Spotlight: Dither’s Taylor Levine—Part I

Last year, I interviewed James Moore from the Dither Guitar Quartet around the time he released his record performing the entirety of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads. This set me on a path examining the place of the electric guitar in contemporary “classical” music. I recently posted a two-part interview with Tim Brady, where we discussed this fascinating (at least to me) subject. With this month’s release of Dither’s fantastic record, Potential Differences [New Focus Recordings], I deemed it time to talk to one of the Quartet’s founders, Taylor Levine, about how they manage to make the electric guitar sound like a natural vehicle for modern composed music. Again, the conversation ranged wide and so there will be a Part II. Please subscribe to find out when the post goes up.

GM: I don’t know if you saw the piece I did on James Moore for Guitar Moderne.

Taylor Levine: Yeah, he mentioned that he spoke with you.

GM: James said you met at the Bang on a Can festival, hit it off, and decided to perform Fred Frith pieces. Is there anything you’d like to add to Dither’s origin story?

Taylor Levine: Technically James and I met at a show I was doing with Ted Hearne in Manhattan, a few days or weeks before the festival. We shook hands, talked for a while. We basically took it from there and started playing some duos, which worked out well. I had this weird plan to get together with some friends and try to play maybe once a month, and then realized a better idea would be to start this guitar quartet version. I thought of three friends of mine, very different guitar players, who I really love and put that together. Dither is the project.

GM: It’s interesting that you started with the Fred Frith Pieces, because Tim Brady was positing that the Frith quartet was the first guitar quartet of this kind. Do you have any other early inspirations or know of any other quartets?

Taylor Levine: Fred was definitely a big inspiration, not just for the quartet but in general.  All of us are huge fans of his output and work. When thinking about the quartet, Fred was a place to start. We got the score through reaching out to Fred, and a bunch of nagging. He sent me the parts. A good friend of mine, Nick Didkovski, also wrote probably 50% of the compositions in that group. We reached out to him and he sent us some parts as well. We hashed out a bunch of that music out among us. It was a launching pad, an excuse to get together.

GM: Nick was in the Frith Quartet?

Taylor Levine:Yeah. It wasn’t just Fred’s music. It was the other members’ as well, but it was most heavily Fred and Nick that wrote that music. We all started looking at other music early on, like Arvo Part’s Organ music. We rarely play it, but we pulled it out last summer for the show on Governor’s Island. Dither members, like Josh Lopes, wrote some music. We started working with Paula Matthusen , Lainie Fefferman, Jascha Narveson, and all the wonderful friends and composers who started writing for us. We did some collaborations with bagpipes composed by Matt Welch, a great composer and bagpipe player. We basically started running with the idea and collaborating with people and writing music and we’re still doing it.

GM: Were there any other quartets around when you started, besides the Frith Quartet.

Taylor Levine: Not that I was aware of. I was aware of classical guitar quartets. There are a few out there now, but maybe they existed when we did too.

GM: How do you decide which one of you takes which part for any given composition?

Taylor Levine: If it’s something that one of us wrote, that person will choose. Sometimes, it’s whoever jumps in first and hands out the parts. Sometimes, we might think one of us would be really great on this part. But in general, we try to keep it even, so that there’s not always someone doing one role and someone doing another role.

GM: Do you think in terms of who has particular performing strengths and weaknesses for certain parts or certain music?

Taylor Levine: I’d put it that we’re all different. So yeah, strengths and weaknesses for sure. Also,  different sensibilities, different histories and training in academia. James Moore, Gyan Riley and I were all classically trained. The others were more jazz trained. Josh Lopes was a jazz and composition major. But creatively speaking, when we’re rehearsing it’s an equal playing field.

GM: If someone’s having difficulty with a particular part, would you sometimes switch parts?

Taylor Levine: That doesn’t really happen. What we will do is if someone is extremely busy at the moment and there’s a much harder part, then one member might say, “I don’t have a ton of time these days. Can someone else pick this one.” We’ve all had those moments where we’re swamped and this part is going to take a lot of work. We’ve picked up the slack for each other like that. But otherwise anyone can play anything. We’re all happy to.

