le bœuf (French, 1600s)
  • Gaudete! gaudete! Christus est natus (Latin, from Finland and Sweden, 1500s)
  • Infant holy, infant lowly (originally Polish, 1600s, presented by McDowall in English translation after Edith M. G. Reed)
  • Angelus ad Virginem (Latin, from France, 1200s)

The published and copyrighted sheet music for Christus Natus Est contains English rhyming translations of the text for use if a choir performs the piece in English. However, these settings are not literal, word-for-word translations of the original Latin and French.

I have endeavored to make a literal translation of the texts for the purposes of study by choral singers who want to understand the meaning of each line and phrase, and to identify the important words in each phrase so that they can better understand how to sing the text expressively.  My inelegant translations are not “singable”. As I have stated in previous posts, I have no formal training in Latin.

Personent Hodie

Latin  English translation
1. Personent hodie,
voces puerulae,
laudantes iucunde
qui nobis est natus,
summo Deo datus,
et de virgineo ventre procreatus.
1. Resound today
voices of children
praising pleasantly
Who to us is born
supreme God, given
and of a virgin born.
2. In mundo nascitur,
pannis involvitur;
praesepi ponitur
stabulo brutorum,
rector supernorum.
Perdidit spolia princeps infernorum.
2. Born into the world,
in swaddling clothes wrapped
Manger-laid
Stable brutes
Straight above
Lost and spoiled is the prince of Hell.
3. Magi tres venerunt,
munera offerunt,
parvulum inquirunt,
stellulam sequendo,
ipsum adorando.
Aurum thus et myrrham ei offerendo.
 3. Wise-men three came
Gifts they offer
searching
the little star following
him worshiping
Gold, frankincense and myrrh to him offering
4. Omnes clericuli,
pariter pueri,
cantent ut angeli:
adventisti mundo,
laudes tibi fundo.
Ideo gloria in excelsis Deo.
4. All clergy,
children together
as sing the angels
the arrival of the world
praise you from the foundation.
So glory in the highest to God.

Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris

French English translation
1. Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris,
Dorts le petit fils.
1. Between the ox and the grey donkey
Sleeps the small Son.
Mille anges divins,
mille séraphins,
Volent à l’entour de ce grand Dieu d’amour.
A thousand angels divine,
a thousand seraphim
Flying around the great God of love
2. Entre les deux bras de Marie
Dorts le fruit de la Vie
 2. Between the two arms of Mary
sleeps the Fruit of Life
3. Entre les roses, et les lys
Dorts le petit Fils
3. Between the roses and the lillies
Sleeps the small Son.
4. Entre les pastoureaux jolis,
Dorts le petit fils.
4. Between the beautiful shepherds
Sleeps the small Son.
 5. En ce beau jour solennel,
Dorts l’Emmanuel.
5. In this beautiful solemn day,
Sleep, Emmanuel.

Gaudete! gaudete! Christus est natus

Latin English translation
Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
Of the virgin Mary, rejoice!
Tempus adest gratiæ
Hoc quod optabamus,
Carmina lætitiæ
Devote reddamus.
The time of grace has come
that which we desire,
songs of joy
let us devoutly return.
Deus homo factus est
Natura mirante,
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.
God a man is made
Wonder of Nature,
The world is restored
By Christ’s reign.
Ezechielis porta
Clausa pertransitur,
Unde lux est orta
Salus invenitur.
Ezekiel’s gate
closed, is passed through,
Hence, light has risen,
Salvation is found.
Ergo nostra concio
Psallat iam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino:
Salus Regi nostro.
Therefore our gathering
Play already our plan
Bless the Lord:
The salvation of our King is ours.

Infant holy, infant lowly

1. Infant holy, infant lowly
For his bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Swiftly winging, angels singing,
Nowells ringing, tidings bringing
Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
2. Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping
Vigil ‘til the morning new,
Saw the glory, heard the story,
Tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
Praises voicing, greet the morrow;
Christ the Babe was born for you.

Angelus ad virginem

Latin English translation
1. Angelus ad virginem
Subintrans in conclave.
Virginis formidinem.
1. The angel to the virgin
crept into the room.
The virgin was in fear.
Demulcens inquit “Ave.”
Ave regina virginum,
Coeli terraeque dominum.
Concipies
Et paries
Intacta,
Salutem hominum.
Tu porta coeli facta
Medela criminum.
He said to her, “Hail”.
Hail the Queen of virgins,
Of heavens and earth the master.
You shall conceive,
A wall
untouched,
the Salvation of men.
You the gate of heaven made
Healing sins.
2. Quomodo conciperem,
quae virum non cognovi?
Qualiter infringerem,
quae firma mente vovi?
How shall I conceive,
seeing that a man I do not know?
How shall make such an infraction,
I who made a vow with my mind firm?
Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Ne timeas,
sed gaudeas,
secura,
quod castimonia
Manebit in te pura
Dei potentia.
The Spirit’s holy grace
will bring all this;
Fear not
But rejoice
and safe
that chastity
will remain pure
in God’s power.
3. Ad haec virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei;
To these words the virgin noble
answered to him;
Ancilla sum humilis
Omnipotentis Dei.
Tibi coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio
Consentiens
Et cupiens
Videre
factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
Dei consilio.
The handmaiden am I, humble,
Of All-powerful God.
By your heavenly announcement
I am of such secrets made aware
I am in agreement
And I want
To see
that done, that I hear.
I am ready to obey
God’s will.
4. Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini,
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuum exora filium.
Ut se nobis propitium
Exhibeat,
Et deleat
Peccata;
Praestans auxilium
Vita frui beata
Post hoc exsilium.
4. Come, mother of the Lord
Who has peace restored
To angels and mankind,
When Christ you bore;
Pray your Son
to be good to us
Let Him show,
And wash away
Sins;
Giving help
Life to enjoy
After this exile.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Sonic Generator in Atlanta

MetropolisposterLast night I, along with a huge crowd sitting on lawn chairs on the plaza of the Woodruff Arts Center, witnessed one of the most important performances ever staged in Atlanta, Georgia with regard both to cinema and to contemporary classical music. The ensemble Sonic Generator, with Parisian conductor Bruno Ferrandis, and audio engineer Frédéric Prin, played a live accompaniment to the recently-restored full-length 2-hour-and-28-minute version of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s monumental silent film Metropolis, first released in 1927. What Sonic Generator was playing is a score by Frenchman Martin Matalon, first composed in 1995 and revised and lengthened after 2010 to incorporate about 20 minutes of interstitial footage that was long lost from earlier cuts of the film and only recently restored. This was the first American live performance of the new score.

You really missed something special if you were not there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a coming together of cultural forces that make me proud to say I live in Atlanta and participate in its fine arts scene.

The performance and production, three years in the planning, was sponsored not only by Sonic Generator’s usual benefactor Georgia Tech (the university more properly known as the Georgia Institute of Technology), but also by the Atlanta offices of the international governmental organizations the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut, and finally by Flux Projects of Atlanta, in celebration of 50 years of cultural cooperation between France and Germany. Monumental and auspicious indeed.

I’ll leave it to the reader to look up more information on Metropolis, what the film has to say in terms of science fiction, philosophy, politics, economics, spirituality and religion, and above all, the Roaring Twenties and what came after. Go ahead now; this blog post will still be here when you get back.

I would also recommend if you are reading this that you get yourself a trial subscription to Netflix’s streaming service and watch the film on your computer. It can be found at this link, at the time of the posting of this blog entry.

http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Metropolis_Restored/70132372?trkid=2361637

Today, after last night’s performance, I went back to my computer and watched the full restored film streaming on Netflix, where it’s been available for at least the last year. It’s presented on Netflix with the original 1927 orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz. More on that later.

