Matt Borghi and Michael Teager on Echoes Tonight – 11/6/2013

That’s right our Living Room Concert is being broadcast on Echoes tonight, where we performed several selections from Convocation – Read John Diliberto’s excellent post about our performance and our work here… Truly an honor to have John write up something and even listen to our work. Honored.

With the show syndicated to hundreds of stations it’s bound to be on near you – Check the site for local listings -http://www.echoes.org/

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia/Concert Hall

So by now you’re probably tired of my love fest with Philadelphia, but after all, if you’re going to have a love fest about a certain locale, shouldn’t it be the City of Brotherly Love? Me thinks: Yes. Seriously, though, I’ve got much love for Philadelphia and the super kind and generous people I met on my trip there. Michael Teager and myself would love to make this an annual trip whether for WXPN’s Star’s End with Chuck van Zyl, or for The Gatherings, or for Event Horizon or Gate to Moonbase Alpha, or all of the above to say nothing of the various stops friendly to ambient & space music within an hour or two of Center City.

The music experience at The Gathering is an experience that I’ve been put trying to put in words. Out of all of the ambient gigs I’ve played, I’ve always tried for something that I can only liken to… well, that’s it, I wasn’t able to liken it to much other than an Ann Arbor & University of Michigan-based series called the UMS or University Musical Society. As far back, as I can remember the UMS has been bringing great performing arts to Michigan. Sure there are other folks that have done some things, too, but nobody, in my lifetime, has done it so consistently as UMS. As I started to think about my own music, I began to realize that a UMS-like setting was, in my mind, the most appropriate setting for the music I create. I realized that The Gathering in Philadelphia was very much like a UMS-style performance. In fact, to date, a UMS-hosted Charles Lloyd performance was the only other performance outside of The Gathering performance, where undivided attention was given throughout the entire performance from beginning to end.

It slowly began to dawn on me that the performance approach that I was looking for was that of a concert hall. This came to me slowly and profoundly, because while I use all kinds of electronic gizmos and doohickeys, more than anything I’ve always considered my music more of a symphonic-style music and been inspired by those works than much of what’s been done with electronic music. To this day, I’m a huge fan of symphonies and I consider my greatest compositional influences Claude Debussy, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Gustav Mahler. As Frank Zappa said ‘the symphony orchestra is the greatest instrument for a composer to work with’. I believe that. I don’t have a symphony orchestra, nor the money to pay the players, but I have the sounds, the frequencies and I can organize them in a way that allows me to create my own kind of symphonic works.

Time will tell, but it may be that this trip to Philadelphia marks a turning point, for me, as a composer and performer of this music. I already feel different about the music that I’m composing and performing. I will still play anywhere that I have the chance to play to expose people to the music and sound, but I realize now that much like my compositional influences of yesteryear, and even more relevant contemporary composers who’ve inspired me like Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass, Arvo Part, Harold Budd and Keith Jarrett – the music is best enjoyed and appreciated in a concert hall, a place where listening and experiencing the music is the focal point.

Now how do we get it there…?

Say Goodbye – An Obituary for my Trusty Alesis Nanoverb Reverb Unit

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Listening to Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack to Thief and thinking ‘this is weird’ but then thinking it’s not quite as weird as what I’m about to write, which is more or less an obituary for my reverb until. Not just any reverb unit, though, mind you, but a 1997 Alesis Nanoverb. It didn’t die, per se… we never quite got there, but she’s been on her last leg for quite some time. Her inputs are scratchy and make everything fuzzy, or worse, audio levels drop off entirely mid-performance. And I know that you’re asking yourself ‘what kind of tool writes an obit for a reverb unit?’ but I’m telling you, at no time, have I had a piece of gear that was better than this Alesis Nanoverb. I think she cost about $100 bucks new, if that, you can get ‘em on eBay for a fraction of that, and have been able to at least since the Nanoverb 2 came out some times in the last ten years. No matter, though, I stuck with my Nanoverb, she was a real beaut!

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I bought my Nanoverb in 1997 before I even knew what ambient or spacemusic was, along with a Nanocompressor, well, because knowing nothing about home recording and I think because the guy at Guitar Center talked me into it, it seemed like a good idea. I had no freakin’ clue what to do with it. I had always been a bass player, you plugged that it into an amp, if it rattled your lower intestines like a traveller’s case of IBS, you were in business – Let’s rock! However, when I did discover the power of the Nanoverb, it was all done – She was the one for me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Alesis Nanoverb was a big deal in a small box. I remember the first time that I learned about the plate reverb with the mix turned all the way up. My friend and I were doing a gig, a background kind of acoustic jazz gig that I was doing at the time, and he brought the Nanoverb and started playing with it on my guitar. I remember so clearly: We were at a café, it was early spring, just off Biddle in Wyandotte, a “downriver” community south of Detroit, and as he turned up the mix, I played my first bit of ambient guitar. I didn’t know that at the time, I just thought it was pretty cool. I made a mental note, wrapped up the evening by playing a few crummy covers like Stairway to Heaven with 9th chords or something to make it more jazzy (keeping in mind that at this time, I thought jazz fakebook was doing just that: playing 7th or 9th chords over rock stuff and tricking would be listeners at cafes into believing it was jazz, which paid more than covers of Blowin’ in the Wind).

To be sure, the Nanoverb sat on a variety of shelves for a variety of years, but some time in 1999, I picked it up and began to use it. I found it immediately useful. Soon I couldn’t be without it. I’ve played probably a few hundred ambient gigs and it has been to every one. I’ve gone through dozens of guitars, more than several dozen other effects units, and at least a dozen laptops and other computers; literally tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear, but the Nanoverb, she’s been my trusty ally.


