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The Quiet Heretic - A look at Loren Connors

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Dusted's Matthew Wuethrich takes a look at avant artist Loren Connors, who recently released two records on the Family Vineyard label.

The Quiet Heretic - A look at Loren Connors

The landscape of the modern solo guitar is dominated by two monumental peaks, each looming on opposite sides of the horizon. One peak is John Fahey, his accomplishments representing the zenith of what happens when you combine robust technique, folk forms and modern compositional ideas. The other peak is shared by Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey, their literal as well as figurative dismantling and reassembling of the guitar bringing new levels of abstraction and visceral impact to the instrument. Each of the above has hordes of devotees plumbing their innovations for inspiration.

Shadowed by these peaks, and with seemingly very few followers of his own, is the figure of Loren Connors, who for close to thirty years has played the quiet heretic, going against the orthodoxy without ever sounding the call to revolution. He neither flashes virtuoso chops nor overtly mines folk forms. He tempers his abstraction with intimacy, and his noise soothes rather than agitates. He is, above all, a poet, one who has pared down the classic language of the blues guitar, fleshed it out with bits of his Irish heritage, fused both these ideas with a subtle and less rigorous minimalist dialect, and given the world a body of work that explodes our notions of the traditional and the experimental.

Listening to one of Connors’ compact improvisations, you’re struck by the thought that if you’ve heard one Connors performance, you’ve heard them all, so thoroughly does the guitarist compress his whole concept into every piece he creates. One could go so far as to suggest that his whole concept can be gleaned in every note he plays. Such compactness makes the seven-inch single an ideal form for his music, and during the 1990s he certainly released his share of them. But Night Through, the 2006 Family Vineyard collection of many of his singles, suggested that Connors is best heard in heaping doses, his terse evocations inducing an extended meditative state when heard one after the other. Two recent Family Vineyard releases, As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002 and the LP Hymn of the North Star further confirm, and develop, this idea.

An air, simply put, is just a tune or a melody, but it is also a modal form of Irish music, one that foregrounds melodic development, de-emphasizes harmony, and generally sticks to a single scale. This definition could be extended to all of Connors’ music, but the two discs of As Roses Bow feature Connors at his most pure and most melodic. He can take a stripped-down kernel of melody and wring many moods from it. Listen to “Airs No. 1” and “Airs No. 2” and hear how Connors builds a theme in which no note is extraneous. The “Moonyean” suite is a brilliant example of Connors’ audio portraits. The mood is wistful and brushes up against the sentimental without ever growing sickly sweet, a balancing act Connors continually gets away with. No major shifts or surprises appear on these two discs, just transcendent detail such as the blues that echo in the subtle slides and gentle chords of “Onora’s Kid.” Without fail, Connors places his notes so meticulously that he makes his extemporaneous miniatures sound as stout as etudes.

When compared to the warm nostalgic glow of his airs, the six-part suite Hymn of the North Star at first sounds to be an obscure and bleak turn for Connors, but close listening reveals that it springs from the same template. The distant, tolling tone clusters of Hymn even elucidate the more direct themes on As Roses Bow. Using close intervals and very few notes, Connors creates intricacy that demands attention--miss one step and the whole moves forward without you. Compare the reverie of “A Boy’s Day at the Fair” from disc I of Roses to the icy reverb of Hymn’s “Part III,” where a single blues arpeggio drifts into focus as the theme. One is concrete, the other cosmic; both are delicate and rarefied.

On Hymn, Connors has loosened the rope tethering sound to melody and rhythm, and the listener is drawn into the space that opens up. The effect is of sparseness, of music on the verge of disappearing, highlighting another facet of Connors’ approach: the role of the incidental sound. Here it is found in the presence of an ambient hiss that permeates every moment. This hypnotic hum, in fact, seems to form the celestial substance of the album, Connors’ first hesitant chords emerging from it on “Part I,” and receding into it on “Part VI”. The surface of Hymn may be simple, but the effect is complex. Indeed, a mantra for Connors could be painter Mark Rothko’s 1947 manifesto declaration, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought.” Connors has often discussed Rothko’s influence on his work and the repetitive use of large blocks and primary colors is certainly an apt visual analogue for Connors work. (For further discussion of the painter’s influence on Connors as well as on Keith Rowe, see Bill Meyers’ take on Hymn of the North Star.)

