The World on a String

Some things that went into the making of composer-guitarist Steve Tibbetts’ current CD: a wasp nest, impending surgery, one of the world‘s most extensive sample collections, the sonic properties of his bathroom.

Blame the wasps for the guitarist’s new-found buzz, the intensity that separates A Man About a Horse from Tibbetts‘ previous six ECM recordings, the last of which arrived eight years ago. No, Tibbetts didn’t sample the pests. He was on a ladder cleaning the gutters of his St. Paul, Minnesota, home a few years back, when he bumped a nest. The insects attacked, and the resultant fall left him with a hairline fracture in his wrist.

Surgery was recommended to fend off arthritis. ”There was a chance my wrist would never be the same,“ Tibbetts says. ”But now, three years later, I‘m playing fine. I never put that much stock in blazing speed, anyway.“

Not knowing if his hand would be functional after surgery, Tibbetts wanted to do one more recording first. He set up his Marshall amp in the bathroom and laid down guitar tracks he later described as ”berserk. “

”Knowing that I had limited time created this combination of relaxation and anxiety,“ he says. ”I had a lot of stuff programmed into a drum machine and used the guitar to trigger double-drumming I learned in ’89 and ‘97 in Indonesia. So I thought, let’s just wail.“

None of Tibbetts‘ recordings, which date back 20 years, have been easy to comprehend. All kinds of labels -- ambient, improv, progressive, world beat, thrash, new music, New Age -- have been applied. Music writers have had verbal fits trying to describe his work.

Tibbetts takes an inclusive view of music. He has found inspiration in Nepal, Indonesia and other exotic ports, but also in the Who and Joy Division. The constants in his musical history include rippling percussion, hair-trigger digitals, feedback, acoustic licks and wide, often somber atmospheres.

A Man About a Horse is deeper and more layered than anything the guitarist has done since 1986’s Exploded View, and as angry. Guitar and percussion go through chameleonic changes against a forest of sound. A few pieces use repeat phrases as base camps from which Tibbetts heads purposefully into the wilderness. Others are out-and-out bushwhacks, as his guitar hacks without compass through an understory of percussion.

Back in 1982, when ECM director Manfred Eicher first hired the upstart Midwestern kid to come to Germany and record on the strength of his quirky self-produced college recording YR, Tibbetts didn‘t know when to say when. He describes walking out of the Northern Song recording session, frustrated that producer Eicher had cut him off, and running into saxophonist Jan Garbarek. ”I asked him, ’Doesn‘t that guy drive you nuts?’ And Jan said, ‘That’s how you know you‘ve got a good recording -- when Manfred says it’s done.‘“

Now, Tibbetts makes his own decisions: ”When I can’t improve it, it‘s done.“

Tibbetts and others judged Northern Song too soft, too acoustic. In 1984, with Safe Journey, he returned to the Hendrix-meets-Debussy sound he championed in college. The gnarly Exploded View followed.

Tibbetts has traveled the world studying music, working for study-abroad programs in Asia and seeking out collaborations. He’s teamed with icy Norwegian Hardanger fiddlist Knute Hamre on the Hannibal release A, and with Nepalese Buddhist chanter Choying Drolma on the Ryko disc Cho. Along the way, Tibbetts has recorded thousands of digital samples -- everything from frogs in Bali to Minnesota thunder. When he was studying percussion in Indonesia, he visited a gong factory to record the products and the sound of their making. Tibbetts even sampled the factory‘s pet chicken.

Depth is his goal. ”I prefer the kind of music or films or books that have a way of living between your conscious and unconscious mind for a long time,“ he says. ”I don’t like being pounded over the head with people‘s cleverness. But I do like simple, loud music. I like one incendiary instrument playing over a tangle of impression.“

A Man About a Horse is less tangle than landscape. The sound is ethereally layered, with acoustic guitar gracing some passages. Tibbetts pounds out tribal beats buttressed by longtime percussionist Marc Anderson and tabla-playing friend Marcus Wise. Bassist Jim Anton adds rumble. Over it all, adrenalized guitar riffs echo through the porcelain-bright confines of his Twin Cities water closet. Certain tones trigger samples, keeping a constant chatter going around the guitar.

Suggest that it takes more than a few listens to get inside A Man About a Horse, and Tibbetts will go you one better. ”When it comes to music,“ he says, ”I’d rather not understand it at all.“

STEVE TIBBETTS | A Man About a Horse (ECM)

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