Seattle-based guitarist Bill Horist delivers an idiosyncratic and richly emotive take on the world’s most ubiquitous instrument. He has played on dozens of records and has performed throughout North and Central America, Europe and Japan; collaborating with numerous leading lights in a beguiling range of genres. Perhaps best known for his prepared guitar treatments, his work is widely regarded alongside masters like Fred Frith and Keith Rowe.
He has cultivated a unique voice in a number of styles in the realms of, jazz, rock, folk, and experimental music.
Horist is also becoming known as a masterful acoustic fingerstyle player in the tradition of Leo Kottke and John Fahey; additionally incorporating elements from Asia, India, the Middle-East and West Africa.
He blends oblique improvisation with driving composition and his work reflects a more refined, dense and aggressive approach; very different but analogous to his innovative electric work. Bill has again forged a unique voice that pays respectful homage but also breaks steadfastly from this very established tradition.
In both solo and ensemble capacities, Bill has received critical praise internationally and has been awarded several grants and residencies. He has created music for dance, film, theater and video games. In addition to a busy performance schedule, he teaches private lessons and conducts classes and workshops from elementary to graduate levels. Both within and without convention, Bill’s diverse work has secured his entrance into “…the pantheon of guitar anti-heroes.” (Alternative Press)
Since relocating to Seattle in 1995, Bill Horist has established himself as a noted improviser along the West Coast and beyond. He has performed over 500 concerts in the past 8 years in the US, Canada, Mexico and Europe. Bill has performed and/or recorded with Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, K.K. Null, Chris Cutler, Eugene Chadbourne, Climax Golden Twins, Illusion Of Safety, Amy Denio, Steve Fisk, Eyvind Kang, Lesli Dalaba, Thomas Dimuzio, Mason Jones, and Jeff Greinke among others.
Which was the first musical sound do you remember?
I remember my parents singing to me as a baby; my father would sing “My Boy Bill” from a musical whose name currently escapes me, and my mother would sing “Scotch and Soda.” I also remember Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”
Every time I heard it (I must’ve been about two), I’d tilt my head and rotate both hands near my left ear as though I was rolling a ball of dough and listening to it intently. I have no idea what the significance of this was but I would only do it when I heard that song and it was a thing with me and my parents that lasted for years. This makes me sound like I was born in the 30s as opposed to the 70s! This was also around the time I created my “contraption.” The contraption was basically me, tightly packed within some random accumulation of toys, stuffed animals and pillows. I believe it was this contraption that eventually gave rise to my prepared guitar rig, where I’m almost buckled into a seat by a guitar in my lap, flanked by multiple amps, numerous stompboxes, cables and assorted household/kitchen junk.
What do you dream, musically speaking, about?
Oddly enough, music doesn’t figure highly in my dream life. If it does, it’s typically orchestral, quite conventional and, of course, exceedingly beautiful (it’s my dream right?). The only difficulty is remembering even the most fleeting passages upon waking. In the last few years I’ve been singing (a big no-no throughout most of my career) and I find the skill has helped me internalize musical ideas more efficiently and thus I’ve been able to drag some passages from the oneiric recesses of my psyche into the day.
Why do you love the guitar?
I’ve always felt like an outsider throughout my life and I think the guitar has, historically also been a bit of an outsider – Marginalized for several centuries as a peasant instrument and not worthy of attention by serious musicians/composers. Even then, the guitar originally found favor in Spain almost by default. The Spanish at the time, still feeling the burn of a 700-year Moorish occupation, adopted the guitar over the lute (the most popular string instrument in Europe at the time) on the simple basis that the lute looked too much like the Muslim oud. Even in the 20th century, the electric guitar, initially adopted by the incipient jazz community, was marginalized for lacking in expressive capability.
It was in rock music that the electric guitar, not only was welcomed, but rose to be the apex predator we know and love (and loathe) today. Even acoustic guitar, being well into it’s own history, needed a mid-century boost by folks like John Fahey to be considered a serious instrument. Also, the history of innovation on the instrument seems to be a more iconoclastic legacy than with other instruments. It’s versatility in the hands of novice and pro alike set it apart from the more rigorous pedagogy of some other instruments. It’s been beaten down, abused, lauded, resented, sanctified and neglected and still it maintains that ubiquitous stridence. A perfect vehicle for both rule-makers and rule-breakers.
Which work of your own are you most proud of, and why?
