The Art Of Manipulation
Producer and guitarist David Torn’s hypnotic harmonic shifts have made him an in-demand sonic manipulator
for the last two decades. Now this self-confessed “functioning psychotic” is about to return to live
performance with saxophonist Tim Berne. By David Davies
Listen to David Bowie’s last two albums, Heathen and Reality, and you’ll hear him,
embedded in those dense, dusky mixes. Bent notes, sudden harmonic shifts, unexpected detours – David Torn refuses to play anything straight. But perhaps that’s not surprising for a guitarist/producer who once proclaimed that “if I play something that’s too pretty, I feel compelled to go after it with razorblades.”
Over two decades, his wonky sonics have been applied to countless albums by the more left-field of pop artists, including David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mark Isham. Then, after three busy years of studio work, he returned to the live stage as a special guest with eclectically-minded alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s Science Friction Band. Little more than a week before the trip across the Atlantic, Torn is wondering what he has let himself in for. “I’m just looking through what has been notated,” he says, “and this is a very dense piece of work – and, to be honest, I’m not coming up to the bar! Like most of Tim’s writing, it’s a combination of very complex, through-composed elements and an aspect of improvisation. But we won’t actually play it until the day before the first show, so I can safely say that this is the biggest challenge I’ve faced for a long time.”
The tour would find Torn switching between guitar and assorted processors, samplers and other weapons of sonic disfigurement. This purveyor of “arrogant ambient music”, however, recognises no distinction between these roles. “I think of it all as playing,” I don’t distinguish between playing, improvising and sampling. It’s all the same thing to me.” This live excursion was also a brave step for a player who admits to being “somewhat socially reclusive” and lives in a particularly remote part of upstate New York. The home studio revolution and the ability to send freshly-minted music to anywhere in the world via ISDN have been a boon for Torn, who describes himself at one point as “a guy who just lives in the woods and works on music everyday”.
Torn’s own wide-ranging solo work has necessarily been the province of small labels, but his next album – due to be released in autumn 2004 – finds him on jazz stalwart ECM. Having now dispensed with the Splattercell pseudonym, this own-name project will combine Torn’s more recent passion for orchestral writing with an unexpected “air of Bollywood”, along with with his more characteristic sonic flourishes. Devotees should rest assured, however, that those Warp-friendly instincts are still present and correct. Oval, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin remain near the top of Torn’s listening list, although film composer Thomas Newman and some out-of-print Paul Bley records have been helping to push him into a fresh mindset.
Although still energised by the “intense communication” of some studio work, Torn is most at ease shaping and reshaping his music at home, out in the middle of nowhere, quietly indulging that outsider sensibility. “I’m basically a functioning psychotic,” he laughs. “I’ve ended up exactly as I said I would 15 years ago.”
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