Dither Electric Guitar Quartet
Nov. 16, 8 p.m., $6-$22, Wesleyan University, Crowell Concert Hall, 50 Wyllys Ave., Middletown, (860) 685-3355, wesleyan.edu/cfa.
Two electric guitars on stage at a classical music concert is usually more than an audience expects to see. By a factor of two.
Dither, a New York City-based ensemble who'll perform at Wesleyan's Crowell Concert Hall on Friday, have four of them.
In rock, the number four is important. Two guitars, bass and drums. Four Beatles. Four members of Zeppelin. The Clash's "Four Horseman." It's a tried-and-true formula.
But Dither have more in common with adventurous, new-music string quartets — Kronos, Brooklyn Rider, ETHEL, JACK, Vitamin — than with guitar-heavy rock bands in the Skynyrd mode. A conventional string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) covers a broad, six-octave pitch spectrum, from low C2 (the lowest open string on a cello, two octaves below middle C) up to about G7 (three octaves and a fifth above middle C, way up high on the fiddle).
Dither's electric guitars are registrally interchangeable, but the sounds they produce are anything but uniform; "Cross-Sections," a four-movement composition by Lisa R. Coons on their self-titled debut album, sounds, at times, as clear and coldly metallic as Coons' own percussion sculptures, which she grew up welding together from salvaged metals on a farm in northeast Missouri. (Coons was a Jackie McLean Fellow at the University of Hartford for the 2011-12 academic year.) Other times, you'll hear pops, whines, sirens (sometimes two together in close harmony) and crackles, as though the insides of a dying laptop were miked up. String quartets don't generally engage in that kind of thing.
"With groups that are all the exact same instrument, the reason for having multiples is less to expand your possibilities pitch-wise," says James Moore, Dither codirector, who spoke to the Advocate from his home in Brooklyn. "It's more of a way to combine sounds that obviously one instrument couldn't do... to contrast the different sounds one instrument can make, and by multiplying them to find new levels and textures and combinations of sounds."
Each member of Dither — Moore, codirector Taylor Levine, David Linaburg and Josh Lopes — is an accomplished musician with a variety of NYC-based side projects. And each guitarist, Moore says, has a wide range of sounds to draw from, "both purely from the acoustic possibilities of the instruments through the amplifier but also through the use of electronics to further manipulate sounds." That increased sonic palette allows for extensive interaction with the composition itself, and sometimes directly with the composer.
"When we get to work with composers in a hands-on way," Moore says, "they might respond to a certain sound one person can make and engineer the rest of the music drawing from that. We seek out music that will let us be more individual."
At Wesleyan, Dither will premiere "Mi-Go," a new work by quartet member Lopes. They'll also bring out "exPAT," an experimental "hearing-deprivation" piece from their debut album by L.A.-based composer Eric KM Clark that calls for the performers to wear earplugs and headphones blasting white noise. Everybody shares a single part, one that begins with a limited amount of material and slowly gains in complexity. Because they can't hear each other, each guitarist is forced to rely on his own internal tempo. The result is a slow-moving, disorienting canon, unfolding and unraveling, played (naturally) with tons of distortion.
"In the case of loud electric guitars, you can still kind of hear yourself," Moore says. "But your perception of what other people are playing, even what you hear of yourself playing, is very masked. You have to enter this weird world of neutrality, and you have to play your part. The result is something that only the listener can hear."
References to popular music are unavoidable with a group like Dither. And while they do play pieces that draw upon the musical idioms of rock, they're more interested in creating something new and blending genres. A composer's experience with writing for the electric guitar ultimately doesn't matter much to Dither.
"I would rather they give me a seven-note chord that I can't play and write the words, 'Really gnarly sound,'" Moore says. "Then I have to figure out how I can achieve it... We are mostly looking for [composers] who have an interesting voice, with real concepts and reasons to write things. We also don't enjoy playing things that are overtly rock music inspired... There's so much great music out there that guitarists are playing. Why do we need to do it? We'd rather be extending that."