ROBERT SPALDING NEWCOMB
Anastasia Of The Gardens
(Partial Music)

 

A pioneering musician who is well established in the avant gard / progressive guitar world, Robert Spalding Newcomb presents another side of his muse with his 2008 double CD set, Anastasia Of The Gardens - Electronic Works 1988-1997. Guitarist yes, but who knew Robert was such an electronic music aficionado? His double CD set sounds more like Wendy Carlos than say, Carlos Santana. Reflective of the daring vision of artists in the mid and late 1980’s, Newcomb’s electronic music set uses computer software programs that skillfully implement nylon string MIDI guitar with keyboards, but the end result is anything but solely guitaristic. Amazingly, Newcomb’s late ‘80s music is also superbly recorded and sounds great 22 years later. Recorded in NYC, New Hampshire and Michigan, the sound throughout is highly experimental but the soundtrack / audiolog type results are quite listenable. The two CD set is superbly packaged and is filled with all kinds of information and historic liner notes on these early recordings. Another Newcomb CD worth giving a listen to is Undiscovered. A 2007 live recording from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the 62 minute CD is broken into two parts—”Connecting The Dots” (“Suite For Guitar In The Present Moment”) and “Light Of Life”, which is an experimental foray using amplified sitar. The sound throughout is more guitar-centric sounding yet it’s also highly experimental. For a look and a listen to Newcomb’s more direct yet amazing guitar work in action you can always look back and listen to his 2004 Native Planting CD, which combines thirteen concert and studio recordings from 2001 to 2004 featuring Newcomb’s deft approach on amplified sitar, nylon string MIDI guitar and assorted high tech computer gear. These three CD releases combine for an up close and personal look at one of America’s most sonically adventurous, eclectic guitar figures. www.PartialMusic.com

mwe3.com presents an interview with
ROBERT SPALDING NEWCOMB



MWE3: You are renowned as a guitarist, but you also continue to be involved with a variety of musical art forms and structures. Would you describe yourself primarily as a guitarist and how would you say being a guitarist born in the 20th Century has shaped your musical sound and style? Also what kind of trends do you see in the musical development in the 21st century?

RSN: I have been playing guitar for more than 40 years, so yes, this is my primary instrument for musical expression, no question. My path has been informed by many twists and turns which have brought into my life other instruments, some short lived (tinwhistle, 5-string banjo, alto sax, tabla, conga, hammered dulcimer), others which I have relied on extensively in studio and compositional work (electronic keyboards, numerous synths, DSP boxes, computer hardware, commercial software and many programming languages). Aspects of all these explorations have become embedded in my work today. Our time, and I mean the last 50 years and the next 50 years, is an amazing time of confluence. Having guitar as a musical basis during this era has allowed me to relate to many other instruments and traditions very easily as they have come into view through the increasingly powerful lens of our communications tools that carry our musical information.

To give perspective to my work I continually reevaluate why I do it. I have two precepts that seem to sustain me no matter what form my creative work takes, whether guitar based, sitar based, computer based, or word based.

First, the “process” of music making must nurture the growth of the individual (and audience) toward integration of self.

Second, the resulting “musical structure” must mirror a symbolic representation of the belief system existing within the artist.

These can seem fairly heavy, but if you think about it, if you really are in the place you should be, there will be a synchronicity of what you make, how you make it, and how it affects you and those who perceive it.

MWE3: Looking back on your musical history, how and when did you become interested in the guitar and can you remember how your early studies led to interest in becoming a recording artist?

RSN: Coming from a naturally musical family, but without a formal music education, music as a career didn't seem too likely, though it was always a seductive alternative to the 'straight life.'

I was always singing or playing some instrument - drums, guitar, cornet - and piano had a history in both my parents' families. Somewhere along the line I kept returning to LPs of Segovia and Montoya as being the most intriguing things I had ever heard, and of course was hearing early rock in the early ‘60s, then the Beatles, plus my parents' small jazz collection of recordings by Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, even Thelonious Monk. They were hip in ways they didn't even know. The 'recording artist' bug probably hit somewhere in there, but the path ahead was completely unknowable.

Growing up, I was a competitive athlete but tore up an ankle playing basketball my sophomore year in high school. While sidelined, I took up guitar seriously, and have not stopped exploring life through its' sounds since then.

