The electric guitar, a popular instrument par excellence, synonymous with rebellion and youth rock energy, has long since begun a new evolutionary path within contemporary music. Nothing wrong with that, indeed, the development of new possibilities and new paths are welcome. What I ask myself, however, and which at times perplexes me, is like an instrument with such an idiomatic language (mainly linked to rock, in its various shades from rockabilly to heavy metal, and jazz, again a decidedly broad genre that ranges from the innovations of Charlie Christian to the free improvisation of Derek Bailey, passing through Wes Montgomery) and with its sound linked in the birth to an industrial-Fordist type production and in its application to the complex instrument-amplifier-effects chain, can be effectively managed by academic-classical composers. When a composer thinks of an electric guitar piece, does he have all these elements in mind? I try to simplify and summarize these thoughts with a concrete example: the two most famous electric guitars, the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, have technical characteristics completely affixed already starting from the type of wood used, the vibrato lever absent in the Les Paul , the type of pick up used. These technical differences, enhanced by the various guitar heroes, have helped to impose substantial stylistic differences within not only the various musical genres, but in the execution of the various pieces and in the playing techniques adopted. This obviously in the field of popular music, but how does this impact when faced with a contemporary music score? Does the composer specifically require performance with a particular instrument with certain requirements? The sound changes depending on the type of pedal you use … a Boss distortion pedal sounds different than an Ibanez Tube Screaming, a Fender Twin Reverb amp doesn’t sound like a Marshall, etc .. these are all details that have a significant impact on the sound chain (noise) and, above all, in the final result. This personal obsession of fascinates me and comes back to tease me with listening to this new record, “Electric”, for Sergio Sorrentino’s electric guitar only. Sorrentino is a truly innovative musician. This latest work is his third, made in five years, for electric guitar only. A production so abundant that suggest the need for a more in-depth analysis than that of a simple musical review.
This intense activity began in 2015 with the cd “Music from a parallel word vol 4 New music for electric guitar”, produced by the Italian independent record company M.A.P. Edition.
In this record we find languages that are distant from what popular production has normally accustomed us to: rock and pop are used more as color and as a quote in Stefano Taglietti’s “Rocking Up”, defined by the author himself as “a bridge towards expressiveness, towards solitary virtuosity “and in” A Due “by Bruno Canino (the author talks about a possible road sign, but it could also be a chess move), a piece that combines electric guitar and piano (a combination already successfully experienced in jazz) where a classic somg like Michelle, by the Beatles, is mentioned. Alfredo Franco takes inspiration from Goya’s famous and crude recordings in his “Los Disastres de la guerra”, while Mauro Montalbetti prefers to transfer the anxieties of a “Lunar Lanscape” into a melodic and contemplative electric vision. The “De Nocturno Visu” by Azio Corghi is an electric transcription of the 1999 piece Nocturnus Visus for solo clarinet, defined by the composer himself as “a scary nocturnal dream, alternating lulls of lullabies in which the erotic component is ‘interfered’ by the apparitions of death. ” The cd ends with what I consider to be the most cinematic piece: “Monstrous ships” by Fabrizio De Rossi Re, a surround view of the ship cemetery at Port-Etienne in Mauritania: here, yes, Sorrentino’s guitar can sing a blues, the blues of abandonment, of rust, of the slow corruption of these metal giants, whose metal unravels in the sea surrounded by electric sirens singing with Blackie’s strings.
Another reason for interest in Sorrentino, compared to other interpreters, is the choice of his instrument. Sergio has, in fact, opted for an instrument with decidedly peculiar characteristics: Eric Clapton’s Blackie. Now. Thinking of an instrument less suitable for contemporary music than the guitar of one of the blues gods is really difficult, its technical characteristics (Clapton certainly did not use the vibrato lever, choosing to block the Fender rocker bridge with a block of wood). place it among the instruments most adopted by contemporary musicians who usually choose electric guitars that are stylistically more versatile, less iconic and with less personal and defined timbre and characteristics.
A love, that of Sorrentino for Clapton, which always pushed him in 2015 to dedicate an entire album of personal compositions to the master of blues: “Happy Birthday Mr. Clapton!”
An attitude that follows that of jazz, blues and rock musicians, genres where similar acts of devotion and respect towards their “tutelary deities” are normal. Personally I have chosen to frame Sorrentino within a particular genre that I wanted to call “conceptual guitar”.
Conceptual projects, such as those by Sorrentino and other fellow guitarists, allow artists to compete in a saturated attention economy while reflecting their enthusiasm for a wide range of ideas. Connoisseurs of the lingua franca of art institutions and academic circles all over the world, artists like Sorrentino are skilled curators of themselves, capable of presenting projects that are more easily translated into proposals and better visible on the world cultural scenario. Which is an advantage given that living with record sales has now become impossible, while it has become essential (this in the pre-Covid 19 era) to bring one’s performances to the widest possible circuit of experimental music festivals and concerts. subsidized by museums, universities and foundations.
An excellent example of this ability to move in a richer media-minded way than that of his colleagues who remained anchored to the conservatory concert model is the excellent work released in 2018 for Mode Records: “Dream”.
