Cold Blue MusicChas Smith : an hour out of desert center (US,2003)****
We are almost always used to hearing a pedal steel guitar used in the same way, as accompanying country mostly. We could almost forget the instrument is also an instrument on its own, with its own sound ready to be rediscovered. Chas Smith gives it a new destiny. He must have an independent ear to music instruments, listening to sounds of them, to discover its inner world of a sound structure, with an ear of the inventor or builder. The music which he makes with his instruments has this particular listening aspect.
Beside the pedal steel guitar and zither he has his own inventions too, which you can hear on this album too, like the Bigsby lap guitar (a guitar build by Paul Bigsby, for famed steel player Joaquin Murphey, in 1948. It was originally, one of two made and the other one has been lost.°), crotales (which are chromatically tuned metal disks with different thicknesses), Pez Eater (a visually interesting soundsculpture rack of thirty-six tuneable steel rods with simple guitar pickups), Guitarzilla (which is a multi-neck steel guitar console built by Smith. It has two 10-string necks (a short scale and a long scale) and a five-string bass neck. On each of these three necks are pickups mounted at both ends. The console has also a fourth neck bolted to its side-a 12-string titanium lap guitar that is set to a pentatonic tuning. The 10-string necks are to be prepared with tin steel plates, which are woven into the strings over the pickups. Perpendicular to the plates, sticking up vertically between the strings are eleven inconel rods that are bowed and struck. For performances, the instrument is usually prepared with a total of 66 of these rods), and cutters (which are of course cutting blades, from about a 1/2-inch thick steel (look a bit like thick saw blades) from big professional milling machines. Chas strikes them to elicit their tones).
His interest for building music instruments has a vision developed during his other profession, for he also was/is a welder and machinist. Also his grandfather had blacksmith abilities. -Chas said that might have been something in the genes. In his environment he had also easy access to military surplus outlets from titanium, which he used for building logically made sound sculptures. With all this, Chas developed some knowledge of the sonic properties of metals and metal objects, aware of moving sounds in his environment, of metal machines, all which emphasized on the hearing.
All the sounds he develops with the instruments, are something which roughly seen result in a seemingly ambient soundtrack. The recording starts with the hollow sharpness sound of metal, which is carried with its overtones in time and space, making the hollowness of these sounds over time full again. Even the pedal steel sounds are just used for the fuller sounds of metal it can produce. The overtone-evolutions which we hear, are produced by a few overdubbed chord patterns in specific tunings, with some transposing layers with some delays of the same recorded sounds. This combination of sound wave patterns give a very natural feel to the evolution of sounds and tones, and give this an almost self-controlled inner structure. Listening to what the music instruments as sound produce in time scedules within certain patterns create a deliberate outcome of a compositional expression with still a very natural flow. This makes the music not just like an ambient music improvisation, but makes it work as beautiful new (experimental) music.
Last track, "A ’75 Scircura” is different in this way, and uses looped minimalist playing, followed by accompanying evolutions which become an independent compound of waves. Here the background melodic loops are almost like organ-murmuring and playing. Where Chas's mother was taught organ, he himself, was first thaught the piano, like his grandmother, but soon he was more attracted to the guitar. Then he became interested in the keyboardless buchla until he finally landed to the steel-guitar with some reconsiderations that made him build his own instruments. During this whole evolution, like John Cage, he struggled with the "melodic" expressions and came to different approaches. Also when we hear here an organ-like sound again this is not used in a regular melodic way. The sound evolutions in this piece are much slower. It seems like variations around a more stagnated point perhaps. Still there are too many details changing, it still is a very alive world. This track is perhaps closer to the “desert centre”, where the life that happens can only be experienced when we take the time to witness it in a minimum time-lap. I’m not sure how much the occurring evolutions were deliberate and structured here. But within its movements it still gives experience. When reaching the end of the recording it brings the listener step by step at a certain point of a final inner halt.
This is great music, and recommended to those who want ambient music with a real musical content, and with a musical structure drive that has a natural inner movement result which goes far beyond conincidence.
° Picture of the Bigsby lap guitar here.
-Joaquin himself had at least, 4 Bigsbys. Chas himself built Joaquin's last guitar, a single neck pedal guitar, to his specs, that he played until he died, in 1999-. "The 10-string necks are to be prepared with tin steel plates, which are woven into the strings over the pickups. Perpendicular to the plates,sticking up vertically between the strings are eleven inconel rods that are bowed and struck." "How it works is, 11 inconel rods are welded perpendicular to a thin steel plate which is then woven into the strings, above the pickups and in the centers, for a total of 6 on both of the 10-string necks."