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Chas Smith - An Hour Out of Desert Center

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Artist: Chas Smith

Album: An Hour Out of Desert Center

Label: Cold Blue

Review date: May. 2, 2003

Steely Tones in Desert Shimmer

There is a persistent, recurring strain in American avant-art-experimental music, a sort of desert-rat mysticism that explores the beatific resonances of open space and solitude in nature; a deep fascination with the whispered voices and mysterious messages of desert sky and parched landscape. It can be found sometimes in the Pythagorean tone- building of composers like Lamonte Young and Terry Riley, in the cool, dharma bum elegance of Harold Budd, the solid and primal energy release in the work of Peter Garland.

Chas Smith has evinced an open-space elementalism in his music since his earliest recordings, and on his newest release for the Cold Blue label, the desert theme is way up front. It starts, of course with the title, and continues with the cover and booklet photos: dusty shots of desert detritus, of the composer himself, in fierce and direct desert sunlight, playing an old lap steel guitar. And the music itself , slow and drifting and abstractly timeless, shimmers like a mirage in a hot, arid wind.

Smith uses steel guitars, both pedal and non-pedal, and instruments of his own invention, along with samplers and some high-tech mixing and spatial imaging, to create these sonic objects. The result is a collection of pieces that are quite similar in mood and texture, yet reveal subtle differences in tonality, density, and timbre as they unfold over repeated listenings. It might be best for the listener to suspend the usual expectations of musical time while listening to these pieces; to approach them, perhaps, as sculptures in sound, or as an audio analogue to a Rothko color-field canvas, albeit one made up of sun-baked sand and earth tones, of translucent, open skies.

The idiomatic sound of the steel guitar here is, for the most part, recognizable only in very subtle ways: the occasional bending slide of diverging tones coming together, the hollow, zither-like ringing cascade of open strings in arpeggio. Yet the soul of a real instrument comes through, transcending the usual pure electronica of much experimental music, especially on the long, evocative final piece, “ A ‘75 Desert Scircura.”

There is another important thread of American art music that Smith pursues. It’s the idea of the inventive musical explorer who creates a sound world from the bottom up; imagining, designing, and fabricating his or her own tools and instruments. It’s the great tradition of originals like Partch and Harrison, and Chas Smith may be one of the foremost, if relatively unsung, composers continuing on this path.

As for the steel guitar itself, it’s an amazing instrument that even has it’s own Origin Myth. There are many variations of the tale, but the basic story centers on a young Hawaiian student named Joseph Kekuku, who, in one of many versions of the legend, chanced upon the powerful glissando and expressive portamento of metal sliding over strings as he dragged his guitar across some railroad tracks one day near the beginning of the 20th century.

More than half a century later, for a record of a Webb Pierce honky tonk ballad called “Slowly”, a country steel player named Bud Issacs rigged a pedal to bend the strings while he slid the bar, thus opening up endless possibilities for the instrument.

And now Chas Smith has taken the steel guitar even further; to find some more of its far possibilities as a powerful musical voice.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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