AMN Reviews: “The Happiness Handbook” – The Instruments of Happiness, Tim Brady [Starkland ST-232]

ST-232 Instruments of Happiness_The Happiness Handbook_Cover_HiRes

In the 20th century the electric guitar was invented and then proceeded to globally dominate popular music for decades. But the electric guitar is still somewhat of an outsider in the world of contemporary composition. Many conservatories and university music schools still do not allow students to select the electric guitar as their principal instrument of study. But despite this situation we now have several generations of highly trained electric guitarists possessing both the skills and the interest in playing something other than popular music.

In the last forty years or so a new chamber format has appeared all over the planet – the electric guitar quartet. The electric guitar quartet offers contemporary composers a chamber ensemble with an enormous sonic palette, an instrument familiar to all kinds of listeners, a globally increasing number of skilled instrumentalists and no defined “style” or accepted common practice. All of this has led to an increase in new works for the electric guitar. The Sheer Pluck Database of Contemporary Guitar Music  currently contains more than six thousand entries of works specifically for or that include the electric guitar.

Still much of the interest from composers in writing for the electric guitar has largely stemmed from the efforts of a small group of proponents. A leader among these proponents is composer/guitarist Tim Brady. Brady has spent more than thirty years composing and commissioning new works, organizing concerts and performing new works for the electric guitar.  Whether it be for the opera, the orchestra or the electric guitar quartet, Tim Brady is a composer whose compositional eclecticism synthesizes the sounds of classical, folk, rock, jazz, noise, improvisation, and electronics into his own personal sound world.

“The Happiness Handbook” is the second album on Starkland from the electric guitar quartet configuration of Tim Brady’s ensemble known as “The Instruments of Happiness”. The album features premiere recordings of compositions from Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell, Emily Hall and Tim Brady. Each of the composers explore many of the unique sonic abilities of the electric guitar and often reference popular electric guitar styles and techniques. Style wise the compositions generally fall into the new tonality and post minimalist aesthetics; making the album ideal for a wide range of audiences.

“The Instruments of Happiness” quartet members Marc-Oliver Lamontagne, Jonathan Barriault, Simon Duchesne and Tim Brady have playing skills that are deep and wide.  The quartet is extremely well versed in everything from classical chamber music to popular music to extended techniques and experimental music including electronic effects and pedals. As an ensemble they are tight, lyrical and energetic.  They play with a wide range of dynamics and control and are able to move effortlessly from an ensemble of highly independent voices to performing as one large instrument.

“The Happiness Handbook” opens with Scott Godin’s “Martlandia” which explores swelling chords and intricately articulated themes with shades of progressive rock. Tim Brady’s “Equal But Opposite Reaction” combines standard and extended techniques with electronics into a wonderful contrapuntal kaleidoscope that covers a lot of ground.

Jordon Nobles “Deep Field” would make a great sci fi soundtrack with its swells of sounds that roll by as it moves slowly through deep space. It’s as if a flamenco and blues gesture were combined and intertwined; then slowed down a few hundred times while slowly twisting and turning to reveal itself.  A wonderful piece!  Maxime McKinley’s “Reflects de Francesca Woodman” begins with harmonics bouncing and refracting off of one another that eventually builds up into jagged variations on a bluesy theme only to finds its way back into a refractive meditative state. Gordon Fitzell’s “Bomb Crater Garden” is an aggressive mix of clear harmonics and scattered noisy sounds. It beautifully utilizes extended techniques and electronics to slowly build up and then melt away into a kind of noisy slide guitar bird song.  The album ends with Emily Hall’s “The Happiness Handbook”. A suite of five short movements that covers a lot of ground as it celebrates the sheer joy of playing the electric guitar.

“The Happiness Handbook” is a wonderful album. Many AMN readers will enjoy this album, especially guitarists. I think the album should have appeal not just with the minimalist/post minimalist, new music and experimental guitar crowds. “The Happiness Handbook” may be an ideal gateway recording to introduce progressive rock and fusion listeners to contemporary electric chamber music.  So, give it a listen!

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

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