by Peter Tracy
Whether it be pop, rock, punk, or bossa nova, the guitar is a staple of many of the musical styles we know and love—and it has even carved out a unique niche in contemporary classical music as well. For guitarists, bridging and fitting into the many genres and styles of guitar-playing can be a daunting task, but Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich are well-equipped for the challenge.
On their new collaborative album a tangle of stars, the guitarists draw on the genre-crossing versatility of their instrument, coming forward with a wide-ranging album that is somehow grooving, mellow, sharp, and aggressive all at the same time.
That Dieterich and Halvorson are collaborating at all can seem like something of a miracle. As a member of the popular noise-rock band Deerhoof, Dieterich has become a renowned and influential guitarist, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he met Halvorson, whose work as a composer and bandleader in avant-garde jazz has earned her widespread praise. A completely improvised live set on acoustic guitars led to further collaboration in Dieterich’s home studio, where they co-composed, arranged, and recorded a tangle of stars over the course of three days, resulting in a collaborative album that mines their mutual interest in experimental jazz, pop, rock, noise, and improvisation.
With various types of guitars including acoustic, electric, 12-string, and baritone, as well as countless effects and occasional drumming by Dieterich, the album provides a wide range of emotions and styles. “Drum the Rubber Hate,” for instance, kicks off with a spinning, plucky, and bright theme supported by a grooving baseline. Quickly, though, a steadily ascending, almost classically minimalist baseline is introduced, making room for virtuosic solos that strike a balance between the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the distorted, edgy sounds of rock music. “Balloon Chord” provides a totally different mood: warm acoustic arpeggios support a flinty, picked melody that seems to wash into the droning background of reverb and watery effects. The wall of reverb sometimes takes on an uneasy edge, making for a song that is somewhere between atmospheric and unsettling.
The duo take a totally different approach on “Short Knives,” a tense song featuring sharp, stabbing strums that bend in pitch and explode into winding, dissonant passages of warped electric guitar. Despite the occasional rough edges, though, the album also provides plenty of warmth: “Lace Cap,” for instance, is a reassuringly melodic and lilting track with relaxed arpeggios and bended notes, making for a watery, off-kilter sense of calm. “Vega’s Array” is another moment that feels more relaxed and playful: here, an intricate background of contrasting guitar timbres swings underneath wandering melodic lines and plenty of odd little slides reminiscent of shooting stars.
On the noisier, more experimental side of things, “The Handsome” is full of wailing, distorted electric guitars that imitate each other almost like a canon, phasing in and out of sync before being swallowed up by distortion. The last third of the track becomes increasingly frantic, as the guitars get more rapid and static-filled before giving way to stuttering electronic effects that sound like a record scratching and skipping.
“Better Than the Most Amazing Game” is the album’s longest track by far, and is another moment on the album that feels close to the worlds of avant-garde and free jazz. Here, mechanical, almost industrial effects and drums collide to form an off-kilter and unsettling beat ridden by freely wandering guitar chords and melodies. These elements never quite seem to settle into a stable groove, and the whole track stops and starts jerkily, making for what sounds like an amazingly unhinged piece of music created by a computer program. “Continuous Whatever” brings us into another world yet again, ending the album with a short and sweet bit of relaxed guitar counterpoint.
Despite these rapid-fire stylistic shifts, though, Halvorson and Dieterich manage to craft a cohesive album out of their many musical influences. With its thrilling sonic detours and stylistic excursions, a tangle of stars reflects the huge and tangled variety of music being made for guitar, and speaks to the versatility of not only the instrument, but the composers and performers themselves.