In Part I we learned about James Moore’s history and his meticulous dedication to performing the entirety of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads as perfectly as possible. In Part II, we discuss his amazing guitar quartet, Dither, and the challenges of using electric guitar in contemporary “classical” music. [Both parts were edited for length and clarity].
How did Dither come about?
It stems back to when I first moved to New York. I met Taylor Levine at the Bang On a Can Festival. The two of us hit it off and started playing together. Around the same time, another friend had given us the scores to the Fred Frith pieces for the Fred Frith Electric Quartet. It was Taylor’s idea to get a band together to perform it. I said, “That sounds like fun.” It evolved quickly; we started getting opportunities to perform, and it grew organically. Sometimes we do large-scale things, but we still play little loft shows as well. We have become a non-profit organization, so we have a little more infrastructure.
How fixed is the personnel? It seems it is usually you, Taylor, Joshua Lopes, and Gyan Riley.
Those are the four members. Gyan’s seat has changed a few times. It has been me, Taylor, and Josh from the very beginning. We started off with Simon Kafka. When he left, David Linaburg recorded our first record with us and was a member for four or five years. I think Gyan is the longest standing member. Those are the four fundamental players and we have become a family.
We are all so busy that we will sometimes need a sub. We have a couple of go-to guys and girls we call. We don’t mind; it makes the family bigger. Sometimes, if someone can’t make it, we will play as a trio. Recently, we had a gig for an art instillation that Gyan couldn’t do, so we had a drummer sub for him. We try to keep flexible like that.
You added Nels Cline and Ches Smith for one show.
We add guests all the time.
Do you commission pieces, or do people come to you?
We haven’t done much traditional commissioning, where you approach the composer and say, “Will you write a ten minute piece?” Things evolve more naturally. You mentioned Nels; after that performance, we were both supposed to be a part of a gig, but Nels said, “I’d rather write a piece for you guys.” That gig fell through. But last night we had a rehearsal and Nels stopped by to geek out about some pedals and hopefully the piece will finally happen after a year and a half of talking about it. A lot of our stuff has started like that: with getting to know players, performers, and composers that we like. If it is a big project, finding a presenter helps.
Early on, we would ask five composer friends to write something and then do a show. We don’t do that frequently but that is what some groups do. We found it stressed us out too much to have five brand new pieces all at once. You find yourself cramming and not able to own the music. Some ensembles do that really well. Still, even with the most badass ensembles, who can sight read anything, and do a whole show of premiers, you are still not getting the same thing from the music that you can achieve by living with it for a while, and getting a sense of ownership, so our approach is to slowly bring in new repertoire to a point of it being our piece. A lot of the music we play is regular repertoire for us. In some cases, we have played those pieces hundreds of times.
I imagine the amount of improvisation varies from piece to piece.
We have a lot of pieces that aren’t improvised at all, some are fully improvised, and lots are in between. The music we write is usually in between. It is similar to the Fred Frith Quartet. Those compositions are written out but with moments of solos and decision-making, where you can play anything you like within a certain set of options. We incorporate, if not pure improvisation, an open element as much as possible.
I noticed you all played hollow or semi-hollow instruments in the video where you perform the Frith piece “A” at a music store. It looked like you had just pulled them off the wall. Did the piece indicate using semi-hollow instruments, or was that determined by where you were?
We were doing the show there and we thought we have to play these guitars.
In the kinds of pieces you play are the types of guitar notated? If the composer is going for musical effect, a Telecaster sounds different than a Les Paul.
The easy answer is no. It is more likely a Broadway show score will ask for a Les Paul sound or clean Strat, or something like that. There is more of a sense of that in the musical theater world. On Broadway, you will find scores that indicate specific guitars or a desire for that guitar. If you have a different one, you do some timbral thing to it to respond to that idea. Generally, in contemporary classical music most composers don’t know the instrument well enough to have an opinion about that; they trust the players. As an electric guitarist in that setting, you are a specialist. I will get the score, see what it wants, and bring my Tele, my Arch Top, or some other guitar. Very rarely does the composer or organization require a specific gear set up. They tell you what they need sonically and it is your responsibility to achieve that.
