In February of 2019, I was flown up to Montreal to cover composer/guitarist Tim Brady’s evening of 150 guitars for Guitar Player. You can read my coverage and interview about that here and see a sample below. Inspired by my conversation with Dither’s James Moore, after we finished Tim’s GP interview, I restarted the recorder for a wide ranging dialogue about the state of the electric guitar in today’s classical world. We covered a lot of ground so I broke it up into two posts. You can start with Part I here, but it is not necessary.
TB: I’ve been really thinking, and reading, about the history of the electric guitar. You can play it with your fingers, but the core of the electric guitar is generally playing with a pick, so it’s a plectrum instrument. What we call European classical music has no plectrum instruments. It appears in Middle Eastern, Indian, or Asian music. That makes the electric guitar part of a way older tradition than the European orchestral tradition, and it’s continuous. They’ve been playing sitar, sarod, and the Japanese biwa, which has this huge triangle pick, for thousands of years. When people say the electric guitar was invented in 1932 and has no tradition, it’s like, “Uh-uh folks, our tradition goes back before your tradition.” That gives me a sense I’m not the new kid on the block doing this thing.
The whole question of decolonization, among the native people here in Canada, gets lots of press. One of the big talking points is that there are a million Aboriginal Canadians who have been treated very poorly for 450 years. One of the words that keeps coming up is decolonization, which doesn’t mean they want 37 million White and Black Canadians to go back somewhere. Everybody realizes that’s not really the solution. It’s not going to happen. It’s not saying that playing with an orchestra is bad. It’s not saying there’s anything morally reprehensible about it. It’s just saying that an orchestra is part of a culture from another place. We’ve imported it, we’ve accepted it, we embraced it, but we should accept it’s from another place.
And so, one of the things about the electric guitar, which is very interesting, is that from a decolonization perspective, the electric guitar appears to be this North American instrument because it was invented in the United States and clearly had a huge historical impact in the United States. It was very important in black culture, which is in many ways a driving force behind the electric guitar.
I feel we’re part of this very large world tradition of plucked string instruments, which means we’re part of the solution to decolonization. When you’re playing the electric guitar, you’re tapping into the sarod, you’re tapping into the oud, you’re tapping into the biwa, and even if you’re playing “European classical music,” there’s some of that inherent in plucked string instruments. It’s not the better nor worse, but it is a very different experience from the European one, which has no plucked string instruments. The last one they had was the harpsichord and it died because it wasn’t loud enough. That’s getting into the political thing, but invariably music and politics do link up.
I love writing for orchestra. It’s great. But the European orchestra was the sonic equivalent of large-scale colonization and capitalism. The fact that the two grew up at the same time was not an accident. The idea of creating this large model musical object, which imposes its sonic will is exactly what colonialism and hard capitalism is all about. So, the two are linked.
Obviously, electric guitar was huge and made tons of money for people from the 1950s until nowadays, but structurally the electric guitar was at the tail end of the massive expansion period of capitalism. Hard capitalism ended in 1945, the Second World War. Then we got into the second phase of capitalism. One could even argue that hard capitalism ended with the First World War.
When you go into a university and start talking about the history of the electric guitar, its relationship to the biwa, the sarod, and the fact that the primary people who drove the electric guitar were black as well as white musicians, you’ve got to acknowledge Chuck Berry, Bill Broonzy, Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Christian. I’m writing an opera where Charlie Christian is the main character. It’s for four electric guitars. That in itself speaks to the decolonization effect of the electric guitar. What it brings up, if we think about it in larger political philosophical terms, is the electric guitar could be this fantastic bridge because it’s a North American instrument. It comes from white capitalist culture, and yet has this whole other history. The two are almost perfectly blended in the culture and how the instrument works.
To me, it shows that we can find solutions. It’s very utopian, very philosophical, but to me it’s quite real. The guitar is still the most common amateur musical instrument. If people say, “I want to learn an instrument,” most people go buy a guitar. And so, there’s going to be more and more people showing up wanting to play guitar in music schools. The electric guitar in education is already a big-ish, but it’s going to become a much bigger thing over the next 30 years.
