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.
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].
If you read my Big Ears Festival Review, you suffered through my rant about the guitar sound in the Bang On A Can ensemble and how the electric guitar deserves better in a “New Music” context. My interest in this issue made talking to James Moore essential.
Moore is a perfect example of what electric guitar in a modern classical context should sound like; that is to say, he is in full command of the instrument’s technical AND sonic potential. His meticulous performance of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads and his work with Dither, the electric guitar quartet he co-founded with Taylor Levine, reveal an extensive education and a real-world understanding of this quirky music maker we all love. The CD/DVD of his reading of Zorn’s epic group of Avant guitar etudes is a must own for any student of extended techniques.
Moore was very accommodating in offering up his answers to questions about the technical aspects of The Book of Heads, as well as willing to get into a discussion about the state of the electric guitar in contemporary music. So much so that it is necessary to divide the interview into two parts. In the first we cover his background and dive deep into the ins and outs of The Book of Heads, while in the second we discuss Dither and why contemporary composers sometimes privilege notes over sound.
What music were you playing when you first started on guitar?
I played a lot of music when I was young. I took basic piano lessons. I played clarinet in the band and had an aptitude for it, but I wasn’t that motivated on those instruments. I could coast by at my lessons, but I wasn’t inspired. Like a lot of teenagers, I got into rock and roll and wanted to play the guitar. I stole my sister’s guitar from under her bed and started learning from a book. I think that first book was “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” stuff, and then I started to get all of the guitar magazines and learn the riffs of my favorite songs. I was mostly self-taught, though I had a couple of teachers here and there during the high school years. I started bands with my friends and was playing. I pretty much never put the guitar down.
What music were you playing in those bands?
Punk, and we also had a funk band. I played bass a lot; I had a band where I did all sorts of slap-bass stuff. I was really into Primus.
When I was around fourteen, I heard Fred Frith on late night call-in radio and got some of his albums. Through that, and being into Mr. Bungle and Mike Patton’s first solo record, I discovered fringe music.
Did you formally study guitar?
I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, where I wanted to major in music. I told them I played guitar and bass, but they wanted me to study the formal instruments in a classical tradition. I chose classical guitar and quickly excelled at it. I took it pretty seriously, and for many years that was my focus. I got a Masters degree in classical guitar. I went to Yale School of Music. There, I met a lot of composers and other musicians who were interested in new music, which proved to be a segue to finding contemporary chamber music.
I encouraged by the Bang On A Can Organization. They have a summer festival, where I was a student for two years and met some of my closest colleagues.
Shortly after that, I moved to New York. I was already in New Haven and had started to gig in New York. By the time I actually I moved to New York, I was thinking I was going to be a contemporary classical musician, improvising, and teaching music of all types.
When you moved to New York, were you doing solo classical gigs or were you playing other kinds of music?
I was playing a lot of solo stuff and chamber music. I started bands with some friends doing crossover things. It was a bit of everything. I never wanted to follow any one path. For better or worse, sometimes you spread yourself thin. If I had just played classical guitar, maybe I would have honed that, instead of it being one of many things I do. I feel that way about a lot of other styles and instruments I play: it would be great if I did only this for ten years. It’s not that I get bored with any one thing, but other exciting things distract me. I want to do it all.
New York tends to foster that attitude. I have noticed a lot of trained musicians are getting into improv and more modern styles. Do you think that is a generational thing?
I cannot really compare it to what it was like before. I would say there is more of a precedent. We were looking at guys like Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser as a departure point. With that precedent, a lot of younger players think they can do this too. They see the potential and are expanding on it, probably like the previous generation was expanding on the guitarists and other musicians before them. There has likely always been the same amount of experimentation, but it is taking on new forms. Many people in the classical world are starting to explore it after they get out of school because they are jaded by the classical music culture, or are looking for something new. There is a wealth of knowledge disseminated about it through the Internet. It is easy to see what all these people are doing and you respond to them.
Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell took the guitar in a different direction and so many have built on their innovations. There has been so much work done around what has become the cannon of rock guitar and blues guitar, and classical guitar for that matter? Is the improv world a way for younger players to break away from that all?
I would say so. But, maybe this is also because improvising and contemporary classical styles are also becoming more institutionalized, like jazz. I don’t use the term institutionalized in a negative way. I mean, becoming more accessible and taught, formalized in some way.
Who were the guitar players that inspired you when you were growing up and to this day?
