Dither: Potential Differences

About

The New York based electric guitar quartet Dither has established itself as one of the premiere ensembles of its kind, cementing their reputation as keen champions of inventive composers and deft sound sculptors in the rich sonic world of the electric guitar. Their newest release features works by Eve Beglarian, Jascha Narveson, James Tenney, Ted Hearne, Paula Matthusen, as well as each of the four members of the group.

Audio

# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 71:24
01The Garden of Cyrus
The Garden of Cyrus
5:37
02The Tar of Gyu
The Tar of Gyu
5:50
03but because without this
but because without this
6:32

Ones

Jascha Narveson
04The Wah One
The Wah One
4:27
05The Driving One
The Driving One
4:30
06The Warped One
The Warped One
3:52
07The Floaty One
The Floaty One
5:18
08Mi-Go
Mi-Go
9:38
09Mannequin
Mannequin
4:12
10Candy
Candy
7:02
11Renegade
Renegade
4:06
12Swell Piece
Swell Piece
10:20

On their newest album, “Potential Differences”, New York-based electric guitar quartet Dither reasserts itself as one of the premiere ensembles of its kind, cementing its reputation as keen champions of inventive composers and deft sound sculptors in the rich sonic world of the electric guitar. The evolution of the electric guitar quartet as a set instrumentation has paralleled a fascinating fusion between the worlds of notated chamber music and the sonic technology traditionally more associated with rock music and studio production. The natural associations with popular music that the instrument conjures also assert themselves powerfully, both on pieces that put that association front and center as well as others that intentionally sidestep it. Over its history as an ensemble, Dither has walked both of these tightropes admirably, advancing a sound that integrates effects in a manner that is both organically raw but refined and precise in terms of ensemble, and advocating for music that embraces a wide range of stylistic inspirations while cultivating an unmistakable group aesthetic that glues the repertoire together.

Potential Differences represents Dither’s signature repertoire – including works by Eve Beglarian, Jascha Narveson, Ted Hearne, Paula Matthusen – which the group has performed extensively over the last ten years. The album also includes their version of James Tenney’s Swell Piece and a work by each member of the quartet – Gyan Riley, James Moore, Taylor Levine, and Josh Lopes – who bring idiosyncratic approaches to the electric guitar’s sound and playing techniques.

Measured in volts, Potential Difference is a term for the difference of electric potential between two points. James Moore explains, “Though it is a technical term that might more directly refer to the electricity going through our guitar pedals and amps, we also like to think of it poetically as a reference to the wide range of voices on this record and the energy that has been produced between them.”

Eve Beglarian writes about her The Garden of Cyrus, “a four-part canon in twelve sections, where each player does faster and faster repeated notes in each section until finally they fall into sustained notes. The original version was electronic, but the excellent guitar quartet Dither asked me to make a four-guitar version.”

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Gyan Riley’s The Tar of Gyu takes its inspiration from the guttural chanting of Gyuto Monks, featuring two guitars imitating these undulating gestures in alternating volume swells, while the other two echo dissonant harmonics. Bell-like harmonics follow and become integrated into the texture, enhancing the ritualistic sensibility of the work.

Paula Matthusen’s but because without this was originally scored for bluegrass quartet and adapted for Dither in 2009, and explores repetition with subtle variation. She writes, “The fully scored piece gradually transforms melodic fragments, creating hockets as the ensemble merges in and out of distinct timbral areas.”

Jascha Narveson focused on idiomatic electric guitar textures in For Ones, and his working titles referring to the featured technique in each movement eventually became the final names. Strummed chords are swept through the EQ filter that is a wah-wah pedal in “The Way One,” a moto perpetuo texture propels the music forward in “The Driving One,” use of the whammy bar and sudden de-tuning characterize “The Warped One,” and a wash of harmonics closes the work in “The Floaty One.”

Inspired by horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, Joshua Lopes’s Mi-Go draws on the sounds of the second Viennese school heard through a King Crimson-esque looking-glass to paint a dense, vaguely unsettling soundscape. Lopes writes that his aim was “convey a certain type of loneliness and existential dread commonly portrayed in Lovecraft’s antagonists,” and the result is a kaleidoscopic piece which highlights Dither’s tight ensemble and evocative sound crafting.