But to understand musically the uniqueness of Connors’ guitar technique, the best comparisons are not with other guitarists, but with trumpeters Bill Dixon and Tomasz Stanko, two players who have usurped the familiar approaches to their instrument without altering it radically. Their music resides in a calmer, quieter place, less in hock to regular rhythms and easy harmony, but still not prickly. With his placid strumming and hyper-articulated picking, Connors expresses none of the nervous, pulsing energy we normally associate with the guitar. Even his distorted blasts, heard to great effect on two other 2007 releases, Jandek’s Manhattan Tuesday and Connors’ collaboration with the poet Steve Dalachinsky Thin Air, have an identifiable center of calm and sense of drama. For the brief elegies “Frozen Star” and “Death of Shelley”, from As Roses Bow and both of which could have easily fit onto Hymn, Connors further compromises the border between the traditional and the experimental. Depending on one’s mood, you can focus on the pieces’ vast ambient drift, or on their sad, slow laments.

This personal hybrid of Connors gets its power and its uniqueness from how he makes the guitar sound, of all things, like a piano. He fits his bass parts to his chords and melodies so that they all sound independent but interlocking, and also stretches his chord voicings so that they resonant as rich, full-bodied clouds of tones. On pieces such as “As Roses Bow” or the numbered series of “Airs” that opens disc two, it is not the guitar’s usual stark, attacking pluck you hear; it’s the steady-handed tap of taut strings, as if Connors would have all the pedals down, making the low register expansive and welcoming, the high parts pungent, yet retaining the signature tartness so crucial to the guitar’s pull.

The key, however, to all of the above, what heightens the keyboard-like clarity of his tone, exudes his calm and shapes his ambience and melody, is the gradual, almost molten tempo that bathes every beat Connors states. If Morton Feldman had been a bluesman, he might have attempted what Connors does, and instead of duration he would have compacted his unfolding melodic language into the stray notes and repetitive, disembodied chords like the one hovering at the heart of Hymn’s first part. When Connors does assert the rhythm more, even on such seemingly simple fare as “Dance Acadia,” it’s almost revolutionary. You only becomes more aware of how slow the rest of his music is, and how unused we are to hearing such patient, solitary music these days.

Even when he collaborates, Connors highlights this solitude, either by complementing the introverted poetics of Jandek and Dalachinsky, or by finding partners sympathetic to his own spare sound. On “Part IV” of Hymn, Alan Licht and Connors engage in the album’s most enigmatic dialogue, crafting a wobbly songspace out of nebulous, nearly inaudible tones. The handful of duets with vocalist Suzanne Langille on As Roses Bow underscore the fact that not only is Connors a sensitive accompanist, but also that he is at heart a balladeer, mapping the space where loneliness and solitude mingle.

On “The Kiss -- A Moment at the Door,” from the second disc of As Roses Bow, there comes a moment when the piece’s lush, almost romantic theme starts rubbing against stray bits of amp hum and buzz, and soon the theme starts to expand and sway, but only slightly, so peripheral the change almost isn’t there, It is precisely this mingling of moods and approaches that transforms Connors into a musician for all seasons and all tastes: he can be your traditionalist, experimentalist, outsider, balladeer, bluesman, or poet. He fits in everywhere precisely because he is outside of the categories we most easily think in, and because above all, he seems close to us and very human, playing the only song he knows as well, and for as long, as he can.

Connors will perform Nov. 17 in New York City at the Abrons Arts Center with Alan Licht.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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