David Torn: Sonic Textures Over Six Strings

Originally published in our Innovative Issue

By Serge Michiels

Photos by Tanya Ghosh

If you’re the typical rock guitar hero enthusiast, you’ve probably never heard of David Torn. On the other hand, his echo drenched liquid soundscapes, sample-minced stuttering effects, and any other twisted sounds he could get out of a stringed instrument have virally invaded our soundscape in large widths; from original soundtracks in movies to major pop icons, he has put his indelible stamp on music for almost 20 years now.

Torn made serious statements with his breakthrough solo recordings (for example: Tripping Over God, 1995) that definitely established a new style in instrumental guitar music, thereby turning him into the most influential guitarist of the digital era.
Let me get to the point here: in my opinion, Mr. Torn is not only a guitar player that can cover this wide spectrum of emotion and style—all while keeping a very distinctive sound and phrasing—he has also built unlikely bridges between Robert Johnson, Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Pierre Boulez, and Amon Tobin in order to reinvent a new musical world .

Did I mention that no other artist has had such impact on me as Torn has—both musically and in the way I apprehend music? Now, thanks to Guitar Connoisseur magazine, I have the honor of presenting this interview to you (and I can tell you that I do not hide my genuine pleasure here).

Guitar Connoisseur: Let’s get started with a classic question: how and when did you start becoming interested in music and in the guitar in particular?

David Torn: My parents, especially my mom, required me to take music lessons—first drums and piano, then (flamenco) guitar (after she’d bought me a cheap Kay “classical” guitar). After a few months on guitar, and showing some desire to play (and an aptitude for it), my mother switched my lessons to a fantastic modern-jazz teacher, Frank Basile. At around the same time I began the guitar, my older sister and I were also required (by our parents) to attend Leonard Bernstein’s Music for Young Composers course. While my sister often “skipped-out” from that course (for example, she did not actually attend—though my parents were unaware of that), I did attend. I was hypnotized and transfixed by Lenny’s knowledge and personal presence. Later in life—in my 20’s—I studied with John Abercrombie, whom I credit deeply for his teaching, his inspiration, his personal support, and for whom I def do not lay-the-blame for what I continue to become.

GC: Like Frank Zappa, it seems that you’re more of a composer that happens to play guitar, rather than a typical guitar player; tell us about your approach to guitar as a composer’s tool?

DT: Except for maybe a very brief period of time, I don’t believe I’ve ever successfully divorced my love for playing an instrument from my love for music—for what music is and for what it means to me. In fact, as I get older, the many things about music that can be “separated” from each other—for study, for practice, for theoretical discussions, etc.—often simply seem like distractions from the work itself—from the “whole” of it, from my own immersion in music’s malleable, chimeric gestalt. So then improvisation, guitar playing, sound creation and manipulation, composition, arrangement, mixing, theory, and practice, etc. do not appear to me as isolated areas within which I might somehow musically thrive, other than during very brief periods. For me, it’s all one thing. For example, if I want to practice something technical, I’ll write for myself something that stretches the area that needs practice, but which truly feels as if it needed writing. Or, if I want to write a piece of music, or come up with some musically thematic elements, I’m likely to take a long walk or a long drive.

GC: Technology has been an integrated part of your sound and music for more than twenty years now; do you remember what the trigger was that led you to take this digital techno-path?

DT: Yes, it actually goes back to the ’70’s (or, earlier!) for me. So, you see, my dad was an electronics engineer and designer. He was on the small team that developed the 7025 (mil) tube for the American military’s radar systems; he designed some very beautiful stereo systems for a high-end audio company in the ’60’s, etc. Electronics abounded in my early life: a garage filled with tubes, power supplies, stereo system prototypes, early “micro” computers, small plane parts, Alfa Romeo parts, etc. I just became enamored with sound, music, it’s shape and shaping, its ability to represent deep, internal things that I could not verbalize. I couldn’t shake this stuff—listening to so much music: our ethnic music, Motown, rock, jazz, flamenco, classical, and Broadway music with my very musical mom. In my early electric guitaring days, I began experimenting with mechanical means of sound exploration: odd physical techniques (some of which I still employ), mechanical and magnetic feedback loops, etc. As soon as I could afford to experiment with consumer items (for example new guitars, new sonic modifiers, etc.) I did so. (I believe I bought one of the first ARP Avatar guitar-synths). One of my good childhood friends became one of lexicon corporation’s first audio-device design engineers; simultaneously, after hearing composer/performer/conceptualist Terry Riley’s music, I’d been attempting to loop and play with long delays. When my friend finished the Lexicon Prime Time, he brought me one. That sealed the deal for manipulating spatial, harmonic, and periodic elements of music for me. Though, to be fair, I couldn’t afford to purchase my own dedicated looping device until approximately 1981 or so. My musical ideal might be represented by an encompassing personal integration of relatively disparate techniques, mechanics, idioms, etc.—everything needs to seem (let’s say, “ergonomically”) to work seamlessly together and also be available to my own readiness to make music, in order for me to be as fully absorbed as possible in those musical moments. Finally, the manipulation of the guitar—mechanically and electronically, as well as harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically—continues to fulfill some need I feel to continuously develop my playing towards being both fundamentally orchestral in character and providing of further musical and spatial dimension.