The surrealist poet Paul Éluard’s written depictions of Man Ray drawings was James Moore’s inspiration for his work Mannequin, originally written for an acoustic group of his, The Hands Free. Making extensive use of the e-bow, Moore weaves lines throughout the ensemble that swoop and sigh weightlessly.

Ted Hearne’s pointillistic Candy begins with a simple melody bouncing around the quartet but as the piece evolves the texture gains in intensity. Airy double stops with chorus float above a ground bass midway through the work, before one guitar steps to the fore with disruptive double time material that leads the other guitars on search to rediscover some of the music from earlier in the piece.

In Renegade, Taylor Levine draws on free improvisations he has played with various musicians, recalling some of the techniques and methods of sound production from those sessions in a notated piece. There is a post-punk sensibility to the piece, reminiscent of the days when Tonic and the Knitting Factory were the centers of the downtown scene.

Larry Polansky’s writes this about James Tenney’s Swell Piece: “The postal pieces, written between 1965 and 1971, but actually produced in 1971 (with the help of Alison Knowles and Marie McRoy at Cal. Arts) are a series of ten short works printed on postcards. His explanation of the set is that he hated to write letters, and since he had a number of very short compositions, what could be easier than to make postcards of them.” Swell Piece is a fitting end to a wide ranging album - focusing our ears inward on the fundamental nature of sound. Dither is so adept at carving out a unique sound world for each piece, and here, we are given the opportunity to hear that quality at its most elemental, as long tones emerge and recede with sensitive precision.

-D. Lippel

  • Produced by Dither, Inc.
  • Artwork & design by Emily Weidenhof
  • Recorded by Patrick Higgins at Future-Past Studios, Hudson, NY
  • Mixed by Andrew McKenna Lee at Still Sound Music, Albany, NY
  • Mastered by Philip White, Brooklyn, NY

Dither

Dither, a New York based electric guitar quartet, is dedicated to an eclectic mix of experimental repertoire which spans composed, improvised and electronic music. Formed in 2007, the quartet has performed across the United States and abroad, presenting new commissions, original compositions, multimedia works, and large guitar ensemble pieces. Dither’s members are Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley.

Dither has performed and collaborated with a wide range of artists including Eve Beglarian, Nels Cline, Fred Frith, Mary Halvorson, David Lang, Ikue Mori, Phill Niblock, Lee Ranaldo, Lois V. Vierk, Yo La Tengo, and John Zorn. They have brought their live 13-guitar rendition of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint to The Barbican Center, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, The Ellnora Guitar Festival and WNYC's New Sounds Live. The quartet has also performed at the Guggenheim Museum, the Bang on a Can Marathon, The Performa Biennial, The Amsterdam Electric Guitar Heaven Festival, Hong Kong's Fringe Theater, The Winter Jazz Festival and the Borealis Festival.

Dither produces an annual Extravaganza, a raucous festival of creative music and art, which has been called an "official concert on the edge" by the New Yorker and "the here and now of New York's postclassical music scene" by Time Out New York. The quartet’s self-titled debut album was released on Henceforth Records in 2010 to critical acclaim. Their latest release Dither plays Zorn on Tzadik, featuring the premiere recordings of several of John Zorn's improvisational game pieces, was named one of Rolling Stone’s “top avant albums of 2015.”


Reviews

The New York Times

...Titled “The Dither Extravaganza!” the marathon centers around sets by the quartet, which has a raucously groovy new album out Nov. 1 on New Focus Recordings, featuring sharp-edged works by composers such as Eve Beglarian and Ted Hearne as well as ensemble members themselves.

-William Robin, 10.25.19, The New York Times

The Wall Street Journal

Asked his feelings about the electric guitar, Andrés Segovia complained that amplification “robs the music of its poetry.” But by the time Segovia died, in 1987, that was becoming a minority view. Classical guitarists were using subtle amplification to bolster their concert sound, and composers like Frank Martin, Lukas Foss and Steve Reich were experimenting with electric guitars in chamber settings.

Still, for anyone fond of the electric guitar, classical composers’ early efforts to write for the instrument seemed meek—as if they were composing for the classical guitar, just slightly louder. Scant effort was spent exploring the effects pedals that provided sustain, distortion and kaleidoscopic timbral effects unavailable on the classical model, even though those devices were as central to the electric guitar’s expressive arsenal as piano pedals and organ stops are to those instruments’ palettes.