Fred Frith was one, Mark Ribot and Bill Frisell, as well. In the classical world, I had a couple of teachers who really inspired me. Mesut Özgen started me from square one. He taught me so much. Ben Verdery at Yale was an inspiration, a very supportive figure. I think I have always collected people and artists around me whom I am excited about. If you look at the list of composers I work with, and music I have played, these are pretty much, the people I admire.
I want to get into your basic gear set up. What are your go-to instruments for the various styles?
I love acoustic instruments. There was an era, in the first decade of the 2000s, when they revamped the National resonator guitars and made a bunch of beautiful instruments. I have one called an Estralita, from around 2003. I wanted a way to apply my classical style and finger technique to one of those instruments because it is loud. One of the big problems with classical guitars is that they are too quiet, if you try to play with other instruments that is a hindrance. The National worked better in some of the genres I was interested in, yet I could still get really tender and beautiful finger-style sounds out of it. I love playing acoustic whenever possible, but I usually mic it. It has a weird pickup that doesn’t work for everything. I have yet to find any acoustic pickup that satisfies me. It becomes a different instrument, which is okay, but not the same.
I recently got a weird custom Martin triple O. It is a little cleaner and more refined than the resonator, but is good for finger style and strumming.
I have two electric guitars I love. On the Book of Heads record, I was playing a Gibson 330, which I don’t gig with much because it is an older, valuable, and fragile instrument. It is harder to throw in a case and bring on a plane, where I have to worry about it. So, one of my go-to electrics is an American Standard Telecaster. I found it in a store and that particular instrument spoke to me. I use it primarily with Dither because a solid body is better for some of the processed stuff we do. I can stick it in a case; bring it on a plane, and am not as worried. If it got ruined or lost, I could find another American Standard Telecaster in almost any town. I also have a Chuck Lee banjo I love.
Which pedals are you usually using with Dither? Does that change, depending on the composer?
Yes, and no. I have some go-tos. Taylor Levine, my co-founder of Dither, builds his own pedals and is a total geek about it in a beautiful way. I am more a creature of habit. I have had a ProCo Rat pedal for twelve years. I know the sounds I can get out of it. I recently, got an EarthQuaker Westwood overdrive. I have been using that for the last six months and I love it.
My current setup is the Westwood and the Rat pedal, and then a volume pedal. I have an Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy that I love. Throw an Electro-Harmonix POG and Z.Vex Fuzz Factory in there and I pretty much have everything I need. Those tend to be the ones I bring along as a default, but I have a mini-arsenal of other things I collected over the years. I bring the T.C. Electronic Hall of Fame reverb so, if the reverb on the amp is busted, I can get a good sound and also get extreme sounds.
I imagine you are using back line amps on tour. What do you use around town?
Again, I am a creature of habit. I like simple Fender tube amps. I have a DeVille, and a little Princeton that I use as something I can carry or bring on a cart. I also use back line when I can for New York shows. I will request a Fender tube Amp and see what they have, and hope that it doesn’t suck. It is always a risk.
I have heard of people asking for two amps, as if they are playing in stereo, so they can pick the one that sounds better.
I’m going to use that trick. I like that.
The Book of Heads.
Let’s get into the Book of Heads. I watched the DVD and was astounded. First of all, it is filmed beautifully (by Stephen Taylor). You play the stuff perfectly and are largely not reading the music, such as it is.
Most of those pieces are so short and what is involved with trying to accomplish them becomes such choreography that you internalize it pretty quickly. There are a couple of charts I need to read. I even write in big letters: READ. Otherwise, I might get caught up with, “Where is the balloon.” I need to be able make sure I am in the right spot.
The scores are really small and the writing is almost indiscernible. John had to explain an awful lot to me. We pow-wowed quite a bit: Everything from face-to-face, to Skype sessions, to simple questions over email. I was approaching it very, rigorously. I wanted to make sure I was getting every detail, and being true to what was there.
The toggling between being ultra-specific about something, and then having an improvisatory and open aspect to it was really intriguing to me. I wanted that specificity to be there, and John agreed. We really dug in. Even now, there are a few little things, where I think, “If I had done a triplet, I would have been truer to the score.”
Even though some of it is very free, I got very specific and practiced a lot. As is true in traditional notation, the harder something is the more likely I am to memorize it. You have to practice it a lot, so you internalize it, and the fingering has become so specific that muscle memory becomes a part of it. I don’t have the easiest etudes of the Book of Heads memorized. There is one that is big chunks of sound done by two different things. It is relatively straightforward to read and understand. As a result, I do not have it memorized. The super complex ones, I have basically had to learn a dance for.
