This is Tim Brady’s fourth Starkland release, a distinction shared by only two other composers, the late Tod Dockstader and (the delightfully very much living) Guy Klucevsek. And given the impressive track record of the Starkland label’s ability to find and promote innovative composers and performers who later achieve much wider recognition, this is an event that demands serious attention.
With a catalog presently numbering some 39 plus CDs and a CV that boasts 4 operas and a massive catalog of compositions for ensembles ranging from solo to large orchestra, this proudly Canadian composer has mounted (metaphorically, of course) an invasion from the United State’s northern border of his distinctive artistic vision prompting this reviewer to suggest a comparison to the pop “invasion” of the Beatles in the early 60s.
My admittedly tongue in cheek Beatles comparison is not meant to eclipse the incredible artistry of this obviously very industrious artist. My previous reviews compared his work to electric guitar giants like Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca. But this only serves to illuminate a fraction of this man’s work. I invite listeners to peruse his well organized website to get a perspective.
But let me get back to this release. It is undoubtedly a bold move to use the term “symphony” to describe a work for a solo artist. Charles Valentine Alkan (1813-1888) wrote a symphony for solo piano (opus 39 nos. 4-10 from 1857) Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) referred to his third piano sonata (1922) as a symphony and later wrote six more symphonies for solo piano between 1938 and 1976. And more recently the late Glenn Branca (1948-2018) wrote several works for various configurations of guitars he called symphonies. But this is the first symphony written expressly for solo guitar as far as I can determine.
“Symphony in 18 Parts for solo electric guitar (2021) – 50 minutes
For solo electric guitar, FX pedals and looper, in 18 movements” as it is listed on the composer’s website is (if I counted correctly) his 8th Symphony. Brady apparently numbers his symphonies in order of composition without reference to instrumentation. While several of his symphonies involve one or more electric guitars, this is the first solo guitar work to which he gives the weighty title of “Symphony” (unless, as noted above, you count the solo version of Symphony No. 5).
The term “symphony” carries with it connotations, at least, of grandeur, painstaking structure, and serious music making. And this work is very serious and meticulously constructed. It is, of course, reflective of a mid career composer who has written a great deal and has learned from that experience. It has as much a right to be called a “symphony” as any similarly large and painstakingly written piece of music.
First, let me say that, other than a tendency to use one (or a lot more than one) electric guitar in his music, Brady’s music has relatively little in common with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. In fact, Brady seems to have more in common with Steve Reich and Elliott Sharp. But while Chatham and Branca emerged from a music scene dominated by punk in all its iterations, Brady seems more connected to the Beatles and Les Paul.
The work is divided into 18 sections, each running a modest 1.5 to just under 5 minutes. It is a structure similar in this listeners mind to American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2008), whose Symphony No. 9 (1949-50) “St. Vartan”, a similarly epic masterpiece in no fewer than 24 short movements. It is the interrelatedness of those movements that make them a part of the whole symphony. And so it is with Brady’s Symphony. David Lang (Pulitzer Prize Winner and founding Bang on a Can” member) says essentially this in his segment of the liner notes that come with the recording. Tim Brady acknowledges much the same in his segment of the liner notes.
The cover art by fellow adventuring guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp is functionally an homage to Brady and his work. The recording by Tim Brady and Morris Apelbaum, mastered by Brady, Apelbaum, and John Klepko is lucid (and great on headphones especially when Brady pans the sounds across the stereo field).
The 18 movements all have titles which are metaphorically related to the music therein. David Lang aptly describes these varied and intense movements as sort of biographical statements about what the composer can do with his instrument. Each movement has both form and development much as one would expect of a symphonic movement.
On the one hand, this symphony is not easy listening. On the other hand it is likely catnip to electric guitarists as well as to new music enthusiasts including your humble reviewer. Brady’s Canadian invasion, far from a takeover, is simply a musician sharing his substantial art from across the northern border and presenting his latest efforts. Like the Beatles, Brady deserves to be welcomed. This prolific composer/performer/teacher/innovator has interesting things to say.
At first I attempted to write something about each of the 18 movements but I don’t think that would have added anything useful for prospective listeners. This piece taken as a whole most aptly deserves the descriptor “tour de force” as each movement seems to have its own character deriving from the composer’s use of various (apparently deeply studied and judiciously chosen) techniques and ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the listener, sometimes with sheer volume, sometimes with dazzling virtuosity, sometimes with softness, sometimes with silence, and always with interesting ideas.
In some ways this is a collections of ideas and techniques the composer has amassed over some 50 + years of playing. Each movement seems to be a more or less self contained exposition of playing techniques and the composers own approach to harmony and invention. That sounds potentially very dull but this is not a collection of etudes didactically accounting for and crystallizing his ideas. It is the organic appropriation of personal achievements in developing his compositional style. And it is an homage to electric guitarists that preceded him. Not a textbook as much as perhaps a signpost defining his present stage of development even as he moves forward with other projects.
I suppose one could challenge the notion of calling this a work for solo guitar given the effects pedals, looping systems, etc. but the use of electronics and looping techniques as a compositional aid or method is so ubiquitous that point is moot. Call it what you like but just listen. Let the music flow over your ears. At the very least this is a defining milestone in Brady’s long and productive career. It’s hard to to imagine what he might do next but I’m sure he’ll think of something.