Reaching For Transcendence
Inherent in every composition that’s made a dent in folk and traditional music is a sort of gestation period. And while each song has its own unique trajectory, there’s a future when it’ll be twisted and wrenched into something new. The eventual familiarity at the end of each one of those transformations puts a listener in touch with both granular music developments and the past—a source of common history.
“There’re many stories of songs being sung in multiple versions in multiple locations,” guitarist Marisa Anderson said about the development of some well-known songs this spring, over Zoom from her home in Portland, Oregon. “Finally, song publishing came along and somebody grabbed it and put their stamp on it, and put it in a book and that became the [definitive version]. Before that, we were floating around with all different kinds of stuff.”
For as long as there’s been something referred to as traditional and folk music, there’ve been provocateurs, performers informed of and weaned on the past. They’re not just experimenting with the music and the form but angling to find new uses for what they’ve come into contact with. Fiddler Henry Flynt, when not protesting the tyranny of fine-art institutions, turned his instrument into a droning dagger, slicing through 1960s orthodoxy to convince listeners of alternate definitions of beauty. Exploratory guitarist John Fahey used found-sound recordings to accompany his work, deepening the context of his largely acoustic catalog. And beginning in the early ’90s, Pelt twisted vernacular old-time music into a psychedelic miasma, seemingly turning the secrets of Virginia’s music history into an evolving tapestry tough enough for endless expansion.
Though polished and packaged in a more serene 21st-century wrapping, the minimalist quartet SUSS seems to be set up like a country band, ready for bar gigs and maybe a cover of a Marshall Tucker song or two. Initially, some members of the ensemble convened after attending the Rhode Island School of Design during the 1980s and played new-wavey pop tunes under the auspices of Rubber Rodeo. The troupe featured a pedal-steel guitar as its lead solo voice, and its first single included a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Decades later, on its three studio albums, SUSS has burrowed deep into simplicity, not grabbing at the grandiosity of psychedelic realization, but instead creating a steady calm to be beamed out for, among other things, meditative purposes. On “Rain,” from the band’s 2018 debut, Ghost Box, an unsettling drone announces the tune’s intention. It breathes in and out for almost a minute, before a single strummed chord echoes and pedal-steel cuts through the ambient setting. Instead of a song, a feeling emerges. There’s a hint of New Age shimmer to some of the troupe’s work, but nothing solipsistic enough to tie it to a Windham Hill aesthetic. And every once in a while, the band even builds toward something that embraces a sturdy backbeat, like “Sundowner,” the closer to 2019’s High Line. (Both albums are currently available on Northern Spy.)
On Lost Futures, Anderson and William Tyler adhere to tradition, but still tinker with orthodoxy and create new sonic expectations for their two-guitar configuration. The album, set for release through Thrill Jockey on August 27, opens with the calm, electric hum of “News About Heaven,” then moves through additional somber works and takes a few experimental detours. The collaboration also distills Anderson’s interests and talents, leaving listeners with a creative statement of purpose, one that’s predicated on the expansion of musical consciousness as much as a belief in the purity of America’s recorded past.
“It would have been really easy to make a very beautiful record with William,” Anderson began.
You know, the ways that our playing styles mesh and our ideas mesh, it could have been just a beautiful record. But I wanted a little bit more of a challenge in there. And I wanted more facets, more colors. I wanted to do some things that I wouldn’t necessarily do on a solo record, and I don’t know that he would have done. [‘Something Will Come’], to me, is just frustration; it’s just like, COVID-19. It started with a riff during the COVID-19 year: I would just do that riff until some sort of thing was reached inside of me.
“Something Will Come,” a krautrock-referencing departure about halfway through the record, electrifies the proceedings, while reveling in the nervous pulsations of the pandemic year. It’s perhaps a bit of auditory therapy, spliced into the album’s bucolic premise. Anderson—who in the past has made use of instrumentation outside the strictures of American folk music—and Tyler layer acoustic and electric guitar, electric sitar, and requinto, thickening the tune’s repetition. Overtones bounce, ricochet, and clash, and polyrhythms interlock. Anderson called the song “aggressive and chaotic.”
Her Traditional and Public Domain Songs, which initially was released in 2013 and then reissued four years later on Mississippi Records, wades even further into the past, the guitarist’s wavering vibrato infusing interpretations of well-worn compositions with a ghostly erudition. But in addition to the work being something of a reassessment of recorded history, the collection hits on another facet of music that binds culture and civilizations together. “Those songs are pathways that people have chosen for transcendence,” Anderson said. “And I will hold to that.”
“This music is about transcendence in one way or another, whether it’s through the lyric or through the melody or through the experience of being in a room with people and that music happening. One way or another, to me, it’s all about transcendence.”
She balks at the idea that houses of worship are the only places where such connections can be made, pointing to live performances of secular music; sweaty, heaving masses of people singing along to guitar bands. But with the fracturing of 21st-century media consumption, it’s tough to figure if there’s something as familiar as “This Land is Your Land” or “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” once were to Americans.
“Particularly on [Traditional and Public Domain Songs], the actual sounds themselves were a combination of experimental and traditional. I was using just guitars—acoustic, electric—but I was double-amping and doing these really analog kinds of sound experiments,” Anderson said.
A lot of the sounds that I’m drawn to are sounds that you might find in traditional music—like older sounds, organic sounds, analog sounds. The sounds of strings and lots of transients, whole bands around one mic. That kind of sound is always what has drawn me in. And on that record, I kind of wanted to expose my hand, to be like, here’s some source material; this is the stuff that I make stuff out of. A lot of [my] songs will start with just a little recurring melody loop that comes often from a traditional source.
With a shared understanding of those traditional sources, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” or “Amazing Grace,” which Anderson included on Songs, there’s an ecstasy that exists across religions and continents, whether worshippers are singing in tongues or genuflecting in unison. And while the guitarist is right to assert that even with a splintering of pop and underground scenes, there’s still collective catharsis to be found in familiarity, we’ve perhaps lost some of that magic during the pandemic year.
But like Flynt, Fahey, Pelt, and SUSS, Anderson still functions as an undeterred seeker, her mind on fire, drawing on derivations of America’s recorded past to pry open the future. Everyone, music makers or otherwise, might be striving for the same revelation. But luckily, there seem to be countless paths to explore in service of that single, lofty goal.
“I’m always reaching for transcendence. I feel like that’s as good a goal as any for music making and as good a reason as any for any human activity, really. How do we get outside of ourselves and how do we connect with each other in that outside-of-ourselves place?” Anderson asked. “Whether it’s meditation or taking drugs or surfing or playing music, these are all things that humans choose to do because it feels a certain way, puts us in touch with a source.”