A man stands on a colorful stage. The only things before him are an eager audience, his guitar, a microphone, and an array of foot pedals, buttons, and dials. He begins by tapping out a rhythm on the top of his guitar, which repeats with the press of a button. He then picks a few simple notes, which also begin to repeat at the next measure. Next comes a more complex melody, then more robust strumming in the lower ranges. Each new element loops itself, falling into place over the parts before it, like well-placed puzzle pieces. He begins to sing, and unlike the other sounds his voice soars above the composition, verse to chorus, standing out above the deeply layered song. Once in a while a vocal note will echo, resonating into the next few words. Under this the other elements are changed and shifted. When the singing halts, the unified sounds of the guitar seem to sing by themselves.The performer manipulates some electronics on the ground, and turns his lower E string into a full-sounding bass to add a bass line. Then with a few thumps on the top of the guitar again, a bass drum is added. Next, tapping a button at his feet, the song suddenly jumps to twice the speed, and his composition takes on new life. The performer continues with more layers of picking, strumming, and another bass line. Then in comes his voice again, this time filtered to sound more distant. Suddenly the music cuts out as his voice repeats in empty space, though the space is quickly filled when he taps the buttons at his feet to bring back the full music, and then cuts it out just as quickly with another tap. He continues to pull in and then cut out his own previous playing. With a flourish to the audience, he does the same with his own voice, playing with the device at his feet as a DJ would with a cross fader. Then finally, crouched at the controls, he melts it all together and slows it down to a crawl until it fades completely, amid the cheering of the audience.
The artist’s name is Howie Day, and the song is “Ghost” from his Madrigals DVD, recorded live at a concert in New York City. He is one of a new generation of solo artists, using the looping techniques of artists before him to popularize a new sort of “one-man-band.” However, Day and others like him avoid the goofy stereotype of a man who has a ton of instruments taped to his various appendages, a la Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. No, these kind of one-man-bands have a kind of elegance, and certainly a sense of awe about them as they manipulate a series of tools as well as their instrument, when to the layman just singing and playing a guitar at the same time are challenging enough.
These performers aren’t just musicians, they are chemists of sound, using instruments aside from just a guitar or bass (such as looping samplers) to mix and match the best of their aural output. To watch one in action is to watch a serious and practiced loopist at work, tapping the pedals at the right times, twisting dials without a smile, deep in concentration, their hands strumming or tapping rhythm and making ten times the sound they appear to be making. A single guitar becomes more than just a guitar; it becomes a drum set, a bass, and even a synthesizer. A single voice is not just a voice, but is instead a chorus.
At the heart of this form of composition is the looping of sound and/or musical elements. Applying such terms to music might make one think of DJing or similar forms of performance, where artists take pre-recorded music and loop it to create new compositions, then play it to an audience. But no, this is not the kind of looping I am referring to (though no one denies that is one form of loopage). I am referring to looping that uses electronic “instruments” to enhance acoustic ones…a form of looping music that is becoming more popularized, thanks to artists like Howie Day, Joe Preston, and Tim Reynolds. In essence, live-looping.
This style of looping is becoming more of a viable answer to soloists looking for something new, and is becoming more popular. What is it, you ask? Simply this: live-looping is where a performer will use a sampler and delay device to extend and reproduce their sounds. It is mostly all done live and on the spot – sometimes improvised – without a need to record, rewind, and then dub over the previous track. Instead the artist uses a loop sampler to record a sample of themselves, and then begin to use it immediately as they add elements over it, or manipulate their own output. It turns a man or woman into an orchestra, and for anyone bored with the typical SSWG (singer/songwriter with guitar) set-up, it is a uniquely challenging and barely tapped genre for popular and alternative music.
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