Wrangling A Sacred Sound
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
“The guitar is capable of making the sounds you hear in your brain,” Alan Sparhawk said, speaking by telephone from his home in Duluth, Minn. “It can be a very expressive and cathartic instrument.”
Sparhawk’s new album, “Solo Guitar” (Silber), is proof. Over nine instrumental tracks Sparhawk evokes moods of desolate landscapes, crashing waves, and flickering flames. “How the Weather Comes Over the Hillside” turns echoing chords into sonic storms, while “Sagrado Corazón de Jesú” recalls the ghost-town twang of Neil Young’s “Dead Man” film score.The centerpiece is the 18-minute “How the Freighter Comes Into the Harbor,”whose chiming drones melt into a hypnotic trance.
Throughout, Sparhawk creates a wide range of sounds from an electric guitar and some effects pedals. “It was fun to push myself that way, “Sparhawk said.” I could play in ways that have always been in me but I haven’t had a chance to do in a band.” That band is Low, the trio in which Sparhawk sings and plays guitar. Compared to the slow, achingly beautiful music Low has made on its seven albums, the extended improvisations on “Solo Guitar” are a departure.
Since forming in 1994, Low has been based in Duluth, just down the road from the Sacred Heart studio, where Sparhawk recorded “Solo Guitar” last summer. He had contemplated making an instrumental solo album for a while, but ambivalence delayed him. “Once every blue moon I go through a phase where I feel good about playing guitar,” Sparhawk said, laughing. “So I finally called [engineer] Eric Swanson and asked if he had a couple days open.”
Sparhawk soon found himself influenced by Sacred Heart, which is housed inside a large Catholic church.”The way the guitar and the strings interact with the sound in the room, you get the sense of it playing back to you,” Sparhawk said. “It’s more like you’re riding this thing that’s making noise than you’re wrangling something out of it.”
The studio’s cavernous quality also inspired Sparhawk to use silence as a tool. Many tracks on “Solo Guitar” include barely audible passages and even full stops. “I like those gaps a lot. The first instinct is to fill things out, and the best way to stop yourself is to put silence in,” Sparhawk said.”Especially in a space where you have that much reverberation and things trail off that long.You want to hear it begin, and you want to hear it end and decay.”
Once Sparhawk and Swanson picked the final tracks from six hours of material, Sparhawk gave them titles reflective of Sacred Heart’s surroundings. “The church looks over the harbor, and my house is just up the hill, right where the weather comes over the ridge,” Sparhawk said.”I started thinking about that, and how the guitar sounds reminded me of the boats bouncing in and out of the harbor, and the air over the lake colliding with the air over the prairie.”
One of the few pieces on “Solo Guitar” without an environmental theme is “Eruption by Eddie Van Halen.” Though Sparhawk’s track is not a literal cover, it has similarities to “Eruption,” a solo guitar showcase from Van Halen’s self-titled 1978 debut. “It was strange to realize I was playing something reminiscent of that,” Sparhawk said. “When I was a teenager it both drew me and repelled me. It was certainly admirable, but also something I gritted my teeth through. I thought, I’m never going to be able to do that, but I don’t care, I’m going to play anyway!”
Asked about his other influences, Sparhawk cited avant-guitarists Nels Cline, Alan Licht, and Marc Ribot. “The first time Low played in New York it was on a bill with Alan Licht, and along with hearing Marc Ribot on Tom Waits’s ‘Big Time,’ those were the first times that I thought, here’s someone that you can actually sit and listen to for a while,” Sparhawk said. “It’s a beautiful thing to hear a guitar player who does not make me hate the guitar more.”
In fact, making “Solo Guitar” seems to have softened Sparhawk’s own love-hate relationship with his instrument. “It took me a while to feel all right about this one, but now I’ve opened myself up to it,” Sparhawk said. “I’m trying to be cautious, but it’s inspired me to maybe try it again.”