Close your eyes, and listen. Is that a double bass? A cello? A sitar? A bagpipe’s droning plaint? A street percussionist wreaking havoc on trash-can lids?
No, it’s a guitar. But it’s no ordinary guitar. Paolo Angeli’s much-modified instrument began life as the typical six-string of his native Sardinia. Bigger than the familiar Spanish instrument, it’s also tuned lower and has an attractively throaty sound. But to this framework, Angeli has added mechanical fingers—activated by a row of three foot pedals—that allow him to produce cyclical bass lines over which he can fingerpick contrapuntal melodies. A small propeller, protruding from the guitar’s soundhole, strikes the strings in just such a way that it produces a continuous drone. Extra strings—some running from headstock to tailpiece, others in an array across the soundboard—allow for harp- or thumb-piano-like effects. By sliding metal objects beneath the strings, Angeli can produce percussive noises; by adding bonus bridges, he can suggest a mandolin or an oud; by stroking the strings with a cello bow, he can invoke, unsurprisingly, a cello.
Angeli has a unique bag of tricks to draw on. But, more than that, he also has enough imagination to use them in a marvellously musical way, often sounding more like a small ensemble than a solo performer. And that, he says, has been his goal all along.
“The idea with the guitar was like, ‘Okay, I am solo, but I would like to give the impression of being like many musicians in dialogue—a kind of counterpoint between different musicians and instruments,’ ” the guitarist explains, on the line from a Montreal hotel. “At the beginning it was much simpler: ‘Okay, this song is with the bow. Next song, I just use pedals. Next song is with propellers.’ I mean, all the elements that I used to introduce on my guitar were separate, each one from each other. But right now it’s a different approach.…I can have different sounds, very, very fast.”
Angeli is also able to incorporate cover tunes—search YouTube for a gorgeous version of Björk’s “Desired Constellation”, for instance—and traditional Sardinian melodies into his approach, along with a new openness to North African and Middle Eastern sounds inspired by his 2006 move from Bologna to Barcelona.
“Now, when I play compositions, the compositions are much more connected to light, to sunny times,” he says. “In Barcelona we have this light that is very intense, and it’s very different than to live in Bologna, where it was raining every day! You can see the sky, and that’s a really big influence. And it’s different to spend time in a town where you can walk and have fresh-squeezed juice and fish caught by the fishermen the day before they sell it in the market. All those experiences changed my mind about how to play music.”
Make no mistake: darkness and noise still play a part in Angeli’s approach. But there are few players who so successfully combine beauty and mad-scientist wizardry; his upcoming Vancouver concert is not to be missed.
Vancouver New Music presents Paolo Angeli at Pyatt Hall on Saturday (February 10).