Van Stiefel: Spirits

, composer


Composer, guitarist, and electronic musician Van Stiefel releases his second recording with New Focus, Spirits, a collection of his own performances of layered compositions developed in his home recording studio. It is a snapshot of a composer utilizing all the tools available to him in isolation to craft a deeply personal and direct statement. 


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 57:21
01King of Cups
King of Cups
03Memory Jug
Memory Jug
07Pink Cloud
Pink Cloud
10Ghost Flare
Ghost Flare
12Jewel Tree
Jewel Tree

Van Stiefel's earlier New Focus release (fcr115 Solaris) highlighted his notated works for electric guitar that are meant to be played with a classical guitar technique, exploring the fragility of tactile dynamic and timbral shadings on an instrument whose sound is filtered through the intermediary mechanism of amplification. Spirits contains music that Stiefel composed in his own home recording environment, exploring a range of production strategies, effects, and electronic processing. The result is stylistically wide ranging and expressively compelling, displaying a side of Stiefel's compositional voice that is unmitigated by the conventions of presenting a score to a separate performer.

"I’m lucky that over the years a lot of great guitar players have performed or recorded my music, but with Spirits I have endeavored to compose, perform, and produce all the tracks. As a child I loved the studio-instrumental albums of layered guitar by legends like Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Glen Campbell, and these are remembered here in my own introspective and personally spiritual way. Those albums were often a series of vignettes, each tune suggesting a particular location, mood, or flavor. This album turns that form into something akin to journal entries that hint at secrets, idiosyncrasies, and personal rituals.

In King of Cups, a lap-slide melody is accompanied by an electric guitar track much cooked by custom processing, pedals, and re-amping. For Memory Jug and Pink Cloud, acoustic guitar samples recorded in an oddball tuning are reordered along with other computer-generated sounds and samples into backing tracks. Memory Jug is named for the three-dimensional collage technique involving little objects and talismans embedded to the surface of a jug, memorializing the dead and providing personal items for a journey to the spirit world. An optimistic lead in Pink Cloud is set against a stormier backing track, implying a darker reality than the lead is willing to admit. Longer acoustic samples make for a spare duet with electric guitar in Ghost Flare, named for that artifact of filming in sunlight where concentric circles of light expand and shift diagonally across the frame like thought bubbles.

Cutting and pasting fragments to build a new story also influenced how a series of electric guitar solos were composed. Interspersed throughout the album, these brief snapshots of a state or quality are fragmented and have little repetition (Solace, Acquiescence, Consequence, Clairvoyance, Luminescence, and Severance). Like aphorisms, they are points of no return: effects, outcomes, and conclusions without a story. For Clairvoyance, I made an animation using John Conway’s Game of Life as a point of departure for an abstract drawing fantasy.

In contrast, another group of pieces (Jewel Tree, Spirits, Ground and Harbor) unfold “in their original time” as realized processes. Jewel Tree is a duet for electric guitars, one part using a tremolo technique to generate a glittery surface for an otherwise tumultuous and passionate musical narrative. In Spirits, sustained tones trigger varying tremolos that haunt a polyphonic melody with patterns that play with pacing.

Processed piano samples in Harbor create a rhythm that is neither mechanical nor organic but somehow both to my mind. Harmony projects emotion onto Harbor’s varied, though indifferent, rhythm. Meanwhile long, sustained guitar tones measure both the harmony and the rhythm. The piece makes me think of how captivating vistas are unchanged by the emotional states we bring to them; we self-soothe somehow by viewing a vast space too large to control or fully take in.

The album closes with Ground for five guitars. I think of it as a kind of resolute epilogue. To me, the simple clarity of its form and timbre lifts a veil that enfolds the other pieces."

