I’m losing my faith in the guitar. Each year, it seems more and more like a relic. For starters, it’s a fully manual technology — a thing to be gripped, stroked, played in the hands, a partner or extension of a decisively human body. It’s also a specifically expressive technology, an instrument that’s made to “talk,” to mime and amplify the resonance and rhythm of human speech. For this, for all its seeming universality, the guitar, like the novel, has a shelf-life; it exists historically. Its unique shape and sound might have helped to free music from some institutions (religious, political, etc.), but the instrument came with its own ideological baggage. Cheap, mass-produced, easy to play, and transportable, the guitar will forever be the instrument of the humanist era. It belongs fully to “the individual,” to the “fretful” self of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism.
To put a point on it, I’d say the art of the guitar reached its pinnacle in the West during the “modernist” era. From the Delta juke to the Parisian café, it gave voice to a specifically anxious individualism and became the emblem of a decisively lost generation. A bluesman like Charlie Patton used it to express all the thrills and threats of a recently emancipated life, developing a repertoire of hooks and riffs that reflected the harried shifts and moods of life in the new economy. A painter like Picasso saw in its strangely biomorphic shape and chorded sound the outlines of a recently fragmented life — decentered and patterned, organic as well as mechanical. Even later in the century, in its amplified form, the instrument gave voice to a specifically modernist set of issues — a desire for charismatic wholeness, a need to reconnect with the masses, the hope of mediating (as Steven Waksman suggests) the primitive body with the abstract purity of technology. But these fantasies seem to have faded, alongside the fetishization of the guitar. The scales, tempos, and patterns of the postmodern era have, along with its technology, led us towards other sounds and other instruments; the humanist urge has been pushed to the back of the musical mix or abandoned entirely, drowned, for better or worse, in a post-human wash of synths, computer-generated glitch, and found sound.
All of which is why I was initially drawn to the work of guitarist Chris Forsyth. Forsyth is an avant-garde musician whose use of traditional idioms like folk and blues raises all sorts of questions about the “death of the guitar.” His new album Kenzo Deluxe is a jam band record without any jam band. It consists of five seemingly free-form guitar solos, three of which hover around the 10-minute mark. Each song is performed with minimal overdubs, so that the language of the guitar is placed front and center, eerily abstracted from the group repertoire of sounds and rhythms that typically support it. At the same time, as these songs sprawl out, seemingly beyond human endurance and perspective, their repeated patterns lose their jam band urgency and instead take on an oddly depersonalized and richly meditative quality. In this, Kenzo Deluxe sits at the strange border of cock rock and raga, interrogating even as it honors the basic principles of both traditions. But it is also a fully conceptual album, one that will leave you questioning the underlying structures of “human expression” and the ontological status of “song” itself. You could perhaps blast the album out your front window for a lazy summer street party, but you could also use it to rewrite the semiotics of rock ‘n’ roll. Simply put, these are songs about songs, or about songmaking (think John Fahey or Rhys Chatham). By taking the urgency out of the tradition and abstracting its basic linguistic units, Forsyth seems to exhume and then exploit the entire defunct history of American guitar culture.
The first track on Kenzo Deluxe is a soundtrack to a rock ‘n’ roll film that already has a soundtrack. “The First Ten Minutes of Cocksucker Blues” was composed to be played over the notorious documentary of The Rolling Stones’ 1972 North American tour in support of Exile on Main Street. Forsyth’s song, with its sinister boogie rhythm and psychedelic solos, seems to distill the essence of the Stones’ sleazy brand of bluesy Americana, and yet in form and structure leads beyond the cock rock shtick to explore the musical language that supports it. More than anything, the song’s vamping echoes and expanded chord progressions provide a study in the kind of musical anticipation that made the Stones’ act so compelling; its six-minute mark coincides with a close-up of Jagger stroking his crotch in the film, but there’s no climax here — the sound nearly cuts out at this point, seeming to bypass the moment altogether with a few mysterious riffs and then a series of gorgeously cascading chimes. If the first track, though, focuses on musical anticipation, the second, titled “Downs and Ups,” seems all about lapses and fades. Here, Forsyth cuts away almost all the structural elements of the classic rock jam, so that the song hangs together on the harmonic effects of the guitar. With its opening series of double-stops, the track most immediately recalls the epic noodling of The Allman Brothers, but then quickly establishes itself as an Eastern-inspired meditation on the nature of musical duration. As the notes start to melt into each other, rushing past the ear in an increasingly frantic pace, they seem to both expose and dissolve their own solidity, existing only in their passing, in their quickly evaporating relations with all the other notes that come before or after. It’s a common yet bewildering effect here, nearly transcendent in its application, and, when you’re not indulging in the fleeting pleasure of grasping at notes, you’ll find yourself wondering about the phenomenological dimensions of sound and the experience of time itself.
The rest of Kenzo Deluxe is not nearly so compelling. One other long track seems too much like a traditional “song” to hold much interest, while two shorter tracks provide, under the guise of the “lullaby,” limited studies on the nature of electric sound. All together, though, the album reveals much about the language of the guitar and musical language in general. It most immediately brings to mind a rather obscure article by Theodor Adorno titled “Music, Language, and Composition.” Music is a language, Adorno claims: it has concepts, syntax, and levels of cultural significance that shape both performance and reception. And, yet, unlike verbal language, what music says can’t be abstracted from its very sounding. Its meaning is bound up with the process of articulation; it emerges only in and through the musical act, the dynamic relations and physical effects of its contextualized performance. In this, Adorno argues, music-making proves more precise and more direct, but also more suggestive and more allusive than other signifying systems. “In comparison to signifying language,” he writes, “music is a language of a completely different type… What music says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form of the name of God. It is demythologized prayer… the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings.” I’m not sure that Adorno would be able to hear the name of God in “The First Ten Minutes of Cocksucker Blues,” but it’s precisely this kind of failure that makes the guitar still so interesting. Whether as avant-garde formalism or interminable blues riffing, the best guitar jam always comes across as a spectacular failure to “name the name itself,” to call forth an impossible presence. It reaches towards a state of being, a stance that is both present and meaningful, charged and proper, but, in its very sounding, in its own cocky urgency, it inevitably overshoots the mark, exposing both the human effort and all that lies outside its grasp.
Similarly, Kenzo Deluxe suggests that the language of the guitar is not necessarily dead, far from it, but it has outstripped its usual contexts. Overshooting does not simply mean failure, but also openness, a sense of possibility, of new names beyond the names we once liked to shout. The album’s avant-garde edge points towards the kind of post-human aesthetics we now get readily from other instruments and other genres. There’s no doubt something ironic about this effort — using the guitar to outstrip guitar culture — but it’s precisely this tension that, in Forsyth’s hands, raises some new hope for the instrument.