David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 12 Jun 06 08:13
Our next guest, David Gans, needs little introduction, so I'll let him do it himself: Musician, radio producer, author/journalist, semi-pro photographer - David Gans has found quite a few ways to not make a good living. But he's managed to make a satisfying life of creativity, and along the way he's also founded and hosted several conferences in the WELL - inkwell.vue among them. Our recently-retired cohost gave up his post in order to give more attention to his musical career. He's working on a new CD of guitar instrumentals, tentatively titled "Cloud Surfing," that makes extensive use of digital looping technology without giving up any of the lyrical quality of his guitar playing. More info at http://www.dgans.com Leading the conversation with David will be Gary Burnett: Gary Burnett, on the WELL since 1990, is an Associate Professor at the College of Information at Florida State University. His academic work investigates the relationship between social interaction and information exchange in virtual communities. For the past three years, he has chaired the Grateful Dead caucus at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture/American Culture conferences. Recent travels have taken him to Scotland and Mexico; his next big adventure will involve becoming a grandfather in July. Welcome, David and Gary!
Gary Burnett (jera) Mon 12 Jun 06 12:35
Thanks for having me. It's nice to be doing something that doesn't involve reading and re-reading dissertation chapters by my students! And Welcome, David! I think we'll be talking about all of those things in the first line of your introduction as we go along -- "Musician, radio producer, author/journalist, semi-pro photographer" -- but I thought that maybe we'd start with that new CD of instrumentals. I've really enjoyed listening to you develop that digital looping technique over the past few years, ever since I got to see you give what I think was your very first public performance of a loop-based instrumental "jam" down here in Tallahassee, Florida (a performance that later ended up opening your "Solo Acoustic" CD, under the title "Ask Your Dog!"). Could you tell us something about what brought you to this kind of exploration, and something about the new CD?
David Gans (tnf) Mon 12 Jun 06 15:50
I got the loop device as a way of enriching my solo performances. I wanted to be able to record the chord changes of the song so I could play a guitar solo. The first unit I got, a Line 6 delay modeler, maxed out at 28 seconds - not long enough to get the whole structure of most songs. But I was able to record short passages, and that got me started on the technology. I could record the four-bar pattern in the middle of "Blue Roses" and improvise for a while. Not long after that, my friend and colelague Rik Elswit alerted me to a new device, the Boss RC-20 Loop Station. Eureka! This was what I needed! Couple of minutes of storage time, so I could stap ont he pedal while singing the verse of, say, "Waltzing Across Texas," hit the "stop" button as I went into the chorus, and then hit the "play" pedal after the second chorus and play a solo over it. Once I had that marvelous creative aid in hand and underfoot, I was off and running. By the way, "Ask Your Dog!" isn't a loop piece; it's an improvisation using the echo feature of the Line 6 as a rhythmic aid. These devices allow you to tap a pedal in time with the music and adjust the volume of the "slapback" and the number of times it repeats ("feedback"), so you can build a rhythmic improvisation. I'll post some audio examples of this music as the interview progresses. URLs TK, as we say in the journo biz.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 12 Jun 06 17:42
I've posted the two above-referenced pieces of music on this page: < http://www.dgans.com/inkwell/ > I'll post all links related to this interview there.
Gary Burnett (jera) Tue 13 Jun 06 09:41
Correction re: "Ask Your Dog!" accepted. That particular performance just sticks with me because it was the first time I heard you working with tools that would allow you to repeat elements of your playing, and the first time I heard you build the capabilities of those tools into your improvisations. You mentioned "storage time." Clearly, that kind of storage time (as Waltzing Across Texas shows) allow you to work within song structures -- to "be your own band," in a sense, and solo to your own accompaniment. But Ask Your Dog! suggests more open-ended uses of the tools as well. Have you also carried the looping capabilities into more free-form work? More spontaneous structures?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 13 Jun 06 09:59
Oh, yes! The creative potential was evident the minute I started playing with the thing. "Mud Wrestling Jam," on Solo Electric, is an excellent example of spontaneous composition. I started playing single-note melodies, grabbed a phrase I liked, and then began building on it. At about 2:45, the feel changes as I add a rhythm guitar on top of the existing loop; that kicks the piece into a higher gear. This was an exciting moment - the piece took on a life of its own, and I was in that happy place of being a delighted witness to the creativity that was flowing through me into the guitar system. The audio is posted at < http://www.dgans.com/inkwell/ >
Gary Burnett (jera) Tue 13 Jun 06 10:21
There are a number of other guitarists using looping technology as well -- people like Keller Williams, Bill Frisell, etc. -- but your work has always sounded very different to me in the way you use the tools to build multiple layers out of nothing (or out of a set of chord changes). What looping guitarists do you listen to? Who do you consider to be your peers (or your influences) in this work?
