Resophonic Guitar in Contemporary Music: The Wayward Trail by Elliot Simpson, Microfest Records, 2015
Let’s face it, Resophonic guitars have a special charm. For those who don’t know anything about they are a type of guitar invented in the United States of America at the end of the twenties byJohn Dopyera, Slovak emigrant. Perhaps better known as the dobro, name of a registered trademark by Gibson Guitar Corporation, which actually indicate only a particular type of resophonic guitar, the typical production guitar by Dobro / Gibson. The name “dobro” stands for Dopyera Brothers, as John Dopyera had founded the company with his three brothers. The birth of this type of guitars corresponded to the growing need in the early decades of the ‘900, by guitarists to compete, in terms of volume of the sound of their instrument with other instruments from the powerful sound, like banjos and mandolins, and more later with the growing number of brass instruments of American jazz.
During that period the US industry worked to find solutions that would allow the guitars to rival the volume of the sound of other instruments that crowded the great orchestras: the C.F. Martin, for example, strove in revolutionizing the construction of traditional acoustic guitar, inventing the first ‘”orchestra model” and then the “dreadnought”. The Dopyera instead invented an ingenious system very similar to that later used in speakers : the insertion of one or more vibrating cones, made in light metal, inside the body of the guitar. They were attached to the summit of the bridge, according to a function very similar to that of “cones” of electrical enclosures. Vibrations, thanks to the direct contact between the ropes and cones, were greatly amplified. There were, however, numerous side effects that gave the instrument a very strong character, assuming a sound tones very “metal”, characterized by a large “attack” and a very low sustain (note duration) as well as a natural reverberation surprisingly long : all typical characteristics of the banjo.
When using electric amplifiers became common and then resolved the problems of volume, the resonator guitar continued to live (and still lives), mainly due to a specific secondary characteristic, namely its metallic timbre. This feature, characteristic of the delta blues and Hawaiian music then in fashion, is now a standard for many types of music such as country, blues, bluegrass and all traditional American music. In particular, it’s a guitar that works very well for the use of the bottleneck, commonly a hollow cylinder of glass, metal or ceramics that produces changes “gradual” in the notes.
Used by pioneers of country-blues slide as Son House and Bukka White, the resonator guitar has today its fame to the general public especially for the cover of the award-winning album of Dire Straits Brothers in Arms. The same Mark Knopfler is a great admirer of his resophonic as others rock musicians of great fame as Jimmy Page, Rory Gallagher. Eric Clapton makes massive use in the famous album Unplugged. Great masters of the slide technique are Americans Bob Brozman (shown worldwide as the greatest player of resonator guitars, disappeared in April of 2013), Eric Sardinas, Ry Cooder and JJ Cale.
And if classical music is a thousand miles away from this instrument the same can not be said for the contemporary music because of the interest expressed by two important figures, two “maverick”, American music, Harry Partch and Lou Harrison. Partch was a self-taught composer, among one the most original personality of the twentieth century. His work has a special place in the evolution of contemporary music in particular is very important for the development of the timbre of the sound and his activities as adapter and inventor of musical instruments, also using natural materials or modifying existing instruments. His research music would take him to look outwards, studying musical cultures of other places and times, drawing on the aesthetics of Japanese Noh theater and Greek and Chinese musical theories and inward, reflecting on his experiments that difficult moment in history who was the Great Depression, and incorporating fragments, stories and characters drawn from the street, by hobos, from popular music of the time. He was not the only one to leave the current “mainstream” of the time and take refuge in his own creative retreat for producing music exclusively on his behalf. In 1947, another composer faced a serious personal crisis: Lou Harrison had failed to adapt to the hectic and bustling of New York City, where a combination of personal stress, and professional environmental had triggered him a severe nervous breakdown. The reading of the “sacred text” of Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music, prompted Harrison to incorporate Just Intonation tuning and the construction of new intruments in his renovated composition style. Towards the end of his life, Harrison has composed on commission by Other Minds Festival a piece of three movements, Scenes from Nek Chand, for a resonator guitar tuned to Just Intonation.