I am curious to hear how they frame what they need. In classical music, a violin is not interchangeable with a viola. I would posit that the timbre of a Tele sounds just as different from a Les Paul. Of course, classical music has had 200 years or more to refine those tones. We are talking about contemporary music using electric guitar for what, 25 years? What I am trying to say is that in the classical world there is a huge emphasis on the tonal production of each instrument, whereas, when it comes to electric guitar in the contemporary classical world, there doesn’t seem to be as much consideration. In other words, an electric guitarist might not have a particularly evocative touch and tone. Those are things some people in the rock world obsess about, whereas in the contemporary classical world it seems they are either not as interested, or it hasn’t reached that level. I am curious what you think.
I have lots of thoughts, but no manifesto. I sometimes even question whether using the term, “classical world,” or “classical style” even exists anymore. There has been so much music of all different types in the last hundred years. The only thing that is literally classical is classical music from a specific period. Whenever you define somebody as a classical electric guitarist, what does that mean? That doesn’t exist. There wasn’t an electric guitar in the classical period.
That is essentially what I was saying. There hasn’t been cannon for two hundred years, at this point.
But there is cannon of artful electric guitar music that has been around since the electric guitar first was invented.
So, whether you call that classical or you call that jazz or improvisation. Who cares? These are all these abstract labels. I am not afraid of labels. I know things need to get labeled for various reasons, but it is absurd after a while.
Let’s put aside the labels for the moment and just speak in terms of creating an artistic statement and expressing what a composer wants to express. To me, the emotional impact of music is wrapped up in sound, from the tone of the individual instrument, to how the instruments are arranged, and how the sounds interact. And, if you are listening to a recording, how it is produced. All of that affects the emotional impact, and thus whatever artistic statement you are trying to make. That is why I am interested why this music, call it what you will, when it comes to using electric guitar, sometimes seems so random in terms of its approach to sound.
As a composer who writes for this instrument as part of an orchestral style ensemble, I mostly see two extremes. One—the preferred extreme for me—is that I am writing for a particular player and want to use their gear and sound as my departure point. I want to work intimately with them to create something. That is definitely true with the piece Ted Hearns wrote for Dither and choir called, Sound from the Bench.
He had musical ideas and the content was very much his, but he worked very closely with us to create the sound.
Or, you get a composer who might be going for an overt reference. They might want it to sound like funk or want a wah pedal for a referential sound. Then you get something else—which is what you are trying to get at—where it is a case of “Here are some notes, play it on electric guitar.” Maybe there is an indication for distortion, but what does that mean? Distortion could be anywhere from heavy saturation, to a nice little bit of dirt.
Exactly. Fuzz could be a Fuzz Face, or a Big Muff. They sound very different.
To be honest, for the most part, composers still put that trust in the performer. Sometimes they regret it. Sometimes we make horrible decisions with this stuff, but I have very rarely seen a composer write anything more than something like, “distorted,” or, “I want delay on this” In general, these kinds of things are up to you. The good ones will listen to what you do and say, “No that is not what I am going for. I would like a warmer sound,” or “I would like something more extreme.” They will, ideally, communicate with you about it. If they don’t, then they are probably not good composers.
It also gets to another extreme: The idea that the composer has it perfectly in his or her head, puts it on the paper, and therefore the ensemble is going to perfectly recreate it. That is not how good music making works. To really sculpt a piece there has to be a back and forth. Because the guitar is less standardized in this context, it is a great opportunity for composers to do that. Maybe that is one of the reasons that they are excited to write for it.
For electric guitar, there is not the same canon of perfect, tonal production that has evolved for say, a violin or even classical guitar. Once you add the electric element, the possibilities of tonal production become so expanded as to obviously to make the composer’s job more difficult, in a sense. Or, more open, if you look at it that way you were describing. Watching Dither play, you seem to have a really good grasp on the electric guitar’s possibilities of tone, tonal production, and sounds. Whereas, I have seen some electric guitarists in a classical or contemporary music context where it seems they might as well be plunking on an acoustic guitar that happens to be amplified. Or, the electric guitar tone is, by my lights, terrible. Maybe I am so critical because the first piece I ever heard spoiled me. Steve Mackey wrote a piece for Bill Frisell and chamber orchestra that I saw in San Francisco. I thought, “This how electric guitar in this context is supposed to work.” I always felt that when Terje Rypdal composed for himself with an orchestra it melded so beautifully. Then I started seeing other examples where the intention was good, but it seemed they had much to learn about the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar.