Gary Burnett (jera) Tue 13 Jun 06 10:28
Oh, and a dumb question, perhaps, but I've always wondered: with your current guitar set up, how many independent layers can you have going at once?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 13 Jun 06 10:29
The only looper I listen to regularly is Keller Williams, and I can't say he's much of an influence. I love his work, but our styles are very dif- ferent. Keller fills the stage - literally! He's got a bass guitar on a stand and an electric guitar on stand, and a much more elaborate looping rig than I have - and his sound guy, Lou, participates fully in his show. Keller does a lot of mouth percussion, which I haven't gotten into. I haven't studied other loopers, because I want to develop my own style. I've never been a guitar geek; I just want to make music. I find myself paying more attention to the technology than I used to, but I'm really more interested in what I can do on my own than in cribbing ideas from other players.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 13 Jun 06 10:51
> with your current guitar set up, how many independent layers can you have > going at once? The RC-20XL allows overdubbing, limited by the available memory: the longer theloop, the less time available for more layers. I may be wrong about that, actually: it may do the overdubbing by writing to the existing memory. All I know for sure is that I've never hit the ceiling on that. I recently acquired another looping device: the Gibson Echoplex. It's got a lot more power and a lot more control. You can program it to enable a sequence of discrete loops: hit the "next loop" button and you're filling up a new space. If you've got it set for three loops, the next touch of the "next loop" button puts you into loop space #3; if you're set up for two loops, that third hit uts you back into loop #1. You can also insert new information in an existing loop, and you can "multiply" an existing loop, adding new music over an arbitrary number of repetitions of the previous material. I'm just starting to get into the possibilities with this excellent tool. I haven't gone on the road with both devices yet, but I'm planning to. What I am doing at home right now is working with both the RX-20XL and the EDP. With two independent loops (that cannot be synchronized), I've been experimenting with what I call "clouds": building a loop of arbitrary duration, with fat, sustained notes that I fade in with a volume pedal, decaying naturally or faded out. With upwards of half a dozen notes coming and going, the effect is a "cloud" of slowly shifting harmonies. Once that's going good, I go to the other device and start something more structured. On this page - < http://www.dgans.com/inkwell/ > - you'll find a sketch called "Lenticular clouds" and an example of a composition using two loops, "Quarter to Five." The latter is a composition derived from a loop jam, created several months ago. ("Quarter to Five" is dedicated to my dear friend Tina Loney, who died last week after a long struggle with lung cancer. The forthcoming CD is dedicated to Tina's memory, and much of it was created during her last few weeks of life; I felt a strong creative impulse while we were supporting her through her illness, and this recording in particular expresses my grief over her loss and my appreciation for her love and frienship over the last 20 years. Tina was one of the first friends I made here in the WELL, and we remained very close until her death. You can see a photo and read more about Tina on my blog: http://gdhour.com/logblog/?p=126 )
David Gans (tnf) Tue 13 Jun 06 11:27
Clarifying my previous post: Neither of the loopers I hav enow allows independent control of the layers. You can add material at will, but you can only remove the most recent track. There are other devices on the market - the recently-introduced Boss RC-50 and the Looperlative - that I'm told allow independent treatment of tracks, but I haven't seen them yet. By the way, there is a web site devoted to this technology: Looper's Delight! http://loopers-delight.com/loop.html
Gary Burnett (jera) Tue 13 Jun 06 12:10
That would be a cool addition -- the ability to morph individual layers independently from all other layers. It seems that one of the challenges of this kind of loop work is that it can run the risk of becoming overly repetitive. In using loops within structured songs (to solo over yourself, or to create multi-layered backings for vocals), you have an automatic "out" (when the verse moves to the chorus, say). But in more open-ended ipieces, how do you work with the repetitions to keep things interesting and fresh? Do you find, when you're working at home on new pieces, that you end up discarding a lot of them because they don't break free from the repetitions? There are some interesting similarities here with a genre of music I know you don't care for much: techno; good techno offers a kind of infinite variation within infinite repetition, while bad techno is just the same thing over and over and over again. Of course, repetition is not inherently a bad thing -- witness the Beatles' Hey Jude, which makes a positive virtue of it!
David Gans (tnf) Tue 13 Jun 06 12:45
> how do you work with the repetitions to keep things interesting and fresh? It's a struggle! Sometimes the natural transition point is 15 bars away, and you just have to try to keep it interesting until you can move or mutate. Sometimes a desperate act takes you into a new place. And sometimes when you listen back to it, it feels tedious as hell. You just gotta give it your best and stay on your toes. > Do you find, when you're working at home on new pieces, that you end up > discarding a lot of them because they don't break free from the repeti- > tions? Oh yes. And yet, I'm surprised at how much of the work I do at home is valid and useable. Regarding Techno, Ambient, etc. I never felt much of an affinity for that style of music, and now I are one. Go figure!
