Avid radio listeners of the tri-state area will recollect that at one point WNYC, the NPR-affiliated public radio station of New York City was noteworthy for its commitment to arts-related programming. There was a sort of Golden Age of WNYC, that is, now mostly wiped out, the period in which one might regularly hear shows like The No Show, The Next Big Thing, and New Sounds, the last of which persists like a sort of white rhino on the despoiled grasslands of the WNYC broadcast day, programs that originated in New York City, and which were reflective of the great artistic diversity of the city.
Chief among these truly wonderful radio programs was the show entitled Spinning on Air, a musical offering (often including performance and interview) devoted to conjoining, for example, folk music and experimental music, world music and jazz, and everything between, into a buffet of carefully and lovingly curated eclecticism. It was hosted by David Garland, a musician himself, with a charmingly gentle and thoughtful voice, who seemed on air ageless and oracular and genial and curious. As a highly partisan fan, as well as a passionate musical autodidact, I later grew used to finding Garland, outside of his radio personality guise, turning up as a musician in incredibly unusual settings, and this only fed the legend of Spinning on Air, that Garland seemed to know every musician, or at least all the very interesting musicians, and to have played with a great number of them. Garland’s taste and interests were part and parcel of what made his show so great.
That Spinning on Air was cancelled by WNYC is just one among the many blots on its corporate record. The change in Garland’s circumstances, however, have had one welcome result, namely that he has had, in his programming afterlife (Spinning on Air is now available as a podcast), the time and space to work intensively on his music. Verdancy, his enormous, impressive, and scarcely fathomable new album (four hours of music!), arrived on the first day of spring, and is just what fans of his program would have hoped for. It moves through dozens of idioms, from the purely acoustic to the synthesized and back again, encompassing art song, improvisation, passages that sound medieval, passages that sound Middle Eastern, Eastern European, minimalist, and so on. The feeling of the whole is charmingly against the grain of contemporary music and its boxed, computerized, auto-tuned simulations.
I have enjoyed few recent recordings as much as I have enjoyed Verdancy. And, because I love Garland’s radio interviews, I was really excited to try to interview him myself, which we did by phone in late February. His answers, below, are just as good as his on-air questions were and are. His album is very great, too.
The Rumpus: I’m interested, first of all, in the effect that your move upstate has had on your new compositions. I’m wondering if you can sketch out what your surroundings are like now in Red Hook. You’re in Red Hook, right?
David Garland: Yes, the town of Red Hook in the Hudson Valley.
Rumpus: What kind of an impact has this move had on your new work and how does it relate to your youthful experiences of the rural?
Garland: Well, I lived in the city for more than forty years, I think, having grown up in Lexington, Massachusetts, in an environment that’s kind of like the one I have now around me—with trees and grass and woods and stone walls, rolling landscape, and things like that. I loved living in the city, and, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I would like to be again in a more natural environment, but I didn’t really think that was going to happen. So I didn’t hold that as some dream that interfered with my life at all. My wife was the one who spearheaded the idea of moving out of town. We were in a midtown apartment near Carnegie Hall so we were paying for that, paying for a huge storage space, paying for a parking place, and she realized that we could actually own a place outside the city for less than that, less than what we were spending. So, that’s what we did, and it’s kind of funny because the house we live in ties into my hometown because Lexington, Massachusetts, was, I can see now, in retrospect, a kind of extraordinary place with lots of interesting people living there. People associate it with MIT and with the colleges in the Boston area, and it was a little bit of a mid-century modern experiment, some of the neighborhoods of Lexington. Architects chose to create some communities there and one of those architects was a guy called Carl Koch. He created what is generally considered one of the first successful modular prefab designs and it was called “Techbuilt.”
I was used to seeing these sort of boxy but modern buildings with a lot of windows and interesting shapes to them in some of my friends’ communities in Lexington. Meanwhile, a lot of what people want when they move here to the Hudson Valley is an old farmhouse to fix up. We wanted something more mid-century modern because we love that, my wife and I. All our furniture was from that era and all our decorations. But we always had them in a standard New York City apartment prior to this. But we saw a house up here that I recognized as being a Techbuilt because I knew them from my hometown and it was painted a sort of olive drab and in a bit of disrepair but we got it and returned it to the way it should be. So, we live in this wonderful, modest, mid-century modern house with woods around us. We’re not in the middle of nowhere but we have a nice isolated feel to where we are and the house came with a separate rental that has become my studio.
