If one guitar is good and two guitars are better, 150 guitarists should be awesome. Canadian guitarist/composer Tim Brady proved as much when he brought together the latter for a performance at L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal in Montreal, Canada back on February 24, 2019.
Before launching his “guit-army,” Brady and his guitar quartet, Instruments of Happiness, deftly performed three extracts from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” Then came the main event, 150 guitarists playing Brady’s composition “As Many Strings As Possible, Playing: Symphony #9.” [sic] While the composer and 15 other professional guitarists were onstage, facing the audience sitting in the pews, five other groups of roughly 25-28 guitarists each were distributed around the attendees. All six groups had a conductor, synchronized with the others by a click track in his or her headphones.
Even when everyone played at once, the sound was not as loud as you might imagine (the amps were small, ranging 5-22-watts), but it was epic. “It’s not the same as one instrument only louder,” says Brady. “It is like the string section in an orchestra; you hear a sound that is bigger than the 25 guitars in that section.”
Brady is not the first to exploit the overtones produced by dozens of guitars playing at once. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham earlier employed large multiples of electrics in their compositions.
“When I came up with the first big piece in 2015, I didn’t think of the link with Glen and Rhys,” says Brady. “I just had the idea to do a piece for 100 guitars for the 100th anniversary of Les Paul’s birth. There are big differences between their work and mine. Their sonic and cultural model is a huge rock band, whereas the sound world I come from is jazz, chamber, and orchestral music. Our conceptualization of the instrument is also very different. I worry about balancing registers and working with orchestrations, trying to differentiate the layers. They’re working more with the effect of a mass of instruments.”
Brady accomplishes his goal by, among other things, “spatializing the guitars.” Rather than placing them all together on stage, like Branca and Chatham, he distributes them around the performance space. “Guitars only have three and three-quarters octaves,” he explains. “If we don’t have some way of defining layers, it’s just going to end up sounding like a big midrange honk.”
Even in a city like Montreal with five universities offering music education, gathering 150 guitarists capable of following a complex score would be difficult. Brady circumvents the issue by composing parts simple enough for, what he calls, “community guitarists” to handle, whatever their skill level.
“People have asked if we have a group of beginners, a group of intermediates, and a group of high-level amateurs,” says Brady. “No, I write all the community group parts the same because it would be a logistical nightmare to do level testing and assign groups. Also, one thing people like about this project is sitting next to a guitarist they’ve never met, who is sometimes a better player, sometimes worse. It creates a sense of conviviality. And finally, when you get an easy gesture repeated over 125 times with slight degrees of imperfection, the sonic result is absolutely astounding.”
Minimal skill and gear requirements let players from age 7 to age 70 participate. All they need is a guitar, an amp, knowledge of basic bar chords, and to be able to play a simple scale slowly. Reading music is optional.
“I have my professional group up front, but in each of the five surround sound groups there are only four professional guitarists,” says Brady “They are called ‘guitarist facilitators’ and are there to make the section sound solid by playing in time, in tempo, and playing the right notes. They also help the non-professional musicians with questions like, ‘How do you make an A-minor chord or play a G major scale.’’’
Not surprising in this YouTube instruction era, video plays a part in the preparation. “We produce an instructional video where I play every note of every part,” says Brady. “For example, I play a few measures, and then my video editor puts in a window that reads: Section 4, measures 32 to 43. It’s a very slow process, but a lot of the amateurs have said it’s the only way to learn.”
One more requirement is that, for the most part, players are instructed to play on the middle pickup of three pickup instruments and the middle and bridge combined for two pickup models.
“Every once in a while, for the scratchy effects, I tell them to go to the bridge pickup,” he says. “With my pro group, when I want a warm sound we go to the neck pickup, but we found 150 guitars on the neck pickup too muffled.”
Brady began experimenting with overdubbing guitars in 1972, but it was a last-minute commission in 2002 that really got him thinking about what multiple guitars could do, and it became the basis of his vocabulary for these works. “They wanted an hour-long piece for 20 guitars in 11 days,” he recalls. “It was a decent paycheck, so I said okay. I just plugged my guitar into my DAW and didn’t have time to think. I had to generate music quickly. That piece was called, ‘20 Quarter Inch Jacks’.”
After a decade of creating multiple guitar pieces, the composer no longer needs to record all the parts to know how they will sound. “Now, it’s all on paper,” he says. “I can hear everything. The second movement of ‘Symphony #9,’ which is pitch-based music for the 16 pro players, I wrote out in Sibelius. For the more timbral stuff, when we’re using alternative ways of hitting the guitar, I don’t need to do mock-ups. At this point, if I tell 25 guitar players to scratch their strings in a certain way, I can be pretty sure about the resulting effect.”
Though the 16 pro players were using some pedals, the community players were not. Nevertheless, their sound was a complex mix of dirty and clean. “Usually, eight of the pros had distortion pedals on and eight were clean,” Brady explains. “It was this big, beefy sound, but with articulation due to the clean guitars. For the Bach piece, I had quite a bit of distortion on. Jonathan Barriault had a bit of overdrive on his Fulltone OCD. Francis Brunet-Turcotte, who was playing the bass part, was totally clean on his Tele. I think Simon Duchesne, who is playing a Les Paul, used a tiny bit of overdrive. I thought slightly different sounds would help differentiate the four voices.
“Many of the community players’ small amps are driven hard enough that we don’t need to ask them to have distortion pedals. If you are going through a 5-watt amp, trying to play a hall that seats 2,200 people, it’s going to distort. Some have higher wattage, cleaner amps, like a Fender Blues Junior. Practically speaking, pedals would mean more wires, more stuff to plug in, and more stuff to go wrong. We know some of their amps are going to overdrive anyway, so you end up getting a fair bit of hair on the note in each ensemble. It comes together in this orchestral sound.”
At one point during the symphony, it sounded like bass guitar tones coming from one of the community groups, but no pedals were used in the creation of this low end. “Group Four all tuned their low E down to C for that movement,” Brady reveals “I suggested they change their low E string to a .049 or .052 just for this piece, because that would to be more stable than an .046. But one reason I went with a low C is that when they hit it hard it invariably goes a little out of tune. The group doesn’t actually sound out of tune—it just sounds massive. Basically, it’s the world’s most expensive chorus pedal.” Another sonic effect is also man (and woman) made. “I have this thing I call ‘The Spider,’ where you take two hands and walk on the neck like two spiders,” says Brady.
In the beginning, economics figured into Brady’s use of amateur players. But after doing this for 13 years the composer has made some discoveries. “When I did the first project using community players it was to save money, but I quickly realized there is zero artistic compromise,” he says. “This is exactly the music I want to hear. I don’t wish it were all professionals. In a big space, the subtle imperfection these players bring gets magnified and focused. It is no longer imperfection, but rather sonic diversity. If I wanted these micro-variations from pros I would have to spend hours putting them in the score. The community players do it inherently, so I use that as a strength, rather than a weakness.
“I also realized it was about something much bigger. It’s quite moving when someone says, ‘I am a lawyer who has been playing guitar 40 years and I never imagined I could play in a big concert like this. This is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.’”