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andrewcsmith on 06/11/2010 at 09:00AM

Banjo, plus a dozen and a half strings

Photo by Lori Baily

It seems statistically improbable that we would have two entirely unrelated artists playing modified banjos (extended banjos? prepared banjos?) in the space of a few weeks, but that's how we roll. The night before Uncle Woody Sullender broke out his electro-acoustic transducer banjo, Paul Metzger brought his own techniques to the floor. Metzger plays purely acoustic, but the spirit is so close to Sullender's that they seem like a perfect pair; instead of electro-acoustic drones and resonances, Metzger has added a dozen and a half strings to his instrument. Some of these strings are added to the neck of the banjo, which seems to be set up somewhat like a twelve-string guitar; others run from the top of the banjo's drum head to the bridge, and these resonate sympathetically with his playing. The bridge also seems to be raised, as Metzger bows the instrument at times.

It is impossible to discuss Paul Metzger's music without mentioning the seeming influence of Indian raga, from the modal harmonies and gliding inflections to the way the rhythm often clips along at a steady pulse without fitting into small accented phrases. Metzger's banjo doesn't ring quite like a sitar, though--it packs the punch of something like the Afghan rubab, that fretted plucked-string instrument where the whole set of sympathetic strings vibrates at once against the same membrane as the melody strings.

But comparisons are somewhat inconsequential to Metzger's music. He has his own well-wrought world, and the most immediately apparent aspect to his music is the clarity with which he conveys it. His long, partially improvised performance "The Uses of Infinity" (out soon on Locust Music) bears some resemblance to La Monte Young's ongoing work "The Well-Tuned Piano" in that it moves among harmonic areas, contrasting clouds of sound with moments of near-stasis. Moreover, it is an immensely physical performance, as emotionally immediate as it is structured in a larger sense.

Below is the last third of the performance, which expands to roughly 20 minutes on the album.

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andrewcsmith on 05/24/2010 at 10:30AM

The twenty-first century banjo

Uncle Woody Sullender at ISSUE Project Room

This here's banjo week on the ISSUE Project Room FMA page, and we're kicking off your Monday with some Uncle Woody Sullender. Woody played a concert last Saturday night, along with peace, loving and Nat Baldwin, and his sprawling improvisations can turn on a dime from Virginia fingerpicking to electronic drones. Far from your standard historical banjo fare, Woody plays a modified instrument (developed with STEIM in Amsterdam) in which a transducer essentially uses his banjo as a speaker cone for live electronic processing.

The thing about Woody's banjo playing is that at times the picking is so furiously fast that it starts to meld with and almost overtake the electronic backdrop. Other times, he brings out sparse, angular harmonics that seem like fragments more than like melody or chord progression. These electronics, coming from a transducer that essentially uses the banjo itself as a speaker cone, alternate between drones, electronic glitch noises, and sparse harmonic variations. For an instrument so associated (in popular music, at least) with the folksy strumming of the Seegers and the Sufjans, Woody plays it like it's something else.

And, yet, he also plays it like a banjo. The set begins with a minor-key chord movement, over which Woody plays the same three-note riff, which deconstructs into fragments, turning on the self-assurance of the opening phrase. The electronics—a simple filtered, distorted tone from the banjo—constantly interrupt the picking rhythms with irregularly synchopated noise. It's not as if there are two "modes," and Woody is mashing-up Virginia banjo with some Brooklyn electronic wizardry; they are fused elements of the same substance. Most importantly, it all comes as naturally as any language and, like language, contains moments of perfect ambiguity, where the sound is in both and neither of these zones.

Listen below to the first part of his three-part set. The whole thing is up on the album page, and is well worth the listen.