It took a generation of composer-players who grew up comfortable with both classical forms and rock timbres—composers like Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Tim Brady and Patrick Grant — to usher the electric guitar into the classical fold. Two releases—Mr. Branca’s “The Third
Ascension” (Systems Neutralizers), and “Potential Differences” (New Focus) by the young guitar quartet Dither, both out now—offer an intriguing snapshot of new concert works for electric guitars.

...

The four guitartist-composers in Dither— Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley —are among Mr. Branca’s spiritual heirs, but they take a more formal and expansive approach to their sound and repertory, performing other composers’ works as well as their own.

“Potential Differences” offers nine works by as many composers, and covers a vast stretch of stylistic ground. At the conservative end, Eve Beglarian’s “The Garden of Cyrus,” a transcription of an electronic work, is a four-part canon, played at first with a clean, transparent guitar tone that morphs into a hazy texture with an almost orchestral heft. Paula Matthusen also prefers unmodified timbres in her gently layered “But Because Without This,” although her fascination with the guitar’s bell-like artificial harmonics transforms the ensemble into an otherworldly music box, toward the work’s end.

Jascha Narveson, clearly more committed to the guitar’s rock-influenced lingua franca, uses wah-wah pedals, distortion, whammy-bar note bending, and references to a range of styles from prog to grunge in his four-movement “Ones.” But he develops his ideas with such an appealing expressive logic that it never seems as though he is using these sounds for their show-off potential.

Ted Hearne’s “Candy” is largely a pizzicato study, with pointillistic themes passed seamlessly around the quartet. But the unadorned tones of the opening gradually melt into crunchy distortion, and single line themes grow into thick, rich textures. And James Tenney’s “Swell Piece” explores, at greater length than necessary, a series of pulsating chords.

The Dither players’ works hew closer to Mr. Narveson’s approach, with varying degrees of success. Mr. Levine’s “Renegade” is like some of Mr. Branca’s earliest works, with sheer noise and energy as absolute values, and little more. Mr. Moore’s “Mannequin” ups the ante by using
bowed tones and glissandi within a haunting backdrop, and Mr. Riley, in “The Tar of Gyu,” approximates the vocal growl of the Gyuto monks, within a graceful frame woven of fade-ins, sleek jazz timbres and chordal distortion.

The most striking of the group’s works is Mr. Lopes’s stylistically omnivorous “Mi-Go,” a spirited essay with allusions to Jimi Hendrix’s spacier side, the art-rocker Robert Fripp and, of all things, mid-20th-century Serialism.

It may be some time before electric-guitar ensembles are as plentiful at classical concerts as string quartets. But by creating a repertory with poetry of its own, Glenn Branca, Dither and others are pushing in that direction, and moving the sonic boundaries of classical music in the bargain.

-Allan Kozinn, 11.4.19, The Wall Street Journal

Lucid Culture

The big news about the Dither Guitar Quartet is that Gyan Riley is in the band. He’s the rare scion of a famous western musical legacy (son of iconic minimalist composer Terry Riley) who’s an individualistic artist in his own right. On the ensemble’s new album Potential Differences – streaming at Bandcamp – he makes a good fit with returning members Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes and James Moore. This is the band’s most accessible record to date: fans of psychedelic rock and metal who can handle strange and often troubling tonalies should check it out. Dither are playing the release show at the Frost Theatre at 17 Frost St. in Williamsburg on Oct 27 on a bill that starts at 2 in the afternoon and continues into the night. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but there are a bunch of interesting, individualistic acts on the bill including but not limited to singer Alicia Hall Moran and the Mivos Quartet, sort of a reprise of the New Music Bake Sales in Fort Greene and then Roulette a few years back.

The album’s first track is The Garden of Cyrus, by Eve Beglarian, a 1985 piece pulsing with steady, emphatic echo chords, the group quickly adding polyrhythms that shift in and out of the mix. The variety of timbres, the mix of familiar and odder harmonies and the reverb in the room give it a Sonic Youth vibe.

Riley’s The Tar of Gyu is a strangely shifting blend of buzzy volume-knob swells, delicate toy piano-like phrasing and hardbop. The gently ringing harmonics and rising chromatic menace of Paula Matthusen‘s but because without this provide considerable contrast.