GM: I’ve spoken to both James and Tim Brady about the fact that some incorporation of electric guitar into modern classical music fails to exploit the tonal possibilities of the instrument on its own and in combination with effects. Dither has a terrific record of avoiding that, and using the possibilities of the electric guitar to the fullest, how did you arrive at that?

Taylor Levine: It was never spoken of directly. All of us use electronics outside the group, so when we  got in a room together it was very natural. When we start thinking about the music, we rarely tell each other what we should do or shouldn’t do, except for maybe that a section should be clean, or something should be wild or distorted. Other than that, we are free to start experimenting. It’s a process; sometimes we don’t even talk about it. We only say something if we feel it is not working. Other than that, we will often leave it unsaid. Some parts have specific things indicated, like: use these specific electronics. There are moments where things get more specific like that.

GM: When composition’s come from the outside, do you work with the composers in terms of creating the sounds?

Taylor Levine: Absolutely. Sometimes they have very specific ideas and other times they haven’t thought too much about it, and everything in between. They might have a vague idea of what they want and describe a sound. It becomes our job to figure out ways of realizing that description.

GM: As you’re familiar with all these techniques and effects, how specific are you in your own compositions, in terms of what you indicate?

Taylor Levine: When we write for the band members, we enjoy  keeping things open. It keeps things more interesting for us. If we are in a different mood one night, we can play it differently. With much of our material, I don’t know how they’re going to play it until we’re actually playing it. There’s a lot of freedom to vary stuff. That comes from a place of trust though, it’s not something we would do with anybody. We all know how we work and have been doing this for a while together, to the point where we have a group sensibility and understand each other’s playing. It is an exciting thing to have the feeling in a performance that you can almost do anything and everyone has your back and vice versa.

GM: That brings up so many questions. For starters, it seems the type music you’re playing is closer to jazz or improvisation. How strictly are the parts written out in terms of where variation would come from, other than interpretation of those parts?

Taylor Levine: That depends on the work. Some things are very specific, some pieces are completely written out, others are 97% improvised.

GM: In terms of the trust, it’s interesting because it makes it sound like Dither is like the Miles Davis quintet, or Paul Motian with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, where you have a group of highly trained players who have  played together for so long that it adds something to the music you’re not going to get with a bunch of great players who got together for the first time and just started reading the music down.

Taylor Levine: Definitely. It’s not just having the time to rehearse, but having played for so long together it has developed a  chemistry that is hard to describe. We’ve always made better music and had more fun when we don’t nail every detail down. We rehearse, we can execute what we want to do, but that still allows for elements of creative freedom while we’re playing.

GM: When they’re not improvised sections, how do people interpret the written parts differently from night to night?

Taylor Levine: It might be how you treat the sounds, which can include electronics. Things might be maybe louder or quieter in sections. It depends on the piece and how much freedom is allowed. Josh’s piece, “Mi-Go,” is heavily notated and there’s one section where I have to play written out solo melodic lines. For years, I’ve been playing it very differently, mostly because I haven’t figured it out. I’m never sure how to play it. I’m always trying different stuff and Josh’s letting me do whatever I want. Maybe one day I’ll like it.

GM: What are you trying?

Taylor Levine: Playing delicately, quietly or brash and loud. There’s an indicator in there, something like “wild fuzz.”  I never did that. It was always clean and delicate for the most part. He’s like, “Sure, go for it.”

GM: What I’m trying to parse here is that even though this is considered in some circles to be a form of modern classical music, it seems to diverge so wildly from so much of the cannon of classical performance.

Taylor Levine: Do you think so?

GM: In terms of that level of interpretation. As I understand classical performance, in a string quartet there would be parts written and those parts are played. If triple forte is indicated, people play triple forte. In that respect, this guitar quartet music seems to hover in this place between classical and a little bit of jazz in terms of improvisation.