When I graduated from high school, and took a year off before college to play and study folk and blues, I did not know it would lead to never going to college at all, and following my muse through life trying to make ends meet with day jobs while pursuing more and more esoteric directions with my instruments and machines.

I played steel string acoustics for so many hours a day during this time that I literally wore off the end of my ring finger on my left hand. A corn developed on the tip of the bone which became infected, and I lost the tip of that finger and the nail. It took a good six months to heal so I played in a Django Reinhardt adapted style for a while. After this injury, the tip of that finger was never the same and could not form a good callous surface for playing steel. So, oddly, this is what led me to play nylon strings to this day.

The concept of recording artist versus that of entertainer has become more deeply evident as we have watched serious art diverge from popular art in the last 40 years. In the ‘60s, somehow or another, for a brief few years, these two cultural arenas seemed able to coexist within the same formats and hold some common interest. The commercial exploitation of that time through the next few decades has accelerated the fragmentation of musical circles, art circles, literary circles, dance and performance art circles, and more recently technology art circles. Trying to stay abreast of all this transition creates an undercurrent that really has given me the challenge of keeping my bearings artistically, drawing upon all influences that catch my interest, but not allowing myself to be engulfed fully by the seduction of the apparent safety or comfort of belonging to a movement or style. The freedom of doing 'non-entertainment', including embracing the recording artist role, has been the path for me most my musical life. Only very early on, in my teens and early twenties, and then again in the last ten years, in my mid forties to mid fifties, has live performance been a conduit for me that has felt comfortable.

MWE3: What guitarists and recordings were you influenced by and can you name some of your biggest influences in the rock, World Beat, classical and electronic music worlds?

RSN: My web site (www.partialmusic.com) lists dozens of these influences, along with notes on how I feel they inform my creative impulse and process. I know there are dozens or hundreds I have left out.

To name a few guitarists, in no particular order: Andres Segovia, Oscar Ghiglia, John McLaughlin, Joe Pass, George Benson, Leon Redbone, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Robert Fripp, Duane Allman, Al DiMeola.

Other instrumentalists: Keith Jarrett, Vladimir Horowitz, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Eberhard Weber, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Anthony Braxton, McCoy Tyner.

Composers: Brian Eno, John Cage, Daniel Asia, Meredith Monk., George Crumb, Otto Laske, Frederic Chopin, Wolfgang A. Mozart, JS Bach, Dave Holland, Duke Ellington, Harry Partch.

Indian Classical Music: Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Vilayat Khan (sitar), Nikhil Banerjee (sitar), Ravi Shankar (sitar).


MWE3: There seems to be an element of World Music in your recordings. Can you say something about the eclectic nature of your music and how these diverse elements work together in forming your musical vision? Also how does your interest in yoga and Indian sitar music add to the sound of your recordings?

RSN: I have a mixed opinion on the music business exploitation of what is called World Music. On the one hand there is no argument that global exposure to ethnically diverse music traditions has developed an increased awareness of the value of these influences. However, the embrace of what I would call the overlap or common ground shared by most non-academically centric traditions, meaning those with oral lineages, risks losing the very uniqueness that each one brings to us. The inclusion of an exotic instrument or sample into one's process and recordings doesn't by itself guarantee that any artistic value has been added, despite the fact that an additional marketing tag can be applied to the result.

For me, involvement with the Indian sitar and Hindustani raga and tala theory, began before I even knew it, about 1974. I had listened to many Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan recordings as a child and teenager. When I made the shift to nylon string guitar, and then used an old Barcus-Berry pickup to amplify it through a Fender Twin amp, well...thus began a lifelong obsession with what was then called, a la John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, et.al., 'free' improvisation. As I grew as a musician and composer, I left the memorization of tunes, songs, and eventually even harmonic progressions and lead sheets, behind, and began creating 'sound and structure environments' for myself to work and play with. This led to my computer music emersion as the computational tools it offered were irresistible and produced genuinely unique structures to learn from. Eventually the path led back to sitar, as I began to work with this instrument in 2001, almost by chance. The resonance this had for me was profound, like I had done this before, and I was simply pulled into the instrument, its complex sound universe, and eventually the very familiar energetic and spiritual culture from which it evolved.