That’s a tough one to answer! I’m proud of anything I do that doesn’t sound like anything else. With the surfeit of music available these days, this becomes an increasingly tall order. I’m proud of enriching collaborations with musicians and practitioners of other media; I’m proud of solo prepared guitar records that don’t sound like my previous solo records. One record may stand out a bit; it’s called Covalent Lodge (North Pole Records). It’s a recording I did of acoustic guitar compositions augmented by 21 amazing musicians from Seattle and beyond.
First, there is a narrative aspect to the record that my more abstract work typically doesn’t have. Plus, as it’s not a record of prepared guitar, it’s centerpiece isn’t unusual technique, which tends to fetishize any instrument. As much as I value extended technique, I don’t like music that gets over only on account of it’s unusual application. I strive to create music that employs such techniques but still has musical value regardless of how it’s made.
On Covalent Lodge, there are no blazing solos or other techniques that draw attention to the method, but rather music; just music. When it was released, I think most folks who listen to my work didn’t know what to do with it – too normal for the fans of the out stuff and too weird for the inside listener – a place where I like all my records to be. Kind of an undersung installment in my discography, another way in which it finds favor with me.
What was the first solo you learned from a record — and can you still play it?
I have never in my life learned any guitar solo from any recording. I grew up on the punk rock model and, for me, that meant not replicating the work of others. Guitar was going to be my vehicle of expression, not of adulation. Most of the music I was into when I started was probably anti-solo if anything. That model served me well for a couple decades. I’m currently in a mindset to study the work of others and now try to learn a lot of music via recordings and notation but this is a new thing for me. It’s kind of like exploring Hegel’s dialectic in reverse order. I started with “Antithesis” and now I’m exploring “Thesis” in the hopes of some “Synthesis” down the line. Again, guitar is great for those who like to live backwards!
What is the value of technique in art?
Technique is vital to art. But the question is how it’s defined. It’s vital because you can’t go from an idea to a finished work of anything without some technique by which to create it. A technique is necessary to create music but good technique certainly doesn’t ensure good music. Sometimes bad technique can express in ways good technique never can, and vice versa of course. More then sometimes, it is one’s limitations that define his or her style. Some people say good technique is any way you can play your instrument without damaging your body in the short/long term – I can get with that.
What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?
My relationship with art started in high school with visual art. I pursued that for several years before music took over. I seem to know a lot of experimental musicians that started with visual art. Of course, there is strong kinship there and it seems that those who first worked visually were more readily predisposed to more abstract sonic architecture. I’m an avid reader of fiction and, to a lesser extent, non-fiction. I perennially toy with writing more seriously as there seems to be an accrual of itches in my head/heart that can’t be scratched by instrumental music-making, but, being such a fan of the word, I’m intimidated – one of these years! I like taking in most artforms from time to time and have very rewarding ongoing collaborations with choreographers and dancers. I live vicariously through the sciences. After years of exploring recondite situations via art that, by it’s very nature, almost disallows solutions, it’s refreshing to identify with scientists of all stripes that navigate analogous mental and emotional vicissitudes but come out of it with an actual solution!
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
The digital realm has done wonders in democratizing the world – and that’s a great thing for sure. But it comes at a cost. So much software exists in all disciplines now, enabling anyone with a minimum of computer savvy to create and disseminate art. What forward-thinking, liberally-inclined artist would dare say this was an unfortunate trend? But now a surfeit of artwork is created with a minimum of specialization, commitment, cost and sacrifice. What happens if you remove these four realities? Art becomes safe and, as a result, every other person becomes an artist. If you’re good at facebook, chances are you’ll be good (enough) with Garage Band. All those wondrous tools that have made working as an independent artist easier, have brought a deluge of hobbyists into the mix that are vying for the same visibility in the world. The current state of it is a morass and hopefully, as time goes on, some filtering procedures will make their way back into the marketplace. It’s hard to talk openly about these difficulties without sounding elitist but it is a whisper under the breath of most artists and it should be explored.
Mason Jones: guitar Bill Horist: guitar Kevin Goldsmith: electric cello
Another dystopian bone I have to pick is that with a device (laptop/tablet/smartphone) all creation is reduced to the limited physical relationship one has with said device for all activities. Making a film, doing taxes, keeping up on correspondence, making music, photography and everything else is relegated to the same kinetic set of operations. It’s consolidating multiple intellectual/creative endeavors to ever-limited parts of the brain. I wonder what the long-term ramifications of this will be.