GM: As a political-cultural thing, I also think of the guitar as being in tied to the whole baby boomer thing. It is a community instrument in terms of the “Kumbaya” aspect. People love when somebody pulls out a guitar and strums. I’m getting the perspective worldwide. Through GM, I’m hearing from guitarists everywhere; Spain, Italy is a hotbed of modern guitar players; there are a bunch in New York.
TB: The concerto that Kenneth did for D. J. Sparr just won the Grammy. D. J. Sparr is in Lubbock, Texas. Fuchs does a lot of new music for electric guitar. The music itself is very pretty; you’ve got orchestrations that sound almost like Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. D. J. plays this blue PRS with a whammy bar on top of it. So, it’s in an even weirder cultural class than myself, where you get this chamber ensemble playing a Steve Reich, Elliott Sharp, new music thing.
GM: That was another thing I discussed with James Moore. When I hear modern guitar classical music, much of it seems to come out of minimalist school as opposed to any romantic tradition.
TB: That has to do with the fact that we’re plucked string instruments. We are basically a percussion instrument. The electric guitar works way better when you’re doing this than when you’re doing anything else.
GM: I don’t know that I buy into that. I think of Jeff Beck playing “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” and there is nothing more romantic.
TB: Exactly, as a soloist. But as an ensemble? Try and imagine five or six Jeff’s playing As We Ended as Lovers.
GM: I’d love to imagine that, I’d love to hear that.
TB: It’s trickier structurally.
GM: Why is that?
TB: I have seen it done occasionally. It comes to training. Guitar players have very limited training and experience to playing in a romantic, a string quartet where you’re doing Brahms string quartets and things like that. There’s this sense of blend and the pulse moves around all the time. Classical music has this very different relationship with pulse than minimalist music or jazz or African, pulse-based music. In classical music, the harmony and the pulse are so closely related. To play like that, you’d have to work at this European sense of pulse.
The other thing has to do with attack characteristics. This is why you’ll never hear a vibraphone quartet playing Brahms.
Stravinsky sounds pretty pulse oriented, I’ll give you that. We have a new Instruments of Happiness CD coming out next month and there’s one piece where we use EBows at the beginning of the piece, and it sounds just like a classical string quartet. It is possible.
GM: I hear it in my head. I may have to write it.
TB: You’ve got a vision. It is possible, and people do use it. We occasionally do it. There are certain sections where we all start using distortion and volume pedals and you’re starting to get the warm, romantic thing. People tend to explore the most obvious resources right off the bat. So, you get four guitar players together and we’re going to start playing rhythmically. But you’re talking about trying to find a more fluid sense of time and a more lyrical linear expression, I would agree with you that there is potential.
GM: I’m a big John Abercrombie fan and his sense of time is very fluid.
TB: Yes. it’s not impossible. It’s not where we’re going for the moment, but I agree.
GM: James Moore seemed to think that some of it just the trend of classical music now is towards minimalism.
TB: Yes, I wouldn’t go that far because there’s so much going on in contemporary classical music. I don’t try to be encyclopedic of my knowledge, but to make a very crass over simplification, I’d say there are four trends. The minimalist pulse stuff, and then romanticism, which doesn’t have much currency in hardcore new music circles. But in terms of what an orchestra plays, especially here in North America, it’s neo-romanticists like Jennifer Higdon and Kenneth Fuchs that get all sorts of performances. Hardcore European modernism, like Stockhausen, is still a big thing in Europe. No pulse anywhere, no tone
GM: No melody.
TB: That’s still a big thing in certain circles. Less so here in North America, but in Europe, if you don’t play that, you don’t get the gigs. I’ve lost gigs because of that, quite frankly. And then there’s the whole new thing, a combination of new technology and performance practices where people use live sensors, play computers, or performance practices stuff where it becomes almost performance art.
There are those four. The guitar can fit in all of those. There’s an American guy in Berlin, named Seth Josel who has made a career for 20 years playing electric guitar parts on hardcore European modernism compositions. He makes a living doing that. He put out a book a few years ago describing his take. He’s probably the most active guy in terms of documenting European modernism, chamber music and orchestral music. He’s done buckets of it.
