The “Expanded” Guitar of Bill Horist

Let us discover the sound worlds of the American guitarist and composer Bill Horist between prepared guitar and live electro-acoustic music processing.

1-How do you define your music (theories, influences, goals)

I’m very inconsistent in defining my music.  Ultimately the defining factor is the music itself.  My main interest in defining it at all is to present it within a framework to which a listener, whether familiar with my music or not, might gain a foothold in understanding.  Even the framework under which I operate can change as I find new inspiration, not always by a new sound or technique, but by a different way of viewing the material with which I’m working.  Though I am firmly committed to the idea that the quality of art should stand on its own merit and not garner value based on an explanation, I do feel the strength of building some sort of connection between a listener and the work.  This is especially true when presenting to listeners that aren’t familiar with more abstract music.  Often, a simple guiding framework can open one’s mind and ears.  Despite the arcane nature of what I do, I have always valued reaching an audience beyond informed listeners – to the normal people who listen to conventional music.  I remember stepping through the experimental music rabbit hole years ago and the sense of wonder and revelation that comes with discovery.  I feel like that is my highest artistic honor and responsibility to a listener – to collaborate in that process of discovery.  Though people are willing to be challenged by all sorts of art, leisure, sport and pastime, very few allow themselves to be challenged by music.  Why that is will be a conversation in itself but the result seems to be an extra level of defense against more abstract music.  If I can characterize my work to an audience in a way that might loosen that aesthetic grip and put them in a more receptive state, all the better to accomplish my mandate.

solo at Union Station, Seattle

I played with a group that did a short tour in Nicaragua a few years back.  Though I was playing, by my standards, conventional guitar, it was still pretty effect-laden and out there.  Based on the other acts on the festival bill, I knew this type of playing was going to be outside the idea of what most would consider jazz.  I suggested that my bandleader introduce me as playing “science-fiction guitar.”  This seemed to clear any initial discomfiture most listeners had.  As soon as many were able to accept my sounds as an alien life form, they were more able to enjoy them, hopefully on their own terms eventually.
I don’t think there are any specific theoretical underpinnings in my work.  I put a high premium on originality and it has been my goal to create music that doesn’t sound like anyone else – different enough that any listener can hear the difference without needing explanation as to why it is different.  It should be obvious on its own.  This is one of the reasons that I was drawn to extended technique back in the early Nineties.  At the time I couldn’t see my way through creating original enough music with conventional guitar playing – I still can’t.  Not to say that I don’t get great pleasure and reward from playing conventionally.  It was really just a space issue.  When I began there was simply more space in the realm of prepared guitar to cull out a sound of my own.  Even that has changed drastically now.  If I were beginning now, it would be much harder to find a truly original voice.
I am certainly not suggesting that my work is without precedent or influence.   Just that there was enough terra incognita in that world for me to create a sound of my own while being inspired by antecedents.  Specifically, I was very inspired by guitarists Fred Frith, Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, Keith Rowe, and Hans Reichel.  These guys were my gateway.  But when I moved to Seattle in 1995, I was moved by people I met who were practicing extended technique on their instruments; like Sue Ann Harkey and Troy Swanson.  This was new to me as I had moved from an extremely small town in Michigan where there was no direct access to musicians that were pushing envelopes.  From there it snowballed with new friends and collaborators from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Things that have been more generally influential include the contest between nature and technology, the struggle for and redemption of control and the often-unwarranted hegemony of virtuosity.  These days I am very influenced by birds and marine invertebrates – especially plankton.  How these current influences will shape future work I have no idea, but I find them truly fascinating!                     
2-Where do you come from musically and how did you accomplish your musicality?

I didn’t have a particularly musical upbringing.  I was compelled to play piano against my will for a few years but dropped as soon as I was given the choice.  In the early Eighties, I got turned onto punk and its underground variants while living near Chicago.  That music inspired me to give up trying to fit into the conventional world.  A good thing too because I was really terrible at fitting in!  This new culture inspired me to follow my own path in all things (for good and ill). 

