Innovative Guitarist to Play Free Show in Winston-Salem
The music of David Shapiro, who performs solo acoustic guitar compositions under the name Alexander, might be ideally made for a hushed and introspective setting. Shapiro will play a free show at Bright Leaf Books in Winston-Salem on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. Bookstores and live music don’t automatically seem like a great fit. Bookstores are like libraries: places where people like quiet. Precious thoughts don’t percolate in a din, some might say. Live music is about generating sound waves, disrupting the air, sending out radiating ripples of vibrations, the kind that can almost seem mind-numbing, in the best way. Loudness is one way it can operate.
Not all music operates by subduing the body and massaging the brain with volume. Some music intoxicates the listener with quiet, inviting close attention and rapture in the same way a miniature portrait on a blank museum wall might draw the eye in for prolonged inspection. The required focus can be hypnotic. That zeroing-in can create an expansive experience.
Shapiro’s music rewards deep listening. His solo debut, “Alexander,” on C/Site Recordings, is remarkably controlled and varied for a record of instrumental acoustic guitar compositions. Shapiro, who lives in Connecticut, has studied guitar-making with a luthier in Vermont, and on his Alexander recordings, Shapiro performs on a guitar he built himself. Shapiro answered some questions about his music from me by email.
Shapiro builds guitars that can alter the way one hears his music. Shapiro’s playing is careful and precise, restrained and deliberate. One can imagine the technician and builder approaching the challenge of music-making with an ear for how the resonance and clarity of the instrument are expressed through different styles of playing. The arrangement of notes is one thing. The sound is another.
“I’ve always been in love with the guitar. I’ve also always been curious about how things work, how things are made, etc.,” Shapiro wrote. “Learning to build guitars definitely changed how I play. Much of the building process consists of listening to your wood, listening to the tones that sound when you tap on the top, etc. to guide you in both gross and fine adjustments. Building taught me a new relationship with listening, which I try to apply to my guitar playing. It must have shaped my compositional approach in some way too.”
It’s easy to lump Shapiro, 28, into the “American primitive” tradition of acoustic guitar players like John Fahey, artists who drew from Piedmont and country blues styles and techniques as well as from elements of jazz and classical music, making creative instrumental guitar music that was percussive, texturally rich, rhythmically and harmonically complex, with layers of counterpoint and melody. But there’s little that is raw or primitive about Shapiro’s playing. When I mention what sounds like an intentional and seemingly meticulous lack of sonic grit to the recording (not a lot of buzz or scrape of string that one naturally hears on steel-string acoustic playing), Shapiro says that his thinking on this is evolving, and it depends on the setting of a performance, in a way.
“I’m still a little ambivalent about this approach, but I conceptualize and practice technique differently with live performances and recording sessions,” he wrote in an email. “What you are noticing about the record is a very intentional decision to try to play the tunes as ‘clean’ as possible. But really the distinction to be made is not between ‘clean’ and ‘not clean.’ I guess it is about redefining clean for different contexts. So on the recordings, I try to play without string noise if I can, without my fingers tapping on the top of the guitar, etc. When I perform, I tend to play a bit louder and allow a bit more noise in the interest of avoiding a hyperawareness of my physicality.”
The absence of string noise allows for the overtones of the instrument to resonate and flutter, creating an atmosphere of their own. The playing, like on the track “V” (all but one of the songs is given a Roman numeral title), can seem spartan and minimalist in places, but there is poise and grace that comes through in the openness. The space makes room for the sound to ring. Hints of Piedmont blues, jazzy chord solos, raga-tinged drones and touches of a William Ackerman-esque mood show up in spots. And Shapiro’s occasional flashes of dissonant harmonies or tangled chromatic movement add a delicate crunch to the music.
Shapiro has said that people and events often inspire his writing.
“The tunes I think are my best are all very much direct responses to a specific thing. An experience of some sort,” he wrote. “Those tunes seem to write themselves.”
Shapiro got his start playing in ska/punk and hardcore bands in Connecticut. He’s done solo electric guitar, acoustic improvisations and also played as the drummer in a stoner-metal band for a time. Last year he started playing with Kath Bloom, a legendary Connecticut fringe-folk singer-songwriter who made important early-’80s recordings with the experimental guitarist Loren Connors.
The influential musician Glenn Jones has organized an acoustic guitar festival set for April in Maryland, and Jones has invited Shapiro to play. It’s a sign that the acoustic guitar scene has grown significantly in recent years, and that Shapiro, often playing in quiet solitude, is a part of something larger.
“I started performing solo guitar music, which would probably then have fallen in the atmospheric or abstract category, about eight years ago,” Shapiro wrote. “It seemed there wasn’t a shortage then of people using the guitar, usually electric guitar, as a sound source for various kinds of noise. … [It] seems the solo acoustic guitar, which might be more identifiable as a genre, is really experiencing a boom these days. Many incredible players are popping up all over the place … I’m excited to see what solo guitar looks like in five, 10, 30 years!”