The intersection of yoga with sitar was again by chance, and not really a conscious thing. In NYC, in 1986, I met Swami Bua, an Indian yoga master and guru, estimated to be 100 years old at that time, and studied his primary hatha yoga technique almost every day for three years, becoming quite advanced in that time. During that time I was working on music that would find its way to two CD releases, On Time, and Anastasia Of The Gardens. This was all electronic and MIDI guitar based work. I was also creating music for another yoga teacher, Leslie Kaminoff, for an audio instructional tape. In September 2010, Human Kinetics published a yoga instructional DVD by Kaminoff, which includes 90 minutes of my music, including the very piece I did 20+ years earlier for the project we did together.

After I left NYC in 1990, I continued to return to see Swami Bua for classes when I could, but lost touch in the late 1990's. Much later, around 1999, having returned to my hometown of Ann Arbor, I learned he was still alive, now more than 112 years old. I eventually reconnected with him, and made pilgrimages to the city to see him until his recent passing in July 2010 at the age of 123. Two events of note are the time I played sitar for he and his family for his birthday on New Years Eve 2005, and the letter of introduction he wrote for me to Ravi Shankar, around the same time. He had for many years taught yoga to Ravi Shankar’s brother, Uday, a renowned dancer. What became of the letter is not clear, but it is a treasure to me. I have since met Pandit through unrelated connections.

So, sitar is one of many vehicles I now use to channel the music I hear inside and outside. I really never think of this as World Music, as for me the quest is to integrate all the influences into something new, rather than replicate or exploit any one or few characteristics that may have symbolic or cultural reference.

MWE3: You recently released a double CD of electronic works of music you recorded between 1988 and 1997 entitled Anastasia Of The Gardens. That set seems to be quite adventurous and much different from, for example your 2004 Native Planting album, which combines classical guitar with sitar sounds. How do you balance such an eclectic approach to writing recording and can you compare your different recordings and recording styles?

RSN: I set out long ago to explore musical territory not yet discovered, and to create a niche for my work that placed it in a category by itself.

My relative lack of public renown or celebrity is due at least in part to this strategy. I have covered a lot of territory, and seldom become too invested in projecting any one style or persona too far into the spotlight. Maybe this shows a weakness in marketing or maybe a strength and integrity in the scope of my artistic vision. Probably both. Believe me, I would love to have thousands if not millions of people download, buy, and most of all hear my musical contributions. How to accomplish that, and still follow the muse that takes me through the myriad of musical nuance I am attracted to remains my biggest professional challenge as an artist. I still depend on the day job to make a living. When I no longer need to, the muse will have found the answer to this conundrum.

The big irony of the age of the internet, is that although it has enabled all of us to be producers and not just consumers, it has also made it much more difficult for consumers to distinguish the value or significance of any one artistic voice because of the immense crowd now competing for attention.

Hopefully through stamina, integrity, good luck and karma, and definitely with the help of genuinely enthusiastic promotional outlets such as MWE3.com, those of us who have dedicated our lives to exploring the mysteries of sound and music will find a way to be heard and appreciated.


MWE3: What guitars are featured on your CD releases and what do you look for in a guitar overall? Do you have any electric guitars in your collection? How about other guitars, keyboards and other gear that you’re currently using?

RSN: My first release, Dreams On Queue (1986), an LP, was recorded in Brooklyn and New York during 1983-1984, using a Matsuoka classical guitar with a piezoelectric transducer, played through a (1980) Mesa Boogie single speaker hardwood amp (Mark I vintage), with a direct line out to a few analog stomp boxes and a pre-MIDI digital delay, then to a two track stereo Tascam 1/4" tape deck. No mixing at all.

On Time (1990), was all done with a Gibson Chet Atkins Electric Classical guitar, played as a MIDI controller through the K-MUSE Photon MIDI converter. I was a beta tester for Gibson West, who were the first to attempt MIDI tracking for nylon string guitars, using infra-red sensors, one pair per string. Because I was most focused on recording, I opted to use six B strings on the guitar so that tracking was identical on all strings, with no latency due to a variance in string diameter. This made the very nice audio out signal unusable, so I was working in a MIDI controller mode for many years and doing no performing at all, and actually not working with a guitar sound as my timbral source. The whole project was sequenced in MOTU Performer on a Mac SE (!) and Mac IIx. I did extensive sequencing and layering of MIDI controller data and SYSEX. Sound design was a big part of this album, and I was using the Opcode Editors suite at the time. I had a classic 'MIDI Studio' setup during this time which included a Roland D50, Roland MT32, Roland MKS70, Yamaha TX81z, and Alesis MIDIVerb II.

