David Torn: Mercurial Mastery

Guitarist talks about harnessing the muse

David Torn’s influence as a guitarist, composer and music technologist is epic. His expansive six-string prowess captures his emotional pulse in a unique way. With sounds ranging from the searing and soaring to liquid, loop-drenched atmospheres to full-on virtuoso shredding, there is very little the man can’t do with his instrument. He’s situated his guitar work across seven multi-genre solo albums that feature combinations of edgy, world music-infused jazz-rock, minimalist ambient explorations and cutting-edge electronica. In this excerpt from my book Innerviews: Music Without Borders, Torn provides his thoughts on the state of the guitar in popular culture, what motivates his artistry and a formative experience that still resonates with him today.

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Claire Stefani

David Torn

Tell me about your earliest creative revelation.

It was 1967 and I was 14 years old. It was the time of a remarkable flowering of the potential of the electric guitar. A friend of mine had these little woods in Syossett, Long Island where we would go to on the weekend. We were sitting around the fire one night and everyone was talking except me. I was busy looking at the embers and thinking about the sound of music and why things sound the way they do. I would also hear guitarists play and their phrases—especially Hendrix and Beck—in my head as I sat there. It became a synesthetic effect in which a guitarist would play a phrase and I would think of it almost as a sentence with verbal meaning. If someone had asked me a philosophical question about the meaning of life, I might have been able to sing it back as a Hendrix phrase instead of saying something. It suddenly occurred to me the way the flames move is exactly how I wanted my guitar playing and music to sound. It was either an epiphany or a psychotic event. [laughs] But I never forgot about it. It meant a lot to me and it’s a feeling I’ve never lost.

You believe electric guitar playing is at its most conservative period now. Why?

The electric guitar has begun a kind of classicization phase and that really bugs me. It’s remarkable how many electric guitarists feel the need to recreate the great sounds of a very recent past, rather than honor the intentions of the great players which were to develop a unique voice, say something musically important, and break down cultural barriers. Things have become pretty staid and part of that is tied up to the need to sell instruments, amplifiers, effects, and even guitar magazines. Very few new things have been developed that really take advantage of the possible future of the electric guitar as a living instrument. It feels like it’s heading towards being the next classical piano. For some people, there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, that direction has removed the punk-assed, rebellious and almost political nature of what the electric guitar is for me.

Part of your personal solution is to think of yourself as a conceiver of music, rather than someone who merely plays an instrument. Elaborate on that perspective.

Don Cherry used to say something to me over and over again when we played together near the beginning of my career, which was “Play the role of whatever sound comes into your head. If you think you should sound like a sarod player here, be a sarod player here. If you think you should be a wall of noise here, be that. Don’t worry about all this ‘I’m a guitar player’ crap.” That was good advice. Guitar still plays a pretty dear part in my creative process. I still love playing the instrument. I’m still taking advantage of writing on the guitar or from the guitar. I might use it to create a series of rhythm tracks or textural events, but when someone hears them, they don’t know how they were made given my affinity for sonic manipulation. So, guitar can serve as the means towards an even more creative end for me.

How does spirituality inform your output?

The path of being a musician is inherently spiritual because it connects people together. And when it’s done with commitment, intensity and intention, it brings something out of us that we could not express in any other way. I believe there are very, very strong forces at work in the universe that we don’t see every day. And I think perhaps spirituality goes beyond the practical applications of being cognizant, giving and humane, but those are the ways I choose to acknowledge those forces. Maybe one of the great lessons of music is not trying to answer questions like “How do we make music? How complex is this thing that we do? Is music a matter of beauty versus ugliness?” Rather, music has the capability of uplifting the human spirit like no other art form does. The shaping of sound is an ephemeral process that we can’t hold onto, yet we experience these indicators that guide our creativity, and for me define how I see spirituality and how I design the way I live my life.

The complete interview is published in Innerviews: Music Without Borders book available from the Abstract Logix web site.

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