The album’s centerpiece, the four-part Ones, by Jascha Narveson, offers comic relief. The opening segment, The Wah One, is a playfully hypnotic mashup of the intros from the Theme From Shaft and Pink Floyd’s One of These Days. Then there’s the distortedly circling The Driving One, The Warped One with its down-and-up tuning-peg goofiness and finally the clock-chime harmonics of The Floaty One.

The group shift from gritty late 70s Robert Fripp-style riffage to eerie spacerock bubbles, austere resonance, wry hints of Eddie Van Halen and back in Lopes’ Mi-Go. Moore’s Mannequin is a desolate, morosely howling soundscape. Candy, by Ted Hearne, takes awhile to get going but eventually develops coy humor and incisively paired harmonies between the guitars.

Renegade, a Levine composition, sets growling, increasingly dissociative menace and shred over a piledriver beat. The quartet wind up the album with James Tenney’s 1967 dronescsape Swell Piece. Many different flavors; this group rock harder than just about anyone in the avant garde.

-Lucid Culture, 10.21.19

The Rehearsal Studio

Those who have been following this site for some time probably know that I have given a generous amount of attention to the guitar and the diversity of repertoire for that instrument, not only solo but also in chamber settings, many of which consist only of multiple guitars. To some extent this is a product of the “education” I received from attending recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). When I first began to write about the performance of music, SFCM provided an abundance of opportunities to listen to emerging talents, most of which came to emerge through the instruction and encouragement of Sérgio Assad during his time on the SFCM Guitar Faculty.

These days I spend less time at SFCM, but my interest in the guitar as a platform for innovations in both composition and performance has not waned. Today happens to be the release date for the new album Potential Differences on New Focus Recordings, and my interest is still up there. The musicians, however, come from that “other coast.” They are the members of Dither, an electric guitar quartet based in New York. Specifically, they are Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley. Only the last is familiar to me, since I have listened to him play with his father, Terry Riley (in a performance at SFCM).

There are nine compositions on this album. Each member of the quartet is responsible for one of them. In order of appearance on the track listing, they are Riley (“The Tar of Gyu”), Lopes (“Mi-Go”), Moore (“Mannequin”), and Levine (“Renegade”). The last track is the longest, “Swell Piece” by James Tenney; and I must confess that I was drawn to this album because I am much more familiar with Tenney’s work in theory than I am with any of his compositions. Three of the other composers I have encountered on previous occasions, two on recordings of guitar music, Eve Beglarian (“The Garden of Cyrus”) and Paula Matthusen (“but because without this”). My familiarity with Ted Hearne (“Candy”), on the other hand, is through other genres, primarily vocal.

Nevertheless, the encounter that interested me the most on this album was the four-movement suite Ones by Jascha Narveson, a composer previously unfamiliar to me. This amounted to an extended étude in which each movement explored a different aspect of electric guitar sonority. The movement titles are “The Wah One,” “The Driving One,” “The Warped One,” and “The Floaty One;” and they are sufficient to guide the listener through the composer’s explorations.

I was also readily drawn into the Hearne composition. He describes it as follows: “Candy passes a simple melody around the quartet, bouncing from one player to another with seeming ease.” Much of that bouncing involves the sort of intervallic leaps from which a sense of polyphony emerges. To my ears, however, those leaps also recalled the theme of one of Thelonious Monk’s earliest compositions, “Misterioso,” leading me to wonder whether or not Monk was in the back of Hearne’s mind (even if subconsciously) while he was working on this piece.

This, however, raises my one negative impression of this new album. That last paragraph happens to have been based on promotional material I received prior to the release of the album itself. The booklet that accompanies the album says nothing about either the composers or the works they contributed; and the content provided on the Amazon.com Web page is not much more informative. I would hate to think that the members of Dither just want listeners to use these tracks as “background music,” rather than experiences that deserve attentive listening! Even a URL pointing to a Web page with information about both composers and compositions would have been of value to well-intentioned listeners.

-Stephen Smoliar, 11.1.19, The Rehearsal Studio

Midwest Record

Different strokes for different folks. Here’s a record for the rest of us that are intimidated by eggheads enthusing over pots and pans music left wondering what the big deal is. Proving that experimental, electronic music can be outré and still keep it’s edge, this guitar quartet from outer space might not be making music for everybody but if Steve Reich is your idea of a musical gateway drug… Probably MacArthur geniuses of tomorrow, this crew is sure to take you places you’ve only heard in dream. Wild stuff that works.

– Chris Spector, 10.7.19, Midwest Record

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