David Torn is always in motion. If he’s not doing session work for artists as diverse as David Bowie, k.d. lang, Madonna, or film composer Howard Shore (of Lord of the Rings fame), he’s producing sessions for someone like saxophonist Tim Berne or Kaki King, mixing a big-band album, recording video-game tracks, writing large-form orchestral pieces, or composing his own film scores. Somewhere in there, he also finds time to offer feedback to his favorite amp and pedal makers. “I also have a duet project in the works, but I can’t talk about it yet,” he laughs, “mostly because the other person doesn’t know about it.”
Fortunately for fans of adventurous, genre-defying guitar music, Torn also recently released Only Sky—his first ever solo-guitar album. But don’t think it’s some acoustic strum fest just because it’s nothing but guitar. Sure, the echo-laden electric tones of “Spoke with Folks” bask in simple structure and melody, but it wouldn’t be Torn without some stuttering weirdness thrown in here and there. In fact, more than anything, Sky is full of cinematically quirky soundscapes that longtime fans are bound to relish. “So Much What” is like a soundtrack to a troubling, surreal dream that ends with the reassuring dawn of a new day. Meanwhile, “Was a Cave, There…” finds Torn wielding his new gold-foil-equipped Ronin Mirari guitar like a glitchy, fuzzed-out theremin before descending into an atonal labyrinth of multitap-delay weirdness that would perfectly heighten tension in an opening scene from The Descent.
“Only Sky is easily the most personal album I’ve made,” says the Amityville, New York, native. “It’s real-time composition, but it’s about relaxing into it, enjoying the flow of sound, letting the music happen in its own time—and being open to the unexpected.” As Torn prepared for his first solo tour, Torn took time to discuss the musical meditations that fuel his creativity, balancing seemingly opposite musical careers, and his newfound love of fuzz pedals.
This is your first completely solo recording. What made you take the leap and commit to this approach?
I do these home recordings all the time and usually post them somewhere like the Gear Page or SoundCloud. The album grew out of the fact that a few people said I should do a solo album and let people hear what I’ve been doing in the background of other music for the last 35 or 40 years. When [ECM Records owner] Manfred Eicher first brought up the idea in 2005 or 2006 I was, like, “Yeah, I’ll do that but I’m going to do like three other records first.” I’m not the world’s fastest study when it comes to making records, so I only made the one record [2007’s Prezens]. This time around, I went “Ok. This is it. This is what I’m doing.”
Like the Koll Tornados Torn has used for years, the Ronin Mirari also features his “Tornipulator” circuit on the upper bout. The first button kills the guitar signal and activates a built-in Shaker mic (under Torn’s left hand) that takes in sound from the room and creates feedback. Button two introduces a ground lift and creates 60-cycle hum. Button three is a kill switch.
Photo by Peter Gannushkin.
Was the music entirely improvised or did you have some sketches that you took into the sessions?
Three or four pieces on the record—“Spoke with Folks,” “Reaching Barely, Sparely Fraught,” and “Only Sky,” and maybe “OK Shorty”—are improvised in very different ways than the rest of the record, and those were the ones that I did at home. The rest was much more free-form and exploratory. I recorded those at EMPAC [Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center] concert hall in Troy, New York.
How were those three or four pieces improvised differently?
I had this series going a couple of years ago, where I would get up and do this musical meditation. I just wanted to see how I felt in the morning. During the mornings when I would sit down for those solo pieces, I would talk to myself—like a crazy person. I’d say, “I want you to have an idea or a feeling and I want you to improvise as if it was a song. It doesn’t have to be a song or precisely in song format but it needs sections and themes and I want it to be improvised.” I would sit there quietly for two or three minutes and see what I felt. I didn’t want it to be like a mental exercise, so I would spend about half a minute touching the guitar and playing two or three chords, and then I would just play. I probably did about 40 days of that.
So they were kind of free-improv exercises?
“Free improvisation” has kind of developed this reputation as something that completely ignores the possibility of any kind of normalcy, any song form, any pentatonics, any major scales, any normal chords, anything that isn’t noise. If you ask a guitar player about free improve, they think of a bunch of saxophone players going wahhh, and to them it doesn’t make any sense at all. But if you’re playing with people who are similar to you and love all kinds of music, the improvisation is very likely not going to end up being like that—it’s not going to end up as one ostinato bass riff for 25 minutes. If you take into account a lot of different kinds of music and you’ve educated yourself to absorb those kinds of music, then you’re going to end up with something that is neither one of those two extremes.
What elements of those “meditation” songs would you say are different from the rest of the album?
In those pieces I am barely looping. There are just a few small loops, and there’s hardly any gear involved at all—just me, a Kemper Profiler, and occasionally a Hexe reVOLVER [glitch/stutter pedal]. I wanted to keep things super simple, but later I decided that it really wasn’t enough. When I decided that I needed to record in a big hall, I thought I should just bring most of my live rig. Once I got in there I thought, “Forget about the song form. Just do what you do. Be free. Make noise. Explore the rhythm. Do what you feel like.” I spent two or three days recording, and that’s the bulk of the record.