We often praise guitarists who excel at studio overdubs by saying they "orchestrate" their parts, but few players take that term as literally as composer Tim Brady. "I score the tape parts in complete detail before I record them on 24-track tape," says the 38-year-old Canadian. "I work with 24-line paper and a time line. I might think, 'Okay, this section will have three detuned 12-strings, then four basses.' I plot out each part's melodic line, tuning, instrument, panning, and signal processing."
* The results are astounding. Brady isn't the first modern classical composer to write for electric guitar, but he so skillfully exploits the unique properties of the instrument that his music resounds with harmonies unheard in rock and colors unprecedented in classcial.
One spectacular example is Brady's mindaltering Symphony In Two Parts, which appears on his 1992 Imaginary Guitars album (available, like all Brady's recordings, from Justin Time, 5455, rue Pare, suite 101, Montreal, Canada H4P IP7). You'd swear the piece includes all manner of acoustic and electric instruments, but guitars are its only sound source. "None of the parts are particularly freaky," explains Brady, "but some of the combinations are odd. For example, the opening passage is me hitting the back of my Gibson J-45 acoustic with the bone of my thumb. It's pitch-shifted down two octaves, and there's a big reverb. I combine that percussive sound with two electric basses, a melody played on two acoustic guitars with an electric doubling them, and a background of electric guitar with delay and the attack removed with a volume pedal."
Not all of the composer's music was composed for tape; he recently premiered Loud, a concerto for electric guitar and conventional orchestra, and he has recorded several works for solo electric. Some of his compositions feature guitar only incidentally, and Brady's 1990 Double Variations mixes live duets between Brady and jazz guitarist John Abercrombie with tape passages. But the pure guitar-and-tape medium is especially fruitful for Brady. "Working with tape lets you do things that would be impossible live," he enthuses. "In Imaginary Guitars [the composition that gave the album its title], there are recurring chords played in 12-string harmonics. I tuned to D minor for the first arpeggio, stopped the tape, and then retuned to F minor to record the second one. It's no coincidence that the founding father of multitrack tape was Les Paul, a guitarist!"
Brady has also recorded the works of other young composers. "For the last few years I've tried to network with like-minded guitarists and composers," he recounts. "There's Claude Pavy in Paris, and there's Steve Mackey in America--he recorded his Short Stories for electric guitar and string quartet with the Kronos Quartet. Other American composers are Scott Johnson and Rhys Chatham, who now lives in Paris. Actually, it's pretty slim pickings."
But the non-Brady compositions on Imaginary Guitars and the just-released Scenarios suggest otherwise. Collectively, they hint that the barriers between classical music and electric guitar are falling as younger composers reared on rock approach maturity. "The electric guitar has become the native language of many composers," agrees Brady. "Almost any composer under 40 played in a rock band at some point. When I approach younger composers about writing for electric guitar, they inevitably say, 'I've been wanting to do that for years,' and they have a backlog of ideas." Sometimes those ideas can gush forth in a torrent, as in Gitarre Graffiti [from Scenarios], an explosive guitar-and-tape piece by Marc Tremblay full of rock passages that evoke an Arnold Schoenberg/Ritchie Blackmore brain transplant. "Marc is an enormous electric guitar fan," reports Brady. "He has all the Nirvana records because he loves the guitar sounds. …