Then there are the new ways people acquire music. Just as in music creation, the benefits of the technology are the challenges. Now that we’ve entered a time where people who have been online all their lives are reaching adulthood, different values are surfacing. Like privacy and security, appropriating music, is looked at differently. That there has been even a discussion as to whether music should be free, is indicative of this sea-change. As such, artists of all echelons need to accept that sales of recordings (already a dodgy enterprise) are going to continue to drop. Music is just more data to be collected, like much else on the web, without charge. The deluge of music and the lack of interest in purchasing it is creating a culture where everyone is an artist and the population of strict art consumers is dwindling.
I still remember the days when making a record, no matter how modestly, actually meant something and you could play shows for people who were music fans not part-time practitioners. Like I said, it’s hard to talk about these things without sounding old-fashioned and elitist (terms most abhorrent to artists), but what is the state of art when those on whatever the cutting-edge is these day, are reluctant to speak their truth because it might challenge their self-perception?
I don’t propose that any of this is wrong or should be reversed. It’s a reality; there are great benefits, great difficulties and we need to thoughtfully work though it to gain, hopefully, an elevated understanding and practice in the future.
Something you love in art
Art gives a forum to those who struggle with the conflicts inherent in human nature and a productive platform on which to display the darker attributes of the mind. Because attributes like narcissism and sociopathy, to name a couple, are most unwelcome in most walks of life, it’s vital to have a venue where they can be, not only explored, but transmuted into sublime beauty.
Why and how do you use extended techniques in guitar?
The practice of extended technique appealed to me for the same reason I was drawn to punk and new wave in the Eighties – a livid sense of antiauthoritarianism. It was a welcome finger in the face of a conventional virtuosity borne of the previous decade’s co-opting of rock. My first exposure was through bands like Bauhaus and Sonic Youth. Later, as I got into free improvisation and experimental music, I was turned on to Cage, Cowell, Frith, Rowe and that world.
Extended technique also offered me a protocol where I could explore palpable originality; which was a sacrosanct principle for me; something that’s originality can be easily perceived by anyone without explanation. It’s practice afforded me to, not just rearrange letters of an existing alphabet to make new words, but make a whole new lexicon; eschewing conventions of sophistication and virtuosity along the way. Extended technique was the promise of uncharted territory. That’s not to say that my work has not been heavily influenced by antecedents like the folks I mentioned earlier, but, unlike conventional guitar-playing, this territory wasn’t, at the time, as densely populated. Much like a scientist that seeks that “truly original idea” in a new field of study.
von Werssowetz, Gillesm, Crosby, Stanley, Caroline & David Chaparro, Bill Horist
In my approach, the nature of instrument preparation creates it’s own laws, based solely on the inherent unusual applications. It’s a closed system, like the abstraction of mathematics in the late 19th Century. It is complete redemption from accommodating the pedagogy of prior music of any kind. This is a personal thing though. There are many musicians that practice extended technique and incorporate it quite successfully into more conventional music.
Yushi Kira: vocals, guitar Bill Horist: guitar on сталкер
That could be John Cage preparing pianos but working with conventional pitch systems, or it could be Duran Duran recording prepared piano in reverse for the intro to their hit “Rio!” Having said that, there are many examples of me performing things that sound traditionally melodic or rhythmic, but those instances grew out of the quantum laws of prepared string vibration. If a certain preparation allows for a conventional expression, I’ll take it. However, I’m not much interested in subjecting a preparation to the imperatives of conventional music.
Perhaps on a meta-level, I view extended technique in alchemical terms. It’s practice is truly transmutation; culling new and original ideas from the disparity between instrument and object, the result of which is unlike either. It adds many new expressions to the periodic table of sonic elements.
What's the quality a good musician should have?
This is a tough question! For every quality that comes to mind, I can think of at least one example who doesn’t possess it. I’m sure there’s something all great musicians have – maybe a pulse??
SYCH is both an acronym for the dream-team avant jazz quartet of Wally Shoup/C. Spencer Yeh/Chris Corsano/Bill Horist
What dead artist would you like to have collaborated with?
Probably Hendrix. He’s like the Einstein of electric guitar. Is approach is the general theory of relativity upon which our electric universe is based. I feel as though I am one of many subsequent practitioners that have taken miniscule samples of Hendrix to an atomic level and are pursuing our own quantum circuit with microscopic glee. Plus he’s from Seattle so the commute would be a breeze.
