“The quartet concept: the gravitas of four corners, circle in square, life cubed and balanced.”
Elliott Sharp, from the notes in the cd “Dither”
Let’s start with giving some coordinates: who is Dither? The Dither is a quartet of electric guitars based in New York, which present a complex and sophisticated DNA based on an eclectic mix that includes composed, improvised and electronic music. They are omnivores. They are the velociraptor of experimental electric guitar music. Sophisticated. Tireless workers. Stylistically excellent.
My encounter with the Dither dates back to 2010 with their debut album, simply titled Dither, nomen est omen, made by Henceforth Records. I don’t remember where I found it, I think I bought it directly from the record company:
it was a nice surprise. At those times I was listening to Fred Frith’s guitars quartet and I was looking for something similar, new, exciting. This cd starts almost innocently. The first piece, “Tongue of Thorns” by Lainie Fedderman, presents several seconds of soft and impalpable sounds, almost glitches blurred in the distance, forcing to raise the threshold of attention, to watch the reading on the reader, to wonder if this is not the case for turn up the volume… don’t do it, after almost a minute four distorted guitars download a dark, heavy sound, like Black Sabbath in abstinence, played in slow motion, while a drum repeats obsessively its tum-tum, so dark and disturbing that it would look good in the Lord of the Rings’ movie sountrack. The guitars repeat ad libitum their mantra that more than to the historical minimalism or to the maximalism of Glenn Branca it seems to refer to the nihilist and amphetamine No Wave scene in the New York at the end of the 70s. But that’s not all, the first track after six minutes begins to show signs of flaking, cascading feedback is inserted, while everything progressively collapses. I watched with suspect both the album cover and the CD player…after such a start what can I expect? And instead “Dither” turns out to be a disc of contrasts, of lights and shadows, of continuous quotations to the No Wave, to minimalism, to maximalism, to post punk and post rock (the guitars in Pantagruel seem the first Tortoise), to the congestion of post modernism. Everything is mentioned, reworked and re-spoken, delicate arabesques reminiscent of the best Fripp and Eno inserted into nihilistic and twisted geometries, drones of metal guitars that fish from the Scandinavian doom that unite with structures worthy of Branca and Chatham. A truly excellent album, radical, without compromise, all excellent compositions on behalf of the aforementioned Lainie Fefferman, Jascha Narveson, Joshua Lopes, Lisa R. Coons and Eric km Clark.
A perfect debut. I said before that the Dither are tireless workers and therefore we just have to wait. After a formation change, David Linaburg comes out and Gyan Riley enters, the quartet settles with the founders Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes and James Moore. We are in 2015 and the Dither show all their omnivorous hunger realizing with John Zorn’s Tzadik this “Dither plays Zorn, John Zorn’s Olympiad Vol.1”
From compositions, to 70s and 80s style game pieces. A not so strange jump. In 2010 Eliott Sharp rightly suggested investigating the technical meanings of the term “dither” and its multiple uses: a method to synthesize intermediate colors not normally available using dot patterns. Or: intentional application of noise forms to eliminate the quantization error manifested as drop-out or unrelated noise. So that’s great for Zorn’s game pieces.
“I never specifically told anyone anything. I set up rules where they could tell each other when to play. It’s a pretty democratic process. I really don’t have any control over how long the piece is, or what happens in it.”
John Zorn in Talking Music, William Duckworth, Da Capo Press, 1999, pag. 462
John Zorn’s game pieces were a fundamental moment for his own musical training as a composer, as a musician, as an improviser and also as a cultural animator within a music scene that was being created in a New York in the 70s, during a full economic and political crisis. The result of this commitment was a series of pieces based not on writings, well-defined scores but on a series of instructions, rules that allowed a group of musicians endowed with particular characteristics and ability to create music every time new, based on the respect of these rules and on their mutual musical and social interaction. All these pieces had been effectively documented in the excellent CD box set by Tzadik in 1997 and entitled “The Parachute Years 1977-1980”. This box seemed to end an era, but after so many years, Zorn seems to have found a new generation of musicians interested in repeating these works, re-reading them in a new and creative way.