So, I was able to get everything out of storage and all my instruments into one place and start to live with the light, the nature, and, before long, I realized I was living in a whole different sense of time which grows out of place and the perceptions that come through the big windows of the house. We see that change is constant and endless and non-periodic despite all the various periodic measurements of time. The change is continuous and that is not even an impression but an experience which is tied in then to this specially modified guitar that my son Kenji Garland created which makes the strings sustain and yet creates an endless variation in overtones because of its, in a way, instability. And, because of the sustaining nature of that guitar, I quickly got into the idea of lengthy pieces.
I had been sort of heading in that direction and I was starting to experiment with this guitar and then I decided to explore where I could go with all my instruments at hand with the natural world all around me, with the light, and I don’t know if serenity is the right word, but along with human anxieties there is a natural serenity that you can tap into! It’s there if you can make yourself available to it. I was in the situation where I had all my tools at hand and I’ve got this new tool of the guitar and I wanted to explore that.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the guitar for a second. It’s obviously so interesting and so central to the project as a whole. I want to bear down on what exactly is unique about its design and what you’ve discovered about it as you’ve been playing it. So, how’d it come about?
Garland: Well, my son is a smart kid and he’s about thirty years old (not quite thirty yet) and he is sort of an inventor and an experimentalist at times. He created some sort of system where he was placing speakers on an acoustic guitar and connecting them so that the speaker would vibrate the instruments and I thought it was really cool and I used it in some of my music and then he took it apart to experiment on something else, after which I said “Could you please recreate that?” That’s when, instead of simply recreating it, he realized, “Oh, I could do this and I could do that; I could mount some stuff inside.” Then he created this system by which the vibrations of the strings sort of engender further vibrations and the whole body of the acoustic guitar is animated with electronics. This is not an instrument that plugs into an amp.
Garland: It’s an acoustic instrument. It is an acoustic experience, and I think, when you listen, some musicians will attend to the fact that, “Hey, I’m hearing the buzzing of the metal wire on the frets.” It is sort of a new sonic experience. Some people will just probably presume that it’s kind of like what Jimmy Hendrix did but it’s not at all that. In the world of electronic music, there’s a phrase “electro-acoustic instruments” which usually just means something plugged in but, in fact, I feel that this is something along those lines: a truly electro-acoustic instrument in that electricity is making an acoustic event. It’s not what you think of as acoustic in that it’s not plugged in: it’s the sound of natural vibrations in the air and on the ear.
Rumpus: How is it different from an EBow?
Garland: What makes it very different from an EBow is that an EBow is sort of designed to animate one string at a time. With this thing I’m using a twelve-string guitar. So you’ve got twelve strings vibrating and one’s going to provoke another so you get quite a lot of activity and part of the playing technique is interacting with the body of the guitar because the body of the guitar is vibrating. My right hand would normally just pluck the strings but by placing my hand on the body of the guitar I’m muting some overtones and provoking others to emerge; I’m changing the vibration basically but the strings are always activated. Sometimes, if I strum a chord, the real activity accumulates gradually (and I noticed this when I overdubbed something). The greatest activity in the vibration and the vibrating strings and the interaction of the overtones and all this didn’t really kick in until it started to accumulate over the course of a minute. This is something that you control, in a way, and bear witness to as well.
Rumpus: [Laughs] Did you arrive at a tuning that maximized its capabilities or did you leave it in a standard tuning?
Garland: I generally use a standard tuning but I would change it if it suited what I was working on, if it suited the music. I did some experimenting with re-tuning it; I did some experimenting with re-tuning each of the twelve strings differently so they’re not doubling but that almost gets cluttered. As a guitarist, I don’t know my way around the instruments like a pro so I try to, as a kind of self-discipline, use the standard tuning and make things happen with that rather than re-tuning things for every piece.
Rumpus: So, the electronics aren’t actually in the way of the fret board or the plucking. They’re somehow sort of disguised so you can play normally without it getting in the way?