I think people are learning to do it better and it will continue to evolve. Steve Mackey knows how to write for the electric guitar because he is a guitarist. He knew it would be much more interesting, to use Bill Frisell than some pick up guy who may also be very talented. He was also writing for the idiosyncratic playing of this one player. Maybe if you put Frisell in a different context, playing a different composers piece written for somebody else, he wouldn’t shine like he would in the piece Steve wrote for him. You are keying in on something, there. He is writing for a player. Ideally, even in a classical ensemble without guitar or any specialized instruments, you are still writing for the individual player. The challenge of the guitar in that context brings it to the forefront.
I have been so fascinated by this whole thing for so long. It is such a pleasure to be able to talk to someone who is in that world and plays as well as you do within it. To hear what you have to say about it is really important. For example, who would you say are some of the composers who have a handle on writing for electric guitar?
All of the composers in Dither’s repertoire. They weren’t necessarily coming from an informative place when they first wrote the pieces. But, as they worked with us, we were able to create something. I would stand by anything on our records and for the most part, we have been pretty lucky. Like I said, we are pretty slow moving with repertoire, so we really have worked and created relationships with composers who get it.
I checked out almost everything that Dither has done that is on YouTube and all the sounds are great. It also led me to some other questions. For example, did Pauline Oliveros indicate EBows and scraping behind the bridge?
She does indicate EBows. Her stuff is largely instruction-based and in that piece there are some rhythms and other stuff she talks about. She does indicate EBow as an option. That piece was written for Sonic Youth, for their Goodbye 20th Century album, where they do a bunch of conceptual pieces. It was specifically supposed to be for a rock band setup but with her style of very loose parameters. It is a lot about listening. In that piece, one of the options is EBow, but there are very few absolute things about tone, or anything else.
One thing I have noticed in a lot of contemporary pieces is an avoidance of things like melody and counterpoint, an emphasis on repetitive single notes, and guitars playing one note with contrasting rhythms. I was wondering if that is the fashion in modern composing?
I think part of it is that. You could certainly find pieces where a composer is writing for a guitar in a more melodic way. For me, that is not as interesting. If either a flute or a guitar could play that, what is that about?
I see what you are saying.
Let’s face it, there is an aesthetic among [modern] composers, and they also like to use guitars. Still, you can find composers with other approaches to the instrument. The occasional wailing melodic line can be beautiful and awesome. Still, what inspires me most is that they are finding ways of exploring a new realm: maybe chordal, maybe using an extended technique, maybe using electronics. So, the chances of it not sounding like a traditional guitar melody are a lot higher. I would say that you are drawing on the aesthetic of a certain school of composers that also happen to use guitar in a lot of the polymetric and rhythmic phasing and overlapping, pulsing stuff. I think that is a feature of a certain niche of the repertoire.
Point taken. Finally, is there anybody on your wish list of people with whom you would like to collaborate? Either as a composer, or as another musician?
There is, but I would be embarrassed to say because you might print it. I will say we are excited to work with Nels. That is fun. We had a really nice pow-wow with him, yesterday.
What is next for you?
Dither is mixing a new record. Hopefully, we will get it out by the end of the year. I also have an acoustic group, The Hands Free, in which I primarily play banjo and resonator. We have all written the music. It reflects influences from contemporary classical music and improv, but because of the instrumentation—guitar, banjo, violin, accordion, and bass—there is also a folk element to it. We have a record coming out this month.
Dither is going to do Zorn pieces at a festival in Lisbon. We are also doing an Avant-garde opera by Object Collection called It’s All True. It is based on the live archives of the band, Fugazi.