– Van Stiefel

Van Stiefel, guitar and production

Recorded at Silvertone Studios, Ardmore, PA

Engineer: Alfred Goodrich

Mastered by: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY

Cover art by Caroline Lathan Stiefel, to whom these pieces are dedicated

Special thanks to Lew Ledyard

Van Stiefel

Composer-guitarist Van Stiefel has collaborated with many leading guitarists including Sergio Sorrentino, Benjamin Verdery, Eliot Fisk, Daniel Lippel, Bryce Dessner, Steve Mackey, and the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet. “Beyond space and time, deceiving in its simplicity” (BigThink) his music has synthesized classical forms and techniques with electric guitar, digital, and interactive technologies. Noted performances include those by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), PLOrk, Ron Gallo, the Nash Ensemble, Thamyris, Macon Symphony, Nurit Pacht, Amanda Miller, David Dorfman, and Orchestra Sinfonica Carlo Coccia. Featured performances at festivals and venues include: Festival de Musica Contemporanea de La Habana, Kimmel Center, Lagonegra International Guitar Festival, EMPAC Filament Festival, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, New York Guitar Festival, Società del Quartteto di Vercelli, TEDx Phoenixville, and the Yale Guitar Extravaganza. Stiefel’s music has been supported by the Augustine Foundation, the Georgia Council for the Arts, Mid-Atlantic Arts Council, Met-Life Composer Connections, and the American Composers' Forum. Recordings available on Mode, Innova, and New Focus labels. He is a professor of music composition at the Wells School of Music of West Chester University of Pennsylvania.



The WholeNote

Renowned contemporary guitarist and composer Van Stiefel set out on a mission to thoroughly compose, perform and record his own album from top to bottom; his latest release is the worthy result of that endeavour. Taking inspiration from favourites of his such as Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell, Stiefel puts his own twist on the concept of the studio-instrumental album by expertly using a recording and editing technique called “layered guitar.” The record is a journey through moments, thoughts and experiences in the guitarist’s life through a fascinating and immersive soundscape of sonorous snippets.

Stiefel describes the pieces as being almost like “journal entries that hint at secrets, idiosyncrasies, and personal rituals.” Each tune is completely different from the last, calling forth a mood or image into the listener’s mind. King of Cups begins the album with a slightly country-flavoured piece over which a haunting processed melody is overlayed. Memory Jug is a unique and explorative piece with its striking dissonance and computer-generated sounds in the background creating a futuristic and robotic tune. Acquiescence – as well as a few other pieces – captivate due to the technique of “cutting and pasting” fragments of melody to create a new whole. This is an album that would be a great fit for anyone looking to expand their auditory palette.

— Kati Kiilaspea, 10.28.2021



For his second outing on New Focus Recordings, this time on its Panoramic sub-label, Van Stiefel was inspired by the layered guitar instrumental albums of Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Glen Campbell. In citing the latter two, one could be excused for thinking Spirits might reflect some kind of country-related quality, but that's hardly the case. Stiefel has instead used their recordings as a springboard for his own idiosyncratic take on the solo guitar album, which includes a liberal application of sampling, processing, and electronics. It's as personal as a project could possibly be.

Like his earlier Solaris release, Spirits is rich in texture and timbre, and its tactile dimension is especially pronounced when almost every sound originates from guitar. Stiefel possesses considerable command of the instrument, but Spirits isn't about virtuosic display as generally understood; instead, the nearly hour-long release documents a musician pursuing multiple directions and using his technical know-how in service to that. That he was able to do that in the comfort of a home recording environment also accounts for the personalized feel of the recording. To that end, his own characterization of the album's fourteen pieces as “journal entries” is fitting.

Different approaches were adopted for the pieces, some the product of cut-and-paste methods and others combining backdrops constructed from samples and guitar with real-time playing at the forefront. Not surprisingly, it's the latter group that registers more as spontaneous expressions when that live component's involved. Though Spirits downplays any direct association with those aforementioned forerunners, “King of Cups” does introduce a folk-country element via lap-slide playing, though the sounds accompanying its twang are processed textures.

Contemplative pieces such as “Solace,” “Acquiescence,” “Consequence,” and “Severance” have the feel of jazz guitar reveries, despite their having been assembled from fragments. Whereas a ghostlier quality seeps into the title track through its use of tremolo effects and ethereal sustain, the tapestry “Ground” unfolds with grace and clarity, even if five guitars were used for its construction. For the the backing track of “Memory Jug,” Stiefel stitched together samples of acoustic guitar recorded in an “oddball tuning” (his term), which he then paired with real-time electric musings, the result more akin to Eugene Chadbourne, say, than Larry Carlton.

As guitar-centric as Spirits is, samples broaden its sound in places. “Harbor,” for example, individuates itself by placing electric guitar over a base of processed piano samples, the effect ostensibly turning the piece into an imaginary duet. In other cases of convincing sleight-of-hand, “Ghost Flare” could pass for an improvisation by guitarists Kevin Kastning and Mark Wingfield, the former sporting acoustic and the latter electric, while “Jewel Tree” plays like a duet for electric guitars, with one tremolo-saturated.

