Ear Might: Prester John Takes It All In, From The Refined To Lowbrow

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It's not every day you hear a guitarist open up about the relative merits and flaws of modern vs. postmodern painting. But that's Shawn Persinger for you. One half of the acoustic duo Prester John, Persinger is a dazzling guitarist who has made a career out of balancing technical prowess with pop accessibility. He's also what you might call culturally well-read: the self-described "subcultural omnivore" follows everything from fine art to graffiti. The New Haven musician took some time away from his summer job (teaching music to high-school kids at Wesleyan's Center for Creative Youth) to talk to me about art, composing and some recent milestones in his career.

Persinger calls his guitar style "modern primitive," and it's one of those rare cases where a musician is describing himself accurately. He's rooted in the sounds developed by what you might call guitar players' guitar players — figures like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges who are mentioned with breathy respect among musicians, but are lesser-known outside the musical community. But while those musicians are noted for their refinement, Persinger adds in a dash of punk-rock rawness, drawing upon the urgency and simplicity of guitarists like Ani DiFranco and Gordan Gano (frontman of the Violent Femmes). It's a pretty cool mix, interesting and difficult, but it never talks down to the listener.

Which is probably why Persinger uses the word "modern" to describe his style as opposed to "postmodern." When I asked him why he's drawn to the former rather than the latter, he said, "The easy answer is that I like it more as an audience member. I understand the work of Cy Twombly." (Twombly, who passed away last week, left a messy legacy. His works are a challenging mix of graffiti and abstract expressionism.) "There's a lot of postmodern work where I look at it and say, 'OK, I get it,' but it's almost conceptual. It's just like theory in practice, or maybe anti-theory in practice. When I teach music theory, I say, 'Look, here are some of these man-made constructs' — like the idea of the root and the tonic having a function. But in practice, it's not true, because you can do a lot of things where you don't play the root and tonic but still have tension and resolution. So when you start playing, you disprove a lot of theory."

Persinger and his partner in crime, mandolinist David Miller, have been churning out the achievements lately. Their last full-length, Desire for a Straight Line, was nominated for a Grammy. "From there," says Persinger, "members of the Academy pare down the nomination list to three nominees for a Grammy. The finalists list included John McLaughlin, Chick Corea — it was really an honor to even be included on the nomination list." Persinger was also recently added to the CT Commission for Culture and Tourism's performing artist roster. He's particularly excited to bring some of his workshops (such as "The Young Person's Guide to Free Improvisation and Experimental Music") into schools. And Persinger recently published a music book, Bebop Jazz Guitar, with Hal Leonard Books.

Most notably for listeners, Prester John have been putting out a series of vocal EPs (in contrast to Desire for a Straight Line, which was all instrumental). The fourth and final installment, Rise O' Fainthearted Girls, will be a full-length that collects the previous three EPs and includes several new tracks. "Dave and I flippantly say that we play complicated songs with a lot of notes, and easy songs that anybody could play. [On the EPs], we're aiming for the perfect combination of both of those things. Vocal songs with complicated sections but that are still very pop oriented."

I asked Persinger what acts out there are working in a similar vein. "The one that comes to mind is Rush," he answered. "And this comes back to me not knowing a lot of contemporary bands. King Crimson has always done that sort of thing. And Beatles tunes where they brought in outside musicians to play more complicated parts — 'Eleanor Rigby' or the trumpet solo on 'Penny Lane.'"

He chuckles self-consciously at how old his points of reference are. "There are a lot of students at Center for Creative Youth who are into Beyoncé and Kanye West, and I certainly know a lot of those names but I don't know their music. I'm turning 40 this year. I think my ingestion of subcultures has subsided a bit. I think the last one I saw where I was like, 'That's cool' was [the Banksy documentary] Exit Through the Gift Shop."

But Persinger isn't as disconnected as he might make himself out to be. "It seems to me that a lot of the bands who are the darlings of the indie-rock scene, who people are saying are doing new things — Dirty Projectors or Grizzly Bear — when I hear them, I think vocally they're doing a lot of great things, stuff that's really hard to pull off. Musically, in terms of playing their instruments, I don't really hear it. They're not doing anything crazy on their instruments. Not that you need to be wildly technically proficient to play, but that's something that I enjoy."

Write to editor@hartfordadvocate.com

Prester John w/ Kate Callahan

$10, 6:30 p.m., July 15, The Studio @ Billings Forge, 539 Broad St., Hartford, all ages

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