So, I was talking to Brad Birzer a little while back, and he said he wanted me to listen to some recent “instrumental prog,” and to write about it for Progarchy. Well, sure! Why not?
Of course, I knew what Brad meant, but I was still rather struck that particular day by the usage of that word, ‘instrumental.’ I teach social theory and philosophy, and in that context, I’m used to the word ‘instrumental’ meaning “serving as a means toward some end or goal.” I’m also used to that meaning carrying a rather negative connotation at times, as in “merely instrumental,” meaning valuable only so far as it it a means to an end. I guess it was that sort of connotation that especially hit me when Brad used it, even though he certainly did not mean it that way. (I’m pretty sure his main agenda was to get me to listen to stuff that’s not from the 1960’s or 70’s.)
Thinking about that, the musical memories associated with the word ‘instrumental’ washed over me for the next few minutes, and I knew (even before I listened to the three CD’s Brad was sending my way) that a strange convergence of these two semantic streams was setting a particular context for my listening. I knew that I could not avoid explicit awareness of “instrumental” as descriptor for what I was hearing. So let me tell you about how that listening went in each case, and why you should listen to these discs too. Oh, sure, you may just think of what I’m doing as reviewing the three discs, if you’re more comfortable with that. But I do want you to know that I’m always hoping for something that spills out over the mundane edges of a “review.”
I considered telling you about all three in a single post. Then I wondered if that would be most friendly to the artists. But then, when I actually listened, I realized more was at stake. Because I was prepared by that funny adjective, ‘instrumental,’ what I really heard was everything that refused to be contained by it. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the boundaries of instrumentality, however vaguely they may have been set, were blown down/past/apart in three different ways. Hence, three parts.
I begin here in part 1 with Rafart’s The Handbook of the Acid Rider (2013). Francisco Rafart is a Chilean composer and Chapman Stick performer. I’ve heard music employing several incarnations of the Chapman Stick, and never quite known what I really thought of it. All along, I’ve had the sense that the greatest strength of the Stick is also its greatest weakness. (Duh. As if this were not generally true of strengths and weaknesses.) That strength/weakness, from what I can tell, is the precarious perch that it seems to occupy between “guitar-like” and “keyboard-like.”
I didn’t realize until I heard Rafart’s Handbook how ambivalent I must have been toward the Stick up to now. I’ve generally liked what Tony Levin has done with it, and been favorably impressed by others at times. But I guess I’ve not been excited about the instrument per se, and have not ever really purposely or systematically sought out exemplary recordings or videos.
Rafert brings my ambivalence into a harsh light, precisely by shoving it firmly but pleasantly aside! It’s not only that Francisco Rafart’s playing is outstanding. (Oh yes, it definitely is!) It’s even more the deeply satisfying musical integration of his trio (with Fernando Daza on guitars and Pablo Martinez on drums). I expected to be distracted by the effort to pick up on what comes from the Stick versus what comes from the guitar. But what I heard on Handbook is an ensemble in the best sense.
This was where my associations with the word ‘instrumental’ got their first ass-kick. I expected instruments, and I was thoroughly won over by an ensemble playing as a single joyous sound-source. The depth and supple texture of the compositions would not allow me to dwell upon distinct instruments. And this is also because I expected “songs,” or musical pieces (suggesting detachment), and I was thoroughly won over by compositions, in the fullest sense of that word. I found myself attending less to the question of when I was hearing Stick and when I was hearing guitar, and more to the experience of a unified musical event. Looking at videos after my first listen, I get a clear sense that Rafart is achieving a new level of success in making the Stick an integral part of a band.
You know those memories that I mentioned before, that washed over me and caught me off-guard? One of them is the memory of how I generally reacted as a young listener upon seeing a song referred to as an “instrumental.” When the album cover included the lyrics to other songs, but when there were no lyrics, you’d still find the name of the song printed there, followed by that lonely word (seeming lonely in this case, anyway): INSTRUMENTAL. I expected an instrumental to provide a framework within which each of the members of a band may”solo” (read: show off). Increasing exposure to a variety of jazz de-centered such expectations over time. But even jazz can often allow itself to fit into that “showing off within a supporting framework” mold. The supporting framework, in that case, would be… Yeah, you guessed it. Merely instrumental.
It is these memories and expectations that were blown away, for me, by the intricate beauty of Rafart’s music.
The Handbook of the Acid Rider bears some of the contours of several molds, but its tracks are clearly compositions. This is music that has benefited every bit as much from the explorations of Steve Reich and other contemporary composers as from progressive rock or jazz. (Also look for Francisco Rafart on YouTube for some of his “chamber music.”) But if there are molds here, they are springboards rather than constraints or blinders. When he first talked to me, Brad suggested a comparison with some of Pat Metheny’s work, and that does fit pretty well as a first approximation. One can also hear the complex rhythmic sensibilities that trace back to early prog, and — if I’m not mistaken — a healthy dose of Zappa-esque compositional deftness. But listen for how Rafart overflows these banks. Yes, I will confirm our fearless leader’s characterization of this as great “instrumental prog,” but most emphatically not as a mere means to an end, or as a mere concatenation of singular instrumental voices.
You can see videos of Rafart in action, but I recommend listening and palpating the aural textures first, adding the visuals after at least one hearing without them.