This Is Not a Test
I like to find a way to pull the audience into the creative process, whether they want to go or not," says Dr. Gregory T.S. Walker, chuckling slyly. A six-and-a-half-foot-tall violinist/composer who won't hesitate to drench folks in the orchestra seats with a water cannon in order to include them in his artistic vision, the eccentric 41-year-old associate professor of music at the University of Colorado at Denver rarely skimps on spectacle.
"Some people definitely had to towel down after xy techno theatre," Walker says of a multimedia performance he presented two years ago. "But the people who followed instructions and brought their umbrellas were okay."
Walker's approach to composition is as innovative as it is refreshing. Consider his knack for inserting video projections and gigantic Bunraku puppets into a two-act opera. Or incorporating dance and martial arts into a planetarium-orchestra setting. Or slapping a sampler onto his synth-guitar with Velcro so he can explore the groove-oriented mating rituals that take place in a computer chat room. Or even enlisting a street-smart MC with a nose ring to commemorate Martin Luther King Day with Dream N. the Hood, arguably the first-ever "rap symphony."
Ridiculously educated with a Ph.D. in composition and two master's degrees in music, Doc Walker has organized the AvantGuitar Summit, an evening of brain-tickling musical theory that incorporates the beguiling microtonality of guitarist Neil Haverstick and the electronic wizardry of sound artist Ron Bucknam.
"The three of us are taking one of the most universally beloved musical instruments to a place that most people aren't accustomed to going," Walker says. "Most of the concert is going to be individual sets. Then there's going to be a little section at the end where we get together, bow down to the school of improvisation and see what the other person has under the hood -- and just be completely open to the possibilities.
"You definitely enter the tightrope at that point," Walker continues. "And the audience is taken there, too. It might not be pretty, but we always are going for that thing that's just out of reach, just creating that moment that can't be duplicated."
Blurring the distinction between what's live and what's Memorex, Walker plans to include a high-tech approach to six-string feedback manipulation ("Feeding Time") as part of his solo Summit contribution. He'll also resurrect the amusing "Chat Room Apotheosis," part of a previous concept show called "DJ Data Dada."
"One of my goals was to somehow bring electric-guitar virtuosity into the 21st century by melding it with the DJ techniques that are really a lot more characteristic of the pop music of our time than extended guitar solos," Walker says. "The moment you start setting things in bizarre contexts -- like a Bach toccata in B performed by electric guitar -- there's this satirical angle you stumble upon."
To the uninitiated ear, headbanging to society music might seem more sacrilegious than amusing. Yet for Walker, a concertmaster for the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and Sinfonia of Colorado who's performed throughout the United States and abroad, including in Cuba and Poland, such uncommon technical applications reward a close listen. Then again, it depends on whom you ask -- especially when it comes to Walker's highly esteemed father, George Walker. In 1996, the elder Walker became the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music; his prize-winning Lilacs; written for voice and orchestra, utilizes four stanzas from Walt Whitman's poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, a reflection on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
"I knew that in watching [my father's] career, I was less and less inclined to pursue a career in composition," Walker says. "I felt as if I'd never get out from under his shadow."
As the 2000 recipient of the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for micro*phone for Amplified Orchestra and Sonata for Violin and Piano, Walker has plenty to feel proud about -- despite any mixed blessings expressed by his pop.
"When I won this award, he was stunned," Walker says. "He couldn't really express how happy he was for me and, at the same time, how disappointed he was in his colleagues in the Academy for having selected those pieces. There's a lot in the music world that my dad just does not accept. Most of the people who've won the Pulitzer Prize before him and after him are disappointing to him. He suspected that [his own award] was just some kind of political positioning to make up for the fact that Duke Ellington had never gotten any recognition with the jazz idiom by the Pulitzer committee.
"So it's a little brutal environment to grow up in," Walker continues. "But a lot of artists, especially the older we get, just have a more refined view of what's artistically right and what's artistically wrong. I know even amongst the people on this guitar program, there's some I can see have developed that acute sense of taste, and another who's an exception to that rule."
