Birds of a Feder

Classical acoustician Janet Feder takes flight with a flock of musical surprises.

There hasn't been enough laughing in classical music for centuries," claims local guitar phenom Janet Feder. "Too much composing and performing gets caught up in itself. I spent years practicing scales and doing all that. Hopefully, I'm sort of returning the fun back to guitar playing. Because sometimes, when I'm exploring for a cool sound that I can write a piece around, I'm playing like I used to play when I was a kid. I'm really, actually playing, you know. Like making mud pies."

Feder's style of playing acoustically "prepared" guitar does indeed conjure the messy childhood thrill of discovery. By attaching accessories such as beads, wires, bra hooks, split rings from Swiss Army knives and modified alligator clips ("To some people, it's a roach clip," she says) to her six-string guitar, the 41-year-old Denver native produces a brand of classically based instrumental music that almost defies categorization. "Even though my records find their way into the avant-garde bin -- and that's kind of where they go -- pieces that I write are melodic, rhythmic, highly listenable, songlike music, because I write from a songlike perspective. I can't help it. I'm an American girl who grew up on folk music and rock music and classical music, and I write songs."

Much like that of finger-style virtuoso Leo Kottke, Feder's compositional approach to guitar picking is often roots-oriented, not to mention daringly experimental. "It was really fun to meet him [Kottke] as a hero and recognize how similar we are -- especially in our right-hand technique, how we use our fingers exclusively," she says. "Each of us goes about playing melody and bass as two separate but connected things."

Found sound: Janet Feder uses beads, wires, bra hooks, split rings from Swiss Army knives and modified alligator clips in her acoustic-guitar performances.
Found sound: Janet Feder uses beads, wires, bra hooks, split rings from Swiss Army knives and modified alligator clips in her acoustic-guitar performances.

The chance to jam informally with the Minnesota-based legend in the early '90s also helped Feder to finally acknowledge that she was first and foremost an instrumentalist. "I sang a few on my first album [1994's icyimi, released on the Brainbox imprint], but it's not what I do," she says. "I'm a player."

Feder's impressive ability to project two or three voices coherently -- simultaneously -- results in a consistent blend of beautifully liquid, fat-note music; it can sound like a collaboration even when she's picking alone. "What I've been doing is preparing separate strings kind of discretely to make completely different sounds that are less distorting in an overall sense, and more tonelike where some sound like bells or some sound like gongs or rattles. When you add these other dimensions -- or dementias, as my sister likes to say -- onto the strings, it's no longer a matter of playing the instrument that way."

Dangling accessories do present several challenges while Feder's performing, however. To keep everything in place ("because I want certain sounds to happen at certain times," she says), Feder often finds herself leaning forward and backward, turning this way or that to locate the right tone, chime or vibration. In a roomful of audience members, she's also careful "not to torture them with the space in between pieces where I retune and reconfigure the guitar, because there are no two pieces that I'm playing that have the same setup."

Feder's classical/folk alchemy likewise seems to come from the discriminating tastes of a metallurgist. Take, for example, her modified roach clip: "Some have teeth, some don't, some are copper, some are steel," she points out. "Recently, the industrial world decided to put half as much copper into clips, and copper is a conductor, you know. Clips with less copper I can't use. They're worthless to me. Everything metal that you pick up these days weighs less. But for the average person on the average day, what do they care?"

By bending certain teeth in certain clips (cheap at six cents apiece), Feder keeps a ready-made supply of simple effects on hand. Generally playing a baritone guitar and occasionally an electric one, she works from a limitless palette of sounds and textures that might mimic marimbas on one song or lightning on another. "Now that I'm playing my own music, performing comes easier," she adds. "It's the moment that every other moment builds into."

The youngest of three children (her father was an attorney and her mother the president of the National Braille Association), Feder devoted ten hours daily to practicing classical guitar for more than a decade after accepting a scholarship to the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels -- a place where she also learned to speak Flemish. Stateside, Oregon-based Catholic-school teacher Frank Costa ("the guy who set me on fire about classical guitar playing," Feder says) helped her pave her way toward a degree in musicology from the University of Massachusetts. As one of Phillip deFremery's many star pupils (in addition to Eliot Fisk, Ben Verdery and Sharon Isbin -- notable names in the legion of longhairs), Feder played the classical circuit for a while before succumbing to its competitive pressures in the mid-'80s.

"It's a crazy way to make a living," she admits, "trying to play other people's music better than other people are playing other people's music. It started to feel like another one of those exclusive clubs under which you're crushed with scrutiny."

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