Fighting the Distraction Engine

What should otherwise seem simple–mostly minimal, experimental, ambient guitar work–has become quite complicated to keep track of.

Some of this has been the result of trying to push the guitar to sound like a massive polyphonic synth, or even an entire ensemble. Those pursuits have forced me to come up with some interesting approaches to the guitar, and guitar effects, but lately I’ve grown concerned that it has instead manifested into what is essentially a massive distraction engine–one that has made it increasingly more difficult to hone in on quality compositions and guitar work.

The nature of “experimental music,” I think, is often something quite undefined, and thus not committed to arriving at any one destination. While this itself is nothing to discourage–no, in fact wonderful, exotic landscapes of sound can be discovered in this way–the unpredictable nature of it isn’t always satisfactory. Experimental, or even Cage-style aleatoric music, can end up being an endless spectrum of uncertainty and distraction. Chance-based, or process-based music, always has the chance to be amazing–but it also has the chance to be, well, not. And while I love to wander, I sometimes, and often, am in pursuit of a specific destination.

Ambient music, even when it’s not necessarily experimental, bizarre, or weird, runs the risk of this too. The sound of crickets chirping, slowed down and then set to periodic, simple arpeggios on a piano can be an ambient piece. Many, including myself, have mic’d up all kinds of sounds and instruments, bending them with electronic tools to get the most out of the original sound. Like I said in regards to experimental music, this too can be that endless spectrum of distraction.

The point of what I’m getting at here is that, at least for the remainder of 2019, I’m going to focus on releases that are much more narrow and defined in scope. And when I say narrow and defined, I literally mean recordings that are made of up of as few tracks as possible. I’m aiming to build out compositions with only a single guitar track–with maybe the oddball drone or underlying sound via a looping pedal.

I’ve tried to make my music more self-contained, as I did with is this what remains? But even with that project, I took advantage of what’s currently available on my pedalboard and created stacks of loops fed through a series of delays. Performing these live has given me the realization of just how complex it is to reproduce these exactly as the recordings were made. What has happened on the stage has been a wonderful combination of conceptual musical sequences, improvised on the guitar and through a series of effects pedals. No two performances have been the same–even when I was technically playing the same pieces. This has been wonderful, but I’m desiring more control and precision moving forward.

Relying on the loops and stacks of delay has also held me back in strengthening my voice on the instrument. I find myself relying too much on smearing the sounds captured on loop through delays to create complex and ethereal landscapes, and in the process losing my voice and vision as a guitar player. And when I speak of the “distraction engine,” I also realize that my obsession with more complex, multi-track pieces, have themselves been distraction engines. I want to shut that off to just hear and focus on the guitar, at least for the remainder of the year.

I anticipate live performances to go the same as they have, though; I love the live space for really stretching tone and sound, but at home, in the “studio” space, I want to build greater control and command over the instrument and the compositions. Over time I see these sets as becoming more dynamic and interesting when these more focused pieces take their place on a set list.

I’m often drawn to these two improvised demos. The first one is entirely one track, unplugged, while the second uses a looper for an underlying drone and some simple sound manipulation via loop speed toward the end.

I like these as basic conceptual models for recording projects moving forward. I see myself using different instruments, and different arrays of effects, all decided on intentionally, focused on making very clear and specific musical statements.

I will still, of course, experiment wildly with both guitars and electronics, and will regularly write about and post the results on this site as I’ve done. But those will, for now, be fun diversions, ways for me not to let the distraction engine take over. Sometimes I get wild ideas in my head about how to utilize electronic instruments in interesting ways, or I want to just layer a ton of guitar loops and delays to see what comes out. I will continue to write about and create these things, but I expect them to recede from primary compositions I’ll be shifting focus on.