This unique instrument has been brought back to life through the joint efforts of guitarist John Schneider, composer Bill Alves, Bill Slye Harrison’s assistant, and the National Resophonic company (between 2003 and 2005 they made five copies of the model, one of the which appears on this recording). In the following years the resonator guitar tuned according to Just Intonation continued to fire the imagination of the younger generation of composers and performers, effectively bringing the legacy of experimentalism of Partch in the twenty-first century.
This album is a perfect testimony of what I have written above and it is a perfect testimony of how aesthetic paradigms of Harrison and Partch continue even today to influence the artistic choices of current composers, as all four pieces on the Cd comparing and often transcend challenges inherent Just Intonation and technical characteristics (in terms of sustain and the particular timbre of the sound) to the Resophonic guitar.
The result is The Wayward Trail by American guitarist Elliot Simpson, produced by the independent record label MicroFest Records, for sure one of the most interesting products of this 2015, however, a revelation: it was some time that there was anything about contemporary music for resophonic guitar, my last listenings were about the last works by John Schneider and Giacomo Fiore, which significantly signing the excellent essay in the booklet that accompanies this CD, from which I have taken much of the informations contained in this post.
Four compositions on the Cd: 15 Zwiefache Transzendier (1977-1981) by Walter Zimmermann, Steel Suite (2003-2008) by David. B. Doty, Song and Toods (2005) by Larry Polansky and Forward (2014) by Ezequiel Menalled.
15 Zwiefache by Zimmermann has been written as part of a cycle of pieces that express the response of the composer to his meetings with the American experimental music. Zimmermann in 1975 went to the United States and interviewed several composers not very well known (and certainly not fully understood at the time) in Europe as Philip Corner, James Tenney, and Ben Johnston. Zimmermann could not interview Partch, who had died the year before, but still managed to meet his ideas through the point of view of the people who had worked with him (Tenney, Johnston), coming to identify Partch as the central figure in this group of composers who had managed to “survive” in spite of the cultural environment and the adverse conditions of their isolation. On his return to Germany Zimmermann turned his attention to the traditional music of his native Franconia, completing a cycle of works for various instruments entitled Lokale Musik. 15 Zwiefache explores the rhythmic structures of local dances, creating an ethereal structure composed entirely of natural harmonics, where height and length are transformed, transcending effortlessly apparent dramas or the original musical material. Partch and Harrison are two key pillars for the development of the style of David Doty, who met their writings and their music at the beginning of 1970, and was among the first composers to compose for the resonator guitar of John Schneider in a suite of four movements between 2003 and 2008. The Steel Suite, in four movements Prelude (Tastar de corde), Balkan Dance, A New Waltz in Pelong and Gigue (Maggie’s Jigs), incorporates Renaissance and Baroque, as well as features rhythmic and melodic folk and non-Western music, as Balkan forms in Balkan Dance and changing subsets modal Waltz in A New Pelong, which recalls the family of Javanese gamelan tunings, creating mutable atmospheres that move through the different regions of the intonation of the resophonic instrument. This recording represents the first complete edition guitar. Songs and Toods Polansky was also made in the years immediately following the creation of the resophonic guitar in Just Intonation, which we discussed at the beginning of this post. This work in five movements requires that the guitarist sings in the first three parts, while the two remaining are more conventional. As a reminder of the profound influence of the Harrison Trezo movement, Sweet Betsy from Pike, is dedicated to the memory of the American composer and his partner Bill Colvig, who found their happiness in California, as the protagonist of the song, while Eskimo Lullaby is the almost literally transcript a piece of the nineteenth century found in the collection Folk Songs in Canada. 85 Chords and Schneidertood are characterized by special tunings. Forward by Ezequiel Menalled is the newest of the tracks on the CD, song characterized by a complex exploration in the potential of the resophonico instrument regarding resonance, pitch, tone and especially its microtonal possibilities. At the end of this record we realize that it represents an ideal journey, an exploratory path through the features and opportunities of the resophonic guitar tuned in Just Intonation, Elliot Simpson’s fingers create an abstract soundscape in which the listener is invited to explore, wander, explore and wonder.