If you’re looking for a deeply contemplative album of meditative music, look no further than Steve Tibbetts’ Life Of. As with much of the Minnesota-based guitarist’s body of work, his latest release draws on world, ambient, jazz and experimental musics, to create a recording that rewards the patient and close listener.
Tibbetts has been recording for ECM since 1981, and yet Life Of is only his ninth record with the label. In recent years he has stuck to a schedule of one album every eight years, and this one follows 2010’s similarly acoustic Natural Causes. Tibbetts plays guitar and piano, ranging from standard sounds to a palette of sounds drawn from his decades of travel in Southeast Asia from Nepal to Bali, drawing inspiration from instruments as wide-ranging as gamelan to sarangi to Balinese gongs. He’s also accompanied by his longtime collaborator Marc Anderson on percussion, and joined on this date by Michelle Kinney on cello and drones.
OK, you say guitar, Asian music, and drones, and I’m all in.
The central instrument is Tibbetts’ 12-string guitar, a Martin D-12-20.
“That Martin guitar is now almost a half-century old, with the frets almost worn flat – and I keep the strings old and kind of dead, something I got from Leo Kottke,” Tibbetts says in the one-sheet accompanying the release. “So, the instrument has a mellow, aged sound, with its own peculiar internal resonance – like it has a small concert hall inside it. I try to bring out that quality by stringing the guitar in double courses, the four lower strings paired in unisons rather than octaves. You really have to physically engage with the strings of this guitar, while also being careful that your touch doesn’t de-tune the strings. But setting it up that way makes it so I can play with the resonant qualities of the wood, drawing out overtones and getting the single string lines to ‘sing’ – which is what I loved about the sound of Sultan Khan, the way he could fill the room like a voice.”
Khan, the Indian sarangi virtuoso and vocalist who died in 2011, was one of Tibbetts’ main inspirations. The guitarist’s frequent bent notes and other techniques owe much to Khan’s influence.
But at its root, this music is a deeply Midwestern sound of wide-open space. Take for instance the second track “Life Of Emily,” its airy sound evoking heatwaves rising off the prairie that reminds me of the mood pieces on Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western soundtracks. But paired with non-sequiturs of sounds like bells and gongs and drones plus earthy, rattling percussion, and the odd bent guitar string that echoes Khan’s sarangi, and you can’t pin this music down.
The 13 tracks on Life Of are mostly short, the longest under six minutes except for the languid and hopeful closer “Begin Again.” They’re fancifully named for friends, relatives and even a stranger or two observed in a coffeehouse. On “Life Of Someone” as much as on any of these pieces, the sounds move within one bar from standard Western-style fingerpicking to some kind of smeary sound that’s some cross between a blues player’s wailing slide and the bent notes of a Hindustani instrument of some kind. I don’t even have the vocabulary of guitar-playing to describe what Tibbetts is doing here, or to make a guess at the techniques he’s using to get some of the sounds he gets. All I know is it’s mesmerizing and energizing at the same time.
“Life Of Mir” has some of the album’s longest melodic passages, but even they dissolve into dreamscapes, gentle swirls of guitar and piano notes rising and dissipating like fog off a body of water on a summer morning. Probably the most abstract and impressionistic is “Life Of Alice,” full of colorful swashes of guitar and piano chords, Balian gongs and flamenco-like fingerpicking, and more. Somehow it never becomes amorphous like a bland New Age record or too busy, either.
The music was recorded in St. Paul and mixed by Tibbetts in the concert hall of Macalaster College, near where he lives. He plays the music back in the hall and records the result.
“I set up two pairs of mics: one pair in the center of the hall, one pair in the back,” he says. “It allows the hall’s ambience to settle around the piano and percussion, and the room’s natural acoustics help the guitar settle into the piano. It’s a more labor-intensive process, and the effect is perhaps subtle to most ears. But it feels more organic to me, adding some reality to the sound. I suppose it’s like a bay leaf in a soup – it has an intangible effect that adds to the experience.”
Music to which that kind of attention has been paid in the making deserves some attention in the listening. Life Of as much as any, repays that attention in spades. This is music to ease into and lose yourself in. Learn more at Steve Tibbetts’ website.