That makes perfect sense. What made you want to attempt to do this at all?
I love the music. Also, when I first moved to New York, I was still in a performer versus composer mentality. I needed a program. I already knew John’s stuff and was a fan, but I didn’t know the Book of Heads very well until a friend showed it to me. I decided this was exactly what I needed to do, because it brings in all of my interests and I could present it as a classical program. The idea of doing it as a whole show was natural for somebody coming out of a classical guitar background, so I dug in earnestly and started figuring it out. When I thought the pieces were presentable and had done them on a couple of gigs, I approached John about it and he was excited. He thought we had to do the whole thing.
There was this place called The Incubator Arts Project in the Saint Mark’s church with a black box theater in the back. It was run by Richard Foreman. My friend Travis Just was a music curator there and knew I was playing five or six of the etudes in mixed concerts. He said, “Let’s do it.” He set up the gig; I worked my butt off and did it. It has been a fruitful endeavor.
Had you heard it performed by anyone else before you attempted it?
I had heard the Ribot recordings and there are a lot of YouTube guys and girls doing it. I obsessed over the Ribot version, analyzing it and using it as a clue to what some of this stuff meant.
Did you approach it differently than he did?
Yeah, one of the beauties of the piece, and most of Zorn’s music, is that the individual player can own it. When somebody plays it, they are not supposed to sound like Ribot or me. They are supposed to sound like themselves; the details of their timbre and how they interpret different instructions are all very personal. Though there is this aspect of specificity, there is so much room for personality in there. I definitely wasn’t trying to sound like Ribot. I love his playing, so it inspired me. It clued me in to specific ideas, but I would intentionally try not to do exactly what he did.
I am fascinated by the whole, written versus improvised stuff and how specific it was. For example, on Etude’s #1 and #4, are the specific strings to be plucked behind the bridge and the nut of the three guitars notated in any way?
It is in between. On Etude #1’s score, there are three lines for the three guitars and a rhythm with eighth notes and rests. If the notes are above the line you play behind the nut; if below the line you play behind the bridge. The notes connect with stems toward the three guitars. It is just like reading regular music. It is rhythmically notated. It wasn’t telling you exactly which string behind the bridge, but Etude #4, on the other hand, is entirely notated for the exact string.
I assume the pitch will vary, depending on the guitar, as not all guitars have the same pitch behind the nut or behind the bridge.
Yeah, and in some cases, the range of low to high would be different on two different guitars. The concept was not necessarily what pitches would come, but what patterns would result. I think John is really interested in challenging the player. How can you be virtuosic? Can you play behind the nut, as well as you can play a Bach fugue? If you take it seriously you will get a good result because you have to ask, how am I going to articulate? How am I going to make this musical? How am I going to achieve this convincingly? That brings out an individual player’s personality.
Are you worried about your nails, especially behind the nut, where it is really hard to get that to articulate?
The answer is yes. I have broken so many nails playing. I have worried about it, but at the end of the day, you got to do what you got to do.
How do you get the volume of the plucking behind the nut equal to the one behind the bridge, which tends to be much louder?
That is true. On Etude #4, you probably hear behind the bridge more, because you are hearing it primarily through the guitar pickup. The recording engineer took things very seriously. He would make sure there was a microphone close to the bridge, to make sure he could capture it. When we mixed we didn’t do anything extreme where he was bringing out something that you wouldn’t have heard live; he just made sure he captured it.
The Etude know as Cartoon Music does sound like cartoon music. What exactly was notated?
That is instructional about a few specific things, like “bubble pops and fizzes over.” The slide is supposed to evoke slipping on a banana peel. I think he called it a “sploit,” or something like that. It is very visual; written in little squiggles. It is mostly a bunch of instructions in a row and the goal is to go as quickly as possible between them. It is free and so what one person thinks falling off a cliff sounds like is different than another person’s concept. There is an implication that it might be a falling gesture, but there are no specific pitches or tempi. It is very open to interpretation.
When you do something like Etude #3, is the size of the balloon indicated?
No, though he sometimes specifies big or small balloons. For the most part, I use little water balloons, because I can hold them. I need something I can grab quickly. In some cases, I am holding a pick or doing something else, while holding the balloon at the ready. I made sure I blew up the one I pop very tight, to make a louder sound.
