Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) is a compelling work of astringent beauty, one that provides an unusual perspective on the old virtuosity vs intuition debate surfacing regularly in experimental music. Hiding subcutaneous complexity beneath seemingly naïve forms, it seems set to satisfy both those who regard high levels of technical expertise as a prerequisite to opening up new possibilities in playing, as well as those others for whom such learning is a straitjacket constraining genuine innovation.
The 40-minute piece was created by the Swiss composer d’incise at the request of its performer, Cristian Alvear, despite the former having never played the guitar – an instrument with which Alvear shows an almost preternatural affinity. Unfamiliarity spurred invention, enabling d’incise to sidestep tradition and instead approach the guitar as a collection of sound sources to exploit rather than an instrument existing at the confluence of several histories of composition and performance. These explorations, and ensuing conversations with Alvear, resulted in score that specifies an alternative tuning – bottom two and top two strings tuned to E, with the middle pair at G, with three of those in just intonation – in addition to note combinations, playing instructions and even suggestions of recordings of traditional music which the performer should ‘reference’. (You can view the score here).
The product of these deliberation is the strange, off-centre intervals that give Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) its detached, unearthly quality. At times, there’s a seemingly disinterested quality to the arrangements of notes, arbitrary even, which seem designed to lead us away from our conventional modes of listening. In the opening minutes, Alvear’s plucks evoke the plight of the newbie guitar student vainly attempting to get two strings in tune, their semi-tonal chimes steadfastly refusing to merge in unison even as they transform from nagging irritation into balletic mantra. Things gather momentum as the piece progresses, with clusters of picked notes and struck harmonics tumbling from the guitar like tarnished coins tossed into an empty well. But these groupings still seem awkward, lopsided, somehow, the combination of tuning and score leading Alvear away from familiar harmonic patterns and instead playing with the exploratory freedom of a child encountering the guitar for the first time. For the listener, the experience is akin to gazing on the twisting filaments of a Naum Gabo sculpture, its impossible shape seeming to change when viewed from different angles, the delicacy of the interconnected tendrils hiding an underlying tensile strength.
The fact that this freedom is a condition, both of the structure imposed by d’incise’s score and by Alvear’s own incredible level of skill, does not in any way lessen its peculiar power. Both artists have distilled their considerable expertise – the years of study, of reflection, of playing, of composition – into the clear, crystalline forms of Appalachian Anatolia (14th century), transforming it from a piece of composed music into a kind of incantation. Listening becomes an act of devotion, a step into the eternal. Not so much an escape from a hostile world as a meditation, enabling us to face its ravages anew.