Gary Burnett (jera) Tue 13 Jun 06 13:44
Well, not really, since your work with technological enhancements and digital tools (your "electronica" work, as it were) takes place within a context that also includes other musical tools that don't really form a significant part of most techno or ambient stuff -- and that's the context of the SONG. I get the sense that, even though you're working on a new CD that focuses on the capabilities of looping, such work is never completely divorced from things like melody and, especially, WORDS. That may be why the looping pieces I've heard all maintain a strong commitment to lyricism. Certainly in performance, looping pieces (and other instrumental pieces) can never be disengaged from the songs that surround them. Which is also true of lots of other bands that I know you and I both love (obviously the Grateful Dead, but also more recent bands like Donna The Buffalo, Railroad Earth, and the Waybacks). The experimentation and "jamming" that is there is always at the service of the song, and never just wanking for its own sake. Even though some of your loop pieces are stand-alone works, they never seem disengaged from the rest of your work to me. Or am I barking up the wrong tree here? Do you see them as separate or of-a-piece? And, if they are of-a-piece with the rest of what you do, are you able to articulate the connections?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 13 Jun 06 21:54
I am, first and foremost, a songwriter. I was never even much of a fan of instrumentals - I've composed a few over the years, but not many. I never thought of myself as been such great shakes as a guitarist, either, until recently. Now I'm still not sure I'd be too aggressive in declaring myself to be a guitarist worth listening to, but I am starting to get the feeling that I have something unique to offer when you look at the whole package. I had a conversation with a friend today about this very subject. Without ever intending to, I seem to have migrated to that obscure corner of the musical map that's occupied by the Grateful Dead and very few others: the thin region of that big 3-D Venn Diagram where simple, melodic, country/folk intersects with weird, sometimes scary psychedelic music. I don't think I'll ever give up songs. I've been writing songs since I was 15, and I still consider that the basic unit of musical communication. I am enjoying this new mode of composition, and I suspect that my shows this sum- mer will have more improvisation and few cover songs, but even when there are no words, I still feel that my performances have a narrative structure, and I am a word guy from the git-go.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 14 Jun 06 00:32
I should also say that I'm probably never going to stop doing the simplest and most satisfying thing: singing and playing the acoustic guitar. I'll always perform "Falling Star," "Popstar," and "Lazy River Road" without technical assistance.
Gary Burnett (jera) Wed 14 Jun 06 12:02
When you say that you feel that your performances "have a narrative structure" even without words, I wonder how you mean it. Not, I suspect, in the sense of there being a specific "plot" with a beginning, middle, and end, but perhaps more a sense of an arc of development through a show from, a sense of going someplace ... I know that you don't typically pre-determine setlists, but do you have a sense when you start a show of where it's going to end up, what the narrative direction is going to be? Or is it something that unfolds as you go? Or something you're more aware of after the fact?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 14 Jun 06 12:21
(Note: offsite readers with comments or questions can send email to <email@example.com> to have them added to this conversation)
David Gans (tnf) Wed 14 Jun 06 12:41
It's kinda hard to say exactly what I mean about that narrative thing. It may be changing as the instrumentals creep into the repertoire - but maybe not. Instrumentals have emotional content, and even drama. I discovered, over time, that there is an overarching story that I'm trying to tell. I can't tell you what that story is, but there are some specific emotional notes that I've been trying to strike. I figured out that the songs by other composers that stick in my repertoire are ones that further my own narrative. It's not a story with a plot, but it's a - jeez, I'm not sure if I can ar- ticulate this - it's a moral thread, maybe? An emotional progression? I know that in the last few years the focus of my songwriting has changed. Having attained a reasonable degree of integration and stability in my own life, I've been writing songs that address larger issues. I think "Surely You Jest" ( http://dgans.com/lyrics.html#Jest ) was a turning point for me. Although though it wound up being its own world, as these tings tend to do, it began as an expiation of a personal struggle - not with a specific person, although several specific people were being addressed, but of an ongoing difficulty in my professional life. My usual introduction to the song is something like, "I worked for years in a place that was a weird combination of Dilbert and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, with a bit of Reservoir Dogs thrown in. You ever have to work with somebody who's just a total dick to you for years and years, and then they ask you for a favor?" It wasn't any specific event that precipitated this, by the way, but a certain behavior pattern in the culture I'm referring to. The song took on a life of its own, and the story that's implied in this series of hallucinatory verses - I've also introduced it as "a crazed rant in the voices of two or three different people, one of whom was me" - doesn't really address the real-world inspirations for it. But that's fine - the song works, and it represents a stylistic breakthrough for me on the lyric front. The reason I mention "Surely You Jest" here is that the wrting and performing of it seems to have healed the long-term ache I set out to address. Maybe I've offloaded the anxiety?
