Lighting the fuse

     As much as I enjoy the exceedingly complex music of Schoenberg,
Stravinsky, Carter, et al, as an electric guitarist, my enjoyment is
strictly limited to listening and studying scores. I’ve rarely had the
pleasure/terror of performing it, of experiencing it from inside. Of
cursing it, struggling with, arguing over it, aching from the practicing
of it, and all of the soul-shaking work, physically and mentally, that
comes from performing such as piece. That would equally apply to the
Brahms Piano Concertos, any of the major Wagner roles, or the Goldberg
Variations. Jazz is as demanding as one can conceive it to be, but not in
this way.

     What I have had is the privilege of playing the music of some of the most
prominent contemporary composers with the Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic
Ensemble. The electric guitar parts for Steven Mackey’s opera Ravenshead,
over an hour of music for voice and six instruments, was my introduction
to playing with the ensemble. We toured it around the east coast,
California, and Dallas. The band I stepped into, in effect subbing for
the leader, guitarist Dresher, were all at such an astounding level of
musicianship, I felt humbled and inspired. This incarnation of the
ensemble was Amy Knowles, electronic marimba; Marja Mutru, keyboard; Gene
Reffkin, electronic drums; Craig Fry, violin, and Paul Hanson, the
one-of-a-kind bassoon virtuoso, whom I had played with before. I got
schooled right quick. Particularly Marja, whom I was positioned
next to, helped me out a lot, demonstrating certain passages, or
suggesting a way of counting a passage, or announcing measure numbers
when I got lost. Eventually I found my footing. I had to really
understand the fundamental truth of always knowing exactly where you are,
of counting, especially when you’re not playing. From jazz practice I had
been used to seeing a six measure rest and being able to “feel it”
without actually internally saying “1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3…” Playing
Ravenshead, with its frequently changing meters, you can never assume
“you’ll hear where you come in”, even after you’ve played the piece many
times. You walk a balance beam, and you can space out or look down, or
you’ll crash.

     The most difficult pieces I have played with the Ensemble are the two that
are on our concerts this weekend in San Francisco, Artificial
by Sebastian Currier and Fusebox by Jim Mobberly. The former is a
world premiere, the latter a piece we’ve performed twice before. Both
require a level of velocity on the instrument beyond what I’ve been
heretofore been capable of, thirty-five years into playing the guitar. As
I write this, less than a week before the performance, I’m almost, but
not quite, there. I’ve been working my butt off the past couple months,
on these pieces, and as recently as three weeks ago, I was not at all
sure I’d be able to get anywhere close to the tempos asked for. Now at
least, I can see them from here.

     My hands feel different. The left hand mostly just feels tired, but there
is a nimbleness in the tips of the fingers that feels new. The right
hand, the picking hand, is reveling its newly emerging speedyness, like a
man in midlife getting a sports car for the first time.

     The best part of the process is that I enjoy these pieces very much. They are fresh, engaging, and interestingly complex, not needlessly complex. Playing Fusebox is like surfing – when you are really riding the wave of those meter changes, it’s absolutely exhilarating, invigorating. When you crash, well, you just want to get back up there and try again, as soon as possible.

     If you are in the Bay Area, the concerts are at the ODC Theatre. there’s a free dress rehearsal this Thursday, and the concerts are Friday and Saturday. There’s much more on the program than the two pieces I’m playing in: the aformentioned Paul Hanson’s bass/bassoon duo, and world premiere songs by Conrad Cummings and Lisa Bielawa, performed by the ensemble with guest Amy X.Neuburg.

More information at

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