A response to
Way Down South
Way Down South 4 by brokenloop
Bill Orcutt's playing has got me tremendously pleased to be alive the past few months, I thought I'd devote some time to talking about him and his work. I'm keen to adopt some aspects of his approach to poetic practice - this might be a first stab at thinking about which particular elements interest me.
As former guitarist for hardcore band Harry Pussy, Bill Orcutt's career has been one largely outside of any mainstream concern. However, his resurgence as a solo performer has been an exciting development in the past few years. Now devoting himself exclusively to playing acoustic guitar, his debut record A New Way to Pay Old Debts was a highlight of 2009. The music was largely based around a series of improvised vignettes, and Orcutt's unique style of playing defies easy categorisation. Within the errant shreds of recognisable notation and tonal arrangements there is something thoroughly modernist -- something that implies a desire to de-construct, to refine and, ultimately, destroy. There are numerous parallels drawn by reviewers to early blues music, modern guitar improvisation, and hardcore noise; Orcutt's style is one of suggestion, but in doing so it still remains distinct from its source.
Way Down South is a live recording released this month by Orcutt's own record company Palilalia. Track 4 is the penultimate improvisation on the record, and in my mind it forms one of the best examples of Orcutt's playing. It also represents a new route in the aesthetic of “unbecoming” -- with its recalling of blues riffs and erratic tempo the improvisation achieves an interplay between violent expression and ethereal realisation. At its inception the piece's scale runs are suggestive of Far Eastern music, with Orcutt's voice forming a droning counter-point. The playing is far from fluent, instead a range of spasmodic modes and modules that fail to develop any form of pacing. The tempo is akin to the epileptic flicker of a bird wing, and on several occasions the structure delineates into complete chaos. This all takes place in the first twelve seconds of the piece, serving to set out a blueprint to Orcutt's technique. It repeats for fifty-three seconds before it offers the first respite of quiet. On resumption it can only sustain itself for a few seconds; Orcutt punches a resounding exclamation as the structure fails to hold, he allows it to collapse.
This process of construction and deconstruction forms a constant that Orcutt returns to throughout the improvisation. He veers between recognisable motifs and an urgent obscurity of noise, discord brought to abrupt halts, as one practising technical exercises that fail to gain momentum. This is Orcutt's deception. The whole piece is about momentum – a momentum quantified by its refusal to cohere. The most significant moment is approximately two minutes in, when the guitar suddenly sounds out a bluesy descending progression of notes. This listener is thrown into a position of nostalgia, a moment of recall that encapsulates folk traditions. It stands in contrast to all the current talk of hauntology's presence in music by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds; this tiny incident of recognition is not just a remembrance, it's a primal formation of Orcutt's methodology, an aural equivalent to Eliot's shored fragments.
What happens next is an invigoratingly discordant repetition, with Orcutt moving between two or three notes, bending them to create a compact and claustrophobic figure. A bass note is struck again and again in exclamation, highlighting the repetition as it does. The listener prepares themselves for the inevitable collapse that has governed the past few minutes, but in fact something else occurs -- Orcutt repeats the motif until it becomes a staccato fugue state, a drawing in of boundaries. Where most improvisation moves towards transcendence as a conclusive terminus, Orcutt seems to be bringing his listeners to a null point, an implication that nothing lies beyond those few arrayed notes. The tempo increases and as it does Orcutt emits a high snarl or whine. It's his first vocal interjection since the beginning of the track, and it is in distinct contrast to the devotional moan of earlier. What is Orcutt suggesting? Frustration? Violence? Perhaps a plea for relief? The ambiguity of his eruption hangs there as the piece falls apart into a few expansive runs across the fret board. It feels like legs stretched in response to sudden release, but in comparison to moments earlier it is spectral, barely a whisper. Orcutt has arrived at his null state and the end point of his exercise.