Last Saturday night, a full house crammed into the Performance Studio, in Ventura's Livery Art Center, to submit themselves to a little night torture. Ted Killian's "Guitar Torture," that is.
Lest the tender-hearted music lover shy away from any such musical program, the stuff Killian cooked up was the most benevolent form of torture imaginable.
"Torture" might be one way to label the active, creative effort of mutating and wrenching music out of the air.
Or it could simply be Killian's wry description of the maze-like paces and electronic effects that he puts his electric guitar through.
The all-too-modest Killian has had a consistent presence in the growing New Music scene in Ventura, as a performer, supporter and a handyman with computer graphics.
This evening, Killian brought his elaborate setup of guitar gizmos--both high-tech and low-tech--out of the garage for all to hear. His evening of provocations, in collaboration with drummer Randy Barker, vocalist Liz Stuart, flutist Renee Janton and renowned percussionist John Bergamo, was the third and final in a summer New Music series that included Robert Bourneman and Jim Connolly.
Strange as it sounds, Killian's music walks that fine line between torture and meditation.
Over the course of four distinctly different pieces, Killian worked up atmospheres--sometimes tense, sometimes tranquil--reminiscent of the music of eclectic guitarist Steve Tibbets, early Pink Floyd and the '70s collaborations between Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. Like Fripp, Killian likes a good tape loop (or digital facsimile thereof) and echo chamber-like pool of reverb.
This is "ambient music"--healthy for people who get jittery around the force-fed pleasantries of new age music. And Killian has a sense of humor, to boot. In the program, Killian writes that he "got his first guitar when he was 10 and now being 38, he ought to know better." No such luck, fortunately for us.
Naturally, Killian is a certifiable gadget-hound, the kind who might have extended a child's fascination with Erector sets into the computer age.
Yet, despite all of the connections and technology involved in creating sounds, he doesn't get lost in a thicket of techno-babble. By working with live humans in real time and by courting the very human element of risk, Killian stays in the realm of the living and breathing.
At one point, Killian ran into an obligatory snafu while setting up for a duet with Janton. Repeated attempts at trouble-shooting failed him.
"All of these buttons and knobs," he shrugged in mock-exasperation, "I'll tell you." Janton piped up: "I don't know how you do it." He came back: "I don't know how I do it."
Therein lies part of the charm. Winging it is apparently an important ethic for Killian, who shies away from fixed musical structures and "composes" pieces that leave plenty of room for interpretation.
We never did hear all the intended sonic effects on the flute-guitar duet, "Never the Twain Shall Meet," but what we didn't know didn't hurt. In that lovely, loopy piece, Janton's long notes on flute were held and elongated via Killian's machinery.
Strange impressions arose: I imagined a shiny marble statue lobbed into weightless space and spinning in oblong circles into eternity. Don't ask why.
On "Tortured Guitar/Guitar Tortured," the guitarist set up a droning, swooping pattern, over which he floated a few sparse melody lines and Barker added sensitive accents to the tone painting. "Vox in a Box" was based on a reference to Dr. Seuss ("My kids wind up having one thing or another to do with my music," he told the audience). On it, he treated/mistreated Stuart's voice with various effects, making it sound, by turns, celestial and spooky.
Improvisation, in the truest sense, was the operating credo in the final piece, "When What Happens." CalArts professor and percussionist Bergamo, a Piru resident widely known for his poly-ethnic percussion abilities, supplied intriguing washes of sound and dazzling displays on tabla.
Killian switched over from guitar to a low-budget, saxophone-like wind controller ($44 at your nearby department store), which sends MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) signals to his bank of gadgets.
For this piece, there was no existing score or even set of instructions. Rather, it was from the "1-2-3-go" school of collective improvisation. What happened was a dialogue of infinitely variable density. They made a wavy curtain of sound, advancing and receding, swelling and dissipating, and finally fading out in a percussive state of mind.
All in all, Killian's music is less a pretentious stab at "art music" than it is a brand of stylized folk experimentalism.
MOUTHING OFF: What do you get when a band takes the stylistic night flight from Scotland to the heart of polyrhythmic Africa?
If the P. R. hype and the world music charts count for anything, you get Mouth Music. Mouth Music is actually a two-person affair, involving the wistful Gaelic vocals of Talitha MacKenzie and the keyboard wizardry of Martin Swan.
As heard on their briskly selling, self-titled album on Rykodisc, the duo creates a mostly entrancing cross-cultural blend.
Compared to a lot of the exotic world music that is suddenly available at music stores everywhere, this is a little, well, watered-down, but it's still a joyful and inventive noise worth checking out. The subject is music as a universal language.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Mouth Music will perform at the Lobero Theater, 334 Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara, at 8 p.m. Friday. For information, call 963-0761.