Rocktober! (Part 1): Mamer, Julia Reidy

Wednesday 20 October 2021

It must be the time of year because I’ve been getting a lot of stuff involving electric guitars and suchlike lately. The Takuroku download project is entering its final stage and they’ve been releasing a lot of interesting albums of music more or less derived from pop, which I won’t talk about much mostly because I fear being exposed to ridicule as a clueless old fart. The various d√©tournements of songforms heard there range from intriguing to charming to perplexing, but I’m going to stick to something safe and review a set of solo guitar improvisations (“Oh boy, another one!”). Mamer’s set of fifteen short tracks Freeze Wizard is a bit better than the usual stuff inasmuch as it has the self-control to stay in one place, even as he plays around. The hype-sheet would like you to think that he ‘explodes’ stuff but the strength comes from each segment complementing the last, building up an identifiable but increasingly complex tone throughout the album. Digital effects are used to create and eerie, hyperreal aura to the instrument, with harmonics or faint loops droning over the strings or pitch-shifting to create the impression of a faulty tape deck. The last four tracks feel out of place with a sudden recourse to hyperactive scrabbling which breaks the mood, but by the end this busyness has been sublimated enough to work as a sort of coda.

Speaking of sublimation, Julia Reidy’s latest release How to spot a rip features four electric guitars playing simultaneously while unplugged. I’m assuming e-bows are used to create the uninterruped tones that sustain throughout the piece’s sixteen minutes. I’ve mentioned Reidy only in passing before, noting how she’s taken steel-string acoustic playing techniques and applied them to larger structures, transcending the boundaries of the instrument’s idiom through duration and through electronic manipulation. That transcendence becomes pure here, in tone and structure. The guitars’ clear drones are tuned to pitches in a 13-limit scale (conventional Western tuning is based on ratios using prime numbers no bigger than 5, so the addition of 7, 11 and 13 to the mix pushes consonance outside of our usual experience) and move further apart from each other during the piece, with attendant overtones and beating frequencies as each of the guitars’ trajectories intersect. Reidy retunes the guitars during the piece and notices how the harmonic space can suddenly ‘break’ while the pitches slowly change. This effect is augmented by the otherwise imperceptible complications of acoustic vibrations, even with the thin timbre of an oscillating steel string. The tension in the piece is underscored at times by the characteristic sound of a string slipping on a tuning peg, reminding you of just what you’re hearing. A remarkable piece for both guitar and tuning nuts, especially for people who need more James Tenney in their music.