From time to time a recording is released that fills up a bag of possibilities regarding a particular instrument, like a pirate returning from sea with loads of swag. Italian guitarist Marco Cappelli's Yun Mu is such an album, presenting the solo guitar compositions of five composers of American, Italian, and Korean descent. The Yankees John Zorn and Steve Reich are the "big names" in the program but since their pieces feature exactly what would be expected from them, listeners eager for the delightful surprise may find the extended pieces of Junghae Lee and Giorgio Tedde to be most valuable amongst the loot. Reich's "Electric Counterpoint," in three sections, is a predictable approach to the guitar for this composer, involving his usual repetition and slowly evolving change. The guitar sounds like a harp and the results could hardly be described as unpleasant. Nonetheless, both this and the Zorn performance suffer from the effects of too much music being packed into one CD. For those who don't enjoy his type of music, 14 minutes of Reich will of course be 13 and a half too long, while on the other plectrum-wielding hand those who do may wish this event had taken up the entire album.
Ditto the Zorn, ten selections from the famed "The Book of Heads" presented over just a bit more than 13 minutes. Guitarists who undertake "The Book of Heads" seem to need help from someone who has already played the piece in order to figure out many aspects of the score. The guitarist Adam Perlmutter, who was able to ace an ear-training test carried out over the phone by the Boston Conservatory of Music, sought out this writer, for whom the piece was actually composed in the first place. Following his decision to do excerpts from "The Book of Heads" as part of his graduate recital, Perlmutter had to limp over to my house to find out, for example, how one plays a guitar with a piece of Styrofoam. Cappelli's advisor was Marc Ribot, who recorded a full CD of "The Book of Heads" for Zorn's own Tzadik label. It should be pointed out that the latter release took up a full-length CD, unlike Cappelli's excerpts, but was still a collection of excerpts nonetheless. The entire piece has yet to be recorded, which is a problem. (No, I am not volunteering!) Listening to these excerpts is not like hearing the entire piece any more than watching a video of Italian director Lucio Fulci's horror film trailers from throughout his career would be like actually seeing these complete films. The comparison is really quite valid and should be understandable to both an Italian musician and a fan of horror flicks such as Zorn. Just as the trailers focus on presenting the most shocking effects or makeup sequences from the films, "The Book of Heads" in a series of excerpts becomes a similar series of jarring, contrasting events. Cappelli's recording is much more rich and dynamic than the Tzadik release, which at times has kind of a muffled, introverted feel to it. Continuing the horror analogy, Ribot is more like Fulci, ironically, while Cappelli's recording brings to mind the better-budgeted effects sequences in Tobe Hooper's original Poltergeist. Fans of Zorn's cut-and-paste, action-packed music will no doubt enjoy what is here, finding it in a similar mode to what they have heard before, a situation that is acceptable but not really that representative of the piece itself. "The Book of Heads," given a more extensive treatment, should have the possibility of sounding like something more than just a "typical" Zorn composition.
Claudio Lugo's "La Fabrica de Carillon-Nana" is the shortest piece on the record and suffers from its placement between the Zorn and the Reich. Five random listeners didn't even notice the piece was there; the sixth thought it was simply part of the Reich. There may be depth to the Lugo to be fathomed only on further dives into the piece, yet the final 22 minutes or so of the album need no such repeat visits in order to establish brilliance. Lee's "Yun Mu2" and Tedde's "Napoletap" come from different compositional perspectives but share a deep sense of intensity. As the music unfolds, it is also wonderful that the relative lack of fame of these composers gives the listener no clues about what to expect stylistically. In fact, it even seems that style itself is not part of the statement these composers are making. "Napoletap" presents, among other things, a transformation of the guitar into a percussive pattern straight out of Neapolitan folk music -- but without the "look at me!" pretension of many avant-garde composers who utilize folk forms. While both the Tedde and Lee works process the guitar with electronics, the former composer provides plenty of opportunity for Cappelli to play the guitar beautifully in a modern classical context. The guitarist's superb tone, touch, and genuine feel for all this material should receive the highest praises. Without him, all these composers would just be waving pieces of paper around. Fans of avant-garde guitar should keep on eye on this guy; his future releases will no doubt be of great interest.