Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Note From The Synthetic Wilderness

“Dave and I felt like such freaks making our first record,” Welch recalled in a phone conversation from Vancouver this past summer, early in the North American tour to support the release of The Harrow and the Harvest. “I could not have felt more like a Martian back then. In the studio next to us is Céline Dion, and she’s cutting the vocal for the song for Titanic. That’s what was around us in the music world. But I’m really happy now. I feel like we have so many more comrades out here in the acoustic wilderness, and I’m so flattered and honored that a bunch of these people point to us and say that we’ve been inspirational to them.”

Last night, sometime in the middle of the night, there were two large explosions near here. Both explosions started with a very bright flash of light, bright enough to illuminate my bedroom even through the closed blinds, followed immediately by a very loud bang—not a deep, rolling bang like thunder, but a sharp report, like a large caliber gun firing. Last night I thought a couple of electrical transformers exploded on power lines. But our power wasn’t interrupted.

This morning there were five big Commonwealth Edison utility trucks parked by the end of the block, so I guess it was a couple of transformers blowing up.

I didn’t get a chance to ask any of the technicians what happened. When I was around, even though there were five trucks parked on the block, there were no technicians working anywhere nearby. (There is a donut shop within easy walking distance, so it might not be too big of a mystery where the work crews had disappeared to.)

Last night when the explosions happened I was sitting on my bed playing guitar. Although I don’t own an acoustic guitar, my electric guitar was plugged into a battery-powered gadget so even if power had failed, I still could have wrapped up my practice session.

Anyway, that bit of electrical excitement got me thinking about the current issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine. They have a cover story about Gillian Welch.

I have mixed feeling about Gillian Welch. Back when I did my post “The Point Of A Pin” I embedded a YouTube clip of hers, where she and her partner perform an acoustic arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix song, “Manic Depression.” That was a very cool performance, but someone complained and got the video removed from YouTube. Hmmm.

I’m not really sure if Gillian is what I’d call an “acoustic holdout.” Certainly she is famous for performing acoustically. But after her first brush with fame when some of her music appeared in a movie, the very first thing she did was grab an electric guitar and plug in. On her Wikipedia page for everyone to see—if that site isn’t trying to blackmail people into supporting their politics by shutting down—there’s even a picture of her with an electric guitar, and some quotes about how she tried to write songs that were more up-beat.

For the 2003 release, Soul Journey, Welch and Rawlings explored new territory. Welch said: "I wanted to make it a happier record. Out of our four records, I thought this might be the one where you're driving down the road listening to it on a sunny summer day." Rawlings again produced the record. The album also reflected a change in the typically sparse instrumentation: Welch and Rawlings introduced a dobro, violin, electric bass and drums, and Welch later said, "Everything's not supposed to sound the same, you want it to reflect change and growth."

Now, I don’t have any dislike for electric instruments. And I actively dislike depressing songs. But I like principles and I like people who formulate their own principles and stick to those principles. But I know, too, it’s the twenty-first century and everyone’s got to eat.

So I just don’t know about Gillian Welch.

I mean, maybe Gillian Welch is an acoustic holdout. But—not to be cynical here—maybe she is just another folk singer who failed as a pop crossover act who now has returned to folk because those are the only promoters who will pay her.

I don’t know. The issue of Acoustic Guitar doesn’t raise any serious questions at all, rather it just lets her promote her current folk album. Around here it’s (usually) hard to find the magazine in real life, but her interview is available at their website at the link above.


I like the name Gillian
but I’m an electric man
and I’m a digital man
and if I could I’d convert
the motion of my guitar’s
metal strings as they vibrate
within a magnetic field
to a discrete midi stream
to drive a synthesizer
outputting a guitar sound
made from synthetic waveforms.

I like the name Gillian
but we—I mean men, women—
are what we make of ourselves
how we synthesize ourselves
not where the day takes us or
how the hands at night shape us
and I don’t believe a song
is noise or tone or image
but it is synthesized too
and synthesizers are things
and synthesizers are us.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

See Monsters?

“The Primitive And What Came After”

Wild Dogs As Acoustic Holdouts

Wild Dogs As Acoustic Holdouts (Redux)

Quasi Una Zombie Fantasia

No Lights In My Kitchen (Or Anywhere Else)

The Thunderous Glamour Of Batteries

The Thunderous Tragedy Of Batteries

And yes I know Roland has a
special pickup guitar synthesizer
available now, and I know
Sonuus makes a monophonic
gadget, but I’m
holding out
for a kind of combination
of the two things—a simple
gadget for standard guitars
that works polyphonically.
Someday it will happen.

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