Garland: Yeah. It doesn’t physically get in the way. But it certainly changes what you do. One of the remarkable things is that you can put this in any guitarist’s hands. It’s the instrument they know with additional attributes.
Rumpus: How much composing did you do for this project with an eye with an eye specifically on the modified guitar? Did you actually through-compose parts for the guitar?
Garland: I’m someone who’s written songs that are quite chromatic and sometimes kind of angular with unexpected chord changes and things like that; that’s one thing I’ve always loved to do. This instrument led me to simplify my harmonic language. I realized it’s not well-suited given the fact that it doesn’t reach full vibration potential unless it’s been vibrating for more than a minute. It’s not something on which to play fast key changes or to play a sequence of chords that aren’t naturally related because when you play a simple sequence or chords that are naturally related then you have the potential for vibrations carrying through one chord the next. That can happen really beautifully with this instrument. The instrument itself, given is semi-unpredictable stability in terms of exactly what’s going to happen and what overtones are going to be most prominent when you play it, really kind of suggested to me the idea of using simple chord cycles because every time the cycle repeats, it’s inevitably going to be a little different because different overtones are going to be more or less prominent so it was a process of kind of finding out what the medium did best. This is something I think I learned in art school working with clay or working with charcoal. The point is not to control the medium, the point is to interact with the medium, to find out what’s natural to it and what’s native to it and work with that, respond to that. That’s something I learned long ago and always applied to whatever creative activity I’m doing. So, that’s how I approached the guitar. I started playing music as an improviser so that comes naturally to me but I guess I’ve since become a composer. I’m not so interested in loose, free improvisation. I’ve done that. I did it decades ago so it’s something very old to me; I’m more interested in structuring things and working with a kind of structure that makes for a good listening experience.
Rumpus: Given that the drones are an inevitable bedrock because of the guitar that you’re playing, that would argue that the long pieces, of which there are five or six here, were utterly central to the project. Is that how you thought about it?
Garland: Yes. There are four pieces that each use a cycle of four as their fundamental material and each is in a different language so those are the foundation of the album. It’s not a concept album but it is an album where everything kind of speaks to everything else and it all relates to the whole experience.
Rumpus: Then are the shorter pieces methods of transit between the longer pieces for you? Or do you think of them as freestanding?
Garland: They’re all methods of transit in and among themselves, you know, all the pieces, in a way, which is a little different from some of my other albums. I’ve always tried to not consciously work in a style, not even consciously my own style or not in a limited way. None of my music sounds like rock or country or jazz; I don’t like working in sort of recognizable genres like that because I always want a sense of new discovery in the music I listen to so I try to make that, too. On other albums, I’m as likely to use an accordion as I am to use a computer as an accompaniment to the songs but here everything is more part of a sound world and I did that deliberately because there was so much more to explore in that sound world. Even the short pieces are all part of that world. Some pieces, of course, are deliberately to shift the texture, but they’re all part of the whole.
Rumpus: The sequencing must have been a really interesting part of making the album, then, because the whole flows so remarkably. There have been times when I’ve been listening to it this week where I have to stop what I’m doing and look at the computer and verify that a new piece has begun because the transitions are so seamless. Was there a point in assembling the whole that those sequencing kinds of decisions were really an uppermost piece of the creative act for you or was it just an intuitive sequencing?
Garland: It was all very deliberate, you know. That part, I suppose, is true of my experience of making radio shows. I love the way one piece can connect to another; it can make really interesting reverberations, not just by being similar but by contrasting or shifting in emphasis or this sort of thing so I was very aware of all the things that might connect or might distinguish one piece from another in the assembly of it. I always wanted it to be in a physical form so each of those four big pieces that I mentioned is on one of the four CDs that comprise the physical set. They’re sort of landmarks that are distributed in that way and then I distributed other things around them. Then I did, very deliberately, sort of bring the album to a sense of completion with the final song.
Rumpus: Did you think of those four sections—the four volumes, if you will—as having distinct and discreet meanings? I know you’re resisting the concept album, and I’m not trying to thrust it upon you, but I’m interested in whether you thought of the distinct volumes as having distinct moods from one another?
Garland: Not entirely distinct. I wasn’t sort of thinking “This is the happy volume,” or, “This is the sad volume.”
Rumpus: Or “winter” and “spring.”
