Steve REICH (b.1936)
Electric Counterpoint (1987) [14:44]
David LANG (b. 1957)
James TENNEY (1934-2006)
Slope 2 [14:20]
Trevor Babb (guitars)
rec. New Haven and Denver, USA, dates not given.
INNOVA 972 [60:50]
If asked to come up with the names of any pieces for multiple electric guitars I suspect there are few of us who could go much further than Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Since Pat Metheny’s 1987 recording on the Nonesuch label this has become one of Reich’s seminal works, and aside from other guitar recordings has cropped up in versions for percussion (review) as well as other arrangements (review).
Trevor Babb makes a confident start to his debut CD with this piece. Pat Metheny’s well-modulated, jazz-infused sound is taken a step further here, with a different feel to the overdubbed mix. Upper voices have a more distinctive pungency, adding a slightly more homespun feel to start with, but once you get used to the sound there is a character and sophistication which gives the impression more of an ensemble at work rather than a single player in the studio. There is a subtle use of distortion that I also enjoy, used in this case more as an expressive colour than anything that makes you think of rock excess. Metheny plays in a less legato fashion than Babb, and this delivers more rhythmic impetus, particularly in that compelling final movement. The Metheny bass is also fatter and more juicy here, but this new recording has to be counted as success and an interesting addition to the recorded canon of a minimal masterpiece.
Paul Kerekes’s Trail counts as something of an homage to Electric Counterpoint, exploring overlapping harmonies in guitar patterns that lead from the top and shimmer like undulating water or dappled sunlight between the leaves of trees in a gentle wind. This chorale-like descent breaks up into a set of different fragments over which a brief solo emerges, the opening pattern then taking over and rising to meet itself by its conclusion.
David Lang’s Warmth is described as “an off-kilter polyrhythmic duel between two guitars.” The rhythms are alas not very interesting, and neither are the limited selection of notes and intervals taken on a jostled walk from benign badgering to rather louder elbowing between the voices by the finish. Septet by James Tenney opens on a single note that becomes the fundamental to a sonic build-up of the harmonic series, complete with natural tuning. By the time the notes have established their chord the ear is in an ecstasy of conflict, hearing strange dissonances in something that is absolutely consonant.
Trevor Babb’s Grimace uses E-bows and slide tubes to create sustained notes than weave between each other with haunting, wailing glissandi. There is a sine-wave quality to some of this which may drive you and your cat out of the room, but the confluence and coincidence of intervals can have a striking effect, and the gritty noise created by the low strings toward the end might be another homage, this time to heavy WWII aircraft. Carl Testa’s substantial Slope 2 is summed up as “an investigation of the barriers between musical sound and noise through improvisation and extended techniques within a composed structure.” There is a gorgeously sparing central section in this piece that provides evidence for the ‘less is more’ argument, the sense of space and timelessness contrasting with the sustained sounds of the opening. There are some quite effective imitations of machinery and dentist’s drills further along if you like that sort of thing, but the conclusion has a lyrical, epilogue-like quality that releases us back into the real world with soft profundity.