“They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them…”
In the poem “I Sing the Body Electric” from his masterpiece Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman ruminates on humanity, the love he consents to accept, and the love he is willing to give. In the context of Duo Orfeo’s newest record, I sing the body electric, the meaning of those words broadens to include an artistic longing, one that drove two musicians to apply an inspired spark of originality to “go with” and “respond to” music that called to them but had hitherto been evasive and inadequate on their chosen instruments. For Joe Ricker and Jamie Balmer, two of a crop of young, classically trained guitarists who are finding new means of expression through finely honed technique, I sing the body electric is a milestone record that encompasses their pedigree and their passion in a completely original and captivating way.
Incidentally, the Duo’s choice to incorporate the words of Whitman as the title for their record works twofold. Yes, there is the far-reaching, timeless, unconditional kind of acceptance that is a trademark of Whitman’s poetry, of which hints at the open-mindedness of Ricker and Balmer and their unapologetic love of some music that had previously gone untouched on guitar. There are also the words themselves, which literally tap into the means of Orfeo’s method of sound production. The electric guitar, long fetishized as an instrument wielded by performers who perhaps didn’t even need to know how to play it, is here quite purposefully used in some of the most delicate arrangements of already pristinely delicate music. And while the informative liner notes of the record report on classical guitar godfather Andrés Segovia’s disapproval of the electric guitar as an instrument altogether, even the maestro could not have denied the sound Balmer and Ricker create, a kind of decadently gentle interplay awash in reverb and an achingly patient attention to attack, tone, and color. Additionally, for Segovia, someone who so meticulously cultivated the arrangements and technique that would become the basis for nearly all classical guitar playing, it is hard to imagine any kind of ill feelings towards Ricker’s incredibly tasteful work on I sing the body electric, where a wealth of music primarily written for piano or piano plus is seamlessly transitioned onto twelve magnetically amplified strings.
The electric palette that Duo Orfeo employs lacks the plug and play paraphernalia that many electric guitarists adore and require. In that sense, the simple fact that they are amplified does little to draw away from the sort of classical purity that one finds when wood meets vibration. For I sing the body electric, the duo’s sound hinges on an understated, toned down sonority that rings not completely unfamiliar to listeners of jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, whose touch similarly evokes the aural sensation of a bubble lightly bursting on the surface of a body of water. That airy, unthreatening darkness is keenly utilized in Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov’s cycle of Silent Songs, originally scored for voice and piano and taken by Duo Orfeo to introduce a wordless poetry that underscores the intimate nature of their collaboration.
Before Silent Songs, however, I sing the body electric opens with something all the more refreshing for its inclusion on a classical guitar record. John Cage’s In a Landscape for piano is a magnificently available and controlled piece written by a composer who so often mystified audiences with sound or the lack thereof, that was allowed to meander as it pleased. Duo Orfeo’s recording in certain ways allows this music to distinguish itself more than ever before, with the sustained electricity of two performers leading to crossroads that seem as fresh and happened-upon as some of Cage’s less accessible, indeterminate pieces. The thing is, for all its unconventional ingredients, I sing the body electric adds up to one completely accessible whole. In that sense, the conviction in Duo Orfeo’s performance of In a Landscape makes their playing of the music of Erik Satie later in the record unsurprising. The Trois Gnosiennes include some of the more intense thematic material touched on the record, but even those feature the smiling sense of retreat and aloofness so often present in the music of Satie. The Trois Gymnopédies have been played on guitar before by the likes of Christopher Parkening. Yet, the effect of having one performer patiently approach the pieces’ untraditional harmonies while the other can fully devote his attention to the grave, meek melodic material brings a previously unmatched level of subtlety and tenderness that is only accentuated by the submerged tone of electric guitar and reverb.
I sing the body electric offers a veritable hodge-podge of things for a listener to absorb. It’s classical guitar. It’s electric guitar. It’s minimalist. It’s ambient. How does an enthusiast of any combination of these things approach this record? There’s a really refreshing answer, and on Spiegel Im Spiegel, I sing the body electric’s finale, it becomes crystal clear. It’s all of the above, beyond the hollowness of novelty, flash, and crowd-pleasing. The love, patience, and aura that exudes from this piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and the extremely sensitive work of arranging done by Ricker (with, remarkably, input by Pärt himself), sets all previous questions aside about whether Duo Orfeo has bastardized a classical idiom with electric means, or vice versa. The truth in Spiegel Im Spiegel as well as Pärt’s Fratres, which appears earlier on the record, would totally expose any kind of disingenuousness on the part of the performers or the practice behind it. And as heroic and exciting as Pärt on guitar may seem to a fan of Pärt, or a fan of guitar (or hopefully both) the tintinnabuli compositional technique employed in both pieces which calls for diatonic melodic motion against triadic arpeggios, has really, when you think about it, been done on electric guitars about quintillion times. Just never like this. With Fratres and particularly Spiegel Im Spiegel, the electric pathways blazed by Duo Orfeo meet to create a singular whole that bounces and undulates in the most unplugged, organic of ways, even if they did need to literally plug in to play them. To refer back to Whitman, Balmer and Ricker have taken pieces of music that would not let them go, and “charged them with the charge of the soul,” something that far outweighs the charge of a couple of electrical outlets.
Visit http://www.duoorfeo.com for more information or to purchase I sing the body electric in physical form or digital download.