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David Torn at Streamside Concerts

Mark Sullivan By

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David Torn
Streamside Concerts
Arden, NC
June 6, 2015

Experimental electric guitarist David Torn was touring to support his album only sky (ECM, 2015), a collection of solo performances done in real time using looping and other electronic processing. But there was no attempt to play selections from the recording: as Torn explained during the Q&A after the concert, all of the performances on the tour were completely improvised. Anyone who has followed Torn's career should know to expect the unexpected!

The opening piece was a 25-minute improvisation built on pulsing short loops, a Torn trademark. It included the first of many sounds that did not seem to have come from a guitar—or even from this planet—a series of high alien bird calls. Torn's loops are not static. He actively interacts with them, adding and subtracting musical ideas and modifying previously recorded sounds. You quickly get used to hearing many sounds that don't line up with what you're seeing, although Torn also plays melodic solos that are just as visual as any guitar solo. He declared the piece to be pretty abstract in his comment to the audience. But he pointed out that he actually wrote a Madonna song (I think he was referring to "What It Feels Like For A Girl," which used a Torn sample for which he was given composer credit).

Next came a shorter piece, far less abstract. In fact, if that chord progression sounded familiar, it's because Torn was covering the old Johnny Nash hit "I Can See Clearly Now." The audience seemed dubious, so he quickly played through the tune to demonstrate. Of course his approach rendered the song somewhat deconstructed, but he was careful to point out that he did not mean it ironically. Putting the song through his process is just a fun thing to do.

Torn concluded his first set with another long improvisation. This one had a more open, atmospheric feel. It moved from a lot of melodic content to a largely textural final section.

After a break Torn launched into the longest improvisation of the night, a 30-minute excursion that was built on short, rhythmic loops. He made frequent use of a foot pedal that triggered Theremin-like squeals (another instance of a guitar sounding nothing like a guitar). I saw no evidence that the audience was losing interest, but Torn thanked us for our patience at the end. He said it took a while to get something going, and if it was a recording he'd probably cut 15 minutes out of it. He clearly does not take himself too seriously!

For the last selection of the concert Torn delivered what he described as the obligatory blues that every electric guitar performance must include. Torn indeed delivered lots of blues licks (of both the Chicago and Delta varieties), convincingly enough that he could hold his own at a blues jam. Like the earlier pop cover it came off as unexpected, but not ironic. It made a light-hearted finale for the performance.

Torn then entertained questions from the audience. He first mentioned that the performance was entirely improvised, then talked about his creative process. His improvs start from an open, receptive place, and are about feelings, not ideas. The solo performances are only one aspect of his creative life, which includes composition and group work in rock and jazz idioms. The big difference between solo and group work is that as soloist he is responsible for instigating everything: there are no other musicians introducing ideas to which he can react. One way he surprises himself is by doing things that are not entirely predictable. If there's an accident, he must find a way to shape the sound into something he can use. He was dismissive of the suggestion that his sound is original, giving most of the credit to the influence of Terry Riley and Jon Hassell.

A memorable performance, made even more immediate by the venue. Streamside Concerts is a series of house concerts in the Asheville, NC area, which began in 2011. They take place in a high-ceilinged living room with good sound and a beautiful mountain view through the windows behind the performers. This show was sold out, which means about 55 attendees.

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