Improvisation and ‘Horrible Backbone’
Guitarists Erik Cirelli and David Bernabo discuss their new album
By David Bernabo
“Improvisation is the greatest challenge as a musician,” says guitarist Erik Cirelli. “It really pulls me out of a comfort zone and forces me to be more creative.”
Erik and I have been recording improvised guitar duets for a few years. During the fall of 2013, we set up in a spare bedroom that I use for home recording projects and recorded about 60 minutes of music. It’s a very dry room and without plugins and post-recording manipulation, clean guitar tone can sound a bit flat. Recording two guitarists playing through two relatively quiet amps in a small room also results in strumming and picking sounds, which can diminish the magic or dislocation of recorded sound.
So, those recordings still sit on a hard drive, along with a similar set of music from 2014 or 2015 — our second attempt.
This past October, we recorded another set. This time, we relocated to my art studio in the Mine Factory building. I have been recording a video/music performance series for The Glassblock called Close-Up at my studio and grew to love the sound — even the the water draining through pipes when it rains, the whirring motors outside of the East End Food Co-op, and the general creakiness of the building.
For Close-Up, I record with a very simple two-mic setup plugged into an older model Zoom H4. A few years back, I bought a matched pair of MJE-384s that Michael Joly modded to sound like much better mics. In the studio, I use these mics on acoustic guitars and percussion, and if I want a more piercing electric guitar tone, I’ll throw one or two of these on a guitar amp.
For the duo guitar record, I put a mic in front of each amp and blended the L/R balance in post. The natural reverb of the room filtered into the recording, and I added a bit of compression and EQ afterwards.
The result is Horrible Backbone, a six segment album that we will release on March 3rd at White Whale Bookstore with readings by Jason Baldinger and S.E. Smith and a music performance by Matt Aelmore (of How Things Are Made).
Improvising, for better or worse, is pretty heady for me, and I’d rather not get bogged down with recording details while I’m playing, hence the simple recording rig. I expect that I’ll be improvising for the rest of my life, but I’m not really a “lifer.” Improvising is and isn’t second nature for me. It depends on who I’m playing with. In earlier days, it was easy to stumble into impostor syndrome — I’m specifically remembering a trio set with the phenomenal pair of Christian Bucher and Beat Unternährer in Luzern.
Erik and I started playing together as a duo, outside of our four-year run in Host Skull, as a way to stretch our listening and decision-making skills and technical chops and fully indulge in “fake jazz.”
“I love playing off of other musicians,” says Erik. “Really listening to what they are doing and trying to complement it. I also love taking things in a direction that makes no sense whatsoever with what the others are doing. When improvising, you have that freedom; when in a band/orchestra/etc. it will probably get you fired.”
In recent books, author/musicians David Toop and David Grubbs both point out that freely improvised music finds an uneasy home in recorded music. It is meant to be experienced live, in the moment. Erik speaks to improvisation being “the idea of a particular piece of music only existing in the period of time that it takes to be played. Blink and you’ll miss it.”
And yet, here we are releasing a recording of a private improvised session. So, listen to it once and then throw out your computer. (That’s how computers work, right?)