Garland: Not so much. I do feel that there is some element of the four seasons in the four chord cycles that each of those four pieces in based on. I did think of that. I do think of it as a whole. Without thinking a lot about it, I did want to avoid a really distinct difference in the four volumes, one to another. One eventually covers similar territory in terms of texture and mood, I think.
Rumpus: I want to shift and talk about the lyrics a little bit because, as I told you before, I’m also a really big fan of Grapefruit by Yoko Ono.
Garland: Oh, yeah! Right.
Rumpus: So, Grapefruit, to me, summons up a whole conceptual apparatus—which is the sort of Fluxus set of principles for making work, and so on—and Grapefruit appears as a sort of passing mood in the album, it seems to me, but I’m wondering if we can impute from its presence ideas how the lyrics were made generally and if there are strategies and conceptual modalities that engender the lyrics generally.
Garland: I didn’t use a cut-up method or anything like that. I do love juxtapositions that that kind of approach creates and I loved Yoko’s color piece which I set to music because there’s meaning but there are things that kind of confound meaning or have the wonderful quality of being a language written by someone who doesn’t fully know the language so normal grammar is defeated. I have various approaches to the lyrics. The piece called “Povidej mi” which is sung in Czech by Iva Bittová was the result of my writing a poem in English and giving it to Iva just as we were about to record and saying “I want you to sing this in Czech.”
Garland: Because I wanted the qualities of language without the burden of meaning, which is something I really enjoy in music. I had French lessons in school and that sort of thing but I’m not great at French and yet I love to listen to music in French for the few words I can catch and all those that I can’t, just for the texture of that language. I wanted that experience of language in a language that only a small percent of the population of the world speaks. I kind of like that idea: that, for people who speak Czech, the language will have real meaning but, for everyone else, it will be the shape of language. With Iva—who’s such a great improviser and always up for being asked to do something spontaneous—I don’t know how her pretty spontaneous translation of the text is close to the original. I assume something’s lost in translation or, rather, something’s gained in translation. The piece called “Lux Temporalis” is something that I wrote in Latin without knowing Latin. I created myself a sort of vocabulary of the subject of words, the types of words I wanted and I arranged them in ways that felt right to me, so—I don’t know what you’d call that, the idea of writing in a language you don’t know. I’ve since input that Latin in a Google Translator and came out with a poem I’m very pleased with! [Both laugh]
But I didn’t write it in English. I don’t know how deliberate it was but I think I’m fully aware that the lyrics represent different approaches. Some are personal, like “Wave after Wave” is a type of love song that I think is fairly plain spoken and “Deflected” is an angry song, also in its way fairly plain spoken. The piece “I’ve Forgotten” I realize, in retrospect, is sort of like Beckett. It’s very terse. I wanted to create on the album what was, for me, a stimulating and comfortable mix with equal emphasis on instrumental and song. Most albums kind of do one thing or another: they’re either songs or they’re instrumentals, but when I make music I like to consider all the rules and expectations and use some and not use others. Should they be songs or instrumentals, I don’t care. I don’t think that’s an interesting distinction or not an important one to make conceiving what the material will be. Some of the songs are almost instrumentals in a way and some of the instrumentals are almost songs so I was kind of deliberately ignoring some of the expectations about that.
Rumpus: I noticed that. There are a couple of pieces where the vocal doesn’t come in until well into the piece. There’s an eruption of the voice instead of: “Oh, this is a song and this is doing what songs do.”
Garland: The whole idea of proportion was something that’s underlying the whole album: the thought that maybe the introduction is longer than the song or the songs happens and then there’s this whole other thinking that happens and playing with proportion, I think, is a fascinating thing. It’s intriguing to the intellect and it’s intriguing sensually as well.
Rumpus: Perhaps it has also to do with what you were saying earlier: with conceptions of time and light, when you’re in the rural space as opposed to the urban space. For example, I always have this experience: my father lives in Arizona and I’ve been numerous times to the Grand Canyon and my idea of the Grand Canyon is that the perfect audience with the Grand Canyon would require the amount of time that the Grand Canyon has been there!
