What made Guitar Player take notice of Feder is icyimi, an ambitious and unlikely CD she released on her own Brainbox label. Several tracks on the disc are sprinkled with percussion, didgeridoo, clarinet and Feder's somewhat underwhelming vocals. But the majority consist of sounds made by Feder using a prepared guitar--meaning one whose strings have various metal gadgets attached to them that create strange or surprising noises. Electric guitarists have used this tack for years, but Feder believes she's the first classical acoustician to give it a try. "Stephen McNamara, a South African who was one of the engineers on the project, has worked on some pretty impressive sessions in studios in California, Miami, London and Johannesburg," she notes. "And he told me he had never heard anything like this."
Many of the reverberations heard on icyimi don't resemble those associated with her ax of choice. In fact, Feder's numbers often call to mind collaborations between several different players even when she's playing all by her lonesome. Try to describe the result and you'll only confuse the issue. Pieces seem as if they were made with the aid of kalimbas, iron or brass bells, gongs, even steel drums with marbles on their surfaces--but, quite simply, they weren't.
Feder credits her significant other, Monkey Siren saxophonist Mark Harris, with planting the seeds that grew into icyimi.
"One night Mark was going off to rehearsal, and I was just sitting around with my guitars and thinking about some music I was writing," she recalls. "He's practically out the door, and he turns and says, `Hey, has anybody done any prepared classical guitar? Bye.' He just left me here with that thought. So I took some really small African brass beads from my art box and slipped them on the strings. I put a bunch on, and then I tried it with just one. And it sounded so cool. Then I put different kinds of beads on, like the ones you'll find at the end of a steel-string guitar. The difference in sound was incredible, but I couldn't get the beads to stay in one place. As I played, they all gravitated towards the bridge, and they'd be stuck there, and the only way to get them back up would be to scoop them up. And that was very awkward."
These problems prompted Feder to set out on an obsessive search for the right implements to keep her beads in place. At first she used dress hooks "like the ones you find on a bra," she notes. "But if I got excited and played hard, the dress hooks would boing off the strings and fly across the room. And that was really humiliating at the few concerts where I used the hooks."
The solution to Feder's dilemma presented itself during a conversation with Harris's brother, Pat: After listening to her explain what she needed, he gave her a 3/8" split ring from his Swiss army knife. "That was it," she enthuses. "Just perfect. Since then, I've found even smaller split rings in fishing-supply stores."
But these tiny devices don't tell the whole story behind Feder's technique. "Part of what I am able to get is how I play the strings," she reveals. "A lot of people attack the string perpendicularly; it's the classical-guitar thing. But I stroke or even pull the strings more than attack them, and I use contact mikes stuck on the soundboard. And that's really what's going on. No effects. No tricks."
Since completing icyimi, Feder has added alligator clips to her arsenal. These devices have allowed her to infuse her compositions with greater complexity. "One of the challenges with this is that I can play three pieces with one setup, but everything else is changed--a changed arrangement and tuning. So it's a lot to keep in my head. There's no way to really write it down, because it's not really a note. What happens when you interrupt the harmonic vibrations of the strings is you create a series of tones. Other musicians have asked me what key I'm in, but it's not really a key. It's a tone."
These discoveries may not be committed to plastic anytime soon. Feder, you see, is still reeling from the ramifications of the sound she's stumbled upon.
"I kind of thought that in my whole life, one of the coolest things I would ever be able to say was that, musically, I contributed something to the art of guitar playing," she points out. "And now I realize that I'm already doing it. I'm giving something back. I'm walking in some very large shadows, but I'm doing something. I just hope I can keep up."
Janet Feder. 7 p.m. Saturday, July 29, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, free, 294-9281.