GC: I had always felt that your music had a mystical dimension to it; could you tell us a little bit of this side of your work?

DT: Hmmm, maybe…it’s more than enough for me, though, that those very internalized sensibilities are sometimes felt/perceived by you and other folks.
It is, in fact, the dimensions of life that sit firmly at the absolute core of my motivation to make music. If I could write (or, even think clearly/linearly [in words]) about such stuff, I probably would not be making music. I make music (of all kinds, apparently) in order to try to convey the ephemera of my potentially strange experience and shifting perspective, to try to shape them into a kind of conduit/vehicle for travel through this rather brief life on a funny, bitter, sweet, sad, enraging, and rapturous little planet.

GC: You have extended your sound palette with a wide range of stringed instruments coming from all cultural sources, particularly the Arabic luth; where is your connection with this instrument is coming from?

DT: I don’t know! First, it may be from my natural attraction to the musical approaches of a few different cultures. Oddly, maybe, the first real concert that I ever attended was the Ravi Shankar/Alla Rakha debut performances in the USA.
As well, I lived in north India (and more briefly, in Nepal) at the end of my teenage years. In the ’70’s, I’d really begun to take note of the broad variety of approaches to tuning and rhythmics themselves via my musical experiences/exposures (and, my own developing approach to expressive pitch) as well as deep listening to other musics from the Arabic countries, from north & south India, from Terry Riley, and many others. As well, my mother’s family was eastern European / Rumanian—both gypsies & itinerant Jews—and my father’s family were Turkish and Spanish Jews who lived briefly in eastern Europe and southern France.

GC: Could you name some of the musicians that had a major impact on you musically or philosophically?

DT: Yes! Terry Riley, Jon Hassell, Terje Rypdal, Leonard Bernstein, Django Reinhardt, John McLaughlin, Elvin Jones, Tim Berne, John Abercrombie, Mick Karn, Eberhard Weber, Roy Haynes, Miles Davis, David Bowie, John Coltrane, Larry Coryell, Andrew Hill, David Liebman, Sonny Sharrock, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Paul Hindemith, Wes Montgomery, the Morenté Family, Julius Hemphill, the Habichuela family, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Cosey, Olivier Messiaen, Jan Hammer, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Sevie Wonder, Jan Garbarek, Geoffrey Gordon, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Haig Yazdjian, Simon Shaheen, Harvey Mandel, Erik Satie, Fred Frith, Sam Rivers, Lindsey Buckingham, Derek Bailey, James Blood Ulmer, Paul Motian, Marc Ducret, Bengt Berger, Steve Reich, Tom Waits, Neil Young. Steve Gorn, Egberto Gismonte, Tigran Mansurian, Kim Kashkashian, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, Jim Jarmusch, Albert King, Ry Cooder, Doris Lessing, Jean Claude Izzo, Idries Shah, Joseph Tawadros, Ronald Shannon Jackson, John Adams, Tom Jenkinson, Lester Bowie, David Lindley, Tom Jobim, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Blackbyrd McKnight, Pat Martino, Björk, Siggi Sigurdsson, Grady Tate, Jimmy Smith, Craig Taborn, Elijah B. Torn, Cody Torn, etc. This list could probably continue forever, so I’ll just pause there.

GC: In the years I’ve followed you, you’ve been seen with the “who’s who” of the cutting-edge guitar makers’ instruments in your hands—the likes of Steinberger, Klein, Teuffel, Koll—what do you look for exactly when you’re fishing for a new guitar or gear?

DT: As you know, it’s situational and circumstantial; at some point, I always seem to be looking for something providing more functionality, or seems more practical, better made, more or less resonant, of differing feel, response, look. I love that the popularity of my chosen instrument has allowed for windows-of-possibility and betterment to be opened on the guitar’s design and build, not to mention the electric instrument’s ancillary “instrumentation:” FX, pedals, amplifiers, etc. I really enjoy this process most when I have a driving need to reach some unknown-to-me destination, which’s pretty common.