Sorrentino for this cd seems to have oriented himself on a repertoire of a predominantly American and Anglo-Saxon nature. The composers involved here are: John Cage with a superb interpretation of his “Dream”, David Lang with “Warmth for 2 electric guitars”, Jack Vess with “Alpha Aloha”, Eliott Sharp with “Mare Undarum”, Alvin Curran with “Rose of a Beans”, Morton Feldman with his most anticipated piece, the reconstruction of his piece “The Possibility of a New York for Electric Guitar”, reconstructed after many years since his death by Seth Josel (another excellent exponent of the “conceptual guitar”, Christian Wolff with “Going West”, Larry Polansky with “An Unhappy Set of Coincidences”, Van Stiefel with “Urutora-man” and always Christian Wolff with his version of Morton Feldman’s piece. outside those that are the “classic” paths of the electric guitar, in favor of lesser-known choices: out of 10 pieces, seven are in fact “first recording”, thus putting available to songs never heard before. It is, I repeat, a truly remarkable work: compared to the previous cd of 2015, Sorrentino shows a consummate and high artistic ability combined with a sure musical maturity. Which makes this record not sound like a compilation, like a simple set of songs, but has its own organic sense, a common sound chain, a sort of well-defined musical landscape. Personally I really appreciate this artistic aspect, I like it when an interpreter creates his own path, his own musical world made up of the connections that can be obtained from listening to the pieces he proposes and shows to his audience.
The creation of musical worlds, the ability to paint a sonic scenario very different from the usual list of pieces presented during a “classic” recital is another characteristic of the exponents of the “conceptual guitar”. Merging sound and vision, ideas and emotions, is an aspiration that has distant origins, from the psychedelic happenings in London at the end of the 60s, to the experiences of the Fluxus group, to the Wagnerian visions of the nineteenth century. However, compared to other “underground” niche scenes, the “conceptual guitar” shows a greater awareness in the use of cultural means. On the one hand it evokes a certain opposition to the big music industry and mainstream music values, on the other hand it reflects the greater self-reflective awareness and level of education of its members. Furthermore, the greater desire for an identity policy on the part of the public, expressed in recent years on social media, has introduced a new verbal and expressive level, favoring new forms of communication compared to those traditionally assigned to the world of classical music.
Sorrentino’s latest effort, this “Electric” released in 2020 begins with a piece composed by Sorrentino himself, “Electric Prelude”, a tribute to the Ambient music of Eno, Fripp, founders of the “conceptual guitar”, followed by a composition that it could happily be referred to as his cultural manifesto: Steve Reich’s masterpiece “Electric Counterpoint”, originally written for Pat Metheny. Composed at the beginning of the 1980s, this piece has now established itself as the most happily performed and recorded, now present in a great variety of versions. The New York composer John King, with whom Sorrentino collaborated in concert and released an album, is the author of “White Buffalo Calf Woman Blues”, a song with clear references to blues improvisation.
The next song is “Glitch” by Rick Romano, whose title already refers to the homonymous electronic musical genre and the music of the first Fennesz, Cage is present with the oxymoron “Composed Improvisation” and Leo Brower with the melodic sweetness, perhaps not right in its rightful place of “Cuban Paisaje con Lluvia”. Other tracks present “Projection for Electric guitar -arrogance of the dead” by Joji Yuasa, “Spire VI” by Cesare Saldicco. The digital version also features two other songs “Chase” by Ayal Adler and “Can’t think without light” by Dom Bouffard.
What are the limits of this conceptual form of guitar virtuosity? In some respects it shares some of the problems that plagued both post-punk and post-rock: at times it gives the impression of lecturing or advising us. With this music the age-old doubt about the efficacy of preaching to the choir, highlighting the discrepancy between an anti-elitist leftist cultural politics and the material realities of the “conceptual guitar” as a cultural and demographic economy. The “conceptual guitar” is neither mass culture nor underground, nor does it represent a new sort of autonomy opposition to the mainstream. On the other hand, it seems to be closely linked to grants and institutions, a new form of avant-garde that has adapted to the new environment, adopting procedures and points of reference and absorbing some negative aspects of didactic art. The listener’s role is largely limited to receiving the message expressed by the artist. It’s an almost one-way transmission. The “conceptual guitar” is actually more of a fascinating food for the mind than a form of actual liberation, it rarely offers a sense of release or abandonment, rock types. But it also offers considerable food for thought, for example on the complex dualism between the performer and the composer. The difficulties connected in the game of interpretation can in fact also function as forms of liberation of the music itself, a role that in other musical genres is supported by technological errors, the expression of new ontological points of view, a sort of liberation from use extensive technology concerning the interactions between performer, guitar, amplification, pedals and effects.
Sorrentino represents, within this model, a new form of virtuoso, at ease in a society where forms of communication and mass consumption can no longer be ignored, much less read and managed according to the aesthetic canons of the classical avant-gardes. . This intense activity, which did not stop during Covid-19, on the contrary has accelerated, as demonstrated by the new releases on Bandcamp in his channel, demonstrating an activism more similar to that of other popular contexts, such as independent rock and dance music.
It is no coincidence that he recently released a video where he plays “Orphée & The Princesse” composed by Philip Glass in 1993, for the opera Orphée based on a 1950 film by Jean Cocteaus, demonstrating a wide-ranging interest in every musical form . For my part, my invitation to continue on this path that is proving to be innovative and full of satisfactions!