1.10.2010

Christopher Willits


Bob Burnett: I don't know if it's an attempt to reverse the reaction I'm having to the cold winter weather but I've been listening to guitar innovator Christopher Willits a lot these past few weeks. The short description is this San Francisco-based guitarist/multi-media artist merges traditional guitar improvisation with computer software thereby opening up a wide palette of options be they technical, stylistic, textural, rhythmic--whatever. I have him in several forms of release so I figured I walk through a few and hopefully offer something that sticks. There are two solo albums I listen to regularly: Folding and the Tea and Pollen. Folding and the Tea is from 2002 and introduced me to his "folding" guitar sound --guitar lines and harmonies are blended into each other using custom-designed software. The outcome is an album that occasionally borders on the melodic yet intricate styles familiar to my ears from Canterbury-era progressive music. Sometimes in the midst of listening I think I hear a cluster of notes or melodies vaguely reminiscent in a distant way to National Health for example. Other moments offer small, swirling delicate music. I say delicate because they are subtle, stirring--almost in the realm of observing the aleatory of nature with blips, pulses, swirls and static like pops. Willits received his masters at Mills College and studied with Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros so that fact alone deserves a Wayne's World "we're not worthy" bow from me. As I listen to Folding and the Tea (and Pollen for that matter) I am drawn to the work of other composer/teachers from Mills--notably David Behrman as well as Maggi Payne's work on the Lovely Music label.

2003's Pollen is a further exploration into folding guitar sounds with a slightly more symphonic approach--not that it gets stringy or large--it just has a bit more sonic range at times than the intimate Folding and the Tea.

In previous c60 posts I've mentioned my utter fascination about his duet with Taylor Deupree, Listening Garden--an environmental soundscape designed to play in the tea spaces at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media. (in Yamaguchi, Japan) Willits and Deupree brought together their improvisational playing with environmental recordings from the actual tea spaces with a goal of mirroring and heightening the mood of the space where the piece plays. I don't know how it sounds in the Center but I find great pleasure in listening to the five part composition as it brings together field recordings and minimal composition. Boomkat said: "'Listening Garden is like reclining into a gorgeous pillow of sound, relaxing without being audio wallpaper and absorbing without resorting to clich├ęd digital trickery."

Finally-and I know I'm not touching on several of his other works--Willits just released the 3 cut Live on Earth Vol.2 made up of three different recordings from June 2009 of the composition "Beams". I recently graciously received a free download via his facebook friends site. He made it available to 2000+ people. For me, "Beams" is a long, slowly evolving tone improvisation hearkening back to the innovations Robert Fripp made with Frippertronics such as "Wind on the Water" with Brian Eno on Evening Star or "Water Music" on Exposure. I'm finding my cursor drifting back to it on iTunes throughout the day for another listen. Seems pretty habit-forming at this point.

As mentioned there are many other releases and possibilities to explore (in fact here's an old c60 write-up of Willits+Sakamoto). I only offer up a few. Christopher Willits' work is very rewarding and I highly suggest digging into some of it yourself.

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