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