Rooting For The New Age
In the desert of new age there are oases of music. Scott Wilkinson talks to an American guitarist with a story to tell and the technology to tell it.
If you've written all new age music off as uninspired and uninspiring, you might consider the work of Michael Hedges - an American musician with an unusual story to tell.
A TAPROOT WANDERS THROUGH THE garden, above ground and below, and comes upon many strange and wonderful places: Point A, Point B, Nomad Land. He encounters many strange and wonderful beings: Chava the Jade Stalk, the First Cutting, Shrub 2, the Rootwitch, the Spirit Farmer. He has many strange and wonderful adventures: Scenes (on the road to Shrub 2), Ritual Dance. And throughout his journey, he carries the heart of his love in his heart.
So goes the tale of Taproot, a myth created by Michael Hedges to symbolise his life and told with virtually no words on his fifth album for Windham Hill.
"I have troubles like everyone else does. I needed something to put me in balance, so I wrote a story that had the symbols of my life in it. I finished the story and solved all the problems", he laughs. "I lived in a myth for a while.
"Then I took the names of the characters who represent real people in my life, and the events, which are fictional but symbolic, and made them into song titles. That's why you have titles like the Jade Stalk. It's a character in the myth. The Rootwitch is a character. You also have geographies where different characters are from: Point A, Point B, Nomad Land. And then you have events that these people do. The ritual dance is something that Taproot does in a story, and scenes on the road to Shrub 2 are visions that Taproot has as he is tunnelling underground. So in these tunes, I'm expressing what it's like to be at this place, or hanging out with this character, or what it feels like to be doing this activity. That's how the myth is told in music rather than in words."
Well, it beats your average "yeah, the album's doin' great, the tour's sold out", account of a musician's lot. But then Michael Hedges, American musician and exponent of the new age, isn't exactly your average musician. For a start Hedges is a guitarist, and like fellow guitarist and Windham Hill stablemate David Torn, he has found synthesisers and samplers a valuable addition to the sounds of his guitar. As a result, Hedges' music is a rich and pleasing collage of exotic sounds, well above the usual new age fare. But back to the story - although the story, despite the fact that it's the central element of the album, is missing from the sleeve notes.
"I didn't want the public to feel like they had to know the story to appreciate the music", he explains. "That's the reason I didn't print it, not because I don't want people to know what's going on with me. In fact, I need to let people know what's going on with me - that's why I'm writing music. But I didn't think it needed to be represented in detail in order for people to enjoy the music. I didn't want people to feel it was programmatic, even though it is. I used the story for a structure. Also the music does not coincide chronologically with the story, which could be confusing to somebody who would read the story while listening to the music. The story told in the music makes better sense when you listen to it than if you read it."
Hedges' myth-making was inspired by American sociologist-cum-philosopher Joseph Campbell. Campbell was responsible for an American Public Broadcast Service TV series The Power of Myth (shown on BBC TV earlier this year). Another influence was American poet Robert Bly, leader of the burgeoning "mens' movement" (Bly's book Iron John has recently been published in the UK). Both writers encourage the use of personal myths and non-literal images to define and deepen identity.
"Taproot is my statement of masculinity in an educational vein", Hedges relates. "The Taproot is the main part of the plant that goes underground and gathers nutrients, so I'm giving a different sort of male symbology here than macho. It's a more holistic approach to becoming a man."
Radical stuff - particularly from a musician who started out on a fairly traditional path.
"For three years I attended a small school in Oklahoma", he recounts. "I had kind of a one-man university there, EJ Ulrich, who was very nurturing and willing to expose me to many things. He taught me ear-training, sight-singing, theory, harmonic analysis, counterpoint, form, composition and piano. In fact I was a flute major, and I quit the music department so I could just study with this one guy. Then I decided it would be a good idea to study classical guitar. There were no teachers in Oklahoma, at least not in the conservatory or in a major program, so I moved to Baltimore and studied composition and classical guitar at the Peabody Conservatory.
