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Music from Downtown NYC

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Album Review

In 1996, CRI released New York Guitars, a compilation of guitar pieces recorded by members of the New York-based "downtown" school of composers, many of whom eschew the academically derived notion of stylistic barriers and follow their muse wherever it takes them. Curiously, although New York Guitars contained a lot of promise, for some reason the CRI collection was not very compelling, and although it remains an important document of its time and place, in retrospect it is kind of a relic. At first glance one might take Marco Cappelli's Extreme Guitar Project, issued on Mode Records a full decade later, as "Son of New York Guitars" — but it isn't. Curated by Marco Cappelli and produced by Elliott Sharp, Extreme Guitar Project is not an ad hoc collection of tapes made in the home studios of composers but works commissioned by guitarist Cappelli to play on his modified guitar. This instrument pits the standard classical six strings against an additional rank of eight to ten sympathetic strings in addition to the possibility of electronics. Cappelli has based himself in New York since 2003 and built up a rapport with the city's composers; he has also taken the Extreme Guitar Project (nicknamed "EGP") on tour and has played it in Europe as well as in the United States.

Cappelli's commissions seem to have brought some of the best out of these composers, a good many of whom are expert guitar players, such as Sharp. Yet not all of them are — Ikue Mori, whose graceful and mysterious "Bird Chant" is a highlight on this album, is best known as a drummer. Elliott Sharp's contribution, "Amygdala," is a piece built out of thunderous tapping that sounds like a bullet train racing through a tunnel. The sympathetic strings are used fully in Nick Didkovsky's "A Bright Moon Makes a Little Daytime," built up out of short pieces, as is his wont. Didkovsky's is the only name here that coincidentally also appeared on New York Guitars; the propulsively rhythmic and dazzlingly multi-layered first movement of his mini-suite seems to be about the best thing he's ever done. Annie Gosfield's "Marked by a Hat" is scored for the open strings of Cappelli's instrument, and suggests a ghostly crossbreed between a Chinese pipa and one of Harry Partch's oddly tuned kitharas. There are many exciting high spots to point out on Extreme Guitar Project, but it is not fair to spoil the fun by giving it all away.

Although each composer supplies a short note about his or her work, there is very little of the "how we did it" kind of information to be found here. Clearly Cappelli is the fulcrum around which Extreme Guitar Project turns, and the technical realization of these pieces on an instrument he invented is more his business than it is of listeners or any of the composers. In his note, Sharp mentions Cappelli's "viewpoint honed in geographical distance," and this element seems critical in the success of EGP — a fair number of recordings of "downtown" music unwittingly give outsiders the impression that New York composers seem not to realize that there is a world outside of New York. Extreme Guitar Project manages to sidestep this potential trapping, and as a result it is about the best general guide to "downtown" music that has come along thus far.

Music from Downtown NYC, Marco Cappelli
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