Dusted Features

While My Guitar Gently Weaves: The Sonic Tapestries of Oren Ambarchi

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Adam Strohm reflects on the singular sounds of Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi.

While My Guitar Gently Weaves: The Sonic Tapestries of Oren Ambarchi

Ask any fan of experimental music to name the most innovative guitar players of the last decade, and Oren Ambarchi’s may not be mentioned. But for many, his exclusion from the list might be a testament to his originality on the instrument. Ambarchi’s work separates itself wholly from the traditional guitar paradigm, with his modified axe (a Washburn that’s been, quite literally, axed), sent through a wringer of processing and effects that leave it transformed. But, like all guitarists, Ambarchi works heavily in attack and decay, and his music is interested primarily in the sound of pick on string. Ambarchi has released a number of solo works, most notably three discs on Touch, and the lauded Triste double-lp, recently reissued on CD by Southern Lord. He’s also been a constant collaborator, from his early duo Phlegm, with Rob Avenaim, to work with musicians like Keith Rowe, Martin Ng, Voicecrack and, more recently, Sunn 0))).

Ambarchi describes himself as “completely obsessed with music from an early age,” and, while growing up in Sydney, found his niche not in the rock music that his mother bought him as a child, but in the jazz that he discovered as a teen. Like many talented musicians, Ambarchi's experimentation started early; his first 'live' experience was playing in free jazz groups as a teen, and through tools and instruments obtained from his grandfather’s second-hand store, he made what he characterizes as “crude ‘concrete’ recordings at home from a young age using shortwave radio sounds, effects pedals and a double tape recorder.” In a move that would forecast what was to come in his career, Ambarchi found himself incorporating more and more ideas into his work.

"Eventually I incorporated the electronics in the free jazz group performances, and slowly I became more & more interested in live electronics than percussion. At one point I found a guitar at a rehearsal studio and immediately added it to my drums/electronics set-up in the free jazz group." The aforementioned guitar, a red Washburn left by a local shredder, is the instrument that Ambarchi uses to this day, though with some significant alterations, namely the loss of half of its body and the addition of a pickup at the first fret. The acquisition of a guitar and a Keiji Haino concert in New York were the impetuses for Ambarchi’s current work - not in an aesthetic sense (though Ambarchi’s early work on the guitar was more influenced by Japanese artists), but in that Ambarchi saw an inspiration in Heino. Recounting the effect that Haino had on him, Ambarchi says, “He wasn't a ‘technical’ player, but his playing was so utterly personal I decided I had to do it and 'find my way.' I knew absolutely nothing about how to play the guitar but that didn't stop me...”

The style that Ambarchi often uses in solo performance is one of a patient crescendo, often building a maelstrom of sound out of a few clean notes. “It took me a long time to find a ‘voice’ on my instrument,” he says. “I believe this started to happen around 1998 when I began to experiment with solo guitar playing for the first time. Suddenly I had a lot more space to develop ideas slowly [and] I was inspired by a lot of the developments happening in electronic music at the time and older musique concrete recordings. It was liberating to have all this space, so my playing really calmed down and took its time - although the sound, especially in a live context was still quite physical.”

Ambarchi’s tools are less mysterious than one might expect; in addition to the guitar, Ambarchi typically uses ring modulators, delay units, a pitch-shifter and a volume pedal, though some studio recordings have included additional instrumentation, often percussion. “I was inspired by a lot of the developments happening in electronic music at the time and older musique concrete recordings,” explains Ambarchi, telling of his initial forays into what would become his signature sound. The influence of electronic music is especially evident in his work, with his tone often passable as synthesizer, and the glitch and decay of the notes well in line with the IDM tendencies of the time.

Though he works primarily in improvisation, Ambarchi’s technique isn’t one of impulsive outbursts. Instead, patience plays a large part in both Oren’s creation of a piece as well as the experience of listening to it. “I tend to play things that are hypnotic and initially quite simple,” he states. “Most of my work starts off as an improvisation where there might be one simple idea which is explored over a long period.” Through the use of layering and overdubs, Ambarchi creates beautifully dynamic sound fields, simple, but hypnotically enthralling. “I never really know (especially in a live context) exactly where a piece is heading,” he says, “although I'll always have some sort of starting point and from then on I try [and] lose myself in the sound and work intuitively.” Such surrender of consciousness to the momentum of his music can allow for disparate outcomes, especially in a live setting. “One night it might be calm and meditative throughout and on other nights it might become quite noisy [and] chaotic,” he says.

Ambarchi’s most recent release is Stachte Motors, which, like the other releases in his Stachte series, explores the permutations of a single idea, in this case that of the stimulation of various instruments by a series of motor-driven strings. The music is far more dense than one might expect from Ambarchi, largely moving in consistent streams rather than the slow crescendos that often mark his work. Still, like the rest of his catalog, it exudes a sense of beauty that’s simultaneously relaxing and engaging, encouraging both careful listening and a meditative drift. This is perhaps Ambarchi’s most attractive quality, that his music can be both soothing and stimulating at once; never are beauty or creativity sacrificed for the benefit of the other. “The duration of the pieces are now much longer, the tones are lower and the tempos are slower,” Ambarchi says in describing the arc of his career. “But hopefully the music is becoming more personal. This is very important to me.”

By Adam Strohm

Read More

View all articles by Adam Strohm

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.