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JoeMc on 07/30/2009 at 12:17PM

The Banjo King

"Plunks" and his plunker

Until not too long ago, before computers and samplers changed the way people make music, the dominant instrument of popular music was the guitar. In some circles, it still is. But 'twas not always so. Back at the turn of the century, when you wound up the Victrola in your front parlour to hear the latest tunes, what you'd most likely be listening to was not the guitar, but the dominant instrument of pop circa 1900: the banjo.

The banjo was not really more popular than the guitar with musicians at the time, but it had the edge when it came to recording. The loud, plucked strings over the drum of the banjo's body carried a lot more sound to an acoustic recording horn than most guitars of the day. Musicians who wanted a big, strong sound on their records knew that the banjo would do the trick. And nobody in the early recording industry knew this better, and exploited it more effectively, than Vess L. Ossman.


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longrally on 06/20/2009 at 09:11PM

Aaron Siegel, Katherine Young, Alex Chechile, Woody Sullender, Matt Bauder, Jeremiah Cymerman Live Improv on WFMU

IMG_4713 About a year ago, when I started in earnest to feature live improvisational music on The Long Rally, I had a grandiose vision of how it might ultimately go down.  I imagined a weekly rotating door with musicians of all genres and personalities coming by to improvise live at 11pm in casual self-appointed groups: locals with out-of-towners passing through, adventurous rockers and noize dudes with straight up jazz musicians, the drone with the lyrical, the acoustic with the electric and electronic, the classically-trained with the self-taught. Sometimes a gumbo's just a gumbo, and sometimes it's the best fucking food you've ever tasted in your life.

Wednesday night was the closest I've gotten to my fanciful and somewhat naive dream when a cast of NYC's best and brightest made the trip out to our humble Jersey City home.  Jeremiah Cymerman, who played a solo clarinet/electronics set on the show last year, assembled the group of musicians, and together we came up with a loose concept of configuring them in little ensembles for short improvisational pieces.  Neither the musicians nor I knew what the formations would be or what would be played until a few minutes before kickoff. Between pieces whoever wasn't setting up would join me in the studio for some chat, and we'd end with the full group going at it.

The result was a relaxed and convivial atmosphere, some unexpectedly wacked out high points, and ultimately a wonderful set of live and spontaneous music!  Catch all of these folks at the Telluric Currents Series at Ibeam in Brooklyn this weekend.  I'm off the schedule for the summer, but who knows, maybe my live improv dreams will come true in the fall, after all.  Thanks to Sean Austin for engineering.

Hear the full set here on the Free Music Archive


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JoeMc on 05/27/2009 at 02:03PM

The Grey Area Between Black and White

Polk Miller and the banjo on his knee

Pioneers sometimes come in unexpected and unwanted forms. Take the case of Polk Miller. Who would have thought that the son of a slave owner, who himself firmly believed in the institution of slavery, would spend his life popularizing black music as a member of the first integrated group in American music?

Born in Virginia in 1844, Polk Miller grew up on a plantation run by slave labor. As a boy, he was fascinated by the music of his father's slaves and learned to play banjo from them. Soon after, however, in a pattern that would reoccur throughout his life, he spent several years fighting to defend slavery as a member of the Confederate army. Miller was indeed well-suited to a grey uniform.

After the war ended, Miller returned to civilian life and became a druggist. A remedy that he concocted to nurse his ailing dog Sergeant turned into a successful business, and Miller became one of Richmond's most prominent businessmen. (His pet care brand, Sergeant's, is still around, by the way.) All this time, though, Miller would break out his banjo and entertain his friends with old spirituals from the plantation.

Finally, in 1892, Miller handed his business over to his son and became a full-time entertainer. Ever mindful of the sounds of the singing he'd heard as a boy, he hired a black quartet to accompany him in his reproductions of spirituals and folk songs he loved. This fivesome soon began to tour the country, playing and singing at everything from big city socials to monument raisings in country towns. Mark Twain caught them at Madison Square Garden after the turn of the century and remarked that "Polk Miller and his wonderful four is about the only thing the country can furnish that is originally and utterly American."


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