The concert at the Woodruff Arts Center started while the sun was still up, at 8:00, when I was delighted to hear Jessica Peek Sherwood performed Steve Reich’s minimalist opus Vermont Counterpoint on three flutes of different range, playing along with a pre-recorded ensemble of many other flutes. This was followed by my favorite Steve Reich composition, Electric Counterpoint, expressively played by Indiana guitarist Derek Johnson, along with the backing tracks of 11 guitars and two bass guitars originally recorded by Pat Metheny in 1987. Each of these pieces are about 15 minutes long, in three movements, and for this reviewer, they encapsulate everything that was the best of the style called minimalism. Electric Counterpoint is particularly (or I might say “comparatively”) tuneful and melodic, with a recognizable and distinctive chord progression (although it’s not a functional harmonic progression in the sense of classical music theory) and a sunnily-disposed and emotionally uplifting final movement. Of course it would be amazing to hear either of these pieces performed entirely live rather than with one soloist and backing tracks, but this is almost never done due to the logistics that would have to be involved.

At about 8:50, after numerous thank-yous, introductions, and short speeches by international dignitaries with charmingly heavy accents, the sun set and the film began.

Here were the performers:

  • Jessica Peek Sherwood, flutes (from piccolo to bass flute; five instruments in total)
  • Ted Gurch, saxophones (from soprano to baritone)
  • John Warren, clarinet (all the way down to contrabass clarinet)
  • Mike Muszynski, bassoon (and contrabassoon)
  • Kevin Lyons, trumpet
  • Douglas Lindsey, trumpet
  • Nathan Zgonc, trombone (and I believe bass trombone but I couldn’t quite see)
  • Charae Krueger, cello
  • Joe McFadden, double bass (with low-C extension)
  • Mark Miller, fretless electric 5-string contrabass guitar
  • Derek Johnson, electric guitar
  • Diedre Henson-Agustin, harp
  • Tom Sherwood, percussion
  • Charles Settle, percussion (including concert marimba, orchestral chimes, timpani)
  • Paul Vaillancourt, percussion
  • Wiley Sykes, percussion

I don’t know exactly who played what in the percussion section, but I must point out that one percussionist made a great deal of skillful use of the Indian tablas, and also played an array of exotic gongs with which I’m not familiar, as well as a jazz hi-hat.

The score by Martin Matalon had as its basis a pre-recorded electronic track that provided at various times mechanical clockwork percussion sounds, swooping portamento monophonic synthesizer leads that were reminiscent of Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, some atmospheric sound effects, and at one point electric organ chords. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis, who was brought in because he has done this amazingly difficult score before, of course had to keep the orchestra in sync with what was in his headset. And in settings like this, the front-of-house sound mixing engineer, Frédéric Prin, has almost as much to do as the conductor himself. The orchestra was heavily amplified and individual instruments were brought out at different times and processed with electronic effects. The top-flight sound system was well-designed and transparent when it needed to be; the audio, while quite loud to those sitting up front, was well-distributed around the plaza, certain architectural echos notwithstanding. The film was projected digitally on the exterior wall of the High Museum, drive-in-theater style.

Matalon’s score is very demanding, thoroughly atonal and through-composed, and must have required superhuman powers of marathon concentration from every musician involved. Not a lot of extended or unusual playing techniques were employed. What stood out time and again was the orchestration of the bass instruments. Frequently, prerecorded bass synthesizers weaved in and out of the fretless electric contrabass guitar playing slippery sliding figures right alongside the more percussive plucked upright bass, the contrabass clarinet, the contrabassoon, and the bass trombone, and the lowest notes of the bass flute in between.

Now I get to the difficult part of my blog. At the risk of pissing off a number of musicians whom I deeply admire, and whose performance I enjoyed listening to and felt privileged to witness, I have to say that I did not like Matalon’s score and I did not think it was an effective accompaniment to this monumental piece of visionary filmmaking.

I have to back up and give a retrospective of all the uses this film has been put to from its release in 1927 until Matalon’s revised score in 2010, a span of 83 years. A film made near the end of the silent movie era, it was originally cut at 2 hours and 28 minutes. It was apparently screened in Germany accompanied by a live orchestra playing a score by Gottfried Huppertz, in the Wagnerian mode, with the conventional use of leitmotifs and grand, sweeping melodies. Of note are the movie’s scenes in the Yoshiwara Club, a symbol of the divide between the haves and have-nots of industrialized society. For those scenes Huppertz uses the jaunty European jazz of the 1920s, their interpretation of what was coming from composers like George Gershwin in the USA. (You can purchase the restored film with a newly-recorded version of the Huppertz score on DVD, or watch it on Netflix.)

Immediately after the first screenings of Metropolis, however, its international producers and distributors cut the film down (“eviscerated” would be a better word) to a 91-minute version that basically ripped up the H. G. Wells-influenced dystopian plot and reduced it to an hour and a half of what were still stunning, unprecedented special effects and startling futuristic images. Doubtless, audiences around the world saw the film with whatever improvised accompaniment was provided by pianists or organists in silent movie theaters.

In the 1980s and after, the 91-minute cut of the movie was reissued to theaters and on VHS with different musical accompaniments, the most celebrated of which was the score put together by disco producer Georgio Moroder, with an ensemble of rock stars. Since the international copyright of the original film fell into dispute, it seems that several composers and orchestras around the world tried their hands and creating original scores that were mostly used only in live performance. You can read the confusing history of all this at the Wikipedia article on the film.

Martin Matalon wrote his score in 1995, for performances accompanying what I understand to be a 2-hour cut of the film. After the newly-restored 2-hour-28-minute version was released commercially in 2010, Matalon revised his score to fit it.

I do not fault Martin Matalon, with his pedigree of work with IRCAM (the world-renowned Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique of France) in wanting to deconstruct everything and compose a fresh 1990’s score with no precedent. However, to this music critic, I cannot see that his score accomplished the goal of providing a successful programmatic accompaniment to the film’s images or its narrative. Watch the film and imagine the perspective of viewers seeing it for the first time in 1927, while you listen to it with the ears of a 2013 music lover who understands contemporary classical music and the avant garde, and to me it just doesn’t work most of the time.

In fact as the film progresses through its three sections (labeled “Prelude”, “Intermezzo” and “Furioso”) the score seems to drift progressively further out-of-sync with the film, thematically and also temporally. The movie starts out with scenes of the dehumanization of workers made to be slaves to giant rhythmic clockwork machines, and in the beginning, elements of Matalon’s score represent this.

If Matalon, through his freely atonal and contrapuntal idiom heavy on complex percussion, is making use of anything motivic, it is lost on this listener. And those scenes in the Yoshiwara club could have used something leaning toward jazz dance music with some recognizable chord progressions. On frequent occasion the composer achieves remarkable things texturally and with regard to orchestration with those notable combinations of bass instruments from different families. The writing and playing in the percussion section could be lauded as a tour-de-force if the whole thing hung together thematically, which to me, it never quite does.

By the conclusion, which involves apocalyptic scenes of massive frantic crowds and riots, explosions, the flooding and destruction of a city — the score grows thin, sparse, and eerily detached in a way that seems to contradict and impede the frantic, massive momentum of the film. Then, bafflingly, at the peak of the violence onscreen, and to no beneficial effect, the orchestral score stops dead and falls silent for about a minute and a half while the film rips along, before the music comes back in and limps to a quite unsatisfying conclusion.

