Half-Life of the Blues

Loren Connors at home. Photo: Chris Perry.

WHEN A FRIEND FIRST INTRODUCED ME to the music of Loren Connors, I refused to listen to it on the grounds that it was too beautiful. In his signature electric improvisations, Connors makes use of layered swells and serrated feedback; just as arresting is his permissive handling of negative space and scattered fuzz. Connors’s playing often luxuriates in extended caesura, punctuated by thin squeals and deliberately skeletal leads. Unanchored notes seem set aloft, only to drift and kink mid-air or be cut short by little catches of breath. Always plangent and often surreal, the more recent sounds are lush in their atmospheric effects, awash in reverb and spectral glide.  

A recent set hosted by Blank Forms was demonstrative. Sitting beneath the cold gallery light at 55 Walker (from which Artists Space has recently decamped), Connors alternated watery meanders with fretful, sometimes two-handed fingerplaying. Later, when Tom and Christina Carter, the duo known as Charalambides, turned up the volume, the space filled with psychedelic incantation; the room flushed to ultraviolet.  

Over more than four decades, Connors has performed and released music as Guitar Roberts, Loren Mattei, Loren MazzaCane, and Loren Mazzacane Connors, among other aliases, a considered refusal of proper names that parallels his music’s defiance of easy categorization. Despite an irrefutable commitment to the guitar, and to the possibilities embedded within the warp and distillation of that instrument’s root sound—the blues—Connors’s catalog nonetheless flusters both genre and designation. This month, Blank Forms Editions releases Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations Vol. 10, a recording of Connors playing before a live audience at Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio in 1980. (The taped session was unearthed from the Columbia University archives by Tommy McCutchon of Unseen Worlds.) Together, the now ten-volume series articulates the early period of Connors’s experimentation, in which recognizable shards of the delta blues emerge, then are buried or left alone. These are spare deformations of familiar twangs, splinters of bottleneck sound.  

This new vinyl pressing comprises just under thirty minutes of playing time. Phrases are etched into the air, then growled against or worked over. Distinctive are the guttural vocalizations that both impersonate and respond to dogs yowling outside the apartment where Connors was then living in New Haven, Connecticut. Sometimes the canid exclamations—yawps, pants, and warbles alike—skate above the guitar, alighting upon it only intermittently, like a pebble skipped across water; in other moments, the two sounds form a leaky almost-harmony, even as they lurch and wobble forward. In some real sense, then, the titular descriptor of “unaccompanied” is not entirely correct. Composing through improvisational methods requires an internal process of reaction and feedback: strum to moan, or note to note. “He was able to record against himself,” Suzanne Langille has said of Connors’s acquisition of a Tascam four-track tape recorder and its impact on his style. Langille, an accomplished vocalist who is married to Connors, is also one of his collaborators, as are Kath Bloom, Kim Gordon, Keiji Haino, Jandek, Alan Licht, and Jim O’Rourke, among others. Connors’s creative interlocutors have also long included the visual arts. Connors attended art school and cites Franz Kline and Mark Rothko as formative influences; there is a record dedicated to the “the dark paintings” of the latter.  

Loren Connors at 55 Walker Street. Photo: Chris Perry.

Wildweeds, Connors’s first solo show of paintings and drawings, was on view for barely a week—perhaps the exhibition equivalent of a one-sided seven-inch that clocks just four minutes and 56 seconds. (See: Connors’s 2016 piano release, The Red Painting). Smoky trails of graphite wind across canvas or paper, gauzy and nonspecific renderings of stem, blade, or vein. Suggestions of blossoms are introduced in smears of acrylic, quivers of tangerine, violet, and cadmium yellow inclining this way or that. However slight, each reedy arabesque nonetheless conveys a sense of growth and urge, stretching the surface’s length yet confined by its edges. Many of the stems seem to bow or furrow, heading back to where they came from.  

Both delicate and relentless, weeds are easily conscripted in service of metaphor. They announce themselves as casualties of taxonomy; they reign over the kingdom of the underappreciated. It feels impossible to avoid fetishizing the singularity and outsiderness endemic to Connors’s music, its perforation of dialect. His music throws into relief the debates around a term that is sometimes applied to it: non-idiomatic improvisation. In the early recordings, one hears the ache of the riverine south, but also more than a murmur of the bony unhappiness specific to New England. His is not a lack or an absence of idiom, then, but a studied demonstration of their interpenetration and differentiated vulnerability. Where categorical ramparts are breached, words fail. Mine do. Yet each note Connors plays resolves itself, pointing to an arrangement of tradition that contains both its half-life and its reproduction.  

Loren Connors, Wildweeds September #3, 2018, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 40 x 30". Photo: Chris Perry.