Stiefel's a professor of music composition at the Wells School of Music of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, but Spirits isn't a dry academic exercise, however much it's informed by experimental practice. It's an imaginative and engaging take on the solo guitar genre, and the playfulness he brings to much of it bolsters its appeal. Its relaxed, explorative vibe and introspective tone also make it easy to warm up to.

— Ron Schepper, 9.30.2021


Avant Music News

Guitarist/composer Van Stiefel’s Spirits is an album of music for multitracked guitar inspired by early experiments with overdubbing by guitarists Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Glen Campbell. The techniques Stiefel used to construct his tracks may be similar to these other guitarists’ efforts, but the sounds are contemporary, varied, and entirely his own.

King of Cups opens the album with a languid slide melody over a shimmering foundation, and is quickly followed up by Solace, the first of several shorter tracks apparently assembled from fragments of solo guitar recordings. Memory Jug contains layers electric guitar over a gamelan-like foundation of detuned acoustic guitar and computer-generated sounds. On Harbor, processed piano in stuttering rhythms underlies a spare guitar melody. The introspective Ghost Flare puts electric over acoustic guitar for a moody, ECM-ish, sound.

A fine album of sensitively constructed music.

— Daniel Barbiero, 8.31.2021


Take Effect

A composer and guitarist who pays very specific attention to his craft, Van Stiefel tips his hat to legends like Glen Campbell, Les Paul, and Chet Atkins on this instrumental and expertly layered affair that showcases his inimitable vision.

“King Of Cups” starts the listen with a dreamy lap slide melody amid warm pedal manipulation as plenty of atmosphere is present, and “Solace” follows with 2 minutes of subdued beauty that uses space and sophistication with much skill.

Closer to the halfway point, “Spirits” glides with mystery and intimacy that’s both sublime and awe inspiring, while “Pink Cloud” recruits a percussive quality into the dark and alluring climate. “Ghost Flare”, a particularly interesting track, then mixes longer acoustic samples with the meticulous electric guitar for a unique duet.

Near to the end, “Jewel Tree” offers a hypnotic landscape of tremolo techniques in the electric guitar duet, and “Ground” exits the listen and showcases 5 guitars utilized in fascinating, timeless ways.

With songs as long at 11 minutes and as short as less than 2 minutes, there’s much diversity to be found here, as Stiefel brings something distinctive to each composition, including computer generated sounds, piano samples and no shortage of harmony and rhythm that make for a well spent hour of listening.

— Tom Haugen, 9.15.2021


Vital Weekly

As far as I understand, Van Stiefel is a composer for the guitar and his works are performed by others. With 'Spirits' he wanted to do an album himself, playing his compositions. An album in the tradition of Les Paul, Chet Aitkens and Glen Campbell; a studio album of layered guitar pieces. I am playing this with much interest and an open mind, but at the same time, I am not too sure about this album. It is not about the quality of the music, which is very good, but the problem is with me and (probably) Vital Weekly. I get some of the more improvised pieces here, in which Van Stiefel uses weird tunings and where he plays the guitar 'differently', yet always recognizable to be the guitar. But those pieces are in a minority on this album. In most other pieces, the music seems to be much more conventional, melodic strumming and plucking of strings. Unless, of course, there are conventions broken that I had not realized were conventions at all. That might very well be possible. This is an album of modern music, but it's hard to say what belongs between the words 'modern' and 'music'; classical? Jazz? Improvisation? The lengthy text reads about sampling (I understand this to be loop stations), and piano samples (in 'Harbor', the only piece to have these, and also one of those pieces with an improvised feeling) and effects, but whatever he uses, Van Stiefel keeps all delightfully civilized. There is no distortion, no noise and such, just melodic playing of guitar, or rather guitars, in somewhat sweetness and sometimes more dramatic places. It is all quite good, but as said, here at Vital Weekly this seems a bit out of place.

— Frans de Waard, 8.25.2021



Electric guitar wiz Stiefel throws a lot of names into his liner notes for this album of multilayered guitar pieces - Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell - but I would have to add Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno into the mix, thinking of some of the "country and western" tracks on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, or some of Lanois' pedal steel explorations. This often very chill but dimensional album also slots neatly with recent releases from Corntuth and Jeffrey Silverstein, making me think one of the spirits evoked here is the zeitgeist. But no matter; these intricate pieces, weaving electric guitar, lap steel, piano, and electronics in seamless fashion, can stand fully on their own and will enrich your universe.

— Jeremy Shatan, 9.18.2021

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