Muriel Anderson and Bryan Allen Weave a Spell of Music and Imagery

March 4, 2016

Muriel Anderson has always been one of those rare guitarists who can put so much heart into demanding music that listeners tend to absorb her formidable melodic and technical skills as something like a film soundtrack. You hear the artistry and the creativity and the effort, of course, but the elements blend seamlessly together to create the wonderful experience of being transported into her musical worlds.

But although she already has a kind of cinematic effect on listeners, Anderson found herself yearning to expand the audience experience—to find striking and evocative images to accompany her aural journeys. Enter visual artist Bryan Allen. He initially helped develop the innovative design for her award-winning Nightlight Daylight CD, then started shooting her publicity photos. Somewhere along the line, he also won Anderson’s heart, and the duo set to pooling their creative resources into the interactive, multimedia show, Wonderlust.

Well, what triggered this wacky multimedia extravaganza?

I first had the idea in 2005 to do something with lighting on a CD, and I had been looking for a great visual artist ever since. It wasn’t until 2013 that my friend Phil Keaggy sent me Bryan Allen’s picture, “The Lightning Catchers.” It showed a farmer and his wife catching lightning in a field and putting it in mason jars. I was amazed by Bryan’s work with light, as well as how it seemed to capture my music in a visual form. So I asked him to do the photo artwork for Nightlight Daylight, and it became the first CD to use interactive fiber optics. In the process of doing the artwork, Bryan and I quickly discovered an affinity of the heart—as well as art—and we wanted to be together. So we thought about audio-visual production as a way to share and combine our art in a live context. Wonderlust lets Bryan express his creative spirit as we tour together. You know—not just carry my guitar case!

Was it challenging to cohesively blend your musical vision with Bryan’s imagery?

Not at all. We found that our means of expression work well together. A lot of my music is from all around the world, and the visuals reflect that with a sense of wonder and an adventurous spirit. That’s why we called the show Wonderlust. In the process, we found something different from what other people are doing, and, somehow, we created a more powerful experience for our audience.

Did you score Wonderlust with existing material, or did you compose new works for the show?

Many of the tunes are from Nightlight Daylight, and I composed three new tunes recently: “The Matador,” “The Immigrant,” and “A Fine Pickle.” The last song came about when I discovered an old canister that contained film by and of my grandparents and relatives from 1929. This was during prohibition, and the film shows their vacation to Montreal, Canada, with very funny footage of them staggering out of bars, seeing a zeppelin, and taking a ride in a biplane. I figured that this black and white silent movie needed its own music, so I wrote “A Fine Pickle” for it.

Is the show tightly scripted?

Wonderlust is an interactive and changing show. I leave flexibility to improvise, talk about the tunes, and do one or two vocals. Currently, I’m doing the first half with the imagery and the second half with special guests and interaction with the audience Each half is about 50 minutes to an hour. The Nightlight Daylight CD features guest artists including Victor Wooten, Phil Keaggy, Mark Kibble of Take 6, Danny Gottlieb, Stanley Jordan, and Earl Klugh, so sometimes someone is available to join me for the second half of the show, which makes it great fun for me.

How were the visuals chosen?

We did most of the work over the summer at a little place near the beach on Long Island and on his sailboat. Some of the images are his still photography, some are videos he shot, and some are images that he found. We use whatever works perfectly with the music. The show is always evolving, and Bryan is catching visuals as we tour that will eventually make their way onto the big screen behind my live performance. We will definitely have to go to Japan to catch more visuals for my Japanese tunes.

Once the basic visuals were selected, did you “play through” the show and edit or adapt Bryan’s work more precisely to your music and techniques?

Most of the time, he arranged initial imagery for a piece working with a recording, and then I’d play through it live to see what parts to rearrange, or to find important moments in the music that should be reflected with specific images. He does remarkably well at capturing the essence of the music. We wanted to put together the best group of songs, of course, but we also considered the pace of the set for the total effect of the music and visuals. There was quite a bit of rearranging before we decided on the first incarnation of Wonderlust.

Did you encounter any technical challenges while developing the show?

We bought a drone for the aerial shots, and we had to incorporate green-screen technology for blending visuals together. Multiple layers of video and blending opacities involve levels of challenge, as well. Also, there was no commercially available frame for the large size of screen we wanted, so Bryan designed and built one that would a support the screen with a suspension system. It breaks down to fit into a standard suitcase—at a weight of less than 50 pounds—to check on airplanes.

Do you feel that a multimedia experience is something more solo performers should embrace—both to expand their art and to entice people to their concerts?

For us, Wonderlust was a path we took to create art together, but I think it’s a great idea to look at the bigger picture. People are looking for an experience. It doesn’t need to be multimedia, but it has to be something unique that only you can give them.

What guitars are involved in the Wonderlust performances?

Currently, I’m playing a 20-string Mike Doolin harp guitar and a flamenco guitar designed by either Tierra Negra or Camps. Sometimes, I’ll pick up a Morris or a handmade steel-string guitar for a couple of tunes. The harp guitar is interesting because it gives me a full range of tone, from the low nylon sub basses to the steel string super trebles.

What about amplification?

I use a combination of a direct line and a condenser mic to get the best tone. I have D-Tar or Barbera pickups installed in my various instruments, but even with these fine-quality pickups, the signal needs to run through a parametric EQ to pull down frequencies such as 800Hz that are boosted by the under-saddle pickups. If fingering noise is exaggerated through the sound system, I’ll bring down the high mids and highs a little, and have the soundman boost 20kHz—which is above the pitch of any fingernail clicks—to bring back the air and openness of the sound.

Did you develop any new techniques for the show?

No, but I put out a Truefire course called Muriel Anderson’s 50 Right-Hand Techniques You Must Know in 2014, and I think I use nearly all of them in the course of the evening. I like to share what I’ve found in this great exploration of music on my YouTube channel and in my Truefire.com courses. I also offer pdf files of sheet music and tab for most of the tunes on my website.

When you’re in “show mode,” how do you typically like to engage your fans?

It’s an interaction with the audience. Sometimes, I share something very deep from the heart, and sometimes humor is the key. People come expecting a lot of technique, but that’s there only because the technique is a tool to create the music I want to play. I want to be sure that every person in the audience leaves with a smile, as well as the feeling that the past two hours have enhanced the quality of his or her life. And I like to have fun and be entertained, too!

Is it hard to keep your chops at a high level when you’re touring? Do you find time to practice?

I’m on the road quite a bit now, so all the performing keeps my hands warm. However, it’s a continual balancing act to find time to create, learn new things, do stretching to keep from over exerting myself, and explore and find new experiences while on the road. All of those things find their way back into my music in one way or another.

What is the most important thing that solo-acoustic performers must keep in mind in order to entertain, engage, and develop an audience?

We touched on this a little earlier. Find the thing you do that is unique, and that will enhance the quality of someone’s life so much that they would actually be happy to pay for it.

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