"It was there that I started becoming quite interested in electronic music. At that time, it wasn't anything new but it still wasn't enjoying the popularity it has today. This was 1977 and none of the digital stuff had come out yet. We had a big Moog synthesiser, two-track tape recorders and a lot of signal-processing gear. That was just perfect. I learned the basic roots of it. You had to make your own patches, literally, with patchcords from the oscillator into a filter then into a VCA and so on. You could only play one note at a time, recording onto the tape recorder. You would then play it back and mix it onto another tape while you played something else. It was very primitive but very educational.
"After I left Peabody, I moved to California and got my deal with Windham Hill. Even though my first two recordings were made pretty much direct to two-track. I still had a real electronic and studio-oriented mind because of the work I'd done at Peabody. This comes through on my second album, Breakfast in the Field. I did a tune called 'Spare Change' at the Peabody studio while the students were on vacation. I arranged with the facility to have access to the studio for a week. I worked 110 hours that week, slept in the studio and made a tune. It's a lot of backward stuff - basically I just used two tape recorders, very simple."
Even though he had fairly easy access to the Peabody studio, Hedges knew that he wanted to establish his own studio in California.
"I arranged for the record company to buy me a Sony one-inch eight-track in lieu of a studio rental budget for my third record, Watching My Life Go By. They also bought me a mixer and some microphones. I took the money I'd been making from my concerts, bought a few other things and rented a garage in Palo Alto. This became my first studio.
"After that record was released, I moved up to Mendocino and built a control room underneath an old water tank on my property'. We reinforced all the walls, made them real thick. We didn't do double-wall construction, because it's a control room - you need it to be quiet but the recording isn't done in there. Adjacent to that building, we built the recording studio from the ground up. I designed it with five walls and a slanting roof to avoid parallel surfaces. We made it quite live, because you can always make a live room dead, and used double-wall construction in this room - two floors, two ceilings, two sets of walls with air space in between, separate heating system. That's where I made Taproot. Now, every time I make a record, I upgrade the studio. That's the idea."
BETWEEN HIS THIRD ALBUM AND TAPROOT, Hedges recorded a live album, Live on the Double Planet. In new age, as in any other musical area, there are significant differences in the two processes.
"We didn't hire a truck. We used a Beta hi-fi VCR and a Sony 701 A/D converter and we recorded all the shows direct to two-track digital plus two tracks of Beta hi-fi, so we had four tracks in all. We put the high-end guitar pick-up and the vocal on the digital tracks while the audience was recorded on one of the Beta hi-fi tracks and the magnetic guitar pick-up on the other. The digital and analogue tracks are a few milliseconds apart but it wasn't a problem. We had a time-correction machine, but we didn't need it, didn't even use it. The only things I needed to buy were a couple more reverbs and a mastering machine, the Otari MTR20. So then I had the makings of a pretty good studio."
This sounds like a good way to steadily enhance the studio and save the record company some money into the bargain. So far, so good, but what about the next project? Again Hedges has an unorthodox answer.
"For the next record, I'm going to buy time. With that time, I'm going to learn the manuals of all the synthesisers I've been collecting, so it's back to the studio for me. Taproot was pretty much an acoustic record. I didn't have to mess too much with machines. Now since I've got time, I'm going to learn how to use all of my drum machines, synthesisers, software and Macintosh computer. I'll use one track to run the sequencer with time-code, along with six or seven tracks of acoustic material."
"Music is communication between human beings, so try not to get too much garbage in between."
With the opportunity to upgrade his studio with each new album, I wondered why Hedges hasn't moved up to 16 or even 24 tape tracks. Doesn't he feel restricted by just eight?
"No. I think I would feel more restricted by 16 or 24, because there's more to think about - more EQ, more signal processing. I want to take a simpler approach, because it's just going to be me, you know? Besides, I don't have only eight tracks. I've got as many as I want with the sequencer.