Rumpus: To really know what a powerful rock formation is like, you’d have to sit there for a hundred million years because so various are the situations and the light and the development is so slow-acting that to do the tourist thing of swooping in for a day and walking a mile down the Bright Angel Trail is not really perceiving, observing, and taking in what’s happening in that space. In the same way for me, some of the longer pieces on the recording have that kind of elaborate development involved. Natural time. If you’re waiting for a two-minute pop song idea of development you’re going to be disappointed in this recording. You have to back up and wait for change to happen in a more geological way, or in an old growth forest kind of way. It’s going to happen according to metaphors that are more durational than simply what we expect of a popular music piece of development.
Garland: That was very deliberate. Not just deliberate for the listener of the experience but to give myself that experience in the making of it. It’s, in a sense, this new sense of time I’m experiencing these days. All sorts of things interfere with that: the latest tweet from Trump. That is interruptive so it’s not like I’m in paradise free of the anxieties that everyone shares, but I did deliberately make a new space for me to explore and for the listener to explore, a kind of sonic place that I hadn’t been before, found fascinating and so want to invite other people to share this space too. Of course, you don’t put out a four-hour album in 2018… [Both laugh]
Not a lot of people are going to sit down and hit play and stay there for four hours so I realized that I’m sort of swimming against the tide and that’s not the point of doing what I did but I accept that because I think the tide is worth swimming against.
Rumpus: I couldn’t agree more. I wanted to ask one more question about the recording process. Were there moments when you got to play with ensembles in making these pieces or did you do all the David Garland parts, and then add some people?
Garland: It was mostly the latter, the process of putting things together myself. But I also love when someone can bring something to it that I can’t do and I love working with people. It is very much constructed by me but some things were built for other people to participate in. It was very important to me working with this young double-bass player, Julian Lampert, who was just perfect for the project because he plays in orchestras and he plays in improvisations and he’s fascinated by Cuban music. We just clicked and it was really great. To me, he’s an important part of the sound of the album. Sometimes his parts were written down by me and some he created himself.
That was one of the more interactive relations in the music and then there were things, like with that piece “Povidej mi,” I don’t think it had ever happened to me before but, after creating some of the sounds and the basis of it, I suddenly had a flash of “Iva’s voice and Steve Gorn’s bansuri flute is what this needs,” so they both played on that, doing very much their own vision of it. It was funny because I had all these melodic elements planned for Iva and this was the piece on which she was improvising her translation and she said, “Let’s just see what happens when I do it myself,” and it was way better than anything I had written in preparation for her. The interactions were extremely valuable to me musically and personally and yet it is, in a way, the vision of a recluse. But, again, I was building this world in a reclusive way so that I could share it with the musicians who participated and anyone who will listen.
Rumpus: What did you do for basic tracks? How did you begin? Did you begin with the guitar and build up around that?
Garland: Several of the pieces began with the guitar. The way, for me, any composition begins, you kind of improvise a little and then something becomes interesting and you expand on that. There weren’t many pieces where I just kind of hit record and didn’t know what I was going to play so I had worked things out before starting. And yet part of the fun was that these pieces were not all written down and figured out before I recorded them. Some of the composition and some of the discovery was in the recording process, like “Oh, hey, this can happen” or “What if I take this part and put it here” so it was very much a process like that.
Rumpus: Was there splicing in the longer compositions or did you really sketch them out at that length in all four cases for the foundational pieces?
Garland: There was a lot of splicing on the whole album so all the sounds, except for the analog synthesizer, were recorded with microphones so it’s a very sort of tactile, acoustic, real-world sound. The only time the computer was involved was in the placement of those sounds and the duration of those sounds. Some of the orchestration was done in the computer (not with sound but moving around these acoustic recordings). So, there was splicing and stuff going on sort of behind the scenes (what I hope is kind invisible because it’s not manifest as an electronic experience but as an acoustic experience). The long pieces, while they’re shaped on these cycles of four chords, the melodies are usually kind of meandering; they don’t repeat a lot. So that was a gradual process of working out what felt right with those shapes and to entwine a non-repeating element with a repeating element is part of the fun and, for me, part of the beauty I wanted to explore.
Rumpus: Are you going to try to play some of this live?
Garland: Some of it I wouldn’t know how to play live. [Both laugh]
But a lot of it could be! The piece “Povidej mi” was performed upstate at Basilica Hudson at their drone festival last spring.
