Hangin 12 With Bruce Arnold

The last-minute cancellation of a recording session is a downer for New York City’s Bruce Arnold, but it’s a godsend for me, as I’m finally presented with an opportunity to corner the itinerant guitarist/composer/educator for an interview. It’s not that the affable Arnold is cagey about chatting up his many projects—teaching composition and jazz guitar at New York University and directing its Summer Guitar Intensive program, authoring instructional books and DVDs detailing his pioneering merger of jazz improvisation and 12-tone harmony, performing and recording CDs of his own compositions, re-interpreting 20th Century classical music with his ensemble Spooky Actions, and initiating a steady series of diversified duet projects with the likes of Mike Miller, Leni Stern, and Jane Getter—it’s just that he’s so busy actually doing all of them!

Is there a unifying factor in all your artistic and educational pursuits?

Essentially, all my projects involve compositional improvisation. More specifically, I’m working to bridge the gap between 12-tone music and jazz improvisation. John Cage tried to get jazz musicians to work with him, and they just played bebop licks over his music. I realized that in order for this type of hybrid to have meaning, the improvisers had to derive their lines from the harmonic system of the composition they are playing.

Can you explain how you use this approach in your own music?

Somebody once called me the “12-tone Charlie Christian” because we both emphasize chord tones in our soloing. That’s all you’re doing really. The difference is that my chords aren’t traditional tertian harmony—they’re four symmetrical three-note groupings, called trichords, derived from dividing up the 12-tone system using each note once. You cycle through the four trichords one at a time, and use only the notes of each trichord to improvise with. [Arnold is slated to give a more in-depth 12-tone jazz guitar primer in an upcoming “Woodshed” lesson.]

What are some misconceptions people have about 12-tone music?

For one, that it’s atonal and sounds just like a bunch of random unrelated notes. Twelve-tone music can have a tonic center, and it can sound very structured and melodic.

You play a Stratocaster into an old Fender tube amp, but you process your guitar via a laptop computer.

I use an object-oriented programming environment called SuperCollider. You have to type real-time commands into it, but it gives you many options. It can be an effects processor, a sound generator, or a guitar synthesizer, and it offers the ability to loop stuff and process it afterward—which is pretty unusual. You can also feed the loop into an oscillator, which will randomly divide it up and send waves of sound back at you. I interface my guitar direct into SuperCollider using an RME Multiface that has eight inputs and eight outputs. Live, I have the SuperCollider going into a Fender amp to beef up the sound a little bit. I could conceivably have eight different amps set up for different parts of the guitar’s sound, but it hasn’t gotten that ridiculous—yet!