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Exploring the 12-tone technique opened up a plethora of possibilities for Michael Varverakis.
On his gorgeous new solo recording Wonderland (Sonata Blue Music), Detroit-based guitarist Michael Varverakis employs 12-tone technique, a compositional method closely associated with classical-music giant Arnold Schoenberg in which structure begets freedom, since all 12 notes on the chromatic scale are treated as equally important. The album’s title conveys his joy of discovery.
“Before I went into the studio to record last year’s album, Songs From My Blue Guitar, I started wandering into this world,” Varverakis says. “And I was like, ‘Wow, I’m going in all these new directions.’ When you start 12-tone, you leave behind the tight rules of major and minor keys and find yourself playing things you’ve never played before. It was like this musical land of wonder.”
Varverakis, who’d previously released four long-players under his own name and more than a dozen with his duo, Four Hands, during a 30-plus-year career, was familiar with the concept. “I first learned about 12-tone and atonal music in the Wayne State University music program,” he says. “But I kind of forgot about it.”
These memories came flooding back three decades later by happenstance — or serendipity. As Varverakis recalls, “I was listening to this album by the Nels Cline 4 and I started messing around with some of the things they were playing for fun. Then, when I was playing my own music, I thought, ‘Let’s do some chromaticism,’ and when I did, I was like, ‘Now I can go up and down the fretboard, up and down the keys. Holy shit!’”
The influence of Schoenberg was obvious in the results, but so too was that of someone seemingly from an entirely different sonic planet: Varverakis’ original guitar hero, the late rock super-shredder Eddie Van Halen. To Varverakis, the connections were clear. “Eddie would go off on his solos and you could hear it: He was leaving the key behind. That’s why a lot of times his bass player would really just play one note, the root of each chord — because Eddie was doing all these things in different keys.”
This combination of intellectualism and instinct underpins Wonderland’s entrancing title track. According to Varverakis, “I had an idea of how I wanted to play it, but after I spent six hours doing it, I went home and thought, ‘This is garbage.’ So I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to play it and I came up with the intro, these dyads, and realized, ‘That’s it. I’ll start with that and see where it goes.’”
He took a similar approach to “Dreamland Pt. 2,” a patient, beautifully tooled sonic sculpture: “I started with a little homage to Debussy — the first notes are ‘Clair de Lune’ — and I had, like, a sketch to different parts of that song. And as I went through them, going back and forth, it turned into a loosey-goosey thing that was so much better than what I’d intended.”
Despite its academic pedigree, Wonderland is extremely accessible — warm, inviting, tuneful — as befits a performer who takes pride in his eclecticism. “I love jazz and avant-garde music, but I love Motown and pop music, too. It’s awesome when it’s done right,” Varverakis enthuses. So if some listeners choose to simply enjoy his latest works rather than focus on the complexities of the 12-tone technique, that’s fine by him.
“First and foremost, I always want to write a good piece of music,” he stresses. “I want to play things interestingly, but they have to make sense musically. The music comes first, whether or not people know what I’m doing behind the scenes.” — Michael Roberts