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Birds of a Feder

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

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."

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."

Feder also took a back seat in concert settings because of her sex.

"The classical-guitar world -- during my time of being in it -- was completely dominated by men. It's definitely changing now. There are some stunning women guitar players." (By their sheer numbers, incidentally, more men than women break fingernails in the classical-guitar grind and resort to using fake ones. "I'm actually a freak about my nails," Feder admits. "I'm lucky. I have really hard ones.")

Following several low-paying restaurant performances and "a hideous business gig," Feder realized she couldn't work for other people. She began teaching her own "no rules" approach of guitar playing and musical theory and hasn't looked back since. For the past fifteen years, she's tutored students privately as well as through Naropa University and Swallow Hill. "What aspects I actually teach people in a class depends on what their interests are," she says. "Theory's a much more articulate and simple language than it's made out to be. It should be fun. People say to me, 'Aren't you afraid people will steal your ideas?' Please! I hope they steal my ideas. If they make something better of it, then what higher form of honor is there?"

Though she's arguably the first human to play prepared classical guitar in a compositional sense, Feder is quick to point out the general lack of originality that avant-garde musicians share as a whole. "I appreciate so much when people say, 'I've never heard anything like that before' -- and I've had some really well-known people in my field say that, and it feels really good to hear that -- but I'm reluctant to say that I'm doing what nobody has ever done before. Really, let's face it: Nobody is that unique."

Fred Frith, a pioneering legend of prepared guitar, created entire performances over thirty years ago by playing electric guitars exclusively with other objects -- everything from hammers to rice. "The difference between what he and I do is that he was improvising a lot. He was using chants a lot," Feder says. "I was mentioned in the same sentence, let alone on the same page, with Fred Frith years ago in an article that turned up in Guitar Player magazine, and it sent shivers down my spine. Now it looks like I'll get to do some work with him in the fall."

Improviser/record producer Henry Kaiser has also expressed an interest in Feder. Known widely for his field recordings of indigenous people in Madagascar, Burma and Norway, Kaiser plans to produce a compilation for Cuneiform Records of acoustic guitar soloists, including Feder (the collective's only female artist), Richard Thompson and former Zappa wild axman Mike Keneally, among others.

Feder's impressive new disc, Speak Puppet, distributed throughout the UK on Chris Cutler's prestigious ReR imprint, gets its North American release next week. The followup to icyimi ("Please do mention that I still have several in my basement going for a fair price," she says), Speak Puppet finds Feder in an entrancing and ambient world that rewards a close listen. Along with classical guitars, she also prepares dobros and wrong-strung guitars for a sound that -- without benefit of multi-tracking or amplification -- comes across as close, dry and immediate.

"I record with a microphone directly in front of the guitar," Feder says. "A lot of it is recorded in the Bug [Theatre], which has beautiful acoustics, like a church, and Colin's [Bricker] studio. A large portion of the way my CD sounds is because of him."

Bricker, the mixologist at NFA's north-LoDo studio (the production site of the Czars' forthcoming album as well as Andy Monley's solo project, something which Feder has been invited to appear on), can be credited for Puppet's occasional venture into DJ Shadow-y drum-machine territory (on "Sueno"). He also introduces a bit of slow dub electronica via his cameo as the William Caslon Experience ("Leaving Light" remix). Mastered by Stevin McNamara at Sounds True, Puppet summons an unexpected and challenging beauty.

Other tracks utilize Margot Krimmel's interspacial prepared harp ("Shouting Valley"/"Red Drum") and Mike Vargas's paddlydo -- a pitched assembly of PVC pipes, the mouth ends of which are whacked with the soles of flip-flops -- that appears on "I Hear Voices." Thinking Plague/ Hamster Theatre guitarist Mike Johnson guests, as does Mark Weber, who provides the dream logic behind "Almost El Paso," the disc's only spoken piece, with this excerpt of poetic observation: "Saturn lines up with the falcon's ponderosa in a meadow of oregano and beaver." Despite the album's more surreal and exotic elements, it's Feder's fluid playing style that engages the listener most. "Lightning Strikes" -- used as incidental music on NPR -- features dazzling fingerwork while the gulch-dry bottleneck slide variations of "Leaving Light" showcase the guitarist's multimelodic and compositional skills.

"I didn't know it would take so long to make a new CD," Feder admits of her new platter (available through janetfeder.com), but with such a solid offering, the wait seems worth it. Besides, the girl just can't fake the funk.

"I can't believe that this gets to be my life," Feder enthuses. "I have other interests besides music that I get to pursue. I love teaching, although I hope things continue in the vein in which they are currently. Hopefully, I have enough chops that I can play the music that I write well."

Whether or not she actually embodies the old Girl Scout motto "Always be prepared" in her classically experimental outings ("Me and the Brownies -- we weren't right for each other," she says, laughing), Feder does approach her craft with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a happy explorer. "It's like being in a city where you've never been before, and you just walk around and let whatever is interesting be your guide and take you wherever you're gonna go next."

When preparation meets perfection, there is one other little payoff. Says Feder, "Hearing people laugh when I play is more joyous than I can even explain."