{A side note - During the 1980's in NYC I supported myself as a self-taught programmer, cutting my teeth on some very complex business systems. I helped write some of the first home banking systems, the first program trading system at NYSE, etc. In 1990, I moved from the financial industry to digital audio, and worked for New England Digital supporting the Synclavier products. On Time was remixed and mastered using a NED Post-Pro digital workstation and a Soundcraft 200B board.}

Synopsis (2000). is a compilation which attempts to trace my creative work from my first solo nylon string guitar improvisations (1975), recorded on a lo-fi cassette recorder, through my computer software generated compositions from the late 1990's which were featured in computer music conferences internationally. The audio quality on these recordings vary widely, as do the instruments, gear, and technology employed. The intent is to show these evolutionary steps side by side, in sequence, to give the listener a thread of how one musical idea, informed by its place in time, led to the next. Of my published recordings, this one is probably the most difficult to listen to, but might actually shed the most light on my musical path from 1975 to 1999.

On Native Planting (2004), I had a large palette to work with as this project was a result of 3-4 years of intense live performance and studio composition, so I produced a mixture of instrument based work as well as some software assisted tracks.

Tools included: Nylon string MIDI equipped Godin guitars (Nylon SA and Grand Concert SA), sitar (my first student model), Waldorf Microwave XTk keyboard/synth, Lexicon MPX1, Emu Morpheus, MaxMSP, SuperCollider 2.

Unlike in my earlier MIDI sequencing projects, this period was marked by building solo performance environments that could be recorded live on stage or in the studio directly to a stereo recorder. To do this, required precise pre-production design of synth patches, loops, software based event triggers, etc. All of these pieces on the CD represent single take performances. With the help of MaxMSP programming, one piece for instance brings into play 24 previously published and unpublished tracks stored as 'samples' being quasi-randomly triggered as I perform on the Waldorf XTk and laptop at the same time. Other pieces are straightforward guitar, some with MIDI patches attached, some with only Godin's beautiful nylon string sound.

Undiscovered (2007) is a live performance of solo guitar and amplified sitar, uses a minimum of technology, and is fairly close to my current performance stance, though I am now at work on re-integrating much of my more electronic and multi-layered intelligent software designs into a live format (see below).

The sitar used here was built for me in Varanasi, India, in 2006, after I toured there for a month in 2005 as a guest of the US Embassy, performing with Stephen Rush. The guitar used is the Godin Grand Concert SA. For ambient and synth effects, I am using a Boss GT6 floorboard, Lexicon MPX1 and an Emu Morpheus.


Anastasia Of The Gardens (2008) is a double CD that pulls together electronic work I produced from 1988 through 1997, in NYC, Lebanon, NH, and Ann Arbor, MI. This release covers a lot of timbral and technological territory. The first disc contains studio based material produced through a toolset similar to the one described above for On Time, but has a much harder edge to the style and shape of the work. The two large compositions offset each other in that “Camouflage” is an experimental and virtuoso display of synth chops and MIDI guitar playing (the Photon variety) in a rock opera setting, without the vocal track. Conversely, “Yoga Matte” is a somewhat Eno like fabric of melodic fragments tied together loosely with a set of timing clocks which cycle through combinations of sound creating a mosaic, giving the overall affect one might experience while doing a series of yoga postures. Both pieces use MOTU Performer for sequencing, with extensive MIDI controller and SYSEX management.

On the second disc, all but one piece is software generated by software algorithms I designed and coded, known collectively as “Music In The Air”. These were presented around the world in the 1990's at computer music conferences, and the paper describing the theory behind the software was published in 1998 by the Cambridge University Press (UK), in the journal Organised Sound. This is very abstract music, though many people tell me that if they listen to my improvising and to the software generated work, they occasionally cannot tell which is which! This to me is a great complement, as my software uses as its basis a complex analysis technique applied to my own improvisations, building new compositions based on what it learns through that analysis.

