Danielle O'Hallisey

electronic guitar, scoring for visual media

A Year of Living with Death

I've made a lifelong habit of making friends with people older than myself. It doesn't seem to be a common practice, given our impatience with people who don't know the latest gadget, saying or pop phenomenon. It speaks to my faith that maybe we are more than our capacity for the acquisition of the *new,* and that wisdom and cleverness--qualities that can exist in the same mind and spirit--aren't necessarily akin to one another. Hell, they might even be antithetical...

The composition of the Quartet for Guitar and Strings in e had its origin in what some call tragedy, others the inevitable result of this thing called Life. The deaths of three people—people who meant so much to me musically, spiritually and personally that I fear trivializing their individual and collective spiritual grace by speaking too long of it—over a few short months rocked my perception of the world, and brought questions, answers and inspiration to the ensuing year’s work…
During the autumn of 2016, close friend and civil rights activist Paij Bailey chose to exit this world through the rights afforded her under Vermont’s Death with Dignity act. Paij—an African-American lesbian who’d worked tirelessly for equality throughout her life—had stated that it was her intent to “take death out of the closet, too.” I would love to tell you that I was there when she passed, and that it was a transcendent experience. In fact, I was one of the very few of her “compañeros” who couldn’t do it; I could barely stand to say good-bye, and felt that my presence might rob the occasion of both dignity and gravity, given my longing to continue the meaningful conversations that we’d had over the years. Ultimately I am happy for her, that she moved on peacefully and now knows what she was then curious to learn; what is on the other side…
My mother Beulah—a singer whose career had spanned decades of being with people at their most vulnerable (weddings, funerals and the scraped knees of my and my siblings’ young lives)—died soon afterward. Sitting in the church of my youth with her casket in the aisle next to me, listening to a recording of her beautiful rendition of Ave Maria, I was swept back to a time when, as a child, I would roll my eyes because, "Mom! People can hear you!" Damn right they could, and starting life with a mother who would be heard in these sacred settings and moments would do much to set my own direction in this life.  

So shortly afterward that I hadn't had time to begin to recover from the ordeal, my musical hero, inspiration, teacher and mentor, Larry Coryell took his final bow, following a pair of successful shows at New York’s Iridium. For those who don't know LC's work, I could berate you for hours with the storied life of a man who "moved to New York in my twenties to become a jazz snob. Then I started dropping acid with Jimi (Hendrix) and it was all over!" He was one of the founding fathers of the music that has shaped me, the jazz/rock/fusion of (primarily) the seventies that brought intense rock energy to the complex harmonies of modern jazz. Take an hour and listen to the album Spaces, recorded with several of the musicians who'd completed their jams on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew literally the day before he brought them into the studio. Then listen to Spaces Revisited and (what the hell; it can't hurt to list a few albums that you might take time to cue up) the posthumously-released final "Larry Coryell's Eleventh House" CD, Seven Secrets. Then give me a call; we can spill a tear or two together over the passing of this great bringer of the light...

This new Quartet was supposed to go ever-so-differently. Like most people, I did not want to sit with the sorrow of the (then two) losses I'd recently experienced, so I set out to do something new and adventurous; record a CD of duos--one each from the repertoire and my own cranium--with the three other members of Yellow Sky. I decided I needed to push myself even farther than that, so I asked Larry if he'd agree to record two duos with me, too. He said he'd be honored. And then he was gone... 

The five movements pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as I know it. Someone said that first we experience denial; I tend to manifest that through the transcendental. It's the dilemma of people of faith everywhere; we know the person will continue, and will grow and we want only to honor them by nurturing the flame they've passed to us. And we're devastated, sad, lonely. We want them back...

i. Lento (E Unibus Pluram) (out of one, many) is about legacy, about the way that a single person--through the inspiration of their acts and the generation of their progeny--gives birth to something that extends beyond their time on earth. At the start of the piece we sound like we're not done tuning, a situation taken from the many Indian music concerts I've attended. It's often hard to tell with that music whether the artists have started performing or not. I think the process of our working our open string harmonics, then my playing a rhythmic ostinato comprised of (nearly) only one note in many octaves, brings us to the place where singleness becomes harmony, and then moves beyond.

ii. Adagio (The Hour of God) owes its title to the spot in the room where I sat during the first of LC's memorial services, at the Nichiren Buddhist temple in New York. An old friend of his sat next to me, and shared that Larry had often spoken of the 3:00 AM hour, and how he expected to pass at that time (it's unknown if he did). I cannot find a reference to that hour being called that, and in fact have found names like the devil's hour ascribed to it. Coryell found beauty and the divine where others missed it though; I'll take his explanation. The piece is a true funeral march, with the inevitable uplift of a section remembering lovelier times with the departed, nested gently between the obvious gnashing of the teeth of the bereaved. It might become my most popular work; it is at this time, my proudest accomplishment

iii. Larghetto (May He Who Blessed Our Fathers) is based on the Mi Sheberach mode. This traditional Hebrew prayer begins "May he who blessed our father/ancestors..." The mode forms a continuous pull on the heart toward the ancient, the grateful and the calling of a sorrowful people for solace in their time of need.

iv. Adagio (Improvisation on My Mother's Clock) is a reused title, from a piece I performed at the 2017 North Country Electronic Music Festival, in which my mother's literal clock was mic'd and that audio passed through multiple delay lines, to form the background for a guitar improvisation. What remains from that piece is the relentless awareness of time, with a guitar passage based on a 60 bpm cascade of descending notes. It ends on a rapid viola solo, masterfully performed by Elizabeth Reid

v. Maestoso (Fiery the Angels Rose) Though born in grief, the triumphal spirit of the final movement is the closest I can now come to a final statement on the subject of the loss of loved ones. Its title is a quote from William Blake’s America, a Prophecy. I will admit my ignorance of its originally-intended meaning, but confess my imagination’s linking it to an image of the gods, ascending to Valhalla; bringing Paij, Beulah and Larry along for the ultimate ride... 