Somehow I think I run the risk of being accused of damning with faint praise, but in conclusion let me say that I was not disappointed by this production. The film is monumental, historic, and amazing in its own right, and stands up very well and is beloved by audiences 85 years later. The assemblage of international cultural forces necessary to mount this production in Atlanta was laudable in every respect. (and I loved hobnobbing with the German and French folk that I met there, and trying to speak a bit in their languages, which I studied years ago.) The musicians were the best that Atlanta has to offer, on the cutting edge, augmented with the out-of-towners necessary to pull of such a hugely demanding project. Everybody played amazingly well. It was innovative and challenging and satisfying in places. While I feel that Matalon’s score just doesn’t jibe with the visuals, I might enjoy it on its own merits if I were to listen to a recording or see a concert performance without the film playing above it. But one way or another, it was a night to be remembered in Atlanta, probably never to be repeated.

Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and Trey Gunn in 1998

Here is another interview with musicians from my vault. This was for an article I published in Guitar Player Magazine on October, 1998, entitled “Progressive ProjeKct: Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and Trey Gunn Redefine the Power Trio”.

The band King Crimson was at that time a six-piece (with Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, and Bill Bruford). They had decided to take a hiatus but to perform in “subsets” of trios, or possibly duos or a quartet. One of these was called ProjeKct II. I interviewed these three musicians as they prepared for their first public appearances. Because this was Guitar Player, it has a lot to do with instruments, technology and gear; I start out asking Adrian Belew (who was an acquaintance of mine and with whom I had discussed broader musical topics on many previous occasions) to explain how he uses the new Roland electronic drum-kit, the V-Drums. So if you are not into all the techno-garble, skim over those parts and get to comments about the music and the state of the music business in 1998 — Robert Fripp had some interesting points about the latter.

I have to share a personal note: Robert Fripp had a reputation as being a difficult and intractable interview subject who had little patience for journalists. As I was arranging for this interview to take place, I was communicating via email through Adrian Belew who sent messages back and forth to the band’s publicist. At one point Adrian sent an email to the publicist which he copied me on. Adrian wrote, and I quote, “No way should Wheat interview Robert. Wheat is way too nice. Robert will tear him apart.”

Well, I wasn’t afraid, because I felt that I genuinely understood and was knowledgeable about Robert Fripp’s music, and that I was not going to waste his time. I did a lot of research, and I went in with much more than my usual self-confidence.

The other thing about Robert Fripp is that he was well-known for being extremely protective of his personal space. When I went to Adrian’s home for the interview, and Adrian introduced me to Robert, I boldly strode right across the floor and shook Robert’s hand. Adrian, standing next to him, went pale. Robert shook my hand but didn’t react. And we had a fine interview and I felt that Robert respected me.

To this day I tell my prog rock friends, “I shook the hand of Robert Fripp and lived to tell about it.”

Wheat Williams interviews  Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and Trey Gunn at Adrian’s home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, Saturday, February 21, 1998. Copyright ©  1998 by Wheat Williams. All rights reserved.

Adrian: …Then by May or June, by the time everyone has the first record, we can start selling the other record. The second follow-up record, at our shows. So we’re kinda always gonna be a little bit ahead of ourselves. Sort of leap-frogging mechanism. And now, since we have the ability to record live all the time, I’m sure there’s going to be tons of material coming out of that.

We’re going to record everything. The wonderful thing about this, even working here in my studio, it’s all done on six tracks. You have a stereo pair of V-Drums, you have stereo Robert and stereo Trey. Even though the V-Drums can come out on eight separate channels, we’ve always just left it stereo, because I balance the kits the way I want them to sound, and that’s that. You don’t really need to have control over those sets.

Wheat: I noticed on the first album, though, that you deliberately picked some extremely atypical kit selection sounds.

Adrian: At first. I started from that. And then I decided, no, these are the things that really interest me, the unusual sounds. That’s what I really like the most.

Wheat: And I noticed that you were practically getting a simple bass line out of some overtones coming out of your tom sounds.

Adrian: No, what it really is is that the bass drum can trigger a sequence of bass notes.

Wheat: I thought so!

Adrian: So it’s very interesting. Whenever you hit the bass drum, you’re advancing the sequence of notes. So even though it’s a small sequence of notes

Wheat: Kind of like an analog sequencer, but done digitally.

Adrian: Yeah. Even though it’s a small sequence of notes, the bass pattern is always changing due to the fact that you’re always changing your bass drum patterns. So I can break up and play odd kinds of drumrolls and things and it seems to fit okay because of the fact that the bass is going with me. And that leaves these two guys free not to have to play a bass part.

Wheat: Do all of those bass tones come from the V-Drum module, or do you have additional…

Adrian: No, they’re in the V-Drum module. And sometimes I also use a piano line that I can turn on and off from the rim of one of the pads. So you can turn it on while you are playing and turn it off whenever you want it.

Wheat: Where do you get the piano sound from?

Adrian: Same place. It’s built into the V-Drums. I think there are 50 additional sounds. Some of them are loops of funk riffs or something like that that I wouldn’t be so apt to use. But the single bass line is pretty good, and there are several bass tones to choose from. So it gives us the option to actually be a four-piece band because I’m playing bass as I play drums. And that was one of the first things that we discovered, or I discovered, when we were playing together. One of those Space Groove pieces is entirely that. The drum kit is a normal-sounding drum kit when I do that, but in other times now I’ve introduced it into some of my real strange kits.

Wheat: You brought up some pitched marimba rolls at one point.

Adrian: Yeah, I got a bunch of stuff.

[Break]

Wheat: Any specific information about your tour plans or the marketing plans for these records?

Adrian: We have a two-record set coming out called Space Groove, and it comes out April 6.

Robert: The CDs will be available in England, where they’re being currently pressed, as of Tuesday [February 24, 1998]. And in America, probably toward the end of next week. So if you are in touch with Lori [Discipline Records’ publicist], she will let you have a copy.

Adrian: Lori can also give you better than I could the bits of touring that we’ve got blocked out. But it kind of works on an on/off basis where we go out for about two weeks and then we’re off for about two weeks. At this point, we will cover Japan, UK, West Coast, Midwest, Northeast, East Coast, and Canada.

Wheat: What size venues are you playing?

Robert: 450 to a thousand. Basically club-sized.

Adrian: And they’re being carefully screened by Mr. Fribble [indicates Robert].

Wheat: So that’s generally smaller venues than what you did with the Thrak tour in America, right?

Robert: Oh, yes. That was our intention.

Adrian: And as I mentioned, while we are here this time, we recorded a whole new generation of Project II material with brand new sounds and things, and we’ll edit that together and put that out as a record, which will hope to come out May, or June? Think?

Robert: Probably in the shops in the autumn, although we’ll be selling it at performances before, and making it available on Discipline mail order. The prevalence of bootlegging would tend to suggest that there is at least a moderate demand for recorded performances.

Wheat: So you’d rather have something to sell right there at the show.

Robert: If people really want to have live recorded music, and they go into bootleg, and the artist says, quite strongly, ‘Please, this is not something that we wish you to do,’ then how can the musicians respond to the audience? Well, what we are doing within Discipline generally across our catalog is to make available live recorded performances, official bootlegs are sometimes better. Since mainstream retail outlets can’t quite handle that bulk, what we do is make them available both at the performances of the artists, wherever they might be, and also by mail order, Discipline mail-order in England, which generally responds throughout Europe and Japan and North and South America, so it’s always available.

