Between the Strings
December 12, 2001
by Tony Mostrom
A soon-to-be-released LP by guitarist Rod Poole, The Unfathomable Loneliness of the Lightyear Man (Organ of Corti), is, it‘s safe to say, unlike any solo-guitar record you’ve ever heard: two long, unbroken series of cyclical, intricately interwoven patterns of notes — the dizzyingly rapid, tumbling arpeggios rolling on smoothly without letup, but subtly varying and changing themes, timbres and dynamics organically, evoking a gull shifting its wings in flight. It‘s beautiful and expansive, with an occasional off-sounding note to keep total prettiness at bay and to remind you that Poole plays in ”just intonation,“ an ancient tuning system often containing more notes than we’re used to hearing in Western music. And it‘s all improvised.
Since moving to L.A. in 1989, the British expatriate has been getting increasing public and critical recognition as a genuinely unique musician: a guitarist who plays extended, improvised solo pieces that bring to mind the hypnotic music of minimalist composers like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. Poole has been an on-and-off presence on the L.A. experimentalimprovised music scene for years, the last few years having been quite busy. Along with his solo and free-improv group appearances, he’s a member of two long-running improvising groups: the droning acoustic-guitar trio Voice of the Bowed Guitar, with Solid Eye‘s Joseph Hammer and San Franciscan Doug Williford, and the Acoustic Guitar Trio, with Nels Cline and Jim McAuley, an awesome combo dealing in pointillistic, percussive plectral interactions. In addition to creating his own virtuoso species of music, Poole is a certified master of Derek Bailey–style free playing — sawing, scraping and finger-hammering bangs ’n‘ plonks from the instrument with the best of them.
Poole was born in Oxford in 1962 and took up the guitar at age 10. By the age of 20, the onetime T. RexLed Zeppelin kid had followed his fascinations for jazz and 1920s blues to a ”passionate“ interest in freely improvised music. (That’s where the dissonance of free jazz and modern-classical atonality meet the dissonance of Cageian noise aesthetics. At its best, it kills cats.) At about this time, he and a group of fellow players founded the Oxford Improvisors‘ Cooperative, an island of creativity inspired by the music’s ”first-generation“ heroes in London.
”It was very successful for about two years,“ Poole recalls. ”We‘d put on a lot of concerts, and play as support for people like Evan Parker and Keith Tippett in Oxford. The only one of the older guys who actually played with us, though, was Derek Bailey.“
As much as he still enjoys playing the spiky stuff, Poole’s musical focus remains the just-intonation technique he‘s developed and refined over the past several years, preserved on two WIN Records CDs: The Death Adder (1996) and December ’96 (1998). It‘s a music so smooth, of such genreless purity, that one might ask, What do you call it?
”I just look at it as . . . improvised acoustic-guitar music,“ he says, weighing each word. ”Tuned, improvised acoustic-guitar music . . .“
Hmmm. That use of the word tuned, as well as a glance at the strangely patterned custom-made fretboard on his Martin 0018 acoustic, indicates that we’re now wandering into the dreaded technical realms of Just Intonation, the Natural Harmonic Series and Precise Mathematical Ratios.
Could just intonation be summed up in a handful of words? ”I‘ll certainly try. Just intonation is a tuning based on specific mathematical divisions of the string — mathematical ratios. Frets get placed at those points on the string where these mathematical ratios occur. It’s completely different from working with a regular guitar.“
What‘s the origin of this system? Didn’t Harry Partch say it came from ancient Greece?
”No, though of course the Greeks were aware of it and did explore it quite a bit. But I know for a fact that they‘ve found bone flutes 20,000 years old, and the harmonic series had actually been tuned up on them. So a case could be made that it’s inherently hard-wired into the structure of the human brain.“
Let it suffice to say that Mr. Poole‘s is a well-known name among a small group of mathematically agile, instrument-building archaists in this country who get lumped together as microtonalists — the heirs of Partch.
But beyond that wood-grained ghetto, Poole’s profile is rising. He‘s just returned from a cluster of gigs in New York, including a concert at the Makor Center, sponsored by LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela, and later this month he returns to Manhattan for a performance at Tonic with the venerable Derek Bailey himself. And besides the new Corti LP, the big news for Poole is the recent release of the first Acoustic Guitar Trio CD on Bailey’s Incus Records label of London — a major milestone in the career of any free player.
”Yes! It‘s fantastic. I’m still absolutely over the moon about it. It‘s definitely attaining the peak of one of the mountains.“