TEN QUESTIONS WITH ALEXANDER TURNQUIST
Recently there has been a seeming upsurge in guitarists who impress as both electroacoustic virtuosi and as composers: there's Fennesz, of course, but names like Mark Templeton, Erdem Helvacioglu, orchestramaxfieldparrish, Socos, Christopher Willits, Dominic Frasca, and Geoff Mullen come to mind too. Alexander Turnquist definitely deserves a spot in that distinguished list, as his remarkable Faint at the Loudest Hour (vhf) and Apneic (kning disk) recordings make clear. In a January interview, the guitarist generously gave us a revealing glimpse into his working methods, influences, and future plans.
1. Can you tell us a bit more about your background beyond the self-description “instrumental Guitar/Ambient noise musician from Idaho”? What's your musical history vis-à-vis performance, musical training, education, etc.?
As far as a musical education is concerned, I have had no “formal” musical training. My parents raised me in a creative environment, though, and my first exposure to music was listening to my father play his own original songs around the house or around a campfire with friends. That is where my interest with the acoustic guitar came about. He got me started around the time I was in Junior High. I started picking up the guitars around the house with the intention of actually making something interesting come out of them. I was tired of the music my friends were listening to and so started studying the guitarist whose music was stowed away in dusty boxes in our basement: Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, Will Ackerman, Leo Kottke, some of the early Windham Hill music. I was also really interested in the newer generation of players like Preston Reed and Kaki King who hit their guitars. In the early stages, before I had written anything of my own, I used to sit with a page of another guitarist's music from a magazine or something and try to learn it, but I would always get to a point where I would lose my focus and just start fumbling around the fretboard and tweaking with the tuning keys until I was playing something completely different.
2. Your music is so richly evocative, it makes your photography feel like a natural and perfect complement to it, so much so that I could easily imagine a DVD presentation of your music designed in a manner similar to Fields Awake, the DVD project Mark Templeton issued a few years ago. Do you see a connection between your music and photography and, if so, could you elaborate upon it?
Yes, there is definitely a connection. I've thought about it a bit. It surely provides for a more interesting looking live performance than just watching a guy and his guitar. The next record I make will probably have some sort of video incorporated with it. Both aspects of my work do influence the other for sure, and they come about in a similar way, whether it's sitting down for hours exploring the different sounds on my guitar, or driving for hours in places I've never been and shooting rolls of film. The artwork for Faint at the Loudest Hour took me a while to come up with. For the last few years, I've been fascinated by shooting pictures of tangling branches and plants from underneath to get the vast backdrop of the sky. I just broke a mirror one day and right away I could see that placing these shattered mirror pieces within the trees and snow would make the kind of abstract yet recognizable images I wanted to wrap around this album.
3. In the middle of “Amongst a Swarm of Hummingbirds,” a brief passage of Fennesz-like blur emerges. Is that an intentional reference so that the matter of influence can be explicitly acknowledged and then left behind, given that there's really little or no sonic similarity thereafter?
To be completely honest, I hadn't actually heard Fennesz until after I recorded Faint at the Loudest Hour. Scott Solter turned me on to him while I was at his studio, and of course I fell in love with his music. So I guess there was an indirect influence there since Scott engineered the record. I wanted to bring the title of the track “Amongst a Swarm of Hummingbirds” to life, with the “Swarm” the clustered halfway section. The main volume presence in that section is part of the guitar recording (the beginning and the end sections) played back at different speeds and in both directions on the tape machines it was recorded with. The crackling introduction of that part is something Solter came up with, the use of damaged (crumpled and twisted) tape to record a section of following sounds through a separate tape recorder. Underneath those sounds there is some lower guitar rumbles from a lap steel with a violin bow, and the sound of a tape wheel scraping across the surface of a microphone, and if you listen closely you can hear an echoed voice that I pulled from some old, barely discernible reel-to-reel tape recordings of radio shows in what sounds like the late 1950s.
4. Faint at the Loudest Hour is remarkable in many ways, including its presentation of your formidable technical ability. The playing style in certain passages of “Amongst a Swarm of Hummingbirds” and “In the Vein of Bedlam” exudes an Indian or Middle Eastern feel, as if you're playing a drone or raga but clothing it in Western acoustic garb. In your view, what forms or styles are encompassed by your music?
I enjoy listening to music that fits a landscape, music that is mostly linear in structure. I look at my work as a collage, but I think a lot of the guitar playing on Faint at the Loudest Hour was heavily influenced by music from bands like Explosions in the Sky and Mono. I really enjoy that small and delicate to loud and surrounding song patterns that those bands produce, and in a way I was sort of trying to translate that to a lone acoustic guitar. I was trying to focus a lot of the attention on timbre, and trying to fade a fast pattern into near silence. I think that sort of Middle Eastern feel comes out due to the tonality of the instrument, since when you fingerpick slow changing patterns on an acoustic guitar, especially a 12-string, it has a sound that can almost mimic a sitar with its sympathetic buzzing. If you explore the different timbres, it can almost sound like a banjo at times. That is where a lot of that blending took place on the album. I was trying to encompass those different timbres within most of the tracks.
5. An interesting game could be played by listening to the two albums and then attempting to identify influences. Which influences do you think come out in these two recordings?
Faint at the Loudest Hour is definitely the more guitarist-based record, and more true to a live performance. Apneic came about using a completely different approach, by turning small organic noises into large soundscapes—much more influenced by the Tim Hecker and Eluvium type.
