Monday, October 24, 2011

Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries

Now here's an artist who never fails to evoke conflicting reactions from me, both emotionally and intellectually.  Though it'd be easy to write Hedges off based purely on his record label (Windham Hill, epicenter of the dreaded New Age musical movement and all of its paradoxically limp-wristed perviness), to do so would be to ignore a guitar player who accomplished considerable innovation and influence in his field, as well as a composer of undeniable ability.

That Aerial Boundaries is still Hedges' most known album is undoubtedly due to the brooding title track, which is a well-realized representation of the uniqueness of his spin on the acoustic guitar and also a tight example of his trademarks as a composer.  Technically, Hedges' brilliance seems to lie in his exploration of producing sound by striking the strings not over the sound hole (the traditional location for flatpicking and fingerpicking) but on the fretboard itself--"Aerial Boundaries" combines traditional picking with a repeating figure on the fretting hand and a series of percussive interjections higher on the fretboard (on the lower strings, er) by Hedges' right hand.  The resulting sound (though it almost always necessitates unconventional open tunings tunings to make up for how busy the player's hands are) approximates three or more distinctive parts happening at the same time.  Though plenty of fingerpickers have achieved breathtaking counterpoint and polyphony by abandoning one pick for five, it would seem that no one did it in quite this way before Hedges came along.  While I probably wouldn't say Hedges has influenced me technically as a guitar player as strongly as he has other recent players like Andy McKee or Trace Bundy, I really love the way his style plays fundamentally with the incredible dynamic, tonal and harmonic range that's waiting to be discovered in the acoustic guitar.  It's amazing how many textures and sounds you can get out of a guitar by sounding it in a different way, or how much those alternate techniques can transform the way the instrument sounds when the recording or amplification volume is cranked up--this kind of fretting-as-note-striking shows that a note's decay is really a lengthy window even when the string isn't actually struck over the sound hole.  Hedges manages to avoid his innovation becoming novelty by supplementing it with more standard finger picking and even strumming on songs like "Bensusan."  Probably my favorite tracks are the more percussive, upbeat ones, like the brooding "Ragamuffin" and the funky jabbing of "Hot Type."  Also compelling is the more psychedelic "Spare Change," which uses reverse delay to further expand the interlocking nature of Hedges' playing.

While it's easy to applaud Hedges' technique and his ability as a composer to keep his pieces moving with distinctive sections and developing structures, I can't say that he's gifted or even proficient when it comes to melody--though some of the songs have memorable chord changes, the only one with a hummable melody is a cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," on which the melody is ironically carried by the fretless bass, not Hedges' guitar.  Perhaps it's my general distaste for the New Age "house flavor," but the gentle harmonic palette becomes cloying in my ears, especially on songs like the embarrassingly-titled flute/guitar/bass trio "Menage A Trois," which is so lacking in distinctive melody that it seems to beg to stay in the background at some New Age meditation party.  In fact, there are very few songs here that manage to break out of the tunefully tonal but indistinct haze that Hedges' composing generates.  While it's certainly "pretty," it seems that the pinnacle of pretty music--melody--is conspicuously absent, which to me almost defeats the purpose of trying to make pretty-sounding music.  From what (thankfully) little New Age music I've heard, this seems to be par for the course--it's as if the first goal of these artists is to make background lifestyle music that's unfocused enough that you can easily ignore it, which is horrifying to me as someone whose greatest joy comes from subsuming myself in complete attention to some beautiful music.  It seems like an unhappy coincidence that Hedges pioneered such a cool technique but used it to make New Age music--this kind of percussive attack just begs for more aggressive music, but it's also disappointing to see that most of the man's followers seem content to follow in his footsteps as a composer as well.  This music is worth hearing for the awesomeness of Hedges' guitar playing, but I suggest you crank the volume up when you do, so you can dive into the guitar playing, overcome the terribly quiet sound of the early CD issue, and avoid the vapid pseudo-emotion that many of these songs attempt to convey.


wardo said...

Aerial Boundaries and Taproot are two of my favorite albums by anybody. I can't recommend his entire catalog to the curious, but those two are just plain wonderful. (And while I don't hate his voice, he shouldn't have tried to sing, "i carry my heart" notwithstanding.)

Elliot Knapp said...

Nice, I'll have to check out Taproot--thanks for the recommendation!