Music Review: Spectral Blues (Alex Lubet)

Reviewed by John Bartley

In making this debut album, Alex Lubet sets before himself the task of realizing a full musical experience using a solo instrument, unaccompanied.

In the 1700's, J.S. Bach created the highly-acclaimed "Sonatas and Partitas", for unaccompanied violin. Writing melodies from dance-styles of Europe at the time, Bach created the effect of multiple parts by alternating between voices – much as a flying hummingbird appears to have its wings in two different places at once. The outcome is a meditative work that brings out the best (or the worst) of solo performance, and requires great rigor to perform.

"Spectral Blues" is a different type of meditation, a different continuum, one might say. Musical expression is achieved primarily through the use of a wide variation in sound textures and timbre. And the cultural influence here is non-European; Eastern, with elements of American jazz.

Lubet has a unique, idiosyncratic way of playing, derived in part from a need for compensatory adaptation of his right arm following an injury. The result is an impressive, individualistic style comprised of a number of exceptional executional techniques. "Tapping", or hitting the fingerboard with the left hand, can be used to resonate the string above and below the fret, making a chord on a single string. Harmonics are employed widely, expanding the range of pitches and varying their overtone timbre. And Lubet's right hand produces unusual effects, by turns plaintive, percussive, strident, even jarring.

This versatility is enhanced by the specific instrument chosen: a steel-stringed acoustic guitar. With no studio editing other than minor reverb, Lubet's guitar brings enormous clarity, as well as an impressive dynamic range, to the recording.

In this music, there is no great melodic or harmonic puzzle for the listener, in a traditional Western sense. Lubet must have believed Woody Guthrie's adage that anyone using more than 3 chords is "showing off". In the context of this album, the musical psychology of formal histrionics would only be irrelevant, because the intent here is to get free of some of the strictures of formal music in order to ruminate on the visceral nature of tonal expression. The multitextured, multilayered coloristic performance demands a different type of attention, opening an alternate type of mind.

And in this connection, anyone expecting the constant momentum of a monotonous drum track will be sorely disappointed: We are not looking for that type of catharsis here. Because this album is a contemplation rather than a compilation. It is a meditation on the nature of music, and human perception of it. And each sound is allowed to live out the arc of its existence, in its own time.

Lubet likens his music to the European Spectralist composers, who analyzed complex overtones and then used mathematical models to generate music; except that Lubet does it intuitively, impulsively, simply by improvising on his guitar. Kindred would be to walk out on any given day and hear the church bells, with their dual message of harmony and dissonance. Or wind chimes. Yes, they are playing simple songs, and yes, the sound waves, if analyzed, would be quite complex. Lubet takes this message and weaves it into an odyssey through the forest of special acoustic effects, subtle echoes, sympathetic resonations.

This attitude is not limited to experience of externals. If we pay attention, we have personal moments when our own private world begets an internal sound experience –call it a hallucination. Elsewhere I can talk about intense or hypo-awareness, and that too carries its own value. There is also an area of the psyche between the so-named "conscious" and "unconscious". I cite personal instances: Sometimes, when waking to the sound of certain ventilating fans, I will hear approximately a loud popping sound that represents the divide between waking and sleeping. In another, more musical example, there are moments when I am in semi-slumber and I hear a sudden distinct ring in rapid fifths that is so intense and jarring that it wakes me up.

Regardless of these vagaries, music must take place within time. Therefore, Lubet organizes his album into two suites. The first is a bouquet of nine pieces entitled "Reliquary Dances." Lubet created these dances out of material that was originally intended to accompany other players in a group collaboration that aborted prematurely; hence the grief-borne term "reliquary" explains that he has "saved" the material as cherished remains.

The first and last of these dances are thematically the same, and they frame the other seven. Lubet says that the second one is a "tribute" to Chopin as a country blues paraphrase of the "Funeral March", an appropriate choice, topically. It seemed to me that the third dance sounded like Irving Berlin's "I'll be Loving You, Always", though if it's just a flight of fancy on my part I'm sure I will be forgiven. I'm not going to explore the possible context of that idea.

The second suite of the album, entitle "Eight Ouds", is a pun on the African Lute, or Oud, and the European "etude". Unlike the first suite, the music in this one was always intended for unaccompanied solo performance. The liner notes say that it is a tribute to the blues. In keeping with the functionality of an etude, each piece focuses on a specific facet of Lubet's unusual, individualistic performance technique.

The special technique with creative possibilities is partially a result of Lubet's adaptation to the injury in his right arm. Such blessings in disguise may be more widespread than we suspect. Positives that can result when an artist, by nature flexible, adapts to misfortune. Herb Alpert (who, like it or not, owns a corner of every American's cultural consciousness), credits his own success to his lack of competitiveness in "normal" channels.

In making this album, Lubet reaches outside the norm and into a non-standard realm of music as art-object, comparable with visionary experience of sound in a poetic mood. The immediacy of the experience resists being hemmed in by time-signatures and harmonic theory, and so is akin to free jazz, a genre familiar to Lubet in past collaborations, but new, for him, in unaccompanied solo recording. It is well-worth stepping out of our hackneyed comfort-zones to hear these musical inventions.


John Bartley has worked in computer software and in musical performance. He currently lives in Tacoma, Washington.