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Her power connection has been getting ever more scratchy and her outputs and inputs are bad. She’s even rusted; I can’t say that about any of my other electronic gear. I knew that she was getting a little long in the tooth, but I just couldn’t bear to part with her. I started exploring other reverb options a couple years ago knowing that any day she would give up the ghost. I’ve looked at a variety of offerings, but finally had to make a move, and frankly was kind of looking forward to it, as the Nanoverb has also been part of my sound, as long as I’ve had a sound. I didn’t know that the trip to Echoes would be her last journey. In fact, at one point, she started to die during the performance, though, with all of the doohickeys I have hooked up, I didn’t realize it was her until I was back home and doing diagnostic work.

I can think of no better send-off than to have her take this crazy journey with me and to die when we both, together, ascended the mighty new age, ambient (or depending on your preference, contemporary instrumental) music ladder to finally get some national radio exposure for the work that we created together.

When I was finally removing her from the effects chain I couldn’t help but feel like I needed to honor all of her fine work on my website. She’s done good, real good. For anyone ever looking for a fine, durable ambient unit, the likes of which do not seem to be made anymore, I say to you, check out an Alesis Nanoverb, you just might find your new best friend. In the meantime, I look forward to her whiling a way her days resting in the studio, looking on, while all of the younger devices and doohickeys build on all that she created for all those many years. Take a break, sister, you deserve it.

 

The Fellowship of the Travelling Symphony (in a Box): An Ambient Guitarist’s Tale

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Without giving too much way, during Michael Teager and my interview with Echoes’ host John Diliberto we happened upon the subject of my effects boxes, pedals, etc… (partially pictured above) – Where, for the first time, I really explained what I was trying to do out loud, or not in writing with all kinds of musicological references. Like for the first time, as I talked about it, I realized for me, all of my drone ambient work, and even the guitar work that I laid down on Convocation was really, for me, my own symphony… I jokingly called it the Matt Borghi Symphony Orchestra, or the Matt Borghi Municipal Band.

Anybody who has ever come talked to me after a performance knows that I’m less than enthusiastic to talk about gear. For me, gear is the necessary evil, the means to an end, and I get that people are into it, sometimes, I’m into it, but the focal point of the performance is the music not the tools that helped me make it. Tools are just objects, but when put in the hands of a craftsperson, those tools can create objects and experiences of beauty, so it’s with that in mind, that I really wanted to take a minute and talk about the guitar, the “ambient guitar” we took to calling it over the course of the Echoes interview.

I never really set out to be an ambient guitarist. If anything I wanted to write piano music like Claude Debussy, but since I couldn’t play piano, nor could I commit to the decades of musical training that was requisite for playing the piano pieces I so loved, I started trying to do with guitar. I started with classical guitar first, not enough sustain. I then began with steel string acoustic, my primary instrument (even now) and alternate tunings. That was closer. I was starting to get that music that was more awash in sound less with a tonal center – Fugues of a sort. Still not perfect, though. Michael Hedges was getting close, but he had lots of studio production, I thought. I did not. I bought an Alesis Nanoverb to record some Bach Minuets and needed a little room reverb, but then I turned up the plate reverb and everything was awash. If I could just get rid of the “attack” I might be on to something.

Years passed. I played, dabbled, experimented and failed much, but I was getting closer to the sound. Finally, I decided it had to be an electric guitar. I bought a Strat – “The Plank” I call it, possibly after the influence of listening to Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash where one of the main characters, Y.T., is always riding her “plank” or futuristic skateboard… but also because the Strat is many things, many great things, but it also like playing a plank of wood, nothing like a full-bodied flat-top acoustic or archtop electric guitar pressing firmly against your torso, but it works good as an ambient guitar and it travels well, mostly. I can’t help but think about the story producer/composer George Martin relayed about Jeff Beck and his strat during the recording of the pivotal Blow by Blow:

“He brings a battered old Fender in and says, “This bloody thing is no good.” And I say, ‘Well, haven’t you got another one?” And he said, “No, it’s all I’ve got.” And then he proceeds to pick it up and make the most incredible, beautiful, heavenly sounds imaginable.”

I love that story, because in many ways I hate my strat, I want to play an acoustic, something with body, but on the other hand, I love it, because it does everything just right and responds to what I’m trying to do perfectly. This became even more profoundly true when I installed a Roland guitar synth on it. Then I chained it up with all kinds of different effects and processors, lots of reverbs… I’m always on the one for reverbs. There’s probably not a sound I can’t make with it now, but as a purist, I do loathe all the gadgetry, but I do get that symphonic sound… Well, I’ve jumped ahead. Damn. So it goes.

Anyway, after a lot of time, I did figure out how to get the sound, my sound, the microsymphony, all of the timbres and textures and nuance. It took time and more experimentation that I care to think back about. I won’t change it soon. It’s perfect. Travelling with it is a pain in the ass and I’m always afraid something’s going to break and render the whole thing useless. That will happen. That’s nature of performance, usual folks have Murphy’s Law, musicians, especially performers have Spinal Tap Law and it never, ever, never fails! I remember reading about this guitar player named George Lynch, he was big and a sideman with Don Dokken when I was a kid, he’s probably still working, he was good – Anyway, he talked about his toybox of effects and how he had to change things on the road, because the toybox wasn’t road-worthy. The Symphony in the Box or Travelling Space Station Module, as I’ve called it both, isn’t very road-worthy and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t all condensed into a MacBook Pro at some point and then augmented with other live guitars and instrumentation, preferably acoustic. I like the sound of that. I’ve never recorded like that. I’ve tried, but it’s never come out very good. If at first you don’t succeed…