Gary Burnett (jera) Wed 14 Jun 06 12:56
I like the idea of narrative as "moral thread" rather than linear story-line -- that makes sense. The poet Robert Duncan worked on several long poems that were not linear in any real sense, but were, rather, built up out of what he called "Passages" (the title of one of the long poems). He used the open form as a place that could accomodate all of the disparate things that concerned him over time because of that "moral thread" or because of his intellectual engagement with the ideas with which he worked. So, bits & pieces of his reading made their way into the poem, as did fragments of narrative, philosophy, etc. The long poem definitely has a shape and a structure, but it is one that isn't predetermined. It's held together by the focus of one man, working on his craft. That's a long-winded way of saying that maybe the way "narrative" works in musical form can be similar. Because it's *you* bringing all of these things together -- guitar work, your own songs, cover songs -- there is a coherence throughout. And, of course, a fair number of the songs you choose to cover invoke narrative episodes that don't resolve easily -- I'm thinking in particular of "Pancho and Lefty," which is a narrative in which the single most important event in the story is left unstated. And a song like "Surely You Jest" certainly depends on narrative, even as it explodes any simple understanding of what narrative is -- those two or three different voices hang together.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 14 Jun 06 14:40
> "Pancho and Lefty," which is a narrative in which the single most important > event in the story is left unstated. That is one of the greatest songs ever, and the holes in the story are part of what makes it so. That quality is shared by Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives" (which I have also performed from time to time), and of course any number of Rober Hunter lyrics. "Jack Straw," from the Grateful Dead songbook, shares that quality: you see shards of story but they can be put together in any number of ways. The beholder's imagination does the rest.
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 14 Jun 06 16:31
David, nice to see you here, and I look forward to hearing your new music. I have a less "loopy" question. Could you please run down a list of the songwriters who influenced or inspired you, and a little precis of what you feel you learned from each one? Thanks!
David Gans (tnf) Wed 14 Jun 06 17:01
That's the sort of list I could cogitate on for hours, if not days. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order (i.e. neither chronological nor "order of importance"), I'd say my role models as songwriters include: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jackson Browne, Steve Goodman, John Prine, CSN, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Smokey Robinson, Gram Parsons, Jeb Puryear, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Robbie Robertson, the Grateful Dead. And when I say "Smokey Robinson" I mean Holland-Dozier-Holland, Mann & Weil, Neil Diamond, Carole King, and the rest of the early''60s Motown and Brill Building geniuses who filled my head with magic in the days before I picked up the guitar. Someone somewhere said that if you learn the Beatles' book, you'll know everything you need to know about chords and harmony. There's great truth to that: the most important thing I learned from the Beatles was to do the unex- pected. Take that middle eight into a surprising key and then find an in- genious way to get back to the verse. From Bob Dylan, I learned to make the imagery vivid, don't be afraid to bury the lede in a few layers of provocative hallucinations, and make a marriage of the words and melody. From Van Morrison, I learned that the voice can be a rhythm instrument. I don't sing the Dead's song "Bertha" very often any more, but there's a place in the second verse where I sing as though I were playing a drum fill: "Then- I-got-this-feelin'-I-was fallin'..." My first musical influence was Al Jolson. in LA when I was a kid, we have the "Million Dollar Movie" on Channel 9 that they showed every day and I think twice on weekends. I got hooked on "The Jolson Story" and my parents bought me some of those records. "Avalon," "You Made me Love You," Rock-a- Bye Your Baby," "April Showers" - I had the craft of songwriting in my bones at an early age. Steve Goodman and John Prine set an example of warmth, sincerity and humor. Prine is the absolute master of bittersweet; there are songs in his book that will make you laugh while you're crying. "Chain of Sorrow (Bruised Orange," from the album "Bruised Orange, never fails to choke me up. That's not a funny song, but it's as poignant as anything I've ever heard. Plus, Jim Rothermel's soprano sax at the end will make you use up whatever Kleenex you have left after Prine's done singing.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 14 Jun 06 17:02
What diga asks. Also wondering how the song writing process works with you. And does that influence how you think about more improvisational efforts?
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 14 Jun 06 17:03
Great, thanks Dave.
Gary Burnett (jera) Wed 14 Jun 06 17:11
You commented on some of those songwriters. But what about others among them? What did you learn, for instance, from Smokey Robinson or Elton John & Bernie Taupin?
Members: Enter the conference to participate