Anla Courtis and Bill Horist
What’s your latest project about?
I typically have a few things in the hopper at all times – more sonically polyamorous than a one-band-man! In addition to a number of projects under the leadership of others, I just released a download-only album of prepared guitar pieces from the last ten years, it’s called Guitar Weirdo. Next year, I’m releasing The Cessation Elegy, a duo recording with Danish electronicist Jakob Riis on Lava Thief Records. Finishing up another duo record with bassist Darin Gray (Dazzling Killmen/On Fillmore) and a solo work developed for Calgary-based M-Body Dance Company. I’m working a lot with fingerstyle guitar and will be recording a songbook of covers, arrangements and originals soon. I’m also composing pieces for an electroacoustic ensemble that will hopefully see some studio time and select live appearances in 2014.
PAUL RUCKER: Bass / Cello BILL HORIST: Guitar / Electronics JEFF BUSCH: Drums / Percussion RULON BROWN: Sax / Flute
◊ The Signal Index – solo recordings – Ltd Ed Cassette/download; Ultramarine Records 2012
◊ Lunar Roulette – SYCH - Wally Shoup, C Spencer Yeh, Chris Corsano, Bill Horist – CD/LP; Strange Attractors Audio House 2011
◊ Elogia de la Sombra – Master Musicians of Bukkake – CD/LP; Southern (Latitudes series) 2010
◊ Themes From The Motion Picture “Man With The Green Gloves On” – Master Musicians of Bukkake – 7”; Conspiracy 2010
◊ Impossible Reefs – Tertium Quid - Dan Burke, Bill Horist, Dave Abramson – CD; New Ruins 2010
◊ The Psoriasis Coast – solo recordings – Ltd Ed CD-r; Aphonia Recordings 2010
◊ Totem II – Master Musicians of Bukkake – CD/LP; Important (2010)
◊ Covalent Lodge – acoustic guitar songs with 21 guests – CD/LP; North Pole Records 2010
◊ Totem I – Master Musicians of Bukkake – CD/LP; Conspiracy 2009
◊ The Sound of Speed – Ghidra -Wally Shoup, Bill Horist, Mike Peterson – CD; Sol Disk 2008
◊ Bill Horist / Ghidra – split Ltd Ed Cassette; Psychform Records 2008
◊ Secret Chiefs 3-Bill Horist/Trey Spruance split 7″- UBIK; Mimicry Records 2007
◊ Jerks and Creeps- Bill Horist/Marco Fernandes, guests – CD; Accretions 2007
◊ Seasons Fire- William Hooker/Eyvind Kang/Bill Horist – CD; Important 2007
◊ Sleep Hammer- Bill Horist/Marron – CD; Public Eyesore 2006
◊ Live at Radio Student Ljubljana- OvO/Bill Horist – CD; Friends and Relatives Records 2006
◊ Northwest Music- Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo/Bill Horist – CD; Final Muzik 2006
◊ Lyric/Suite- solo recordings – CD; Accretions 2004
◊ Strawberry Skinflint- Ghidra -Wally Shoup, Bill Horist, Mike Peterson – CD; Sol Disk 2003
◊ Interstellar Chemistry- KK Null/Bill Horist – CD; Beta Lactam Ring Records 2002
◊ Zahir- Lesli Dalaba/Bill Horist/Randall Dunn – CD; Endless Records 2002
◊ KK Null/Bill Horist- split 10” clear vinyl; Torture Music Records 2001
◊ Songs from the Nerve Wheel- solo recordings – CD; Unit Circle Rekkids 2000
◊ Continentes- Luigi Archetti/Uchihashi Kazuhisa/Bill Horist – CDr; self-produced 1999
◊ Black Helicopters- FIN live on KCMU – CDr; self-produced 1998
◊ UnFolkUs- eponymous CD – CD; Unit Circle Rekkids 1998
◊ Soylent Radio- solo and duet recordings – CD; Unit Circle Rekkids 1997
◊ Phineas Gage Travelling Sideshow- eponymous CD; self-produced 1997
◊ Duh Evolution- NOBODADDY live at 10 Weston – ltd ed cassette; self-produced 1995
◊ Guitometry- solo and ensemble recordings – ltd ed cassette; self-produced 1993