Rumpus: I think I saw a video of that, right? Is there a video?
Garland: There’s a video of just an excerpt. I don’t think the whole thing was videotaped. That was fun and really challenging to write out all the parts because, generally, I’m not notating for myself but I notate for other people. While I didn’t write it all down to make the piece, I had to write it down afterwards to have other people play it. That’s a big ensemble piece that needs a conductor to keep everyone together but that’s a piece I certainly want to play again. If there’s interest, I’ll figure out how to perform some of the other pieces but this is not a project that was built to support a tour or something like that. It is an experience in and of itself.
Rumpus: I have two last questions and one is: How does “verdancy”—a beautiful title and a great word—describe the project for you?
Garland: Very essentially, I think. The guitar is a source of verdancy because it has a life of its own. It’s an instrument that, once you turn the power on, it will start to vibrate and it won’t stop until you turn it off or mute the strings so it has kind of a will of its own. This is a verdant offering of material; it’s a whole lot of stuff. It was a life-giving process to make it and, I don’t know, do you need more reasons?
Rumpus: Also, you’re writing it in a rural setting so you have the fecundity of nature happening around you.
Garland: Yeah, this is very much a response to that.
Rumpus: We lived in Eastern Duchess for a while. We just sold our house; we were over on the Connecticut border so just half an hour from you, probably. We had crazy amounts of wildlife in our neck of the woods including: twice I saw bobcats in the yard, but also fox, deer, groundhogs and, on a couple of occasions, we found parts of a deer in our yard.
Garland: Wow, in your yard? Wow.
Rumpus: …which meant that a bobcat or somebody else had gotten ahold of a doe and done it in and left a skull and a ribcage in our yard. So, for me, the idea of verdancy is complex. It’s a journey.
Garland: Absolutely. Real verdancy is certainly unruly and not convenient so, yes, those are ideas that are in there as well, for sure.
Rumpus: And, I’m obliged, as a fan, also to ask to what degree the lamentable ending of Spinning on Air as an on-air broadcast was that a sort of place to begin this musical investigation for you and did that have a piece in the process for you?
Garland: It definitely had a piece in the process. Though I want to make sure that you know, which I think you do, that Spinning on Air does continues as a podcast.
Rumpus: I do know that and I welcomed that development with my whole heart!
Garland: [Laughs] Being off the weekly responsibilities for that is a very different experience and I don’t know, in a way, I think one thing that made me good at doing the radio was that I was an artist myself who was very interested in how other people made their art. I think that turns out to be somewhat of a rarity—you’re another example. A lot of artists are sort of incurious or self-obsessed or something like that; they don’t want to get into anyone else’s head so this was an opportunity for me to explore my own possibilities and to realize my own creativity, which I’ve never stopped doing. I’ve been putting out albums since 1987 or whenever the first one came out. I’ve never stopped. The change in professional circumstances allowed a redirection of some of my creative energies more fully into my own music. I always stayed employed because I always figured the music I wanted to make just wasn’t promising as a commercial enterprise and I needed to be free of that pressure. So, I’m not doing the music to make money but it’s the manifestation of the same creative impulse that powered Spinning on Air happening regularly on WNYC.
Rumpus: Could you have made a four-hour album while you were doing the show every week?
Garland: Sure, I could have! When I started making the music on Verdancy, I wasn’t like, “Hey, this is going to be the first three minutes of what’s to become a four-hour album: only three hours and fifty-seven minutes to go!” I’ve never rushed anything into release. This stuff started to accumulate and it started to accumulate pretty quickly and I realized I had something really big and I didn’t know what shape it was going to take yet but I just explored it and actually had to call a halt to it. I do have more material that’s not on the album which I’ll save for later. So I could have made it even more than four hours long. The duration is integral. Everything, I hope, is kind of integrated on the album: the sounds, the duration, the ideas, the journey. Each aspect supports the others, I hope.
Rumpus: Many thanks for talking for an hour. It was really exciting and thrilling to me to get the chance, having once been an interview subject for you. It was thrilling to get to turn the table and ask the questions back.
Feature photograph of David Garland © Anne Garland. Photograph of performance of “Lux Temporalis” at Basilica Hudson drone festival 2017 © Alon Koppel. Leaf collages created by David Garland.