While Playing Guitar: Symphony #1 was not conceived as such, and thus lacks much of the cohesiveness you would expect, it is indeed, arguably, a symphony. There are some rough spots, but the overall picture is one of virtuosic performance, risky and thrillingly academic composition, and promising insights into fresh compositional possibilities. Brady’s guitar is intended as the centerpiece and the ensemble’s modifications toward this end are the gimmick, but I found the guitar to be probably the least interesting individual element. As a booster of the other instruments, it does an excellent job. When it’s expected to stand alone, it often fails to grab attention as required. This may be a question of my familiarity with the electric guitar versus the relative unfamiliarity of what I think was Brady’s intended audience — of my power to be underwhelmed by a theoretically overwhelming instrument, versus their palpable fear of it. Really, though, it doesn’t matter; the matter scarcely hinders this excellent music, as long as you don’t think about that particular aspect too hard. (Hint: leave the liner notes in the case where they belong.)
Playing Guitar…’s first movement opens with a wash of guitar noise, displaying the power of the ensemble’s secret weapon and one of Brady’s innovations: a sampler, with elements as simple as single electric guitar tones and as complex as legions of electric guitars making thunderous noise, mapped to its keyboard. This is a powerful muscle, but it’s used sparely, as an accent and underpinning and resonance more than driving force. The tone is set. Like the most intense results of the minimalist movement meeting with traditional compositional ideas, the structures are highly repetitive from second to second, but differ wildly from minute to minute. It feels like the crystalline form of jazz: all the seemingly coincidental brilliance and immediacy of a Coltrane performance without half of the tom-foolery.
The second movement speaks more to the minimalist movement at its more radical stages: a horn drones sadly in the foreground while all manner of ambient strangeness flutters and rumbles behind it. The seeming aimlessness of these moments is counterbalanced perfectly by the intensity with which they are performed — by the tension every second of horn exudes. The ensemble keeps you so tense, you’ll hardly notice that the sound is building, building, building, until suddenly the whole construct is shimmering. Brady’s guitar is shepherding the elements together and the strings are hard to keep up with. For one perfect second, the whole mess comes together — and then, even more suddenly than the moment arrived, it is gone. Only the sampler’s ambient drones and whines remain.
The third movement is an ill-advised sampler solo. It has little form and hardly any reason, accomplishing nothing the other movements won’t do better, but it’s fun to listen to. Thankfully, the fourth movement displays the sort of intensity we expect in the climax of a great, cerebral action film, but with none of the ham-fisted emotional manipulation. It begins as a particularly combustive traditional composition and transforms into the most thrilling moments you’ll hear in the entire symphony, unraveling melodically even as it doubles, triples, quadruples in size. It is spectacular.
This leads to another more traditionally minimalist movement, which takes the elements left over from the previous one and stretches them far past the point of comfort. Again, that remarkable tension. Some of the instruments in the ensemble have been subtly modified with electronic amplification so as to work better with Brady’s guitar, and you’ll hear the most obvious benefit here.
After a wank-fest guitar solo, we come to the closing movement. Nothing about this one stands out in particular, as it is, appropriately, the synthesis of all the best ideas from the previous movements. By now, comparisons to Godspeed You! Black Emperor are inevitable, but even with his minimalist leadings, Brady doesn’t fuck around nearly as much on his way to the official explosion of sound and musical fury. In a perfect world, the record would stop here.
Unfortunately, an additional composition is included as a supplement to the symphony, though it doesn’t come close to matching its luster. “Frame 1 — Resonance” is painfully sophomoric, making heavy-handed use of a hesitant piano layered with electric guitar. The gimmick is that the electric guitar is supposed to behave as a sort of amp for the piano, matching it note for note. This is treated as a profound realization requiring a lot of space and, indeed, nearly thirteen minutes to absorb. When the guitar stops matching the piano and instead attempts desperate new tricks to accent it, the entire exercise becomes pointless and unfathomable, with the already incoherent piano material falling apart almost completely. Even if this was an improvised piece, it wasn’t a success.
Otherwise, though, Playing Guitar… is your opportunity to hear seventeen professionals playing the hell out of a few brilliant pieces and a couple of wanky ones. To not buy it, if you have the money on hand now or any time in the near future, is to deprive yourself of a valuable and singular experience.