Rhythm, Melody, and Dissonance: Trevor Babb’s Guitar

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Close your eyes, turn out the lights, and listen to Trevor Babb’s “Septet.” Each guitar note paints a different color of a landscape in your dream. Dozens of other strings come in, and trees form around a pasture. After 90 seconds, the notes climb up the scale as the sun shines down upon a nearby cliff. More shrill notes appear after four minutes, and Babb is about to take the composition over the edge. Just then, the notes warily climb back down, all the way to electric bass tones. Even at the most extreme moments, Babb has a way of reeling his recordings back into humanity through the use of nothing but electric guitars.

Such are the images painted throughout this year’s excellent Warmth, a collection of six compositions recorded all on electric guitars and put out by innova recordings. In contrast to the normal functions of classical and pop music, Babb entertains and embraces a more static emotional trajectory. Ating as a beautifully accurate representation of our day-to-day lives, one can hardly hear the changes from one piece to another. We don’t always find the evening in a similar state as we did the morning, so why shouldn’t our music reflect this?

All this is true for five of the eight tracks presented. The remaining three are a paradoxical rendition of Steve Reich’s infamous “Electric Counterpoint.” Impossibly moving and terrifyingly dense in its layers of syncopation, the piece is a modern classical masterpiece that ebbs and flows with fifteen minutes of exhilarating avant garde. A departure from Pat Metheny’s classic 1989 rendition, Babb’s is cooler and starker than the warming elements found in Metheny’s playing. When the first movement hits its climax at five and a half minutes, the effect is more cinematic than its dozens of previous renditions.

Tackling “Electric Counterpoint” in the studio is sure to be a behemoth of a task. “I used about six or seven guitar tracks and two bass tracks,” explains Babb of the process. “You sort of do the stuff that comes first, and fill it in as you can. The first movement I did just the shimmering chords and got that whole section done first.” In mathematical terms alone, this is quite a feat. Nine guitar tracks all playing through a fifteen minute piece is already 135 minutes of tape, and that’s just the tracks that made the cut. “Pat Metheny’s recording, as much as I love him, is not my favorite. I wanted my piece to be something different, and it was a lot of work.”

The rest of Warmth is similarly complex in its minimal instrumentation. “Trail,” a piece commissioned through a grant from the American Composers Forum’s Jerome Fund for New Music, was composed by Paul Kerekes, Babb’s classmate from Yale. Instead of Reich’s focus on the layering of rhythm, Kerekes explores the idea of stacking melodies on top of one another, once again representing the complexities and randomness of day-to-day emotions. The resulting ten minutes are an elastic set of sounds and guitar invention that wind in all directions like its title suggests.

With rhythm and melody out of the way, Babb creates dissonance in the record’s third act with companion pieces “Grimace” and “slope 2.” The former, composed by Babb while he was studying in Switzerland, pulls the e-bow and brass slide out of Warmth’s guitar toolbox. Inspired by a mask of the same name at the Barbier-Muller Museum in Geneva, the piece accurately conveys the smearing of one’s face when grimacing. Four guitars take up this task, and the cinematic sounds found on “Septet” make another appearance. Where most neoclassical and post-rock idioms face the pitfalls of emotionality when using similar drones, Babb’s vision retains an artful poise. “slope 2” is the album’s epic closer that pushes sustained guitars to their limits over the course of 14 thought-provoking minutes.

Although it juggles a textbook’s worth of compositional themes, the most satisfying aspect of Warmth lies in its ability to feature five pieces that have such uncanny similarities. Where any pop star could give you a list of influential artists, Babb culls his performance spirit from more abject ideas. “It’s hard to talk about influences. Pop artists talk about it so much, but with me it’s the piece that attracts us to what we’re doing instead of what someone else has done.” The concept behind the record was so strong that not much else was required to produce a full work. “It was really the idea of multiple guitar layers that led me to pieces where I could say ‘Yeah, these will fit really well together.’”

Many pieces here play with the overtone series as well, giving Warmth another unifying trait. As if a multi-track recording of “Electric Counterpoint” wasn’t enough, many of Babb’s tones required microtonal de-tunings to generate the right harmony between guitars. Since these tunings are so fickle, operating outside equal-temperament is quite the task: “When those overtones are in tune, you can just tell because the resonance you hear is so unique. There’s just something really cool about the intervals.” As such, it appears that Babb’s process in expanding the boundaries of the guitar is more about listening and feeling than hard mathematics. He’s quick to discuss artisan luthiers that build instruments specifically designed to harness these functions, and it seems that Babb is ahead of the game in terms of composing things outside of the standards set centuries ago.

The tracks found on Warmth often end up in a place much different from where they started, turning the idea of tonal closure on its head. Rarely does classically composed music stand so far apart from the root note that the ear is accustomed to hearing at the end of a piece. “Septet” begins on an A and ends on an E, and such a compelling element is part and parcel with how the effects generate images in your mind’s eye. On paper, the concepts behind Warmth’s composition and performances are cold and calculated, but the feelings that come with the music have a special way of reminding the listener of the beauty inherent in music’s boundlessness. Although Babb’s process stands in stark contrast to the personal and emotional appeal you’ll find in pop music, Warmth manages to convey just as much of a response. As the notes fold over one another, the listening mind can attach any feeling to the sound, and isn’t tied down to any specific narrative.

Put enough research and complexity behind your music, and you can still appeal to the brain which often seeks only that which is immediately rewarding. Trevor Babb encompasses the best of both worlds, where the music is pleasant to the ears while remaining stimulating to the thinking mind. The universe Babb creates sucks you in, and you’ll have no problem staying with him until Warmth has said all it needs to say.