"If I was just a producer and not recording everything and writing everything myself, I might go for a little more investment. But I've been working with this equipment - I know it. Why get a whole new studio full of stuff and spend all my money when I've already done a pretty textural record? Taproot's fairly textural, which was the reason I did it first before doing a vocal record. Even though I had enough tunes to make a vocal record or a rock record I thought it would be best to learn the ropes of the equipment and do something not quite as complex as a studio vocal album."
Hedges must have developed some interesting studio techniques during his eclectic career, particularly within the context of his home studio.
"I like to go for feel over anything else. If it's time to get something down, I'd rather record it straight and EQ it later. It's a lot easier to EQ a track to the feel than it is to try to put the feel into something that's perfectly recorded, but not quite happening. I tend to be a little bit lax in terms of levels so I may not be the best technical engineer. But I think when to get it down.
"I can spend all evening goofing around in my studio getting the right sound. Then, the next day, I go in and nail it. If you're of that mind, if you want to do it yourself, I think it's a good idea to have your own studio. If you start renting studio time for a hundred bucks an hour, you're going to want to get it done as soon as possible because another band is coming in the next day and you'll have to set up all over again after that. I like to leave everything put."
Being partly acoustic in its creation, mics and pickups play an important part in the recording process - although accuracy isn't necessarily what it's all about.
"I mostly use one microphone", says Hedges. "It's a big fat Neumann M249B tube mic. I also have two smaller Neumann M154 tube mics which I use when I'm doing stereo guitar and I want an image. I use them on the piano too but for a full range, like vocals, I use the M249B. When I use that, I usually don't have to EQ it at all.
"On the guitar I often use one mic because I have two pickups that I always record as well. One of them is called a FRAP, which stands for Flat Response Audio Pickup, made by Arnie Lazarus in San Francisco. He also built me some wonderful preamps for the FRAP, which is a very high-impedance, low-level device, so the preamp needs to be especially quiet. I use a magnetic pickup for the low end.
"I use the FRAP mainly to get the sound of the acoustic guitar. An ordinary mic won't get it all; it'll get the high-frequency band but only at a distance of three or four inches. I can't put a mic right under the string or under the top because I move too much when I play. I have to put it back three or four inches, then it doesn't get that bitey, high-end sound which the FRAP does.
"Then I take the signal from the magnetic pickup and process it - that's how I get the killer low end, not through the mic. The mic is just for ambience, for a nice clean semi-reflective sound and a little bit of midrange warmth. Then I mix these three signals together. I usually expand the magnetic pickup into a stereo signal and digitally delay either the mic or the FRAP. That's how I get my stereo image.
"I'm not looking for faithful reproduction of what my instrument sounds like acoustically because I want it to sound different on each tune. I don't have any one formula in the studio. I'm willing to try anything but, of course, that's a little bit more difficult when you're doing everything yourself. If you're playing the instrument it's harder to listen to what's coming out of the speakers because you're hearing the instrument as well."
It would seem that Hedges might be an ideal candidate for the MIDI guitar.
"MIDI doesn't really transmit what I do on guitar", he comments. "I'm just as comfortable with keyboards - especially synthesisers. Besides, the keyboard always has the same structure. I'd just as soon develop a voice on the synthesiser keyboard because I'm certainly not glued to guitar technique - I'm glued to my mental technique. There seems to be more of a universal control available at the keyboard than at a guitar fingerboard, but I might eat those words in six months."
Aside from his studio work, Hedges spends quite a lot of time playing live. Being one of a comparatively elite group doing this, how does he view the relationship between the studio and the stage?
"They're so different, that's how they benefit each other. You don't want to be so sloppy when you're playing live that it doesn't transmit well but, on the other hand, you don't want it to sound too technical when you're in the studio. You know you can't separate your body from your mind. Metaphorically, I associate the mind with technique - the technical studio - and the body with the audience - live performance. You can't really separate them.
"I think you always have to keep that live connection going because that's what music is all about - it's communication between human beings, so try not to get too much garbage in between. Music goes from human soul to human soul; if you want to patch it through a machine, make sure that the machine represents your soul and that it's a full representation, or at least an accurate expression, of what you want to communicate."