“Now, almost 40 years later, a new generation of musicians has appeared who are perfectly suited to execute these challenging and artful composition schooled in improvisation composition and realizing both written music and open forms – musicians who deeply understand the group dinamic of working togheter as a team, which is so crucial in performing these largely community-based compositions.
John Zorn, 2014,in the booklet accompanying the cd.
The Dither were the first of this new generation (and unfortunately so far the only ones) to whom the difficult task of playing these “impromptu compositions” was entrusted. Three are the pieces played by them: Curling, Hockey and Fencing for eight total tracks. In fact, as a demonstration of the possibilities of these open structures, all the tracks were recorded two or three times, demonstrating the broad scope of possibilities and choices available.
The result is a CD that I found to be really fun, with a music so challenging but at the same time not sad, dark or … “dry”. There is a sense of fun that hovers over all the music and I promise you that you will have fun yourself looking for all the quotes and the musical digressions it contains. The Dither are very good and certainly don’t regret the first generation of musicians who had played these pieces almost 40 years ago.
The design of the CD is also very beautiful, the libretto inside seems to follow the formal structure of the game pieces with intelligence and elegance: the texts are divided, fragmented and assembled in precise sequences that force the reader to a fun game of “literary pursuit” to read them. All thanks to the talented designer Chippy (Heung-Heung Chin).
2019. It takes time for certain things. You must choose a new repertoire, try it, integrate with it and not repeat it. The Dither are good at this. One of my favorite record labels, New Focus Recordings brings out their latest work: “Potential Differences”.
With this new, interesting album the quartet of electric guitars of New York reaffirms itself as one of the best ensembles of its kind, consolidating its reputation as enthusiastic experimenters and interpreters of inventive composers and skilled sculptors of sound in the complex and varied sound world of contemporary music for electric guitar. The evolution of the electric guitar, of the quartet of electric guitars intended as an organized sound source, as scenic instrumentation was accompanied by a fascinating fusion of the worlds of chamber noted music, among the sound technology traditionally most associated with rock music, between studio production and the most radical forms of free improvisation
An unstable and eclectic crossover, where the natural associations with popular music evoked by electric instruments are firmly established and combined with ideas from other areas of music, sometimes creating a friendly relationship, sometimes a direct confrontation. A sound hijacking.
It starts with “The Garden of Cyrus” by Eve Beglarian, a composer who had already donated that impressive piece that is “Untill it blazes” to the electric guitar and that is replicated here for the quartet, Paula Matthusen enchants us with the quiet of “but because without this”, Jascha Narveson explores the possibilities of effects and pedals with his four “Ones”, Ted Hearne’s“Candy”pushes guitars to the limit and James Tenney’s “Swell Piece” closes the record, almost a minimal greeting and a lamented for this great American composer and theorist. But for the Dither is not enough: each of them engages in a composition. Gyan Riley signs “The Tar of Gyu”, Joshua Lopes is the author of “Mi-Go”, James Moore his “Mannequin” and Taylor Levine his “Renegade”. Surprising the knowledge of the electric guitar by these composers. Each piece shows incredible potential. The electric guitar here isn’t seen as an oddity, but as a complex instrument and as such is understood and respected. The results are surprising.
Throughout their history as an ensemble, the Dither have walked like tightrope walkers between composition, improvisation, popular music, New York winking, creating an organically raw but at the same time refined and precise sound, which supports a music that embraces a wide range of inspirational styles while cultivates an unmistakable group aesthetic that glues the repertoire together.
Dither are from New York, they are good, they are heavy, and they do not hide a certain irony, we are at all avangarde, cerebral but not radical chic, no good lounges, but lots of feedback. Once again, hightly recommeded!