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Though he ultimately settled on the more poetic Resonant Bodies, Adam Rudolph half-seriously considered calling the second album by his Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra How To Play the Guitar.
It’s a provocative suggestion given the near absence of anything resembling conventional guitar playing by the nine axmen that make up percussionist/composer/conductor’s inventive ensemble. But it also makes a weird kind of sense, given that each member of the group — Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, Joel Harrison, Jerome Harris, Miles Okazaki, Damon Banks, Marco Cappelli, David Gilmore and Kenny Wessel — presents a wholly unique answer to that proposition.
“These nine players have an amazing range of approaches,” says Rudolph, reached by phone in December at his home outside Newark, New Jersey. “They’re all really advanced thinkers and soulful, imaginative players. The idea was for them to be as free as possible and to play the organic quality of what they do, but in service of a larger vision. The vision was orchestral, but of a kind of orchestra that couldn’t possibly have existed before.”
The same could be said of Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra, which he founded in 2001. That ensemble more closely resembles a familiar orchestra, or at the very least a multicultural big band. It plays in a wholly unique fashion, however, spontaneously conducted by Rudolph from a variety of sources: a few minimal pieces of traditional notated music; his more unconventional, self-designed intervallic matrices and cosmograms; and his trademark ostinatos of circularity, a set of layered polyrhythms. As a conductor, Rudolph essentially plays the orchestra like he would a set of hand drums.
“When I cue a musician or group of musicians, I have a general idea of what I’m going to hear depending on where we are in the score,” he explains. “But I’m always surprised at what comes back at me. It’s a call and response that’s happening all the time.”
The guitar-centric version of the ensemble may seem to be more limited, while conversely less predictable. When Rudolph is conducting the full orchestra, he has a vast range of colors at his disposal, and while the individual’s improvised response may be unknowable, the sound of their specific instrument can be guessed at. But wherever Rudolph turns with the Guitar Orchestra, there’s a guitar waiting for him — albeit one whose sound might be manipulated in myriad unforeseen ways.
“I counted one night when we played in Philadelphia,” he recalls, “and there were 108 foot pedals on stage.”
In this case, Rudolph has to rely not on his knowledge of the instrumentation at hand — which in the Organic Orchestra was always malleable to begin with — and more on his familiarity with the nine individual voices he’s enlisted. But that, he insists, is also true of the parent ensemble.
“One of the things I love about the organic orchestra concept is that, whatever someone’s background or even experience level, there’s a way to find that place where each musician’s spirit and artistry can shine through. My challenge is just to encourage and allow the space for things to happen.”
On Resonant Bodies (Meta), the results are more sparse and sonically textural than one might expect from a gaggle of six-string adventurers. In large part, that’s due to Rudolph’s keen ear as a conductor, one that he applies to the post-production process as well as the live performance. But it’s also a credit to the far-ranging imaginations of these guitarists, all of whom appreciate the value of a single gesture, an otherworldly sound effect or a shredding solo outburst, depending on what the moment calls for.
“I encourage them to not think like a guitar,” Rudolph explains. “I want them to think about being a piccolo or a timpani, waves lapping on a shore or a car in traffic. I’m usually laughing to myself when I hear what they come up with.”— Shaun Brady