The one place guitar probably has its least voice is neo-romanticism. But I would agree with you, any instrument that has a full 12 notes can probably play just about any form of expression.
GM: Well, the Mackey piece that I heard for Frisell in San Francisco, that was definitely in romantic.
TB: Yes, I think I’ve heard that piece.
GM: Where would Gavin Bryars fall?
TB: Gavin Bryars straddles the line between minimalism and neo-romanticism. He’s a bit of both. He’s a bit cooler than neo-romanticism as it’s not big beautiful melodies, rather a more intimate scale with pulse and simple core progressions coming from minimalism.
GM: And John Adams?
TB: People tend to qualify him as a minimalist, but he’s also very important in the neo-romanticism. The thing that Adams does versus say Glass and Reich, is that with Glass and Reich there’s a very rigid link between the metric of a piece and the harmonic rhythm. In other words, once Steve Reich gets into a beat pattern, his harmonies always change with that beat pattern; same with Philip Glass.
What neo-romanticism did in the 19th century, and what Adams does, is there will be a pulse going, but the harmony is not linked to his pulse. Adams will have one harmony for four bars then another harmony for two and a half bars, then another harmony for half a bar, etc.
Reich and Glass will almost never do that. If they have a harmonic shift, the shift is structural. The harmonic shift will come back in a structural pattern. In minimalism the link between harmony and melody is structural, not just a superficial or it’s not just coloristic. Whereas Adams will shift harmonies sometimes very quickly, almost the way Brahms would, but he’ll be doing it with a pulse space thing, which doesn’t sound like Brahms at all. The guitar can do all that.
GM: Where would you place the piece from last night?
TB: I have no idea
GM: It has elements of the minimalism don’t you think?
TB: Oh, for sure. The second movement is minimal.
GM: I wouldn’t call any of it neo-romantic.
GM: But it’s not afraid of the occasional melody .
TB: This is why in that concert last night ended with “Revolution 9” and “Good Night.” Those two pieces most clearly define what I love about music, and what has often confused critics about my music. To me, “Revolution 9” followed by “Good Night are the same piece, not two pieces. As a teenager, I listened to “Revolution 9” followed by “Good Night” and I kept thinking, “Everybody’s saying these pieces are incoherent but they make sense to me.”
I was about 19 or 20 when I discovered Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony,” historically considered almost unperformable. The second movement is incredibly complex. The original performance required two conductors. There are all these superimpositions of marching bands—it is nuts. It’s 12 minutes long, followed by the second movement, which is eight-minutes of a gorgeous tonal fugue.
I realize that when I’m composing a piece of music—and this is a technical and aesthetic distinction— I’m not interested in collage. In other words, using one style and another style. I work with Rene Lussier. He’s a very well-known composer here in Montreal. He’s written a cool piece for our tour, but we have to play country licks at one point, then we play new chamber music at one point.
GM: It’s like John Zorn’s Naked City.
TB: Yes, Rene does a bit of that. But I don’t do that at all. So, I’m not interested in coding styles. I refuse to limit the nature of my ability to express music through whatever means I choose. And if I want to write a melody, I can write a melody. If I want to write 150 people tapping on the guitar neck incoherently, it is my right.
I believe that if it’s done with the proper sense of coherence, logic, drama, pacing, and understanding how humans perceive things, people can understand there is a continuity between people making crazy noises on the guitar and a pretty melody. That they’re not divorced, that they are just two ends of a spectrum. There’s a whole spectrum you’re trying to understand.
It comes down to this utopian philosophical thing of mine where ultimately one has to understand human experience as this complete continuity. Anytime you say the human experience should be this in this box, you generally end up with people who are not very happy, you know? There is a link between how I approach composing music , the aesthetic decisions and this philosophical base.
GM: I’ve always thought anybody can be “happy” within a closed system because it tells them exactly what to do. As you open the system, it becomes more difficult but much more rewarding. You have to decide every day what to do, what’s right and what’s wrong, and what works and what doesn’t. But that’s one side of it. The other side of it is as a bassist I used to play with said, “It’s all about the squeezing and the letting go,” because it’s all about tension and release. Most music narrows that tension and release to a small bandwidth. Whereas you’re talking about a much wider bandwidth of the squeezing and the letting go.
