Saturday, February 03, 2007

Paolo Angeli - 23/01/2007@Vooruit, Gent

Paolo Angeli - g, voc (website)

A few years ago (seven, to be exact), I could still have written that Paolo Angeli had shot the acoustic guitar into the 21st century. That impression was triggered partly by the breadth of Paolo Angeli's music, but mostly by his thoroughly customised instrument. The almost anatomical close-up photos on his website give only an inkling of his setup, but there are good shots of it here.

His guitar had a foot like a cello and rested diagonally between his legs. At the bottom of its face was a cello's or bass's bridge. At the base of each string, a mechanical hammer was hooked up to a foot pedal, arrayed three on each side. Sympathetic strings were strung across the hole, perpendicularly to the main strings. Some kind of sample trigger was built into the side. Above the guitar's head, that of a cello head was added, but went unused. Looking at the photos on his site, I think that the extra bridge and head are meant to allow a more cello-like configuration. Along with the acoustic enhancements, Angeli also had some effects and looping pedals attached. It was as if the Sardinian had grafted an exoskeleton on to the guitar.

P (aka LeMo) can be a deflating critic. His first comment to me after Angeli's set was "All that for that," referring to a discrepancy between the means and the results. I see his point, but disagree. To play a single note on a piano requires this incredible machinery that results from hundreds of years of evolution. How much music can live up to that? So the criteria shouldn't be applied to Angeli's hyper-guitar just because it's jaw-droppingly unusual. The results, the that, had to be judged on their own.

Angeli played an uninterrupted bric-à-brac of a suite that mashed together fluid, unusual and amazingly-voiced chord sequences, simpler, plucked or bowed melodies, looped-up rhythmic layers that seemed to draw on Sardinian folklore and dances, kora-like patterns, objects ranging from toothpicks to library cards stuck in the strings to create a laptoppish sound, low-key bass lines and wistful melodies reminiscent of minimal electro, spurts of noisy improv filling in the cracks between all that, and, in the end, a bit of ancestral-sound singing. It was amazing, amusing and just a little unsatisfying.

There was certainly more to it than mere grandstanding: Angeli's range and technique were mind-boggling and during the best moments I felt as if he were issuing a challenge to all instrumentalists to really explore what it was their instrument could do. Still, I rapidly lost sight of any overarching structure or principle guiding the moment-to-moment shifts, and with that, any sense of real purpose behind them: for what reason are all these things strung together, rather than developed as discrete songs? All that was great, but why?

You can hear excerpts from a duo album with Hamid Drake here.