David Torn on his textural guitar approach and the need to orchestrate and fill in spaces
Known for his innovative, textural approach to guitar playing, David Torn has released a number of albums under his own name and under the Splattercell moniker. He's also used his talents for film scoring and collaborated with a diverse set of artists including David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Sting and John Legend.
Torn's musical palette has many colors, and when describing his forward-thinking trio, Sun of Goldfinger, which also features saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Ches Smith, he says, "It's three really crazy guys trying to make something simultaneously beautiful and horrific." We spoke with Torn recently about the trio's aesthetic, his textural approach to guitar playing, his forthcoming solo record and producing an album that pairs pop singer Donna Lewis with the Bad Plus.
Westword: I know you and Tim Berne go back a ways. When you first started the group, did you have any idea of what direction you wanted to go in?
David Torn: Yeah. I wanted to take the idea of the last band -- the Prezens band that was on ECM -- I wanted to strip it back a little bit further, so it's down to a trio, and I'm the only chordal instrument. That was part of it.
The other thing was that we just wanted to find another flavor, in an improvising context, that got another step further away from people thinking it's a jazz band, because we all have an association with something that used to be called jazz. I don't know what it is we do, but I wanted more opportunity for the sound things to grow -- all the sonic things. It's a tough thing. It's easy for me and Tim because we know when we're improvising....
Tim lives in New York, so he's in a very vital scene. I don't live in the city, so my association with the younger musicians has to be through other people like Tim. And Tim went to see Ches play a couple of times and said, "This is your guy. We could do anything."
There's a certain aesthetic; there really are no rules. There's a very specific aesthetic that grows directly out of the same aesthetic that the Prezens band was about, which is that it doesn't need to sound like it's idiomatic. Everybody's trying to create something that is driven by a kind of compositional need, so that it's not really -- it's like an outgrowth of what used to be called free jazz, except, of course, it's pretty electric.
And there is no barrier against...in fact, there's an encouragement to find things together, as if they feel they've been composed. Since everybody in the band does compose, that's one of the key elements of anybody who's in any of these bands: Everybody writes something somewhere along the line, so that it's not just like people blowing.
There is some kind of internal aesthetic that I could be incredibly verbose about, and in the end it doesn't mean anything, because I can't describe it -- and that's why we play the music. It's about creating a really open but very demanding platform for the musicians in the band to create in the moment.
Part of that for me started early in life. At the end of the '90s, I had kind of started to perform again after having disappeared for a while for various reasons -- studios, beginning to write a lot of music, etcetera, etcetera... Being a producer. All that stuff. I just stopped going out and playing live.
At the end of the '90s, I started going out again with this aesthetic, saying, "I really want to do the improvising gigs but I want to do them with the right people." I don't want to deal with people that don't share a similar aesthetic because I want something that can grow. And this is one of those bands.
It's kind of like... Strangely, it's a very recorded band but I've not released anything because there's a plan to make an ECM record. Since this has been going on for a long time, this band has been going on for about three years, in and out, irregularly, but in various forms.
There's been a strong push for me to bring some of my writing to the band as long as it stays as open as it's been. And that's going to begin with the ECM recording. I'm actually going to bring some very open material for people to interpret. So, that's kind of what it's about. It's three really crazy guys trying to make something simultaneously beautiful and horrific.
Any idea when the ECM record will be coming out?
I'm not clued in because my sensibility tells me that a solo guitar record is coming first and then they'll be another group record. I think that the solo guitar record is imminent, but I haven't talked to Manfred [Eicher, founder of ECM Records] in about a month, so I can't really put a finger on that. But I'm pretty sure that the solo record will come first. My suspicion is that there will be a solo record out in either December or January.
Have you ever released just a straight solo record before?
Never. I mean, I did solo records. I did three or four. I did the Splattercell discs, records that are all me or me organizing everything. I did a couple of CMP records in the '90s -- two Splattercell records, etetera -- but I've never actually played solo guitar. There's one solo guitar piece on one of the CMP records, but this is a whole record of very raw performances of solo guitar.
Will it be different than your textural stuff?
I think it's pretty different, dude.
When you said it was going to be raw...
Well, raw for me means... I've actually recorded a bunch, and I have a tendency, when I play by myself, to limit the number of sounds I'm going to use when I am playing for myself, and that's what I decided this should be. I also have a tendency to look for tunes when I'm improvising live. A couple of these are remarkably tuneful and a few of them are... I don't know, they're pretty strange. But some of them are very raw. They're basically all one take, live. One track, no multi-tracks.
Any looping or that kind of thing?
Yeah, there's definitely a couple of different kinds of looping. Some of it's very modern and others use more from the body of sounds that I've been working on since 1980-something, 1970-whatever. Some of them are wetter, and many of them are much not wetter.