It's hard to imagine how George Walker might respond to his son's partners in the AvantGarde Summit. Committed to absolute musical precision, Haverstick, a blunt 52-year-old Swallow Hill faculty member and private tutor, employs non-standard tunings from custom-built guitars to create aural galaxies of sound. Among his curious collection of six-strings are a fretless Flying V, a nineteen-tone Starr guitar (created by local luthier John Starrett) and an unruly 34-tone Telecaster. The author of two books on musical theory and several CDs including the just-completed If the Earth Was a Woman (available through www.virtualchautauqua.org), Haverstick has been lambasting the Western Hemisphere's over-reliance on the twelve-tone equal-tempered scale for years.
"I'm not as gung-ho as I used to be preaching about it," Haverstick says. "I do believe that it's getting harder and harder to be original in that system. If you let the theory get in the way of the music, it's just crap. It's all about just trying to find some good melodies. At this stage, I try to play down my technique and just look for something kind of human.
"I've been playing blues, and Albert King is one of my major heroes," Haverstick continues. "He'd bend the fuck out of the strings. And as soon as you bend a string on the guitar, it's microtonal. Blues scales come from Africa and the Middle East. And if you get into African music theory, they weren't anything near Western tonality. The British brought their brass bands and their pianos into their culture and kicked everyone's asses.
"Here's what's weird to me: American pop music has influenced everyone in the world, but it hasn't worked in reverse," Haverstick adds. "You rarely hear any Arabic influences in pop music. And I wish to fuck we were sending musicians to Iraq instead of bombs -- because that's how I know those people, is through their music."
Equally diplomatic in this unique Avant-Axis of Evil is soft-spoken virtuoso Ron Bucknam (profiled in "Sound Mind," July 1, 1999). A Zen-oriented artist more concerned with following his own inner voice than with placating or isolating an audience, Bucknam eschews rote fundamentals in favor of simply listening.
"I have never played a song," Bucknam says. "I only deal with sound. I don't name the notes. I don't name anything. To me, the note is self-naming. I don't need the intermediate system, which is how people remember things and use theory to build things. To me, sheet music looks like taxes.
"I don't try to think about how I'm going to throw a net over the sound and make it make sense," Bucknam continues. "So I play chords that are islands, that only function unto themselves. They're ambiguous chords that have an emotional component that you can go in and out of from a variety of directions -- a kind of anxiety or beauty or something that's a little unsettled. And instead of building tension back to the beginning of resolution, which is the standard thing, I go from one tense emotional area to another when I feel like it."
After growing up as a drummer immersed in jazz, Bucknam navigated the turbulent '60s, playing loose roots rock in the spirit of the Band with former musician/current actor Richard Gere. He then ventured into a wildly improvisational direction as a one-man guitar army -- the personal odyssey resulted in 1996's trance-inducing Solo Subversion -- Bucknam discovered the electric drum. Called "Ed" for short, it's a technical marvel that the 52-year-old Bucknam plans to incorporate into his set as both pre-programmed collaborator and solo "artist." Played somewhat like a conga, the waist-high digital monstrosity issues tones, colors, rhythms and shapes depending on palm and fingertip placement; there's even an infrared beam that functions like a sonic wave-generating theremin.
"I think of Ed as a drum far second to it being an electronic instrument," Bucknam says. "The sounds are like flavors. And your mind just struggles to come up with an image of what you're hearing."
Conjuring a Turkish marching band, a full-blown Japanese orchestra with cartoon noises or even a blues piece by the Shaggs, Ed certainly thwarts expectations. As Bucknam discovered, it's even more fun to locate the bugs in the system instead of playing the instrument in a way that the Roland corporation intended.
"I've tried every combination of every set of voices," Bucknam says, "and I keep finding things that don't work, which really sound fascinating. Through certain configurations, it doesn't make the connections. So there's stuttering, fizzling, burning-out, jumping-out-at-you kind of stuff. I've stopped buying CDs since I got this."
Thankfully, Bucknam will get out the sound lab for one night, when he, Haverstick and Walker put their combined talents and theories to the test.
"Knowing the temperaments of all three of us, we're probably going to want to somehow use the math as a point of departure," Walker says. "The idea is that you've just created a dictionary with a different vocabulary. You need that technology, that science, to give you the dictionary. But what you do with the words in the dictionary, you go for the epic poem; you go for the haiku.
"It's very true that most people in the audience will not understand the words in the dictionary," Walker continues, "but we're still talking music here. And the sound of the words alone, I think, has the potential to transport the audience. In something like the AvantGuitar Summit, I think that most of the audience are gonna be people with musical backgrounds. The plan is to let 'em have it with both barrels."
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