In 1979, I owned one of the first ten Gittler Guitars (since I believed in the concept of stripping the instrument down to bare essentials). Owning that guitar led me to a lifelong friendship with Ken Parker. I bought the guitar to Ken—at that time, the coolest guitar-repairman around—to see if he might be able to build a vibrato-bridge for the Gittler. Neither Ken nor I could afford to do that, so I moved on. I still own the very first Steinberger TransTrem guitar; I heard about its development and called Ned—with whom I’m also still friendly—and explained to him that I was interested in the TransTrem—since I’d already (at that point) labored to work out both parallel and non-parallel multi-string transpositions using a standard, Fender-style vibrato bridge. So Ned invited me to consult on the reality of the first TransTrem before he applied for a patent. Eventually, I became flustered by the build of the final TransTrems, and a bit by the lack of wood-derived idiosyncrasies in the sound and feel of the guitar.

I literally bumped into Steve Klein’s electrics at my second ever NAMM show, and flipped over the guitar, but, the body was too big for me! So, Steve “smallerized” it.

Then, after I’d really turned towards more and better-integrated use of electronics (and, had begun playing the oud in some earnest), Henry Kaiser rang me to ask if I’d seen the Teuffel Tesla (which I hadn’t). So I called Ulli and we became fast friends, modifying his own noise-maker to suit my already-similar needs, creating the raw beginnings of the first “interruptulator,” but, I’d insisted (against Ulli’s better judgment, I think) that my Teslas should include the TransTrem. Again, eventually, I found the effects of the TransTrem builds at that time to still be deleterious to string-response and sonic-integrity.

I contacted Saul Koll and became very, very satisfied—the Tornipulator, fully working! New-school/old-school vibrato-bridge, body deeply back-routed to accommodate my re-pitching needs! Cool.

Yes, I’ve messed with this guitar stuff—a lot, not even mentioning a) the crazy custom amp that Reinhold Bogner and I spent nearly 18-months building-up, nor b) my long-term involvement in looper development and function, my slap-on midi-controller built for me by Telex Corp c) the beginning of the standard midi-spec, consulting to VHT/Fryette, Lexicon, Eventide, Peavey, Oberheim, Electrix, Line6, Digidesign, etc.—where musical function and sound were intended to be furthered, somehow…fun!

GC: Do you see yourself as a guitar collector?

DT: Maybe? But, no, not really, though I do have an interesting collection most of which does, indeed, get played. While I’ve done pretty well as a musician and composer, I’ve still sold some instruments that I’d wished I hadn’t. All in all, though, most everything that’s here isn’t likely to leave!

I’m very fond of my four most regularly-played electric guitars: 1) my new Ronin Foilbucker (with a great Interruptulator), 2) Teuffel Niwa, 3) D’Pergo Green Lantern AVCL (with custom, one-off 6-pt bridge), & 4) Koll Naugahyde Tornado #1 (with Tornipulator), also my varied and remarkable Fryette amps and my custom Bogner ‘furry’-amp! As well, the Godin MultiOud is very, very satisfying for me to play.

GC: You’re on stage acting as a DJ—manipulating all these electro gizmos. You seemed to ask your guitars for more than they usually do; could you tell us a little bit about David Torn’s appointments as on your Kolls, for example.

DT: Sure! The Tornipulator on Koll Tornado #1 functions thusly: there is a shaker mic-capsule mounted in the top of the body’s upper horn; as well, the guitar’s circuit features an “audio-input” jack, in addition to the standard “output” jack.
Directly below the shaker-mic, there are three momentary switches ergonomically mounted in order to achieve rhythmic playing (by the first three fingers of the right hand; the right hand thumb can rest one the body-edge for balance).

· Switch #1, when engaged, routes the mic output to the guitar’s output jack, hard-bypassing the guitar pickups’ own signal.

· Switch #2, when engaged, routes 60Hz “hum” to the guitar’s output jack, hard-bypassing the guitar pickups’ own signal.

· Switch #3, when engaged, without any signal present at the “audio-input” jack, acts as a straight-up “kill” switch. When engaged with signal present at the “audio-input” jack, the “audio input” is routed directly to the output-jack, hard-bypassing the guitar pickups’ own signal.

This offers me the opportunity to “interrupt” my actual guitar playing with a very specific microphone feedback, with 60Hz “hum,” and with whatever audio I might feed into the input-jack, fully integrated into my guitar-playing (and, for what it’s worth, that Koll also features a conductive [copper] pick-guard, installed in order to eventually control—via proximity to a remotely-mounted “field extender”—feedback created when the guitar-pickups interfere w/the magnetic field of the amp’s transformers). This seems to have become a growing theme for me since the middle of the 1990’s; you might notice on my pedalboard, for example, a variety of effects that are also actuated with momentary type switches, most important among them the PTD Tornita pedal, the Hexe revolver pedal, and the Echoplex Digital Pro.

GC: A few years ago, I read about this particular amp that you were designing with Bogner, with all these options (like running the tubes out of phase in order to get some weird unnatural sounds out of it); what happens to this promising project?

