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.
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King of Cups
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
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.http://vanstiefel.com
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
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