Theatre Review Print

Minimalist Guitarist Creates Maximum Effect

April 14, 2005 - Ddurham, NC:

There are so many different styles, traditions, methods, and techniques of the guitar that it is a rare musician who is well-versed in more than one particular school of playing. For the most part, accomplished classical guitarists stick to their genre, jazz guitarists live near or around theirs, and rock guitarists do the same. Sometimes an artist may like a particular style but feels constrained by the technique and repertoire. Meet Dominic Frasca, a New Yorker who might be labeled a classical guitarist, but that would apply only to the guitars themselves (before some serious modifications) and to his general technique. As Frasca proudly proclaims, he has been thrown out of some of the finest music schools in the United States. While a student of traditional classical guitar studies at these schools, he discovered that – despite his love of the instrument – this approach wasn't who he was. He eventually found himself at Yale University, where he was heavily influenced in composition by Anthony Davis and Marc Mellits and by guitar compatriot Benjamin Verdery. He eventually found his greatest source of inspiration in the process and ideas of minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

The Triangle Guitar Society threw the dice on a relatively unknown artist whose programming is light years from your standard classical guitar concert, and the group picked a big-time winner. Dominic Frasca appeared in the very staid and formal Nelson Music Room on Duke's East Campus and took the audience on an incredible journey. The setup on stage consisted of two speakers on chairs on the outer edges, a microphone, some sort of small controller on the floor, and a Macintosh laptop perched on a chair. Probably the strangest prop of all was a blue plastic milk crate turned bottom up. What in the world would be done with this? That was answered as soon as Frasca strode onto the stage, shoeless, with a ten-string guitar, black leather pants, and a bad boy attitude. He sat down on the low milk crate, plugged two cables into his guitar, made some adjustments on his computer, and proceeded to blow everyone's mind. It soon became clear that he wasn't just a poor musician who couldn't afford shoes or someone who was making a political or social statement. He simply needed all his toes to adjust the various controls of his Roland mixing board.

To understand Frasca's sound, you need to look at the setup of his guitars. (He uses both six- and ten-strings instruments.) Under the bridge of the guitar is a separate pickup for each string, so the sound and effects for the individual strings can be controlled separately. He also has placed several different pieces of wood in the instruments, to produce varieties of percussive sounds. What he does not use is any type of loops, tape delays, or re-programmed passages. Everything he plays is real-time, believe it or not.

Enough about the equipment! What about the music? Simply stated, the style of composition that was the basis of Frasca's performance is called minimalism. This was, in part, a reaction to the overly cerebral, complex, and very user-unfriendly style of composition that spewed out in the '50s and '60s. It is, well, minimal – a few notes, usually diatonic or modal, repeated in varying patterns. This is a drastically simplified definition, but it serves this writing.... It is a style which can be viewed in a range from mind-numbingly dull and repetitive to the liberation of the essence of music. One of the pieces played was an arrangement of an early work by Philip Glass called "Two Pages." It is truly the essence of this style: five notes are repeated in varying patterns and dynamics for about twenty minutes. I must admit that it was the effects and the varying sounds that Frasca used that sustained interest for me. "Mystical," "trance-like," and "meditative" are words that are often used to describe this style, and I won't argue with that. Near the end of "Two Pages," there began a dotted rhythm variation of the five-note theme, and then the piece abruptly ended. It was as if Glass were saying, "Uh-uh, this isn't what this music is about – I'm shutting it down now."

In watching and listening to Frasca play, it was clear that he is no gimmicky freak just relying on computers and electronics. He possesses a formidable technique, and at times his right hand was simultaneously employing at least three different and distinct functions. I found that the highlight of the evening was a work called "Shattered Glass," a takeoff and composition based on the music of Glass. This is where Frasca displayed his most inventive combination of percussive techniques, other-worldly string settings, and beautifully-nuanced dynamics. This alone would have been worth the price of admission.