Steve Tibbetts

the fall of us all

What is about the music of Steve Tibbetts that’s had me listening so intently for the last six months? Here’s the first of what may or may not be an occasional series of posts on the Minnesota-born guitarist.

Tibbetts has shot from a personal oblivion to the fourth most listened to artist on my Last.fm charts, racing past the likes of Ornette, King Tubby, Rhythm & Sound and Jon Hassell. It even looks like he’s going to pass Miles Davis sometime soon – at time of writing I’ll only need to listen to four or five more albums to exceed Miles’ track count of 2,484. I know that I bought a couple of his later CDs a few years ago and absolutely failed to engage with them, my ears just weren’t open at the time. Continuing with the stats, among the millions of last.fm subscribers, Tibbetts has garnered a mere 4,172 listeners and 55,942 plays, and there are only two small images of him available on the site. In that last regard, he’s almost approaching Charley Patton photographic status in his lack of visible web presence.

Last.fm has of course only been monitoring my listening habits since the end of 2004, but I’m still struck by the intensity of my attention. From time to time over the last 6+ months, I’ve tried to analyse this fascination, but been struck by my desire to avoid close examination. I’ve had the sense of willing surrender to the music, of allowing myself to be swept along by its ebb and flow. Even now I remain a little reluctant to clarify my experience, but as the frequency of my attention wanes a little, it feels like a good point to look back.

Steve Tibbetts has recorded only a handful of albums as leader since his debut in 1977. He’s responsible for a mere eight records, with an additional three as collaborations: two with the Tibetan nun Choying Drolma (Chö, 1999, and Selwa, 2004) and one, Å, with the Norwegian hardanger fiddle player Knut Hamre. At this point in our rich musical history, it’s very difficult to resist describing artists as x meets y with a dash of z. It’s a dull and unimaginative shorthand that resists the much more fulfilling experience of listening without preconception.

His work can be divided into four main periods, the early experimentalism of the eponymous debut and sophomore album Yr (1976-80); the first four albums for ECM (1981-88) which begin with the bewitching stillness of Northern Song and navigate a span of alternating calmness and fire with Safe Journey, Exploded View and Big Map Idea; the aforementioned collaborations and finally, hopefully only for the moment, the two later works of eastern fire, The Fall Of Us All and A Man About A Horse (1994, 2002).

For much of his career, he’s worked only with the percussionist Marc Anderson (apart from occasional wordless vocal contributions). His music is the result of a deep layering of individually recorded tracks. The pace of the music changes within each track any number of times, racing forward, tumbling like quicksilver one moment, the next pausing in delicate contemplation. I used the word flow earlier and the sensation of Tibbetts’s music as a sophisticated torrent of ever-changing form is the closest I can come to an appropriate description. There’s a striking subtlety, dare I say in every moment of Tibbetts’ music. It’s difficult not to have a sense of his listening intensely to the music’s form unfolding as he creates it, this despite the music’s existence as a studio creation.

Tibbetts’ sound is distinctly his own. I know very little about the technology of guitars, but at times there’s a metal-stringed attack that, without sounding the same, reminds me of the alien excitement of Ralph Towner’s 12 string contribution to The Moors on Weather Report’s I Sing The Body Electric. At other times there’s an undertow of the American folk, the wonder of the little-acknowledged Cielo e Terra by Al Di Meola (Northern Song is the point of reference), the thrill of fire of Tibbetts himself, the sense of a world merging and metamorphosing Americana into new and unexpected forms. Here I am adding x to y – and not finding z of course…

As I write this, I’m listening to Big Map Idea and I’m struck afresh by its sparseness, its sense of space and silence. It is haunting in its beauty – beauty’s an essential element of Tibbetts’ music. There’s also a sense of discovering new feelings that can only be delineated in music where any words outside of a deeper poetry would seem too clumsy, too lacking in fine grain.

So, for any Tibbetts neophyte reading this, what should you listen to first? It’s difficult to make such a recommendation, but try either Big Map Idea or Exploded View and if you like what you hear, move on to The Fall Of Us All and then to one of the discs with Chöying Drolma.

It’s been six years since Tibbetts’ last release, Selwa. I hope that means there’ll be a new recording to explore soon. However, as with other pillars of my listening Scott Walker and Kraftwerk (whose oeuvres are similarly rich and sparse), if there isn’t his 11 albums to date will keep me stimulated, moved and intrigued for a long time to come. It would be such an honour to contribute a cover image if he does release another record – I like the multiple layer photographs used on Å, The Fall Of Us All and Northern Song.

Update: My wish has come true: a mere fortnight or so after writing this piece, news of a long overdue new album, Natural Causes! My joy is tempered just a little by my BBC editor’s refusal to commission a review. If nowhere else, one will appear here in due course.

Further reading:

Steve Tibbetts with Chöying Drolma and Marc Anderson. Image by Mel Andringa (click on her image to visit her Flickr page)

Steve Tibbetts with Chöying Drolma and Marc Anderson. Image by Mel Andringa (click on her image to visit her Flickr page)


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