DT: Yes! As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, that amp is called “Furry,” and it is an unusual beast! The power-section can be switched to an asymmetrical mode. It uses an old attenuator design of Reinhold’s, as well, wherein a light bulb (of user-selectable wattages) is at the core of the attenuation process. It sounds like no other amp—huge, with a frightening amount of various kinds of distortion, but is still somehow very swampy and old-sounding. I played it on David Bowie’s Reality release in 2003. In truth, we never actually finished that oddball amp; still, it became the starting place for a few of Reinhold’s more recent (and commercially viable) designs.

GC: Are there any particular pieces of gear that have grabbed your attention lately?

DT: Well, there’s always something! I’ve discussed (in depth) my ideas/design/functionalities for a groundbreaking live-looping device with at least one large company over the past year or so, but, my expectations remain low. I’d love to see a perfection of the classic vibrato bridge made available—one that suits me, sounds incredible, is stable and fluid enough to deal with my very intense up-pitching and actually enhances string-response. Steve Fryette’s new (proprietary) amp-designs are freaking me out (I’ve played them), and I’m very excited by Piotr’s work at Hexe Electronics (as I am with PTD pedals), and a few other designers. Ken Parker’s archtop instruments simply drive me insane. I need to play Ulli Teuffel’s “Antonio” guitar. I’m thrilled with this unique new Ronin guitar (built for me); it has exceeded my expectations in the most dead-on and critical of ways. I’m excited by the not-fully-solid Tao guitars, though I’ve yet to try one; looking hungrily at the Sharpach classical concert guitars and at Faruk Turunz’s incredible, double-topped ouds! Crap, I’m almost 60 years old, truly happy with my instruments, and yet…and yet…controlled lunacy remains “in play”, here, I suppose (ha).

GC: I’m a little bit curious of the process you’re following when you’re doing movie soundtracks; first, as guitar sideman, but also as the composer, do you keep room for improvisation or is it written down?

DT: Ah, that’s an entirely other story, there! But, I cannot help but maintain and continue my improvisatory perspective, even when composing for film. Scores like The Order, Friday Night Lights, Lars and the Real Girl, and Patient 001 are fully orchestrated and written out, though I do much of the original writing “offline,” as well—walking, in the car, or with a guitar (or, piano) in hand, and, where the guitar-based textural elements are concerned with a score, they are usually improvised, then tweaked, to start, well in advance of the orchestral instruments being written and recorded. I do not play a lot of actual “guitar-guitar” in many of the scores, though I do so in some of the smaller ones.

GC: When will we have the next David Torn record? Do you have some plans at this point—any project with other artists?

DT: Yes! There is ongoing work with one of my favorite musician/composers, Tim Berne. I’m recording, this week, with a group called Val Gardena, finishing the mixes on Matt Mitchell’s recording of his Etudes (with Ches Smith) and also recording one of the two solos in Markus Reuter’s orchestral debut with the Colorado Symphony. There’s a strong rumor of a “pop” recording session with Tony Levin and Steve Gadd, and I hope to work, again, with Julie Slick. I’m right now at the end of producing and arranging a gorgeous recording for my friend, Donna Lewis (the band is Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King—occasionally known collectively as “The Bad Plus,”)—and I’m very excited for that. I have at least two more records to record for Manfred Eicher and ECM: a “solo guitar” record, and either an orchestral work or with my working band, “Sun of Goldfinger.” In fact, I have an odd, live solo recording finished, already, as well as much live band material which I may well self-release—there’s really a LOT of material recorded here! And, I’ll be scoring a new film shortly, it seems. Busy, busy days these are, for which I am incredibly and endlessly thankful.

Personal, selected discography:

Everyman Band (1981)
Best Laid Plans (1985)
Cloud about Mercury (1987)
Secrets of the Beehive, David Sylvian (1992)
Polytown, Torn, Karn, Bozzio (1994)
What means solid, traveler? (1996)
Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (1998)
Splattercell ::: OAH (2001)
Splattercell ::: remiksis ::: AH (2001)
Tim Berne: The Sevens (2003)
David Bowie: Heathen (2001), Reality (2003), and The Next Day (2013)

The Order (aka “The SIn Eater”) (original soundtrack) (2003)
Prezens (2007)

Lars and the Real Girl (original soundtrack) (2007)

Also with Tim Berne, Chocolate Genius, Jeff Beck (Grammy), John Legend, Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber, Kd Lang, Tori Amos, Madonna, Kaki King, Laurie Anderson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jarboe, Drew Gress, JBK, The Manhattan Transfer, Andy Rinehart, David Wilcox, Carter Burwell, Howard Shore, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Douglas September and Robby Aceto.


Torn was a presenter at TEDx CalTech (Jan. 2013), “The Brain:”

Three Guitar Player magazine Readers’ Poll Winner
Two Grammys
Multiple Grammy nominations


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