David Torn guitar, electric oud
Recorded February 2014 at the EMPAC Concert Hall, Troy, NY and Cell Labs, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwin
Assistant engineer: Steve McLaughlin
Produced by David Torn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
The solo artist is never alone. David Torn therefore can only speak of improvisation as a form of “self-hypnosis” or “secular meditation,” acknowledging either way the role of an alternate self or spatial reality to give context to his outpourings. Having passed through the filters of wide-ranging genres, including seminal appearances on ECM, the elusive yet ever-productive guitarist returns with a set of spontaneously composed pieces: just he, himself, and I.
It’s difficult to place Torn in any particular tradition based on one recording alone, but listening to only sky it’s easy to see how his influence has crept into the younger generation of guitar-oriented smiths—in particular James Plotkin, Tim Hecker, and Christian Fennesz—and how Torn continues to enrich the wider landscape by means of a style that is more personal than ever. Each piece on only sky develops as it will, treading wherever feet may land and without fear of erasure, if only because erasure was the purpose for its invention.
Influences from the other direction may feel warranted here and there, not least of all in the Bill Frisell-like desolation of “spoke with folks.” Tearing off chunks from its quilted prairie as the starts of new memories, Torn elicits electronic tics from the feedback loop of his instrument, reminding that what we hear occurs at the level of intervention between body-spaces and thought-technologies. Even the smoother title track sounds at points like Buckethead at his most lyrical. But beneath all this associative skin flows a blood type with few potential donors. Torn’s ability to breathe through the guitar is certainly in a league of its own, and here his thoughtful pauses and expectorations both flow back into themselves, diving into the awkwardness of a first swim with all the love in the world.
In accordance with their evocatively open-ended titles, few of the album’s individual tracks are consistent in either mood or construction. The opening “at least there was nothing” sets a precedent for just this sort of unraveling. What begins in an expansive drone morphs into an errorful stream of purpose, which nevertheless sees little need to define itself in such terms. The contours imply something soft, aerodynamic. But then, the guitar grows spindles, as if waiting to snare a lightning bug, and this it seems to do the moment Torn picks up an electric oud and directs its itinerant voice into the sunlight. Similarly, “I could almost see the room” eases in by way of ambience, only to reveal that its quietude is a matter of distance and not temperament. At the helm, Torn’s guitar sputters from the notes stuck in its throat, each level of dislodging painstakingly recorded for posterity. Even “a goddamned specific unbalance” turns straightforward picking into a numerical sequence of hysterical motherboards.
Some moments, such as the twisted smiles of “ok, shorty,” bleed with omniscience. Others, such as the speech patterns of “reaching barely, sparely fraught,” exist at standstills of communication by the fascination of their own pulses. The cryptic “so much that” seems more like a continuation of itself, flushed with so much warmth that it must keel over and sing before succumbing to the past tense. This leaves only one standing: the seemingly more abstract but in reality most forthrightly singing piece of circuit bending known as “was a cave there…” Through its removal of wires, this masterful act of surgery amplifies the swan song of each precordial snap in a requiem for biological determinism. A crowd gathers in the lungs, writing its manifesto of escape bit by immeasurable but in those spaces between breaths. And when at last they breach contract by emanating through a scream, the body realizes that its fundamental error was symbiosis, no longer taken for granted as it inhales the mounting swarm of resistance and subsumes itself to a greater cause in the final tone.
Torn is part of the natural order of the airborne, the bottom end of a power chord that dips out of sight just before it can be consumed. His guitar is a choir, formless yet undeniably material, coaxing from the very earth particles of resonance. It is the crosshair within a crosshair, aimed at itself for the purpose not of annihilation but of undoing. In this enmeshment of noise and solace, the benefits of experience are in the details. Like pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon that predisposes us to seeing images in the clouds or moon, this music invites us to read it as we will. Yet the more we do so, the more the music reads shapes into us in return. It’s all so beautifully uncomfortable that it might just never leave you once it finds a way in.
(To hear samples of only sky, click here.)