The banjo is an American instrument that has its roots in African stringed instruments fashioned from special sticks of bamboo combined with gourds. It is well known as a crucially defining component of old-time music, bluegrass music, and late-era minstrel performances. Thus enters Woody Sullender, self-styled as Uncle Woody Sullender in direct reference to the legacy of critical folk musicians like Uncle Dave Macon and Uncle Bunt Stevens. Sullender takes the banjo — and the host of beliefs and circumstances that place the banjo in a peculiar socio-political corner — and attempts to use it in ways that may seem incongruous with its traditional or popular role in music history; he turns it into an instrument of free jazz and improv.
Sullender has serious ideas about the role the banjo has played. [His own manifesto->http://deadceo.com/unclewoody/page.php?page=writing] gives a downright scholarly analysis of the banjo as a distinctly Southern instrument with socio-cultural and political underpinnings. He argues that the banjo is inextricably tied to the folk tradition of Appalachia and the slave trade. In this context, it becomes not just a product of slavery, but also a product of Northern attitudes that have shaped contemporary attitudes towards the instrument.
This is relevant because Sullender doesn’t play like String Bean or Earl Scruggs. He plays the banjo like Derek Bailey plays guitar, as an arm of improvisation that pulses and ebbs like a flock of barn swallows. In his hands, the banjo becomes a plinking doodling wand, a wicked seizure, and a kobold’s hat. While those of less patient and inquisitive musical demeanor find the products of his efforts tedious or ill-placed, those who are steeped in the traditions of Fahey and Bailey can find comfort in the abundance of textures and figures that Sullender is able to produce with the banjo. Clearly, his mission as a musician is to create a place for the banjo in the free-improv world that is appreciative of, yet also distinct from, any cultural baggage associated with the instrument’s history.
On Live at Barkenhoff, we are offered about 40 minutes of material with which to judge the effectiveness of Sullender’s efforts. On this recording, he’s basically only playing banjo, but his instrument is tied together with a laptop and some curious effects combinations to create a wider sound. A piezo buzzer under the bridge of his banjo sends a signal to his laptop, which is running Supercollider, a programming language well adapted for live audio synthesis and algorithmic compositions. According to Sullender, Supercollider creates new sounds “based on [the] pitch and amplitude of the incoming signal. This may include simple saw waves … pitch shifting the incoming signal, or downsampling the incoming signal to lower sample/bit rates.” The audio created by this process is then sent back to a transducer beneath the banjo, which effectively turns the instrument into a speaker.
On top of that, a modified Nintendo Wiimote attached to the banjo communicates with the laptop via Bluetooth. The buttons on the Wiimote are used to control specific processes running within Supercollider, while the internal accelerometers inside the Wiimote allow simple tilting of the banjo to control different parameters of the program. If you find that terrifyingly nerdy, then welcome to the world of graduate studies in electronic music composition. Ultimately, the result is a richly textured sound created and controlled by the banjo exclusively. The laptop only augments and reintroduces the sound, rather than creating original noises.
All this information about the composition of the three long pieces that make up Live at Barkenhoff might not interest the casual listener. For those less inclined to delve into the dense and jargon-filled world of electronic music composition, I offer the following synopsis:
From the opening strains, which reflect the setting sun that accompanied this outdoor performance, we hear the delicate and somewhat discordant whine of the electronic musical element that complements the rhythmic plink of Sullender's banjo. This beginning offers a perfect introduction and leads us on a journey that travels far and wide, evoking at various points the potential, as well as the history, of the banjo. If you pay attention, you will find that, at moments, the casual strumming and picking of the banjo is reminiscent of early old-time. However, as his fingers get moving and as the pace picks up, the density of notes and the texture of the sound obliterates the feeling of an Appalachian front porch. We are led into a chaotic miasma that showcases the banjo’s propensity for volume while revealing Sullender’s virtuosity. If he keeps it up, and there seems to be no doubt that he will, he has the potential to become one of the most innovative and historically important players of an instrument that seems to have come a long way from the black-faced, red-lipped minstrels of the 1800s, or the fast-paced three-finger style of Shelby, North Carolina’s Earl Scruggs.
Although I’ve never been to Barkenhoff, which was the site of a famous left-wing commune from 1918 to 1923, I have now learned that it is located in the German state of Bremen. Bremen is noted for being the official destination of the four musicians of the Grimm Brothers tale The Bremen Town Musicians: the dog, donkey, cat, and rooster. In the tale, when the four animals play their music, it has a surprise effect: the listeners run for their lives, not being able to understand what the sound is. I don’t think that Uncle Woody had the audience fleeing when he played at Barkenhoff, but the CD does make it seem as though there was a Grimm Brothers fairy tale feel, replete with wooden shoes and Rapunzel hair. You better believe that if the fate of humankind ever rests on the outcome of a banjo duel with the devil, and we get to pick our best chance at beatin’ Lucifer, I’ll vote for Uncle Woody.