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Unleashing the spectral side of the electric guitar

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On Tuesday at Boston University, guitarist Giacomo Baldelli will perform a recital of modern works for the electric guitar, including Tristan Murail’s singular 1984 piece “Vampyr!” Murail first garnered attention as one of a group of French composers writing so-called “spectral” music, recasting elements of computer-aided sound analysis and synthesis into often startlingly rich combinations of acoustic instruments and electronics. “Vampyr!,” while making use of a favorite spectral tool — the overtone series — is not strictly a spectral work, but it does honor the style’s focus on sound, concentrating and amplifying one of the most familiar pop timbres of the past century: guitar distortion.

The fuzz and grit of a distorted electric guitar results from the side effects of sending more signal and power through an amplifier than it was designed to carry: the peaks of soundwaves are cut off — clipped — which both squares off the waveform, intensifying the sound’s edge, and creating higher-frequency overtones, providing squeal and scream. “Vampyr!” evenly divides the theory and application of distortion. In the first half Murail explores the overtone series of the guitar’s low E string. A tremolo-bar-aided glissandi from the heights and a quick hammered figure frame phrases that, initially, land on the relatively clean 4th and 6th overtones, but then shift focus to higher and predominantly odd-numbered overtones characteristic of harsher types of overdriven sound. After working its way back up to the 24th overtone, the piece resets, and the second half becomes a duel between types of distortion: glassy, painfully bright harmonics and the hammered figure from the first half now become a power-chord riff proliferating squalls of noise.

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Murail’s was not the first piece to bring the electric guitar into a modernist context, but it strikes the ear in an especially vernacular way — despite otherwise renouncing almost all rock and pop rhetoric. “Vampyr!” is deliberately saturated with the sound of rock guitar; it overflows with fuzz and distortion to the point that the fuzz and distortion become the musical substance. The specific rock-guitar techniques that Murail does borrow — the tremolo bar, the hammering, the pick dragged across the coil of the strings — are, purposefully, the ones that produce the most extreme sounds. It is (rather more loudly) reminiscent of Murail’s earlier “Tellur,” for acoustic guitar, which filtered spectral ideas through flamenco guitar techniques — neither homage nor critique, but instead revealing entire worlds hiding in a single sonic source.

Matthew Guerrieri

Guitarist Giacomo Baldelli performs music of Steve Reich, Tristan Murail, Fausto Romelli, and Davide Ianni on Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Boston University College of Fine Arts Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave. (admission is free; www.bu.edu).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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