Wheat: I’ve been following Gary Davis’ Artist Shoppe, on the Internet, and he’s a big promoter of yours as well. And I must say I really admire what you are doing, because you are creating new paradigms for, as you said, how the band relates to the audience in terms of selling records and getting the recordings to them.

Robert: New understandings and insights generate new institutions. And currently the music industry is a hangover from days of buccaneering and the slave trades. It’s an exploitive, inequitable industry, and because levels of discussion on prime matters like ownership of copyright, they’re stifled by gagging clauses. There are one or two very famous groups who you’d know about who are currently in negotiation for re-acquiring the copyright ownership of their masters, which they paid to make.

Wheat: Oh, yes.

Robert: You might ask, well, why does the record company own the record that the artist made and paid for? Well the answer is it’s common policy. Why is it common policy? Because it’s established by institutions that have overwhelming negotiating clout. Overwhelming.

But no longer is it acceptable, and it’s coming to the area of discussion and debate. And in response to the perception and the understanding that this is inequitable, there has to be a new generation of institutions which are not based on exploitation and theft. And Discipline is one of them; a small company, which is ethically based and has particular aims, led by the music, and is artist-friendly.

Now, you want specifics on where ProjeKct II is touring, since I know you only have a page. So there’s no point in us talking for an hour on Discipline’s operating procedures, ’cause you simply won’t have any use for it. I’ve spent two hours of my time talking in detail about lots of matters to get one paragraph in the local paper. If you can use it, I’m happy to talk about it. But if this is not the time, I won’t waste your time.

Wheat: Well, let’s focus on the band. I just wanted to ask, this is sort of going back to your original philosophy of the small, highly mobile, intelligent unit, but how did you decide…

Robert: We don’t claim intelligence. We aspire to it. But we are small and mobile.

(I allow myself a chuckle, as Robert smiles)

Wheat: Well, how is it that you decided that it was the time for a trio project? Was it just that it was flowing out of the music that was flowing out of you at the time?

Robert: That’s two distinct questions. May I suggest a better one? How did ProjeKct II come about?

Firstly, I suggested to all the six current members of King Crimson that we fractalize, that we break into sub-groups, fractals of King Crimson projects, so that a new generation of King Crimson music can be discovered. So far there’ve been two projects that have gone public now. The first was ProjeKct I in the Jazz Cafe [in London], from December the 1st through the 4th last year. We recorded that, and will be releasing it later in the year. ProjeKct II actually began before ProjeKct I, when we recorded the Space Groove album here, in two or three days last November. This is just being released. These are both fractals of King Crimson, each of which function as research and development departments for the greater Crimson, and each of which are also stand-alone. So that’s how ProjeKct II came about. Is it in response to music flowing? Yes. And it’s also a way of enabling and helping music to flow as well.

Wheat: Well, I know that Thrak was much more of a composed album, and this sort of thing is stressing free improvisation, right?

Robert: Yeah. But it’s not stressing it. That’s essentially what it is.

Wheat: So for once you’re not writing down arrangements and contemplating them a great deal before hand.

Robert: That’s very true with both of these projects. Although my manuscript score and pencil are through the other room. But they don’t play a huge role within this context.

So, where are we touring?

We’re touring in California, in Ventura in the middle of March, moving to Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Los Angeles, then we’re going to Tokyo, Osaka and Nogoya, in April, followed by London and Birmingham, coming back here to begin a tour of the East Coast beginning in Washington, moving to probably Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Irving Plaza in New York, ending the first week of May. We’re coming back at the end of May or beginning of June with an in-store in Boston, probably Tower in Harvard Square. Which will also present to the public Absent Lovers, a two-volume CD of King Crimson’s last performance in Montreal on June the 11th, 1984. We’ll also be presenting at the in-store the Bruford-Levin Upper Limits, which is the group we’re touring with in Japan.

Wheat: So Bruford and Levin are going to be opening for you?

Robert: No, we’re opening for them.

Wheat: That’s so marvellous.

Robert: Well, we’re looking forward to sitting in the audience after our set.

Wheat: Is Pat Mastelotto back to the session player thing?

Robert: No, Pat, Trey, and I have been in close discussions about when we’ll be working together, and the problem so far has been purely technical; I mean, when can we find time to work together? So the next step in terms of my interest is working with Pat, and we’ve talked about different configurations. Pat is currently planning on coming to the Discipline studio in England at the end of March. We were hoping it would be the end of February, but we have a backlog of work. Pat has been doing his own research, and it’s quietly phenomenal. But I’m not going to speak for him or blow the whistle on what we’re up to.

How did you react when Adrian said ‘I want to play drums this time’?

Robert: He didn’t quite say ,’I want to play drums.’ We already had some three-guitar arrangements of music which are underway. It’s intended for the next Crimson, and we thought that was maybe something we’d feature. But when the V-Drums arrived, Adrian set up, and we began. So.

Wheat: Well, I remember when you started the Discipline-era King Crimson, in an interview you said that, or you agreed with the interviewer, that a lot of it was fueled by new technology: guitar synthesizers, the Chapman Stick, the Simmons drums. So I guess you could say that Adrian got quite inspired by the sounds he could make with the V-Drums and the different performance opportunities.

Robert: You must speak to Adrian on that.

Wheat: Certainly.

Robert: I won’t speak for him. Personally, I find that acoustic drums in a live context, particularly rock, is overwhelmingly doomed to failure. You can’t really hear anything. And live, cranked up through a PA, you can’t really hear a hi-hat. So the situation we had with the last Crimson was that I was in between the two drummers with large Plexiglas screens so that I wouldn’t lose my high range [hearing], and one in front of Tony too. And you still couldn’t really hear everything. So V-Drums for me are, at least in the live context, immediately more practical. You can actually hear what the drummer is doing.

Wheat: Marvelous.

Robert: And you don’t need to screen the other players, so that the hearing remains intact.

I think that technology is primarily a response, once again, to the different understanding or insight about music, which may or may not be taken up. If the technology isn’t taken up by players, it’s a good idea but it’s not the right time for it. Like the Theremin. It’s a really nice instrument that never really happened. But I think the technology that is now available is very practically applicable.

Wheat: Let’s segue over to the guitar then. I have a friend who came up with me to see the show who was in one of your Crafty seminars in West Virginia.

Robert: Who’s that?

Wheat: His name is Jeff Blanks. He did one seminar with you and Trey was there at the time. He remembers it.

At that time you had developed the Crafty tuning, and you veered off into acoustic for a long time. Then when you came back together with Crimson you applied the Crafty tuning exclusively with everything that you played. Right?

Robert: Yeah.

Wheat: So what is the state of the art of electric guitar today as you see it?

Robert: Have you seen my rig? [he says with a gleam in his eye]

Wheat: Oh, yeah! Obviously the synthesizers work much better than they used to. I have an old Roland GM-70, it doesn’t track that well.

Robert: I prefer the GR-300 to the 70. Pat Metheney still uses one, too.

Wheat: No kidding.

Robert: What I’ve got is pretty well state of the art, although there’s one or two refinements as well. But having that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be played well. There are far better players than me with far less-developed technology. But my rig at the moment, which looks something like a space module, enables me, in addition to being a guitarist in a power trio, to also work in studio level quadraphonic.

Wheat: which is why you have the four TC Electronics delay units.

Robert: Yeah. And If I’m doing a solo performance live in a church, where we have an opportunity to get into the space ourselves, we generally do six-speaker quadraphonic. So it’s a very sophisticated rig.

Wheat: And the guitars you are playing, are those the Tokai copies that you’ve had for a long time?

Robert: Lori has the list of all the equipment. No, they’re not Tokai, they’re Fernandez copies, both made for me in September and October 1995, and modified by Ted Lees, who does work for me in England.