New Toys and the Band of Plenty

I call myself an electronic guitarist, an affectation intended to convey my fascination with a world of sound beyond that produced by my instrument alone or even by that instrument in tandem with the well-known world of audio effects like distortion, compression and delay.  My setup includes—depending on the demands of the music and the venue—the Moog über-sustaining guitar, Roland VG-99 (sort of) synth, a monophonic guitar synth from Electro-Harmonix, four utterly dissimilar Midi controllers (five if you include the VG’s unreliable Midi output), computer with Ableton Live and mad numbers of plug-ins and custom hacks; lots and lots of ways to mangle the output of my guitar into a bold new world of music madness.  It never gets old to me, and can absorb relatively lengthy chunks of time as I look for, say, a way to map the envelope of my signal to the input of an analog effect, routed tortuously through a string of converters, software, and Midi-to-CV devices. 

So it probably will be a bit of a surprise when I say that I have a fairly stodgy policy on the acquisition of “new toys” these days.  Not that I won’t buy something new, or at least while away my time looking; but I had a realization awhile back that left me with my first and so‑far only “Rule of Acquisition”:

A new piece of kit will, on average, absorb 100 hours of your valuable time before it becomes an asset to your sound.

“Blasphemy!” you say.  Alright, remember that I’m not talking about going out and swapping one fuzz tone for another, or picking up a new compressor.  That’s fairly stock stuff these days and if you’ve owned one, you will already know what you need to do to integrate a different one into your setup.  I’m talking about that VG business, or Midi controllers that can produce a pop or a squeak right out of the box but need you to download, install, connect and suss out a piece of editing software before they can make you sound like Moby, or anything requiring you to learn new gestures, methods, or techniques to really put it to full use.

The origin of this *wisdom* was a collaboration a couple of years ago, when I got the opportunity to work with a guy I’d known a long while and had always loved his writing.  His business acumen was well-known in worlds other than music and as he had come into his own, he had decided to devote a fairly substantial portion of his financial resources to building a great studio, outfitted with the very best and—in many cases—esoteric equipment.

It was in that band that I first laid my hands on the Roland VG-99, and wow, did that ever change my outlook on my instrument.  Not only does the thing create dozens of weird synthetic sounds, it also turns any guitar into, roughly, any other guitar (read more about that on the Roland website or listen to any of the reviews on YouTube to see what I mean).  Imagine then, showing up for band practice and having someone hand you a pristine PRS guitar hooked up to one of these things, and saying, “This is yours to use in this band!”  Yeah, heaven, right?

Unfortunately though, you have to figure the thing out.  Which means tweaking the programs, mangling the sounds, messing things up a bit then recovering from the corner you’ve painted yourself into.  And if you’re playing any demanding part on a guitar you’ll need to practice with that instrument more than once a week (at least I do!) so your fingers find their way around the neck with familiar comfort.  Soon I realized that I needed to haul it home every week (the VG) and plug it into my own guitar to start learning the controls.  Then I knew I was in love and bought my own so I could fully customize the sounds.  The learning curve was steep and long on that one.  It wasn’t until I had some minor leg surgery and spent a full week in my studio, turning knobs and really getting to know my way around the thing, that I came away ready to perform on it; calling up a nylon-string guitar with synth pad overlay at a moment’s notice when called for, switching to a perfect knockoff of the Jimi Hendrix Little Wing tone, mid‑tune.

Success, victory, game over, right?  Well my friend and collaborator had the bug.  One week we’d show up and a brand new V-Drum kit would be sitting there, needing to be cared for, learned about, programmed, massaged, memorized; the next week there’d be a massively powerful synth with a million sounds and twice as many ways to control them.  Vocoders, plug-ins, new guitars, basses and effects and, and… we were living in a utopic world of music-mania with the one and only simple, teensy problem that… we never got anything done!! 

Yeah that’s it; I’m complaining about being in the position of having too much food in my mouth when the rest of the world was starving.  But (to milk that metaphor) imagine if you kept having someone else cramming the food between your teeth but you never had the time to chew.  We’d made some great music with acoustic guitars, a piano and this writer’s intriguing lyrics and voice.  And now we were swimming in a pool filled with new toys but no water.

This did not end well.  No more about that, sorry, I don’t want to go into it.  But I learned that my own insatiable want for the implements of noise needed to be reined in.  Not only because of my more‑limited financial resources once I’d moved on from the “band of plenty.”  More importantly, because in order to make music I needed to focus on the music more than the sound, the sound more than the equipment.  And ultimately that stuff only flows when the technical has had enough time to become second nature, and the musical nature of the people in the band is free and standing front and center.

Next time, “Electronic Guitar; What’s Up With That?”

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