TB: Absolutely. It’s still the same process. It’s just as my width is wider.
GM: That’s what I was saying, you’re expanding it into a more open system. Speaking of politics, the reason people are comfortable with things like fascism, Scientology, and Orthodox religion—not that I am equating the three—is because they prescribe exactly what they need to do and they don’t have to think about it. For a lot of people thinking…
TB: …is dangerous and uncomfortable. I know the historical and philosophical basis of it, but if you look at the sweep of history, oftentimes everybody appears happy in those closed systems, but if it’s too closed it can’t work.
GM: Because too much stuff comes in from the outside.
TB: You can’t live in a completely open system. I like having a house with walls. I like having running water. I like having heat. I like getting paid. I’m not some utopian anarcho-socialist or anything. In the practical details, I like things that work. That’s why we had backup click tracks. [see the GP article]
GM: The joy is in seeing how far you can push it before it falls apart.
TB: I completely agree with you. When I talk to most composers of my age—I’m 62—almost all of them started as electric guitar players. And then, 35 or 40 years ago, they said, “I want to be a classical composer,” and they all took up classical guitar to get into music school. I said, “I’ve spent eight years playing electric guitar. I don’t want to play classical guitar concerts.” I somehow finagled my way into music school playing electric guitar. It was just at the beginning of jazz education, so I went in through that door.
When the others started playing classical guitar and considered themselves classical musicians, they then said, “Okay, electric guitar was the music of my youth, I now reject that music.” They still like it, but it’s no longer their music. Whereas, I never truly rejected any music.
I listened to The Beatles, became an Allman Brothers fanatic, and became Mahavishnu fanatic. And then I started liking Stravinsky, and Mingus, and Miles Davis. I didn’t move through music from one category to the other. I was just constantly expanding. Why this piece works comes down to an ephemeral concept and is virtually impossible to quantify, it has to do with artistic honesty. I have lived and experienced music as the complete expansion of resources. So, when I use a resource, I’m not going, “Oh, I’m going to use a weird resource.” It’s what I’ve lived and experienced for the past 50 years playing guitar.
GM: Well, I think you’re on the older cusp of a generation that all grew up like you. There’s that whole generation of jazz players starting with John Abercrombie who grew up not rejecting the music in their youth: Abercrombie, Scofield, Stern, Frisell, from what I consider the golden age of jazz guitar.
TB: Yes, certainly.
GM: They all grew up with rock and roll and refused to reject it and they became jazz players. Was that was as true in the classical world at that time?
TB: No, it was not at the time.
GM: I think that is now becoming more true.
TB: Here in Montreal there are many other composers my age. But I have so much more in common with composers who are 40 than most composers who are 60. I view myself as the oldest of the young generation, not the youngest of the old generation. Although, there are people who are my exact age who are the youngest of the older generation. When I was in music school 40 years ago, there was a serious orthodoxy.
GM: But now you’ve got all these music school students coming out and somehow infiltrating even rock bands. Is it The National I’m thinking of?
TB: Yes. The guys in The National have degrees from Yale.
GM: There’s just no barrier.
TB: I forget at what point I gave up trying to explain my music. Someone like you has a very broad, detailed understanding of it. A lot of music writers, especially classical music journalists, have such huge gaps in their knowledge of music as a large-scale social phenomena. I have to simplify or just apologize for the way my music sounds Fortunately, that type of music critic is getting rarer, but there are still some people that go, “Electric guitar with classical music, what’s rock and roll got to do with Beethoven?” I love your interest in the guitar in its broadest aspects.
It’s not difficult, but it’s complicated to articulate all these issues. But I think it’s important both for the guitar but also for music in general. I always say, you can write any note you want, but you have to believe it. The notes you write are your responsibility. Don’t tell me it’s because of this guy, or this system, or I want to sound like that. That’s not acceptable. Any note is acceptable, a bad performance is accessible, but take responsibility for it. As an artist, that’s rule number one, it’s your music. If you don’t believe it, understand it, care about it, and can present it in a coherent manner, why are we wasting our time listening to it? See, it’s really not about technique at all. The students find it fun— “I can write whatever I want? Yay.”