Wheat: I’ve seen Adrian’s Fernandez that he played during the Thrak tour. I was here exactly a year ago and got a chance to see that.

Robert: And as soon as possible I’d like to have the new, is it Buzz Teitel tuning system?

Wheat: Oh, I’ve heard about it. Feitel, I think. [It is in fact “Buzz Feiten”]

Robert: That’s right. There’s the Washburn, they’ve carried the guitars away, they sent one here for us to check. And as soon as Buzz works out the correct intonation for my tuning, then I’ll have it retrofitted.

Wheat: But the GR-30 and the new generation of guitar synths work even with your Crafty system, even with your extended lower range.

Robert: Oh, sure.

Wheat: I’m fascinated by Trey’s instrument. I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about that. He also got me in touch with Mark Warr.

Robert: Whose litigation with Emmet Chapman is a tragedy.

Wheat: I’ve been following that on the Internet with much interest.

Robert: It’s very sad.

Wheat: I noticed that Tony Levin doesn’t even mention Emmett Chapman on his Web site any more. He probably just wants to stay out of it.

Robert: Um, if anyone made a comment on that, they would probably be sued by Emmett at the moment.

Wheat: Well, I told Trey that I was not going to use the words ‘Chapman’ or ‘Stick’ in my little sidebar on him. We’ll just talk about the Warr instrument, how it’s tuned, and all that.

Robert: In terms of Guitar Craft, I’ve just come from a Guitar Craft course in Seattle.

Wheat: Oh, you have? That was my next question. So you’re still teaching.

Robert: I’m not a teacher.

Wheat: A facilitator?

Robert: Instructor. And I’m off to Chile in a couple of weeks for the first Guitar Craft course there. We’ve had several courses in Argentina, and the Argentinean team is going to Chile.

Wheat: And do you still do all of that teaching on acoustic guitar, or amplified acoustic?

Robert: Just acoustic. It’s very direct.

With an electric guitar, it is a different instrument. And a lot of the tonal response has very little to do with the actual playing. Obviously, on an acoustic guitar, what you hear is what you get, and it’s what you give to it. And if you can’t hit the pick at a decent angle, you get a horrible tone. So the guitar tone will immediately tell you how ‘on’ you are. Whereas if you are an electric player, well, you twiddle your graphics [equalization], or you deal with it that way. So it’s a very direct response.

An electric guitar is schizophonic. The sound emerges from a different place than the point of origin.

And it’s part of the training. For Crafties playing live, we had to deal with problems of schizophonia, where you’re playing the acoustic instrument, and the sound is coming out from the PA. So that’s part of it.

But yes, Guitar Craft is ongoing.

Wheat: That’s wonderful.

Is there any new music coming out today that you find appealing, in terms of the craft of the musicians making it?

[Long pause.]

Robert: I doubt that I would give you names. But is there? Yes. But eternal music is… Some music is outside the time stream. So

Wheat: That’s kind of what you strive for, isn’t it?

Robert: The musician strives to be true. So were you to say, ‘what do I listen to in the bath?,’ which is about the only time, well, a recent selection of what I’ve been listening to is the late Beethoven string quartets, Penderecki, Schnittke, Radiohead, the Verve, Haydn string quartets. I’ve just got Coltrane live in Seattle, but I haven’t had the chance to listen to it. So it’s very broad, very broad listening. To me it’s as if they were one musician speaking in different dialects.

Wheat: I wanted to ask you. I got to see you on the G3 tour, I think it was in December, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta?

Robert: It would have been, I think, October.

Wheat: October? Time flies. But I assume that was a good experience for you, and got you in front of a bunch of Kenny Wayne Sheppard fans that wouldn’t have heard you otherwise.

Robert: In terms of the sheer pleasure of touring, and touring is a very hard and arduous thing, both the legs of the G3 tour were for me the most enjoyable, supportive and friendly tours I’ve been on in 28 years.

Wheat: Marvelous.

Robert: I made friends. I made personal friends on the tour. And I appreciate that probably for a lot of people in the audience I was perhaps a strange character to have. I was originally booked for a 20-minute opening slot, comparable to Adrian Leg when he went out with the early G3s. So although I had my official 20 minutes, I suggested I play when the doors opened. So that in addition to having my 20 minutes, I was also play-on music. For me it was a wonderful experience.

Wheat: Sounds rather risky to me…

Robert: Yeah! of course

Wheat: that the audience is not going to give you the due attention you deserve as a performer.

Robert: Well, I’m not sure I’m due very much attention. But I was happy to play to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise probably ever see me. And the fact that some of them were fairly hostile is not really my prime concern. I’m sorry if they were upset by my playing.

Wheat: I think everybody in the Fox enjoyed it, and I went right out in the lobby and bought a copy of Pie Jesu.

Robert: Ah!

I read a comment in an English magazine, from a young…

[Adrian Belew pokes his head in the room]

…We’re just winding up, Ade.

Adrian: I was coming to rescue you!

Wheat: I’m asking him how the G3 tour went.

Robert: I’ll be two minutes, Ade.

From a young guitar player. I read in a guitar magazine in England where he said, ‘Paul Kossov’s two notes were worth far more than Steve Vai’s 10,000 notes.’ Well, I’ve stood in front of Paul Kossov’s two notes, and I’ve stood in front of Steve Vai, and both have integrity, or had integrity, in their own domains. And for me it’s disappointing that one trades names quite like that. Steve’s ten thousand notes are great, provided they are the right notes, and Steve’s are.

Paul Kossov, I stood in front of his two notes in the Marquee in 1968, and they’re a great two notes, too.

He couldn’t be Steve, and Steve couldn’t be Paul. The beauty is that Paul is Paul and Steve is Steve.

Wheat: I remember your saying about Brian Eno many years ago that he plays very few notes, but that they are the right notes.

Yes!

[After and exchange of thanks, the interview ends, and Robert goes off to summon Adrian]

————————————————————

Adrian

Wheat: I’m kind of surprised by the number of people that I talk to that don’t know that you are a drummer. Because you’ve done some wonderful drumming on some of your solo albums. It’s been a very integral part of your music making. But I guess, by and large, people know you from David Bowie, and those kinds of things.

Adrian: Oh, sure. My guitar profile far exceeds anything else even though I play all the instruments on my records. And I do a bit of producing and a lot of songwriting and singing. Always seems to get overshadowed by the guitar playing.

I reserved, up to this point, the drumming just for my solo albums. I felt like I knew what I wanted the drumming to be on my own records, so it was fun for me to do it myself. Not that I’m the most accomplished player or anything, but I could do what I wanted to do. There was only one other time where I sort of went public with it, and that was in the 1984 King Crimson. Bill Bruford coerced me to play live on stage allowing him to be free to be sort of the avant-garde percussionist.

Wheat: And there aren’t really any recordings of that, are there?

Adrian: Well, I’m sure there probably are. Nothing that we really released that I know of officially, but I’m sure that there are recordings of that. It was fun, you know.

Wheat: Did you have a moment of pause, saying, ‘now wait a minute. If I sit down at the drums I’m relinquishing control of a part of the music that I’m used to influencing directly’? The melody? Did you have a moment of pause saying, ‘maybe I should call up Pat Mastelotto, and ask him to do this’?

Adrian: I think eventually Pat will join us for a different project, and I’ll be able to go back and forth between guitar and drums. But, no, the way I approached this was simple. At first I gotta tell you what happened.

