Marc Ribot's guitar experiments
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 13, 2002) – For 90 minutes straight with nary a pause, guitarist Marc Ribot played one of the most unusual sets of nightclub music any of the listeners who packed Club Helsinki to the gills on Saturday night could ever have possibly heard.

Sure, Ribot played some recognizable pop standards, blues, spirituals and jazz tunes. And sure, he played his acoustic and electric guitars with some recognizable virtuosity approximating conventional technique.

But for the most part, this was an exercise in deconstructing form and content, rearranging the elements, and reconstructing them into a new kind of music that required a new way of listening.

Imagine the musical equivalent of Cubism, perhaps, where perspective is fractured and representational forms are portrayed simultaneously from different points of view. Ribot’s unique approach to his instrument achieved similar effects. He might begin a selection with a recognizable melody, but then that melody would disappear and a different one would take its place. This wasn’t the same as conventional jazz improvisation; rather, Ribot found a kind of anti-melody to echo the original melody.

Perhaps he was playing only notes that weren’t in the original; perhaps he was playing in the spaces between the notes. In any case, he brought to bear an intensity to his performance -- seated in a chair and hunched over his instrument so far that his head practically touched the strings -- such that even if at times it was difficult to follow his lead, you knew that he was playing a melody that only he could hear.

Conventional guitar techniques were only the foundation for Ribot’s guitar art. Things hung from his instrument, like loops of old guitar strings, and he “played” these with as much control and finesse as he eked out sounds from his strings, by plucking, snapping or rubbing them. A plastic pen became a movable bridge, stuck underneath the strings, lending a harplike sound to the guitar when he played above and below this temporary bridge and the permanent one attached to his guitar.

Ribot was an eccentric, mad genius, with pages of scribbled text strewn around him, presumably with names of songs and reminders of which toys and novelty items to use: a battery-operated toy propeller which brushed the strings, balloons that popped like gunshots, a violin bow, and perhaps his favorite device, a pedal which gently phased his instrument on and off, thus extending the dynamic range from the absolute limits of aural perception at either end. Occasionally he’d moisten a finger and rub it against the wood of his instrument for yet another in his impressive catalog of new sounds on guitar.

Some tunes were familiar – a version of “Solitude” given a noirish treatment one might expect to hear in a David Lynch film, the spiritual “Let My People Go” laced with furious intervals of noise, a very lyrical, tender “I’m in the Mood for Love” and even a snippet of a Bach theme buried inside another anonymous melody.

Most tunes weren’t familiar, and other than a few John Zorn pieces, Ribot didn’t stop to announce their titles. In fact he said almost nothing the whole night beyond hello and an occasional thank-you. To talk would have broken the mood, as his program really functioned not as much as individual songs played in a row but more like a symphony, with themes and movements that circled back and expanded upon each other.

You could not have imagined a less commercial, less conventionally satisfying evening of nightclub music. But you also could not have envisioned 90 minutes of innovation, creativity, soul, sweat and tears to match, as Ribot pulled himself and the spellbound audience – at times you could hear ice melting in patrons’ drinking glasses – through this searing set of experimental sounds.

It was the sort of concert that one never would have expected to hear outside of only the most cutting-edge listening spaces in New York or one of Europe’s cultural capitals. For one night at least, Great Barrington was Tribeca and Club Helsinki was the Knitting Factory.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 15, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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