STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
So you’re not sure if you’ve ever heard David Torn’s music. Well, chances are you have, even if you don’t realize it. The Grammy Award–winning guitarist, composer and producer has worked with many artists in many genres. The very short list of those with whom he
has collaborated includes Laurie Anderson, Tori Amos, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Mick Karn, John Legend, Madonna, Sting and David Sylvian.
And if you don’t own any CDs by any of the aforementioned artists but you’re a movie buff you have likely heard his musical contributions in a number of films including “Twilight,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Traffic” and dozens more. Torn explained in a phone interview from his home in upstate New York that sometimes relative anonymity is beneficial. Even I was relatively unfamiliar with his career since he released the brilliant “Cloud About Mercury” (ECM Records) with Tony Levin, Bill Bruford and Mark Isham in 1987.
“Regardless of what people think about my career having disappeared because I don’t
make records very often, the fact is I’ve been working so much that I had to explain this to people. Sometimes it’s actually much more productive to not be a public figure,” he laughed.
This May Torn releases “only sky,” (ECM Records) an album of soundscapes that nearly
runs the gamut on what one can accomplish with a guitar and looping devices. It is his first release since “prezens,” (ECM Records, 2007) a band project with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey.
“Only sky” is “100 percent improvised,” said Torn. He describes it as “an exploration with the guitar that crosses through very melodic, very atmospheric, occasionally aggressive and rocky and some modern harmonic things.”
He added that there’s “a little bit of (a) cross-ethnic thing because that’s who I am in my person. Maybe I would say ‘new atmospheric music that abuses the electric guitar.’ That would be my opinion.”
Torn continued by saying: “I’m proud of it because it’s exactly what I wanted from it, which is to reveal what it is I’ve been doing in the background of many other things for a long time. For example, if you go and watch the movie “Traffic” now, you will know that when you see my name in it, that I had a lot more to do with the score than you would think by looking at the credits in the film. That’s important to me. If you look into the last three David Bowie records, you’re going to get some clues as to where some of the stuff comes from.”
The process that Torn used to record the album is an interesting one.
“There are different ways to improvise and I took two very clearly, distinctly different paths … one which was completely open and one (where) I would sit down and focus myself and have an idea or a thought or a feeling and decided that some of these pieces should be as if I were writing something.”
He added: “I think that the preparation was accidental. To be fair, I think I didn’t admit to myself that I was actually making a solo, improvised electric guitar record until I had already done a number of these pieces. It started out with the things that were mostly song-like.
“I did the bulk of the record live in a very large concert hall in Troy, New York, and didn’t put any restrictions on myself other than ‘don’t dawdle’ and ‘don’t become disengaged.’ There are times in those pieces where I did become disengaged and what I would do was, if I had loops and effects running, I would just walk away from the stage (and) keep recording it. Go have a drink of water, go to the bathroom, just walk around for a second, take the guitar off my shoulders, come back and then resume where I was in the vibe of the piece.”
However, just because the music is improvised Torn insists that it’s not experimental.
“I struggled with, or used to struggle with people saying that they thought I was part of the avant garde or they call what I’m doing experimental. It took me a while to realize — maybe it’s a compliment but it feels backhanded. I’m not an experimenter, I know what I’m doing. I’m a studied musician.”
As for this concert, it is a solo tour and again Torn will delve into mostly uncharted territory.
“I think it is going to be precisely the same process that fed the making of the record,” said Torn. “Everything will be improvised. I am most likely not going to recreate any of the music that’s on the recording. I don’t see any reason to. That was the point of the project. Beyond that, like I said, atmospheres, textures, shapes, types of harmonic development, rhythms, those things will all be in place.”
Interestingly, Torn says: “In the last group of warm up gigs, I did notice that I actually started allowing other music to pop into my sets. I have a pretty vast log of songs and pieces of music that float through my head. If they occur now, in the course of an improvisation, they might actually get applied.”
Examples of such songs that Torn mentioned include Woody Guthrie’s “Ramblin’ Round,”
Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Amazing Grace.”
Part of the magic of a David Torn concert is that you never know what to expect.
IF YOU GO
What: Ars Nova Workshop Presents David Torn
When: Performance is at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 14.
Where: Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., Philadelphia.
Ages: All ages
Tickets: $20 at www.ticketfly.com/purchase/event/789891
Info.: Check www.philartalliance.org or www.davidtorn.net.