The situation was this. I saw the V-Drums at the NAMM show last year, way back in July, and I ordered them immediately. ‘Cause I had been thinking about expanding from regular drum kits that I had to have more sound abilities. And I thought, wow, they’ve really made a leap forward. The demonstration of it proved that to me, that you can get a different sound on the rim, and the head, and it feels great, and you can trigger bass parts, and you can do all sorts of interesting sounds. But it was the sounds that really appealed to me. I approached the V-drumming just like I approach guitar. Trying to orchestrate the songs with interesting sounds is the same thing I try to do with the V-Drums. So I ordered them.

Around the same time, Robert was talking to me about doing a trio with Trey, and of course we all assumed it would be three guitar players. At that point he said, ‘Is there anything you can think of that would be really exciting to do?’

I said, ‘Well, I’ve just ordered these really interesting drums, and they’re fairly compact, and if you’re thinking about going and touring and stuff, maybe I could play drums a little bit. I think I’m going to do something cool with these things.’ Well, that excited Robert and me, and by the time they arrived here to actually, quote, ‘rehearse’ ProjeKct II, which in fact turned into making a record without us realizing it.

I just got the drums exactly when Robert was arriving. I had literally like a day or so to play with them, and I wrote one or two really interesting patches. Backwards sounds, and breaths, and glass breaking, all manner of strange things going on in the drumming department. Trey arrived the next day, and so we started to play as the string trio. The three of us sat down with three guitars, and we played a piece that we’ve already been working on called ‘Construction,’ which is probably going to be one of the next-generation pieces for King Crimson. It sounded nice, and we were happy with that, and we stopped and took a little break.

I said, ‘What shall we do next?,’ and Robert was eying the V-Drums sitting in the corner.

He said, ‘I really want to hear your new drum kit.’ I walked over, I sat down, and started playing a really interesting, breathy, weird, strange vibe, and Robert and Trey started playing too. Twenty-two minutes later, we stopped. We all kind of looked at each other, and we said, ‘Wow. What was that?’

And I asked Ken Latchney, our engineer, ‘Did you record that by any chance?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay, let’s come and hear it.’ We went in the studio. By the end of that day, we were kind of looking at each other, and Robert said, ‘I think we’re making a record.’ By the end of the second day, we went out to dinner, and Robert said, ‘I think we’re making a double record.’ Because by the end of the third day, we had recorded I think maybe twelve hours worth of stuff. Quite a lot of it we really liked, so we went through them, we mixed all the songs. As I was telling you earlier, it’s a simple procedure because you’ve got stereo drums, stereo guitars, and stereo Warr guitar.

[Tape runs out, is flipped over]

Yeah, Robert and David Singleton did the editing, and there you go, we had Space Groove, with a two-sided CD. That’s how this came about. So that was a very long answer to your question: did I have any doubts about relinquishing my role as a guitar player? No. I really came into it saying, ‘This is going to be fun.’

I’m really enjoying being a V-drummer. It’s very different than being a drummer, I think, because you’re dealing mainly with a lot of sounds and things, and like I say, I’m triggering things, I’m triggering other parts.

Wheat: But every blessed sound comes out of the stock V-Drum machine. You don’t have any additional samplers or anything back there?

Adrian: I don’t have any additional sampling, but there’s almost none of those sounds that are now stock. One of my favorite things to do, and one thing people probably don’t realize, that you have to do if you are an adventurous musician, is the same thing I do with guitar. You spend endless hours creating these programs and these patches, and you have to redesign all the sounds. So now I’ve redesigned about twelve different styles of kits. Each kit has fourteen to sixteen different sounds depending on where you hit. If you hit the rim of one of the pads, you get a different sound than if you hit the pad itself. Some of them have, as I said, sequenced parts that can be triggered by the bass drum or one of the toms. So there’s all kind of strange things going on.

What I’m attempting to do as the V-drummer in ProjeKct II is create very interesting-sounding grooves. But definitely grooves. They’re not odd time signatures, and they’re meant to feel groovy to your body. But they are also made up of components of very strange sounds. So you’ve got all kinds of things that wouldn’t normally be considered parts of a drum kit.

Wheat: How about the physical, visceral problem? Robert was speaking about this, acoustic guitar versus electric, as in why he always has Crafty students play acoustic. The first time anybody went from a real piano to a digital piano it was like, ‘well it sounds fine but I can’t feel the notes I’m playing.’

Adrian: Yeah.

Wheat: You know what I’m saying? The sound’s coming from across the room. It’s not flowing up through my body from the piano. Do you have that problem with the V-Drums?

Adrian: Well, as you notice, I have a monitor system that I also put together for the V-Drums. It’s a full-range system with horns and bass cabinets and stuff. It’s seated right there [places his hands on either side of his head, about an inch away from each ear], and it’s not feeling like it’s coming right off the drums, but it’s right there, and it is very physical. ‘Cause actually the bass drum really can knock you off of your seat if you turn it up loud enough. Much louder than a wooden bass drum would do.

Wheat: Robert says he very much appreciates the clarity and distinction. He says this is the only time he’s ever been able to hear the hi-hat.

Adrian: Which never sounds much like a hi-hat!

First of all, because there’s two different sounds on that pad. So I could have the hi-hat be a bass drum and a triangle if I wanted.

Wheat: Or a reverse gated open hi-hat. [He uses such a sound.]

Adrian: Anything. I have it being a lot of different things. The show starts out with me playing kind of a drum kit. But the bass drum is triggering a sequenced bass part. So I’m the bass player and the drummer at the same time.

After that, I flip into the mode that I like the most, which is where the V-Drums start to make all sorts of interesting sounds. And that’s where I really consider myself being the V-drummer.

Wheat: Yeah, I noticed that one piece that begins with some marimba rolls, maybe a melodic pattern and then goes from there.

Well, keep in mind that none of those are pieces. Everything is improvised and it will probably be that every night they’ll be different. We don’t even have a starting point. Which is another thing that interests me about this. Why I was able to give up the idea of playing guitar and being melodic is because the idea behind this music is that it’s free-form. You walk on stage and you really don’t know what you’re going to play and there’s not even a song title to even call out. ‘Hey, let’s play ‘Larks Tongues’.’ No, you can’t do that anymore. There are no titles. You are just going to play whatever comes to mind. I respond to them and they respond to me. And of course being the V-drummer I often of set the pace, but sometimes they do. Sometimes Robert and Trey will come in at a certain sort of tempo and I can tell what they are kind of doing and I’ll find something that works to that.

You were asking about the way V-Drums feel. They actually feel good. They’re soft…

Wheat: They’re real drum heads, right?

Adrian: They’re real drum heads. But when you change the tuning of the drum heads, it doesn’t change the pitch of the sound. That has to be done internally [in the tone generator module], when you are designing sounds. And it has a wide range. I mean it’s unbelievable how high and low each drum can go.

You can pitch the actual head for feel purposes, whether you want it to feel more like a floppy tom-tom or like a real tight snare drum. And so they’re kind of soft to the touch, to play. The only problem that I’ve found so far is that if I start playing really hard, the pads tend to bounce the stick out of my hand. So you probably noticed last night I dropped a stick once or twice. That happens a lot. I don’t know how to get around that, because the harder you play, the more it sort of bounces out of your hand. But I’ll get that under control eventually, too.

Wheat: I want to go back to being in a band with two phenomenal, visionary drummers. I mean…

Adrian: It scares me a bit.

Wheat: Pat Mastelotto is the conventional studio guy who can play anything, and Bill Bruford is the most innovative avante gard drummer of our time, probably. But you have managed to find a unique voice with this new instrument. Are you kind of afraid that those guys are going to go out and buy V-Drums and…

Adrian: Actually, Robert is working heavily towards getting them to do that. He envisions the next generation of King Crimson being three sets of V-Drums, and therefore I can come and go as I please as a drummer in that band too.