My software is written in HMSL/H4th, so that is the unseen driver for much of the second disc on this release. Other tools used include basically everything mentioned for On Time above, plus a cameo by the Korg Trinity keyboard/synth on one or two tracks on disc two.

Over the years, with many moves, and the endless evolution of technology, I have sold off, sometimes regrettably, most of the gear described above. I would love to have every piece of gear and every instrument I have ever touched with me, but they are like many people I have known - here in my life for a while, then off into the past, following another path.

Gradually, since about 1998, as I moved more into performance I have felt the need to minimize the gear footprint of what I require to express myself, whether on stage or in my studio at home.

My current studio and performance setup is basically the same and consists of:

Guitars - Godin Grand Concert SA, Godin Nylon SA, Godin LGXT.

Sitars - Custom made professional, made in Varanasi, India by Tarack Babu; Hiren Roy Professional made in Kolkata, India. I have been using K&K Sound Twin Spot transducers, but have recently begun using a McIntyre ST-08 transducer.

Computer - Apple MacBook Pro (2008)

Peripherals - 8TB Firewire Drives, Roland GI-20 MIDI interface, MOTU UltraLite audio interface, Marantz PMD660 recorder.

Speakers - FBT- two MAXX4a (12"), two Jolly 8ra (8")

Software & Programming Languages - Apple Logic Pro, MaxMSP-v5, Sibelius, JMSL, SuperCollider v3.

Other instruments not used often: 5-string banjo, tinwhistles, Rikhi Ram tamboura, Matsuoka acoustic classical guitar, Acoustic Image Coda R- Series II amplifier.


MWE3: Can you tell us about upcoming plans for this year and beyond?

RSN: I have an all sitar CD release already in the works, and hope to have that completed over the summer. These are compositions that by all means draw from Indian Classical Music, specifically Hindustani traditions, but are meant to be original works. With an instrument as ethnically bound to a specific culture as the sitar is to India, there is a tendency to be territorial about what is appropriate to use it for. In everything I do, I work on extending familiar forms and techniques beyond any boundaries that may exist.

I have not written notated music for other instrumentalists and vocalists for about 30 years, and much of what I wrote then was never performed and led me directly into working with computers and synthesizers as my performance ensemble of choice. I now have several performers interested in having me write ensemble and solo compositions for them. The settings I have underway are cello quartet, solo percussion with Max software, and saxophone quartet.

I am also adapting all of the live performance repertoire I have created over the past decade, about 70 compositions, into a software based format, using Logic, MaxMSP and SuperCollider for all functions previously carried out by the many hardware/software configurations I have worked in. This should allow me to travel and perform more as the performance material becomes consolidated, more convenient and portable for use in building new concert venue relationships.

Perhaps the most ambitious project I have in sight is to rewrite my HMSL/H4th software in Java using MaxMSP and JMSL, for offline composition and real time performance. The previous version, written for Motorola 68000 machines, will not run on today's Apple (Intel) hardware and OSX, as it was necessary for me write a hardware specific custom memory management module for handling the vast number crunching needed for the analysis and composition functionality. Much of the design and data structures are able to be migrated from Forth to Java. Since JMSL inherited much of the language structure of HMSL, it is doable. The published article, describing the 'Music In The Air' software project, can be downloaded from the 'Downloads/Theory' section of my web site.

This is a huge project, covering 20,000 lines of code, and I have made 2-3 attempts at doing it over the past 10 years, but never had the right tools, and a clear vision as to how to efficiently develop and then integrate it into my main body of compositional and performance work.

At this point, I am able to see how it is an integral step for my musical and professional evolution, as it can accelerate production of new original work, make my performance configuration and style even more unique, and also provide me with a wealth of material for pursuing more scholarly publication. I am working on an article that traces my improvisational techniques and theories, and would like to find a good outlet for that type of discussion, in combination with how I have interleaved software development for analysis of improvisations, subsequent composition, and as I move my HMSL-to-Java rewrite forward, live interactive performance.

Thanks to Robert Spalding Newcomb @ www.partialmusic.com

 

 
   
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