Taylor Levine: It’s a lot to do with the music we make and play, and the composers we work with. If there were pieces that indicated forte, we would do such things. The music we do doesn’t call for that. It’s not that we shy away from doing it. It’s just that we put ourselves in situations that don’t often require that as much. If we were to play some Beethoven or something, we would follow the dynamics. We wouldn’t start throwing out whatever we felt like, because whatever you do you have realize the music. But if those parameters aren’t specific in the music, we play with it. If they’re not there to play with then we don’t.

GM: It seems like you gravitated towards music that allows you to play with it.

Taylor Levine: Definitely, we felt more excited by it and interested in it and made better music by doing the kinds of things that we do—mixing it with rock and jazz. It’s a common story these days: growing up hearing wildly different music. I grew up with my parents listening to Sixties folk and rock rather than Classical music. I discovered jazz and classical on my own, around high school. In the last 30 or 40 years, musicians have grown up exposed to everything and the mixing of the music has been going on for that long. With the modern technology we grew up with, you can  pull up music so quickly and effortlessly listen to drastically different things next to each other. I think that changes your psyche and maybe you don’t perceive them as so different.

GM: Dither is a great example of everybody in the band getting great guitar tone no matter what music you’re playing. You all seem in command of the sound of your instruments and it’s always very musical and listenable within the entire range of what you’re doing. For me, music starts with the emotion of sound. Classical music insists that the players are capable of good tone production. If you play violin in a symphony orchestra, you’re supposed to be able to make a “good” tone. I realize that, when it comes to electric guitar tone, there’s a wide variety of what might be considered “good.” Still, I feel that, as with pornography, most guitarists know bad tone when they hear it. I hear it in some modern, electric, classical music, where they might as well be playing an acoustic guitar with a pickup on it, and not even in the good sense. There’s no recognition that this instrument can create a certain an emotive sound of its own. I was wondering your thoughts about that?

Taylor Levine: There’s certainly a thing where people saying, “I play a guitar, so that means I can play any of them.” There’s a phenomenon where the classically trained guitarist picks up an electric. It’s a very different thing. It’s as if you’re a classical percussionist trying to play a drum set or vice versa. You could have an electric player playing a classical guitar or maybe drummers playing a bunch of percussion and you’re  going to get a different thing out of it. I think when you’re expecting something from the electric guitar and you  have the history in your head, it can be  jarring or strange.

GM: For me it’s whether it’s getting the job done of conveying the emotion that the music is trying to convey. If you had a violinist in an orchestra who didn’t have good tone, everybody would know it wasn’t serving the music properly.

Taylor Levine: Don’t get me wrong, I have strong opinions about sounds I like. There’s lots of guitar I hear I don’t like and a lot I love. But I try to keep it in mind that these are my thoughts on it and not get all bent out of shape when I hear the thing you’re describing. When I was in undergrad, I had the experience of being a classical guitarist at the time struggling with being told, “Your sound is too bright or it sounds like too much like this, you don’t want to do that.” And, “I can hear some fret noise when you are moving your hand.” These are the sounds I was fascinated with at the time. I was having difficulty  coming to terms with why I wasn’t able to use these sounds. Especially when going out at night and hearing live music of other guitar players that were freely able to use all these sounds. I would go back to school and it was like they were sweeping all the exciting stuff under the rug. I noticed tension in myself basically between these different worlds.

GM: That helps explain how you ended up where you did.

Taylor Levine: Yes. At the time I was wrestling with how do I come to terms with this classical thing that’s taught me so much about the instrument and then get back to a feeling of freedom with the instrument and being able to use things like scratching on the strings and those “not good sound.”

GM: I’m less concerned with defining a canon of good electric guitar tone, than the attention to tone. In other words, how carefully do you work out which tone each of you will use on a specific piece. You indicated that you leave it up to each other, but I’m curious in what sense you’re all aware of that—how the tones are blending, and how they’re working together.

Taylor Levine: We have a natural intuition at this point. We can sit down and  make it work sonically speaking. The four of us play well together. We can sit in a room and make it work with whatever amps and weird guitars we may have on tour. If you have a sound in your head, you’re going to get it out on the instrument. I think there’s a lot of truth to the idea that musicians will sound however they sound, pretty much no matter what they’re playing on. There are differences, of course, between all this equipment and instruments and lovely variations in them all.

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