Wheat: Wow, that’s powerful.

Adrian: Yeah, it is a powerful vision. Whether or not that will really happen, I don’t know. I think it’s up to Bill and Pat, what they want to play. I think Pat will really like them. I’m not sure what Bill will make of it, ’cause he has some definite ideas about how he likes drums to be. So does Pat for that matter.

You know, it’s been great for me to be in the company of those two players. I think between them there’s nothing that you can’t hear being done on drums. They both have amazing abilities, and they work together extremely well. It’s really been interesting for me to watch that.

So coming into this, my one concern was, as you said, how can I find a place to be a drummer that won’t be constantly compared to Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto? I don’t want to be compared to them. I’m not nearly the drummer that either of them are. What I could do is what I can do on guitar–make drums sound kind of interesting. And so that’s how I’ve approached it. I like playing something that’s fairly simple, but the sounds are really interesting. And they are going together in a unique way. It percolates.

Wheat: Well I’m very fond of the drumming that you did on Op Zop Too Wah, and I thought you were really pushing the envelope beyond anything that you’d done before on drums.

Adrian: I have done that recently. I’ve been playing a lot since I’ve had a studio. You see right here sitting next to us a beautiful set of real drums, Ayotte drums, that I play on record a lot.

I practice a lot. And it’s not on a schedule. I’ll just be doing something, when I’ll go, ‘Gosh, I’d love to play drums right now.’ So I’ll run down here to the studio and play. I think I’ve gotten in a lot more practice time and I’m probably going to get even better now that I’m kind of a professional drummer! I’ll call myself a V-drummer just to be able to delineate between myself and any other person out there.

Wheat: I’m looking forward to hearing the Irresponsibles tonight. Did the success of the Jars of Clay single change your perspective? Obviously you must be being pelted with demo tapes now by people that want you to produce them.

Adrian: Yeah, I have done a lot of fishing through tapes, and it’s rare for me to find things that I feel are not only things that I’m in sync with musically, but also that I have the time and ability to do. Some projects are just simply too long. Like for instance I have really wanted to produce XTC, and that would be great, but they want to do it for six months in England. I really can’t give up my life long enough to do that. They probably have a lot of choices that are better than me anyway. But that’s okay. We did talk about it, though, Andy Partridge and I.

Production is something that I always saw fitting into my life once that I had developed a studio. And now we’ve had that going here for three or four years. Jars of Clay obviously being the most successful thing. But I think the Irresponsibles was a great success, too, because first of all it was one of the most pleasant projects I’ve ever done. The band was great to work with. We accomplished more than I thought we would. The tracks sound terrific. It’s a completely accurate, perfect representation of what that band should sound like. So I’m really pleased with the production. It’s a six-song CD, for anyone who wants to buy it. We have it out on my label right now, but we are shopping to try and get them a major label, because I think they need that kind of major support. And I really was thrilled doing it also because it required that I tweak some string quartet parts together. That was fun, you know. I really love doing that.

Wheat: This is a little off the subject, but you are doing a lot more with strings, aren’t you? You are working with string players here in town. I noticed Peter Hyrka, my old friend from Human Radio played some with the Irresponsibles, right?

Adrian: Well, the way we actually did the string parts is that we brought in Peter Hyrka and friend Gary Tussing, who played cello. We just had two guys. It was really better for me, because I could work out the first two parts, and then I could say, ‘oh, now I want you to play these two parts.’ I could separate them out. They were quick, and they could try a lot of things. They have more of the rock player mentality. So if I said, ‘do this,’ [makes a sliding sound] they didn’t look at me funny.

[Slight break]

Wheat: You played cello on the Nine Inch Nails record?

Adrian; I did, on two songs. I played lap steel, I played mandolin, I played a bunch of different strangely tuned guitars that Trent had lying around. I also played string bass. But mostly guitar.

Wheat: Did you play drums?

Adrian: No, I didn’t. The drumming was already done. He had forty tracks. It sounded tremendous. And this was done in Pro Tools, utilizing a continual loop of the music. And that means that I could play guitar for as long as I wanted. So what we often did…

Wheat: And he has to do massive editing after you go home?

Adrian: Massive editing.

So what we did is we linked a bunch of little footpedals together. He had every little stomp box, all the vintage ones, you know, and we kept linking them together different ways. We’d get a really interesting sound. We’d say, ‘oh, that’s cool,’ and then I’d start playing, and it would get wilder and wilder. Finally after a little bit of doing this, it was great, and I felt that I was playing some very aggressive guitar. But Trent kept wanting me to change the sounds as I was playing. Well, I said, well, ‘why don’t you just get down on the floor and work the pedals, and I’ll play.’ And so quite a few of the tracks that I played on…

Wheat: And so it becomes like a pipe organ. Stops flying everywhere.

Adrian: Yeah. So he’s operating whammy pedals and wah-wah, and stuff on the floor, and we play together, really intensely for like twenty minutes. Finally he stopped and said, ‘I gotta stop, my hands are sore from turning all the pedals.’ So I said, ‘Between the two of us, we make a really excellent guitar player.’ [Adrian laughs heartily.]

Which was in New Orleans. He has a studio there. It’s a reconditioned funeral home [more laughter], of course.

Wheat: This is the guy that discovered Marilyn Manson.

Adrian: Yeah. The studio is called Hot Snakes. It was really great. I had a terrific time.

Last time I didn’t get to play as much, on Downward Spiral, because the record was kind of in its final stages when I walked in and did my parts. This time they were still building the tracks. There were no vocals. And so I really played a lot of stuff. I mean hours and hours and hours. I played for three days solid. Long days. And the next week I heard from one of the manufacturing people that I work with that they bought one of the fuzz tones that I had brought. They told him that it was gonna take them weeks to sort out all the stuff that I played. But I think that there were some really really good things in there.

Wheat: Any idea when that album might be released?

Adrian: No. I really don’t know what their plan was for it. But it was a lot of stuff and it really sounded tremendous. For me, as a producer and a person who owns a studio and makes records, it was intriguing to see how he makes records. Because he’s got a different way of doing it. I generally work on the basis that’s more typical. You record the songs and you edit things and you do this. But he works on this basis whereby you put it all in the computer, and it’s always running as one big loop, and you just play anything and then you go back later and you get rid of whatever you didn’t like.

Wheat: Non-linear composition.

Adrian: It’s intriguing to see, and something I’ll probably do some of in the future.

Wheat: That’s amazing. Why don’t we get Trey in here…

[break, in which Adrian reveals to me that he has reunited with his former band the Bears, and that they have written and recorded seven new songs.]

Adrian: One of the things that I really love about doing ProjeKct II is the fact that I think in this particular lineup Robert and Trey really get to stretch out. They have to. It forces them to play. There is no one singing. There are no songs. There’s no format. There’s only one drummer, and playing a certain groove. It really opens up the door for Robert and Trey to play, and they’re just playing so well. And I love it, because I’m sitting in between them. Here are two of my favorite players, and I get to hear them finally open up, so it’s fun for me to just be able to accommodate that and be a part of it.

Wheat: That’s great.

Trey Gunn

[For this interview, I ask Trey to bring his Warr guitar out from its case, hold it on his lap, and show me its features.]

Wheat: Do most people play those things tuned in fourths rather than tuned in fifths, ‘Crafty style’ like you do?

