Posted on by jdoerck | Posted in Review | Tagged

Though the electric guitar was introduced in the early 1930s, its adoption into classical music came decades later. Composers like Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tippett used the instrument chiefly for its vernacular allusions. Later Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca and Lois V. Vierk tapped into its capacity for producing complex overtones and, yes, punishing volume. Nowadays the electric guitar has become ubiquitous, deployed to vastly different ends in a wide variety of formats. Among its foremost innovators is Scott Johnson, a New York composer and guitarist whose renown falls well short of his achievement, at least partly, no doubt, because of the snail's pace at which his work has been documented. "Americans," recently released by the Tzadik label (TZA 8074; CD), is the first newly recorded disc to be issued under Mr. Johnson's name since 1996 . "Bowery Haunt," a rock-inflected electric-guitar duet, and "Anthem Hunt," a pensive quartet with a prominent cello part, establish Mr. Johnson's flair as a performer. "The Illusion of Guidance," written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, shows that he also writes idiomatically for other players; Derek Johnson, no relation to the composer, handles the perky, bristling guitar part.

"Americans," a three-part suite, is a striking example of the way Mr. Johnson derives music from the contours and inflections of speech, a method he devised for "John Somebody," a widely influential 1982 work for guitar and tape. "Americans all look the same to me," a recorded female voice says at the start of the piece. As an isolated clip — "same to me" — repeats twice, its falling tone and syncopated beat are duplicated first on piano, then on guitar.

Here and throughout the work Mr. Johnson's music is playful and engaging; only gradually do you realize "Americans" is also a sophisticated examination of the way immigrants negotiate cultural isolation and assimilation. Intentionally or not, the piece also shows how the electric guitar maintains its own character and connotations even when completely integrated into a mixed ensemble.

The New York quartet Dither focuses almost exclusively on sounds produced by electric guitars — clean, plucked lines, strummed chords, grungy feedback, resonating overtones, even the static buzz of amps and loose plugs — on its debut CD, "Dither," issued by the California label Henceforth (108; CD).

The most conventional playing comes in "Pantagruel," a jazzy tangle composed by Joshua Lopes, a quartet member. Lainie Fefferman's "Tongue of Thorns" reclaims a primal Minimalism from art-rock bands like the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth; "Vectors," by Jascha Narveson, turns Dither into a live-wire gamelan.

In "Cross Sections," the longest and most fascinating work on the disc, Lisa R. Coons painstakingly dissects the instrument, rendering muscular arpeggios, livid feedback, ominous rumbles and radiant drones. Erik K M Clark's "exPAT," in which the four players are prevented from hearing one another playing, is an agreeably noisy experiment most likely better encountered live.

By orthodox standards Kyle Bobby Dunn, a Toronto musician now based in Brooklyn, barely registers as a guitarist or a composer, though he is unquestionably both. Extending the work of drone-oriented Minimalists like Eliane Radigue, William Basinski and Stars of the Lid, Mr. Dunn uses a computer to transform sounds produced with an electric guitar and various acoustic instruments into nearly motionless reveries on his puckishly titled "Young Person's Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn," newly issued by Low Point (LP033; two CDs).

No doubt intentionally, the sound sources Mr. Dunn uses are usually obscured by his processes. But occasionally you can make out string instruments, brasses and piano in his mix. What results is something like a chamber-music equivalent of Kirlian photography: dark, shadowy and indistinct at its core, surrounded by an iridescent glow. The effect is mysterious, hypnotic and deeply affecting.