Dennis Rea’s Metamorphic Rock

February 3, 2012

Although he has been involved with numerous projects in recent years, Seattle- based guitarist and composer Dennis Rea is currently focused on Moraine, a quintet that showcases his multifaceted musical approach. “Moraine is flexible enough to be a vehicle for all of my many musical interests,” says Rea. “That could be jazz in one piece, fairly heavy rock in another—and we could also veer into adaptive traditional Asian music pieces for part of the set.” That eclecticism is evidenced on the band’s latest release, Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARFest 2010 [MoonJune], produced by Steve Fisk of Nirvana and Soundgarden fame.

The “adaptive traditional Asian music pieces” Rea refers to are documented on his 2010 release, Views From Chicheng Precipice, which contains remarkable arrangements of traditional music from China and other East Asian countries, where he spent several years studying, performing, and adapting a variety of instrumental techniques to guitar. “It was a very interesting exercise because I had to determine how I could suggest some of the gestures typical of that music,” says Rea. “One cliché about Asian music is that it is heavily dependent on pentatonic scales, and while it isn’t that simple, a very large portion of the music is based on those wider intervals— so rock and blues guitarists will find an obvious commonality.

“I experimented with numerous instruments, but the ones that most influenced my own playing were the horizontal zithers, such as the Chinese guzheng. They have arched bridges and are played with a lot of expressive note bending achieved by pushing down on the strings—and you can simulate some of those effects with finger vibrato and by subtle use of the whammy bar. For example, rather than striking a note and pushing down on the bar, I might strike a note when the bar is already depressed and let it rise. Another consideration is pick position and angle. In traditional East Asian orchestras the stringed instruments don’t extend into the bass register. Picking in specific ways close to the bridge will allow you to come closer to achieving those sharper sorts of sounds.”

Although nearly all of the strategies Rea employed when emulating Asian sounds involved his hands rather than electronics, he did occasionally use a harmonizer. “Open harmonies such as perfect fourths and fifths can work remarkably well with pentatonic scales, ” he says. “But that raises the question of whether employing harmony is a valid approach to this type of music, which is not based on functional harmonies as Western music is. What sometimes substitutes for harmony is a sort of counterpoint of phrases, which can be antiphonal, where one section of the ensemble answers what the other section is doing. By using harmony I made a radical break with tradition.”

Harmonizer notwithstanding, currently Rea gets most of his sounds with just a Godin LGXT guitar, a Zoom G7.1ut multieffects pedal, and a Rivera Clubster amplifier. “There was a time when I was a very effectsheavy player,” he says, “but I’m relying more and more on generating tone with my fingers. And when I do use effects, I create my own presets. Playing traditional East Asian music gave me a deeper appreciation of lyricism and how much you can communicate using simple means.”

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