Trey: I don’t think of it as ‘Crafty style.’ Actually it’s basically a cello tuning. I don’t know what most people do. This is not the most common model of the Warr guitar. The common one is the stereo one, the twelve-string.

Wheat: Which you played all through the Thrak tour.

Trey: Yeah. And I still have one, and I still play it. I still do some recording with it.

Wheat: Now this instrument has a monophonic output. It doesn’t split up the bass notes from the lead.

Trey: I think that for your original question, I think the most of the twelve-string players play with the bass in fifths and the melody in fourths. I’ve always used all fifths. When this instrument came about Mark had an idea of doing an eight-string bass. And I had kind of the same idea of just taking the top side of the twelve-string, the melody side, and extending it down into the bass register and coming up with just a simpler configuration.

Wheat: And the string spacing is rather like a conventional electric guitar.

Trey: Yes. It’s not bass string spacing.

Wheat: Do you ever play with a pick?

Trey: I have played with a pick. I did some recording on my last solo record, just one little thing with a pick. But mostly I don’t.

Wheat: Well, the Trey Gunn Band with two eight-string Warrs and I guess a lead guitar, are you usually responsible for the bass end of things?

Trey: No. That’s why Chris, the other Warr guitarist is there, We take turns in the bass register and in the soloing register.

Wheat: Now you actually started out as a classically-minded pianist, am I right?

Trey: Well, if you can call a seven-year-old classically-minded, yeah.

Wheat: But I mean you came up studying the classics, the Mozart and the Bach, and that kind of thing.

Trey: As a kid, yeah.

Wheat: Did you play conventional guitar before you got into that other touch-style instrument?

Trey: Oh, no. I played electric bass when I was a teenager, for years and years and years. And then acoustic guitar, and then electric guitar. Bass in the meantime, and then keyboards a little bit. I kind of left the keyboards behind, once I got really serious into the guitar and bass.

Wheat: What is Mark Warr done to sort of further the evolution of the electric guitar as an instrument?

Trey: What seems to be developing is the generic term of ‘touch guitar.’ Mark has addressed the needs of the guitar player who uses tapping technique, either exclusively or at least a lot of the time. He’s got some six-string guitar models where essentially just the setup is different.

The pickups for all Mark’s instruments are custom-built by Bartolini, at Mark’s specification, to get the tapping balanced right. Because the sound is really soft [taps the highest string] and then it gets really loud [taps the lowest string], really loud, just the acoustic sound. Whereas when you pick, you can pick a high string pretty loud. So we’ve had to do some custom pickups. And he’s done some other tricky little things.

Wheat: So in other words the pickups are hotter on the treble end and not so hot on the low end.

Trey: Every string is specifically wound.

Wheat: You mean every pole-piece in the pickup is wound for the response necessary…

Trey: For that gauge of string, yeah.

Bill Bartolini, who’s fantastic, first started working on the twelve-strings and did a lot of prototypes, sending me pickups and new guitars to try. We’d discuss it and agree, ‘These top two strings just aren’t cutting it, but this bass is so intense.’ So Bill had to balance a lot of things. And you can do a lot in your shop, but you can’t really work it all out until a player gets it.

Wheat: Have Fripp or Belew ever been tempted to pick up one of those things?

Trey: You know, I don’t think they have.

Mark did another very clever thing. This is an extended range guitar, really. It’s hard to call it a bass. It’s hard to call it a guitar. It’s not either, and yet it’s both. Because the eight strings range from very small to huge, and this is a .140, on the earlier prototypes, as you were moving across the neck, it felt like the action was getting higher and higher, although it actually wasn’t. So what Mark has done on this is that the neck is basically flat on this side [points out how the neck is situated under the highest string] and then from this point over [indicates the middle strings] it makes a really steep curve, so that it kind of gives you the experience like the ‘center of gravity’ of the string stays the same all the way across. And that was something that we wouldn’t have known until. You just had to make an eight string, and we had to play it.

Wheat: This guy is a master luthier. How many instruments has he made for you?

Trey: I have four.

Wheat: Two twelves and two eights?

Trey: Yeah.

Wheat: And what’s the difference between the neck-through and the bolt-on neck designs, in terms of how it plays and how it sounds?

Trey: I haven’t spent much time with the twelve-string bolt-on. The twelve-strings have evolved a lot since my models. All of my instruments are padauk neck-throughs, except for my other 8-string, which is a bolt-on. And that was kind of an experiment. Mark does a lot of bolt-on 12-strings now, and some guys really like them. I guess traditionally the secret is the neck-throughs give you a lot of fundamental of the note, whereas the bolt-on gives you a lot of the upper harmonics and not so much fundamental. So when we were thinking of the 8-string in terms of fitting in with Crimson and fitting in with Tony Levin, he did a bolt. This is the second eight-string. He said, let’s do a bolt -on, let’s try it.

I have a tendency to go for a really big bass sound. So we thought we’d go for a pokier, kind of honkier, cutting sound that would kind of fit above Tony. So we did the bolt-on neck, and it has that quality. It’s a very bright, poky sound. Then he made this one that has the bigger, fuller bass sound. [Turns the instrument over to examine the neck] And the neck is a three piece. But it’s nothing fancy. Chris, the other Warr guitarist in my band, has Mark’s kind of traditional five-piece laminate. They’re not for looks. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Mark yet.

Wheat: Just briefly. He called me literally as I was about to get in the car to drive up here. So I asked him to e-mail me some more info later.

Trey: I don’t know how much he’ll get into it, but the combinations of woods is Mark’s secret. And the shape of the horn [indicates the upper bout of the instrument] is experimental. It really changes the tone.

Wheat: No kidding.

Trey: This is just solid padauk, and padauk has sort of a growly bass sound, which I like. But in some of the other neck-throughs, he’ll put a strip of wenge in. He’ll say things like, ‘Strips of wenge bring out compression in the high frequencies, and then two strips of bubinga, that brings out a certain kind of midrange, not with compression, so it’s really looser, and then with the horn,’ and so on. He’s very much into the wood combinations.

Wheat: So as far as Trey Gunn is concerned, this is the future of the electric guitar, right here.

Trey: Yeah, for me. I can’t speak about other guitarists. I think this instrument [the 8-string] is more appealing to guitarists, although, would I want to unleash a full-range instrument on most guitarists? I think not!

Wheat: Just let them stay in their own little defined part of the frequency spectrum.

Trey: The thing about this is that I can play bass and I can play guitar and I don’t have to switch instruments. Especially within ProjeKct II, I can leave the bass area, and Robert can take it, or Adrian can take it, or there can just be no bass, which is great, or we can all play bass. This is all nice and compact. Eight strings is a lot of strings, but it’s a lot less than twelve. I am really working to learn the neck and the notes all over the place. I’m getting pretty good.

Wheat: How long have you been playing with Robert Fripp?

Trey: I met Robert in 1985, and Sunday All Over The World was in 1987, so you know, between eleven and twelve years. About five or six years there were pretty exclusive. The only stuff we were doing was stuff that we did together, all different sorts of projects: David Sylvian, Sunday All Over The World, the String Quintet, to getting ready for Crimson, to different sessions. Now we’ve branched out and we actually work apart from each other as well.

Wheat: And does Discipline Global Mobile distribute your solo albums?

Trey: Yeah. Do you have them?

Wheat: No.

Trey: Okay. I’ll get them upstairs.

Wheat: I’d certainly like to get One Thousand Years.

Trey: That’s the first one, which is quite good. The second one, The Third Star, is very good and there’s a lot of the eight-string on it.

[End]

Copyright ©  1998 by Wheat Williams. All rights reserved.