Mike Cooper

Metal Box

Nilan Perera
Harmless Love
Synaptic Circus

Vinz Vonlanthen
Leo Records

By Ken Waxman
July 24, 2005

Q: When is a guitar not a guitar? A: When it becomes a sound source as well as a musical instrument.

Reconfiguring the world’s most popular electrified apparatus has occupied the thoughts and hands of improvisers for many years. Its impetus goes back to when fuzz-tone distortion with the attendant assemblage of pedals, phasers, flangers and chorus became standard equipment in rock bands. After that, more analytical types, like the three fretmen here, started formulating strategies to distend guitar textures without dependence on a station wagon full of electrical equipment or studio board multi-tracking.

Serendipitously enough, the guitars on these discs are somewhat autodidactic and come to improv with non-traditional-jazz and non-New music credentials. Each also served an apprenticeship in different so-called popular musics.

Long-time Rome resident Mike Cooper, a native of the United Kingdom, began as a folk-blues guitarist and singer/songwriter, then diversified into electronic music, improv and sound installations in the company of other explorers such as saxophonist Lol Coxhill and keyboardist Steve Beresford. Toronto-based Nilan Perera mixes a background in punk rock bands and South Asian drone ensembles with incursions into dance accompaniment and electro-acoustics with composer Sarah Peebles and British saxophonist John Butcher. Vinz Vonlanthen of Geneva is a rocker turned jazz school graduate whose influences from Brazilian and West African music led him to film and theatre scoring and collaborations with advanced Swiss players like pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and reedist Christophe Berthet.

Using his 1920s National steel-bodied Tri-Plate resonator guitar, Cooper’s Metal Box is a slightly more than half an hour disc of six shortish improvisations that reference Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Fahey much more than Derek Bailey or Jim Hall. Approximately double that length, Perera’s Harmless Love uses electronic loops and a collection of appended objects to alter the guitar’s textures, creating unique timbres without – except for a couple of tracks – overdubbing or editing. Following a similar strategy, Vonlanthen packs 16 improvisations into slightly less than 55 minutes on Oeil. Multi-tracking only figures in two of his pieces as well.

While the quantity of tracks gives Vonlanthen many forums in which to explore different extended techniques, the fact that only five tracks are longer than four minutes limits those investigations. Take “Marmel Arch” and “Abell 2218”, for instance, each of which clocks in at less than three minutes. The first appears to centre on overloaded amp distortion that turns scratching finger motions into echoing, church-bell like pulsation. The second showcases shrill string tones that are so constricted that their scraped oscillations turn onto one another and reappear as raw, ear-splitting quivers. There’s also “Oszille Rosée”, where shivering passing chords are intersected by gong-like resonation until an abrasive call-and-response pattern is set up between the chiming tones and a basso continuum.

To make their points, other pieces employ timbres as different as stray cat-like yowls from punished strings to crunching whammy-bar reverberations. Most noteworthy though are extended excursions such as the almost 6½-minute “Neptun” and “Wolf Rufen Nachts”. The former builds a piercing wave of sound out of mechanized banjo-like snaps, slurred, buzzing loops and piercing tones that could almost come from a soprano voice.

Dramatic foreground oscillation and waveform echoes characterize “Wolf Rufen Nachts”, which additionally melds freight train-like echoes and low-pitched reverberations. Moving between vocal-like shrilling and phrases built from fuzz tones, at one point Vonlanthen seems to be strumming clawhammer style, until the speedy single note pulsations meld the live and looped themes.

Microtonal finger picking on “Mabiche” gives rise to several associations. Doubled, vibrated pitches suggest the timbres both of an Indian sarod and Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe’s mandolin picking. In abrasiveness the sounds are not altogether distant, and both could be equally exotic to European-trained ears.

Bluegrass’ prolix instrumental virtuosity probably had an impact on reformed folkie Cooper, just as South Asian drones would have affected Perera. But Harmless Love’s dozen tracks have more to do with multi microphone placement in a large space than any residual memories.

Even “A Job in My Factory” and “Wet Land”, both of which utilize post-production processing don’t upset the overall design. Concerned with extending the finger-picking, electronics merely add watery crunches and riffling strings near the guitar’s bridge to the first tune’s blunt interface. Live budgie-like twittering and chromatic guitar scuffs add an ambient undercurrent to the improvisation on the second, softening harsh primitivism.

Instructively, the 8½ minute “Bowling and Being”, where atmospheric, non- directional guitar sounds give way to an undulating drone, is more ambient than developed, while wave-form manipulation makes it seem as if creation is taking place within, rather than on, the guitar strings. Additionally, “Ice Mine” and – revealingly – “Les Oreilles de Punk”, relate back to industrial noise making, with “…Punk” including an extended lexicon of lead guitar licks, as splayed fills and sharp descending runs. “Ice...” adds a secondary drone, perhaps inflated by transistors or clips, to polyphonic gong-like sequences and dive bomber resonating fuzz tones.

Other tunes include swelling output reverb, percussive hand tapping on the strings, slurred fingering, echoes of blues tonality and even frailing and flat picking.

This mix of ancient to future string methodology relates to Cooper, who fits together samples and treatments, hand heel banged strings and cleanly focused picks, plunks and snaps. Often the overall effect is exhilarating. Alternately, as on a tune like “A Remote Forgotten Chord”, the effect can become too dense. It’s as if a secondary melody is struggling to appear, held back by the guitar’s simple conception – sort of like putting a Jaguar motor in a Model T Ford.

Battering the body for percussive effects and focusing on chromatic strumming often exposes the inner folkie under Cooper’s BritImprov exterior – as on “Intuitive Acoustic Archeology”. Showcasing squeezed, infinitesimal string plucks and pick guard scrapes at the top, his guitar playing is soon transmitted from bordering on that Bailey’s or Roger Smith’s styles to reference Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Dave Van Ronk.

All this come to particular fruition on “A Big Wave Event” and “Last Chants and Death for Blind Joe Death”, coincidentally the CD’s longest tracks. Raucous, “…Event” melds rattling reverb and minimalist note patterns to suggest it’s part of a recital taking place in a Mississippi Delta on the moon.

A threnody for that later American guitarist John Fahey, the nearly eight minutes of “… Death” lets Cooper expose his inimitable and individual techniques. Two-handed string tapping, keening bottleneck runs, open chordal resonation and looping interface play a role, as do waveform whooshes and, down stroke scratches and snips – not to mention full-fingered strums and thumps, as if he’s battering the guitar with the floor – or is it vice versa? Metal Box is an apt memorial to one idiosyncratic guitarist (Fahey) from another (Cooper).

Taken together, these discs prove that idiosyncrasy, originality and technique arise in many countries among many guitarists who may or may not know about one another. But now you know about them all.