In his self-reflective 1980 essay, “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music,” the celebrated experimental musician Henry Flynt describes his work as an attempt to do “for hillbilly music what Ornette Coleman did for jazz.” That is, to be sure, a tall claim. But Flynt was trying to articulate a vision in which the practitioners of what he called ethnic music, fluent in “a musical language which embodies the tradition of experience of autochthonous communities,” intensify their craft into high art. Flynt sketched out a strange, global canon that included Ornette, alongside Bo Diddley and Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Pandit Pran Nath, Ram Narayan (one might throw John Fahey in here), embedded in traditional forms that they both renewed and subverted, or “refracted through an iconoclastic sensibility,” as Flynt put it.
There’s something quaintly modernist about Flynt’s vision of singular musical autochthons, as he called them, marshalling the cultural resources of deep traditions against the sterility of both pop commercialism and the “academic tone-play” of post-Cage western classical music. I’m not sure his distinctions hold up in a thoroughly hybridized and postmodern world of Tuareg musicians ripping out electrified desert blues in the western Sahara or the psychedelia Molam of the Thai working classes or the space-age Arabic surf rock of Omar Khorshid or the ashram tapes of Alice Coltrane. Like it or not, fusions and mutations rule the roost. We are immeasurably richer for it.
I thought of Henry Flynt when I first heard the exquisite sonic maelstrom of Turner Williams, Jr.’s excellent new album Briars on a Dewdrop. Like Flynt, the Birmingham-born Williams is a native of the American south; and like Flynt, Williams found himself ensconced in the weird musical undergrounds of New York City, where he played alongside the likes of noiseniks Guardian Alien and the mind-expanding guitarists of Elkhorn. And like Flynt, Williams’s music transmutes electrified American folk and blues forms into a kind of back-porch raga. But in the contours of these transmutations, Williams is a genuinely singular figure.
Turner Williams’s instrument of choice is the shahi baaja— a kind of amplified typewriter zither, which uses metal keys to alter the pitches of its strings, already a collision of east and west, archaic and industrial. Run through a vast arsenal of effects pedals, the entire rig gets downright cybernetic. The actions of strumming, bowing, typing, pressing and depressing pedals both keeps the human form perpetually in motion and creates an extraordinary sound, which, once flanged and delayed and pitch-bent and overdriven, threatens to turn into pure electricity. This is workingman’s transhumanism.
Williams’s first solo record under his own name, Briars on a Dewdrop, was recorded in a single session at Jason Meagher’s legendary Black Dirt Studios in upstate New York, just before Williams decamped for his wife’s family home in Marseilles, where he has lived since the onset of the pandemic. It is comprised of three improvisations, live with no overdubs. Williams played his shahi baaja set-ups, while Meagher blended the direct signal output with the amplifier and room sounds to craft a truly alien mix. The first short track, “Droplets” sounds like a Civil War ditty as interpreted by extra-terrestrials, a simple, recurring plucked and plaintive melody, doubled and distorted by the instrument’s drone strings. But the heart of the album is the lengthy, middle track, “Briars,” which sounds like an old Basho number being uploaded into the singularity. The baaja sounds like a lonesome old guitar, but its tones keep phasing and disappearing into pure energy. American primitive futurism, let’s say. Before long the organic and familiar elements have all been burned away, leaving only Metal Machine Music buzz. The twenty-minute final track, “On a Dewdrop,” is the most directly reminiscent of Flynt (or even, Tony Conrad) because here Williams bows the baaja with the nylon-string gaz. If you think, You Are My Everlovin’/Celestial Power, you are in the right neighborhood, at least initially. But this too evolves, and before long, “On a Dewdrop” has transformed into insectoid psychedelia—a swarming, buzzing, terrifying bad trip of a track. It is profoundly unsettling in the best possible way. Williams’ songs have a way of devouring themselves.
In an interview not long ago, the expatriate Williams proclaimed of the deep south of his birth, “I love Sweet Home Alabama as long as I don’t live there.” But the man who used to perform under the peripatetic moniker Ramble Tamble never comes off as a jaded cosmopolitan, the citizen of nowhere in particular, but rather as a conscientious mover through various little somewheres. All of it adheres in Williams’s startlingly original music. Perhaps this is the real fulfilment of Flynt’s vision for an avant-garde ethnic music, not an artist tethered to tradition, but one trying to piece together the fragments of the world as they find them. | b sirota
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