solo on Sonarchy – KEXP Seattle

Eventually, a couple of my brothers (my parents adopted several kids  while living in Chicago and Michigan) invited me to play bass in their punk band.  All I had to do was get a bass.  And I did.  Our band – the Evicted – only lasted for a summer or so but in the meantime I met a keyboardist named Eric Bowers who was doing all sorts of interesting quasi-industrial synth stuff.  We became good friends and I began creating abstract tracks together on an old cassette 4-track.  I started singing and picking up a little guitar during this time.  I became enchanted by the process of constructing, track by track, little sonic sculptures.  By 1987 or so I had put together a band – Jumanji (way before this great childrens’ book, written by local writer Chris Van Allesburg became a big, terrible film with Robin Williams).  I was singing, not playing guitar.  It was basically a bad Joy Division rip off.  Eventually our guitarist quit and I picked it up.  When I started college, I simultaneously realized that I was a terrible singer and that I preferred playing guitar.  It was then that I was turned on to John Zorn’s Naked City and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  From there, everything just bloomed as the musical connections from those two points ran amok in my ears for the next twenty years.   Those influences came to bear on my next band in Michigan in the early Nineties – Nobodaddy.   Like Jumanji, membership included my pal and mentor Eric Bowers.  This was an all-instrumental mash-up of King Crimson, Naked City and Meat Puppets and was the vehicle that drew the interest of producer Randall Dunn, who was at the time studying engineering in Seattle and starting his label, Endless Records.   It was through this fortuitous meeting that I ended up with a one-way train ticket to Seattle in 1995.
To say that I’m self-taught is not accurate – only because I really never seemed to learn anything quantifiable!  It was more like I just picked up a guitar, tried unsuccessfully to replicate things I heard and liked and built a skill-set based on that.  I tried lessons for a while but nothing stuck and I even declared music as a major in college for a while but I dropped out after a month of confusion and disinterest.  Somehow I wanted to keep the mystery, perhaps at the expense of mastery.  When I stumbled onto the less-trodden path of extended technique, it felt that there was little enough authority in this precinct that I could pursue my uncarved block approach. 
 It is often my strategy to give up control and let myself be surprised.  There are also things harder to accomplish for me with conventional playing.  This could mean anything from setting up a preparation that will operate on its own and surprise me with unexpected results to working to minimize my influence based on preferences either at-large or in the moment.  Despite knowing better, I am still tempted to insinuate my opinion and intention into a musical experience.  
3-Present your new work
My last solo record, “Mutei,” was released in 2015 on Important Records.  I don’t have anything due out right now.  In fact, apart from a guest spot or two, 2016 will be the first year I don’t have something coming out in almost twenty years.  As mentioned earlier, an important aspiration for me has been for my records to be original sounding.  This means I don’t want to release a record of material that sounds like any of the previous records.  Currently, based on my live performances, I am still working up approaches and constructs that will define a stand-alone offering.
I have been working on some ensemble pieces that involve more conventional playing and would love to see some of those get recorded but the budget to do it right is pretty high and funding is a bit scarce right now.  Given the current nonexistent return on a record, I just can’t feasibly complete these.     
4-What is your ideal setup for live with the prepared guitar (Preferred procedures, favorite hardware, influences, projects for the future)

I prefer to use amps that have a broad bandwidth because I like to access deep low end.  Because of this, and the fact that my goal isn’t to produce a traditional guitar tone, I really like using bass, keyboard or acoustic guitar amps.  Typically when I’m on tour, I’m at the mercy of whatever amps the venue or local musicians have.  This has made me pretty flexible in the live setting.  Every piece of gear has its nuances and, regardless of quality, I aim to take advantage of those.  Sometimes I can’t harness the nuances to my advantage but that is part of the gamble – to make the best of what I have.
I have a host of delays, loopers, pitch shifters and distortions but the most important in my chain is my compressor.  It is a Tech 21 Bass Compactor and has both high and low end knobs – which was unique in a pedal compressor when they came out.  Often I am seeking hidden sounds within the guitar, what I like to call “microscopic” sounds.  The compressor is like the microscope that brings the tiny sounds into audibility.  Without this, most of the sounds I work with would be unheard.  I like delays and loopers to create multiple simultaneous voices and pitch shifters allow me more pitch options when working with various preparations that, while offering wonderful timbres, often reduce the number of pitch options.
As for the objects I use – I favor objects and strategies that call for a different way of playing the instrument and/or that allow for sounds to be created without my direct intervention.  I have long threadwire that I put between strings and just let them undulate on their own by bouncing the guitar gently in my lap.  I use magnets that stick randomly to pickups and frets.  Blowing on tinfoil that is threaded between the strings like a blade of grass gets great whale/brass sounds.  Anything that allows randomness and surprise will hold my attention.  Nails between strings while pounding the body of the guitar create unearthly, mechanized woodpecker tremolos.  These techniques and more appear in the links listed below. 
A thing I struggle with is that once I’ve found a cool technique, it can become habitual.  It can feel like a safe space for me as a performer because I know pretty well how it will work.  It becomes a challenge in performance to give up the unknown for something I know will sound cool so I push to incorporate both in any situation.  I have accepted the struggle between mystery and mastery as a large part of my work and I imagine it will be that way as long as I perform.     

with Chu Makino

With Davida Monk at the St John Sound Symposium