When you are making the rubbing sounds, there is variation according to how full it is. I am not tuning them, or anything like that. The sound of the balloon has as much to do with the speed you rub it, the angle, and what string you rub it against, as the balloon itself.
On Etude #5, are the delay time and modulation type notated?
No, that is all me. John wrote the first 20 to 30 seconds. The following instruction is to play a camp song that deteriorates; “melts away,” is the term he uses. I chose “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It is fun to compare what Ribot did. He chose “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and is de-tuning it as he goes; it is melting away. I didn’t want to do exactly that, because that was his choice. I was using the electric set up and could do stuff with delay and deterioration. The improvisation that comes out of that is referencing the motives from the piece in different ways. The actual content was improvised.
In Etude #6 you used rice grains in a bowl. Is the number of rice grains specified?
Yes, 30 rice grains go in the balloon and then you pop the balloon over the guitar.
In the talking doll pieces, is there a specific doll referenced?
No, Zorn says, talking toy. It could be anything. If you listen to other recordings, you might hear something different talking. I was going for a vintage vibe, so I found that doll on eBay. It seemed perfect. I opened it up and inside was a little wax record and a mini record player. There is a string that winds it up and the record plays. A tiny needle goes onto a random track with one of the things she says. There is a small, crude speaker with a spring and a comb attached to it. It is not electronic. I read that parents were impressed that if kids dropped it in the bathtub, it would dry out and still talk. Unfortunately, I had to do surgery on her once because the string got broken. I couldn’t fix it, so I bought a second one. John liked the classic nature of it and we both liked the visual, so she is also on the album cover and acted as a mascot.
In the course of performing Book of Heads you are often beating on the guitars. Given what you were saying earlier, about not wanting to take your 330 out for gigs because you are worried about it, I was wondering if you worried about the wear on the guitars when you are doing this performance?
I am pretty careful about not doing things that would hurt the instrument. I try not to hold back; if something is going to make me not play well because I am afraid of hurting the guitar, I am going to find a better solution. I don’t think of any of it as violent toward the instrument. That said, when I am making decisions as to what instrument to use and how I want to execute something, of course, the livelihood of the instrument is a consideration.
One of the main acoustics that I use on the recording is my grandmother’s old Gibson acoustic. It is not the nicest guitar in the world, but it has got a lot of mojo and soul to it. It doesn’t have beautiful sounds and has deep cracks in the back that have been there forever. I used that guitar for some of the most aggressive, funky playing. I love that instrument and do not want it to break, so I was really taking care of it.
Etude #11 is a purely classical piece. Does Zorn play classical guitar, or have enough knowledge of the guitar to know what was possible.
He does play guitar. I don’t think he plays a lot anymore. I know when he was younger he played more.
It says in the booklet that he took some lessons.
I have never heard him play, but I am sure he has. He understands the instrument.
That Etude and a couple of others present a unique challenge. In that one, he thought up fingerings with clusters of open strings and tells you to toggle quickly between them. It is hard to do that smoothly. My goal was to do it, not just fast, but fluidly and make it beautiful. You don’t have to make it beautiful, but it was a big challenge to make that work.
So was it possible? Did you have to change the fingerings?
For the most part, the writing John does is idiomatic. Yet, he confronts something that says this is possible and asks if you can you do it. It is not that it will be easy.
I have seen a lot of players stick drumsticks and rods under strings, but in Etude #13, you are zipping them under there. I assume it took some practice to get to where it was that fluid.
I practiced that. Those little tiny chopsticks are amazing. They really slip in there. I have to say, that one probably isn’t that good for my guitar. Whatever, it’s for the art.
The first section of that, and the recap are notated. The first time it enters, where I slide it up a few frets and create this artificial bridge, was written, but the ensuing solo with the chopsticks was improvised. I developed my own technique, found the chopstick I really like, and found that two of them could do some really interesting things.
For the “Beginner tone” Etude you are playing the Beatles’ “Blackbird” badly; missing a lot of notes. Was the Beatles tune specified, or was it “play any song as if you are a beginner.”
Adding Blackbird, and a couple of other references in there are all me. Now I realize that when somebody listens to it “Blackbird” is what he or she is going to remember, but that is alright. John likes it, too.