6. Another interesting game would be to try to guess which of the two albums you recorded first, given their different make-ups. Did you purposefully set out to make Apneic the more meditative release, or did their respective styles simply develop organically? Is it even accurate to characterize the album as “meditative” or “ambient,” for that matter?
Faint at the Loudest Hour was written in bits and pieces throughout the summer of 2006, and was recorded at Scott Solter's Studio in North Carolina in a week at the end of October and beginning of November 2006. I recorded Apneic shortly after I returned home to Idaho. I definitely wanted Faint at the Loudest Hour to be more solo guitar, but each record had its own plan behind it. I think just because of the nature of Apneic it was meant to be more meditative. The title isn't a common word, something that should not usually be used as a name or title, since it's an adjective, but I think it fits the sort of agitated sleep disorder feel that I was going for.
7. Given that many of your pieces exceed ten minutes (the longest, Apneic's “Electric Lines” is twenty three minutes), I'm wondering how much of your material is improvised versus through-composed. Though “Electric Lines” is a more unique than representative example of your work, given its length and drone-like style, could you still describe a little bit how the piece came about with respect to composing and production? What prompted you, for instance, to segue in its final minutes from the piece's predominating character to an acoustic guitar picking episode and then vaporous coda?
All of my songs start the same way, myself and a guitar (or sometimes some other instrument), but with Apneic I started each track by first picking the notes or melody and then recording a single note or sound from my guitar into a sampler and assigning it a button. After compiling different sounds and making them electronic, I then played the samples as instruments. “Electric Lines” was composed in this same way, except you hear my guitar at the end. The section of guitar playing that the song morphs into at the end was the source material for the rest of the song, but the entire song was sent through my electronics and through a four-track cassette recorder back and forth numerous times, and by sending some of the louder sections through the cassette tapes it made the volume peak out at a real flustered level, and then I would take those sounds and send them back through my computer. Then I broke them into sections, and played it back with the fingerpicking at the end. The “vaporous coda” was necessary, I think, because it leads into the next song which has no discernible instrumentation aside from the voicemail that my best friend left me on my phone.
8. You demonstrate command of a remarkable range of styles, and sometimes many appear within a single piece. “Water Spots Upon My Mind,” for instance, opens with a hymnal intro, and subsequently there appear brilliant clusters of country-bluegrass picking and classical playing too. In Apneic 's “Idle Nightmare,” the guitar even resembles a bouzouki, zither, or dulcimer. Is that kind of encompassing integration deliberate or is it too something that simply evolves over the course of a piece's development?
That is deliberate. One of the main concepts with Faint at the Loudest Hour was to make a record that had a sense of climax at the softest volume points. That introduction on “Water Spots Upon My Mind” is meant to draw the listener closer to the headphones or speakers right at the point when my guitar breaks through the near silence marking a turning point in the song. The instrument that makes up “Idle Nightmare” is an old balalaika with all three strings tuned to the same note.
9. Though it's not displeasing that it is so, I'm curious as to why you opted to issue Apneic as a thirty-five minute mini-album rather than the full album length of Faint at the Loudest Hour.
After I listened to three songs in order that they are on the disc, it seemed like the right length to me. A lot of my favorite ambient records are around the half hour mark, so I didn't think much of it. I don't really like approaching songs or albums with the idea of a time boundary. I noticed that when listening to some ambient records that reach two or more hours in length I kind of lose track of the running time anyway.
10. Finally, what does the future hold for you in terms of recording and performing?
I'm currently writing new material for another twelve string fingerstyle record, and hope to record it sometime in the spring/summer. Expect something with much more piano and percussion. I am also starting to collaborate with a friend of mine, Jonathan Ntuk. It's going to be called Taepdec, and is still in the early stages of development. I also hope to put together some sort of small-scale art shows incorporating performance and viewing.
LISTED WITH ALEXANDER TURNQUIST :
Currently in heavy rotation on my turntable/iPod/disc player: Fidget, Brian Simon, The Baroque Jazz Trio, The Balustrade Ensemble, Hauschka, Slow Six, Max Richter, Keith Fullerton Whitman.
Favourite recent albums or all-time favourite: Just a Few: Brian Turnquist (everything I grew up listening to him play), Scott Solter's One River, Stars of the Lid's and their Refinement of the Decline, Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (performed by Ensemble Modern), Joanna Newsom's Ys, Alex de Grassi's The Water Garden, Leo Kottke's One Guitar No Vocals, Kaki King's Legs to Make us Longer, James Blackshaw's O True Believer, Eluvium's Talk Amongst the Trees, Windy and Carl's consciousness, Stuart Dempster's Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel, Philip Aaberg's Field Notes, Sigur Ros's (), Explosions in the Sky's The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, Mono's Under the Pipal Tree, Tim Hecker's Harmony in Ultraviolet, Squarepusher's Ultravisitor; Liam Singer's Our Secret Lies Beneath the Creek.
Favourite recent songs or all-time favourite: Recently heard: Brian Simon's “Explode that Idea”; all-time favourite: Squarepusher's “Iambic Poetry 9.”
Favourite visual artist: Andy Goldsworthy. He proves that art can be made without supplies.
Favourite non-music-related thing I like to do: Make shapes out of clouds.
Favourite place in the world: Craters of the Moon.