I was riffing off of the idea of beginner tone. At the time, I was giving a lot of guitar lessons, so my first thought was about how badly I have heard that piece played. The notated part is much more abstract, chromatic, weird stuff. The very first 15 to 20 seconds of it is all very specifically written out to be played like a beginner. Of all the Etude’s, this is the one that John gave me the hardest time about. He said I wasn’t playing it badly enough. He said, “That doesn’t sound like a beginner. That sounds like somebody who knows how to play guitar, playing muted. You need to miss notes.” I thought about how people hold a guitar incorrectly. When somebody is first playing, they scrunch their fingers up a little too much, put their thumb way back, and don’t give themselves any room to play.
Did he notate which specific notes were supposed to sound clear and which were supposed to be flubbed?
You were supposed to play them all badly, except for three notes that he circled, which you were supposed to play very beautifully.
What was that cranking thing on Etude #22 that you attached to the end of the guitar?
It is a percussionist ratchet. That tune specifies using two different sounds. I chose feedback and the ratchet. John does specify a ratchet for Etude #10; so, I already had it there and wanted to use it for something else. I wanted to get a very machine like sound and I knew I could rig that up in an interesting way.
In Etude #25, how is the cymbal attached to the sound hole?
That cymbal has a little loop to go around your finger. I stuck the loop into the hole and it held itself there, anchored into the F-hole.
It didn’t come out as you were playing it?
No, it has never come out. It is very solid. The ratchet, however, fell off all the time.
When he wrote this, was Zorn aware of the post-looping processing available on the Line 6 M9 that you use on Etude #23?
That is very much me. The electronic loop is not an instruction. It was my way of realizing it. In that piece, he writes this little cell and calls for you to repeat and improvise on it. That was my way of approaching it. If you compare it to Ribot’s recording, he is taking that in a more in a literal performative direction. He repeats it and starts varying it. I wanted to do something very electronic. I saw an opportunity to do something interesting with the loops.
On Etude #30, you are bowing two separate guitars, a six and a 12 string. Was that specified, also?
That is a written out piece, similar to the one I described with the three guitars. He has two staffs and instructions to “bow here, play a harmonic here, hit a knock here.” The first 30 seconds or so of it is written out and then I improvise on it.
Which 12-string is that?
It is a totally crappy, falling apart 12-string. I don’t know what brand it is. I got it at a yard sale for 50 bucks. The bridge is caving in and it is a semi-functional guitar. It is not a good instrument by any means.
In Etude #21, where you are changing the string as part of the piece and breaking the balloon, it occurred to me that watching this on video or as a live performance is a very different experience than listening to it. What are your feelings about that?
People have found it very engaging as a live performance, and I hope as the movie, which we worked really hard on. Steve really dug in and I was there the whole time, helping him edit. We wanted to bring people into this. I know that the live performance works. The recording is a little more challenging. You hear something and go, what is that? There could be frustration if you don’t see what is happening, but I can enjoy listening to Ribot’s record.
In some cases, I used different takes for the CD and the DVD. I re-recorded the first Etude because during the filmed session there was a lot of background noise and it wasn’t very clear. It is okay for the video, because you can see what I am doing and I don’t think it is too distracting, but on the pure audio version it was noisy. That piece gets so quiet it needed a better aural space for it.
That might be the most extreme one, but there are a couple of other cases where there were dramatically different takes that I chose for the audio versus the video.
How did you make that decision, other than the noise in the first one?
There were also questions of which take is more engaging? Also, there was one take I wanted for the DVD, but the video didn’t look good. So, we chose the take that looked good. In some cases, an etude works well when you can see me do it. When you listen, another take communicates better. It is a matter of what works as a pure listening experience and what works as an audiovisual experience; they were different sometimes.
In general, do you think the pure recording of it is a test of the musicality of each piece? To what extent the visual thing is an integral part of the artistic experience?
I think you could write a whole essay on that. You could look at it from both angles. This is definitely music meant to be aurally enjoyed and it does not have to be seen. Still, the visual is a very strong element that is incredibly valid and so I don’t have an opinion about one being superior to the other. I think they are both different, yet absolutely legitimate.
Are you planning on doing another full performance of the Book of Heads?
There is nothing on the books, but yes. During the period in which the album came out, I was doing it a lot. I did it maybe three times right before I recorded it. I did the Zorn at 60 shows. We played them in Belgium and in England at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Often, if I am doing a solo show, I will throw in four or five Etudes. Whatever feels right. It is definitely staying in my repertoire. It is such an endeavor, with all the gear and stuff that I think I am going to chose my battles as to when the time is right to do the whole thing. But, I am sure it will happen again.