Michael Garfield Interview: Burning Man, Poetry and Acoustic Guitars

By: Dr. Matt Warnock

Michael Garfield

In a world where the average lifespan of a band is about as long as a commercial break, where music has been commercialized to the point of becoming a comedy routine and at a time in history when a musician’s image is seemingly more important than their music, it’s nice to know that there are people out there like acoustic-guitarist and multi-talented artist Michael Garfield.

That’s right, Garfield is an artist. He’s not looking to impress a boardroom full of suits with his latest gimmicky single. Nor does he limit himself to one form of artistic expression, as he is an accomplished writer, performer, composer and painter on top of being a skilled guitarist. Garfield’s artistic output harks back to a time when artists created because they had to. Because their Muse compelled them to share their output with the masses, not produce a cool beat to be sold as ringtones to teenage girls across the globe.

When I first heard of Michael through a mutual friend, and subsequently discovered his music and art, I knew right away that he would be a fun and interesting person to interview. So sit back, grab a warm drink and let Michael tell you about why he creates, how he thinks about music and the guitar and just what it’s like to perform at Burning Man. You’ll find that his personality is as interesting and compelling as his music and art.

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Matt Warnock: You’re performing at Burning Man this September, is this the first year you’ve done the festival, and how do you feel about playing at such a huge event like this?

Michael Garfield: This is my third year in attendance, but the first year was for calibration. It takes some time to get used to how radically different Burning Man is from other events – it’s one half survival challenge and one half experimental city, not at all like a typical music and arts festival.

Last year was my first year camping with Entheon Village – for those unfamiliar with Burning Man, it’s a temporary city or “ephemeropolis” of about 40,000 people. Composed fractally of smaller camps and villages, and Entheon is a group of about 200 people committed to visionary art and sustainable social infrastructure.

I played a couple of sets at Entheon last year, this year, I’ve stepped it up and will be playing numerous sets of both anthems and ballads and experimental improvisations on acoustic guitar and FX all over the event. It’s not like playing at a 40,000-person concert, though – there is more going on at Burning Man at any one time than in most metropolitan areas, and I’ll be lucky if I can sing and play to a hundred people at a time.

Nonetheless, there’s something magical and perfect about the way that things seem to work out there, so I’m sure whomever happens to be around will be “the right people” – and I’d rather play to the right people than to a huge faceless crowd.

Matt: It seems that in recent years acoustic guitar, especially in the style that you play, has had a resurgence in part due to YouTube and the rise of players like Andy McKee. Have you found that there is there has been a rise in popularity in acoustic guitar in recent years, and if so why do you think that is?

Michael Garfield: There’s definitely been a rise in the popularity of acoustic guitar for me… I haven’t been playing for long – about eleven years – and my career is growing up in the post-bubble scene. Insofar as I’m not sure it’s possible to gain instant international notoriety like Andy did anymore.

As someone who spends a lot of time tracking the relationship between technological and cultural evolution, I think what we’re seeing with the renovation of media publication and promotion is that people are finding it easier to locate what they want to hear. I’m not sure that acoustic guitar is any more popular than it has ever been, but pop is in its death throes and jungles of micro-genres are finally getting their legs.

That probably makes it feel like there is suddenly an audience for whatever it is that we do…but rather than being specifically about acoustic guitar, I think these trends are equally true for noise rock, field recordings, books about alternative physics, tantric workshops…anything that attracts a small but committed group that couldn’t previously connect to their passions in a more autocratic media ecology.

Matt: Even though you’re performing at festivals and large events, you still perform locally and give free shows in Boulder. Do you feel that it is important to play in both situations, for your career but also for yourself as an artist?

Michael Garfield: It’s tricky to maintain the balance between developing a believable living-wage price tag for one’s work and the desire to give and give and give. I’m an advocate for multiple bottom lines, for recognizing how many nonmonetary returns there are to cultivate in life, for recognizing some of them as valid forms of exchange.

I definitely believe that a gift economic sector will grow as we all relearn local sustenance and complementary currencies, and have more freedom to engage in work we prefer…and that a big part of this movement is to help people connect their passions to a bigger story, to help people over their alienation and feel like the participants they already are, to help ameliorate and transform what I see as a crisis of creativity and meaning in our society. So much talent wasted…

So anyway, I’m concerned about maintaining standards and having some dignity, but I don’t allow that to get in the way of my larger concern, which is to stretch the creative act around my entire life and aim it at the exaltation of everyone’s potential.

Michael Garfield Live

Matt: What guitar(s) are you currently playing?

Michael Garfield: The same Martin D-35 I ordered from the factory in 2000, which purportedly has wood selected by the man himself. I learned of this model from Tim Reynolds, who was for a while there, for me, the greatest guitarist to have ever lived and is still a profound inspiration.

And then I found out last year that Elvis Presley played one, and he and I have the same birthday, so there’s some kind of weird connection there.

Right now I have an LR Baggs M1 Active soundhole pickup in it, which I love for eBowing purposes and for the sheer miracle that a single coil pickup will amplify my percussion on the guitar body. I don’t understand it to this day. Doesn’t have enough bass, but that’s just incentive for me to start playing with a band, for God’s sake.

Matt: There are videos of you playing with a looper, what pedal are you using for this, and what inspired you to experiment with this medium in your playing?

Michael Garfield: That’s the Boss RC-50. I wrote a fairly extensive review of it. It’s far from perfect but as soon as I stop complaining about what it can’t do, I have a lot of fun with it. Nonetheless, it won’t be long before I’ve moved everything over into Ableton Live, where you can do so much more with the loops after they’re recorded. That’s when the guitar becomes an electronic control interface and a truly orchestral instrument, without having to lug around that beautiful Orchestrion

Matt: As someone who plays with both hands on the fretboard, are you influenced by the older generation of acoustic tappers such as Michael Hedges and Phil Keaggy as well as the new generation of players in this style?

Michael Garfield: I found those players well after my induction into the tapping-sphere, which started with me picking up Kaki King’s first CD on a hunch at the local mega-bookstore. As I got more and more into her playing, I started reading interviews with her, and she was pretty frank about how she’d ripped off the tunings and techniques of Preston Reed. I found Reed, Michael Hedges, and Alex DeGrassi at around the same time, and only later learned that Phil Keaggy did any tapping.

Those players all used tapping fairly judiciously as an auxiliary method in an extensive repertoire of techniques, not as a core approach like Stanley Jordan did. Tapping is a potent way to expand the compositional capacities of the instrument; but so many players, even today, seem to regard tapping in the same way that electric players do, as a novelty, as something that sets them apart visually, as “cool.”

As much as I enjoy the work of the “first generation acoustic tappers,” their work was primarily percussive, and I feel like it’s really flowered into something else entirely with the work of artists like Andreas Kapsalis and Dominic Frasca. Both of them are writing and performing intense multi-part arrangements that take the technique light-years beyond the gimmicks of simply shredding super-fast or playing the guitar in an unusual way.

Matt: A lot of acoustic fingerstyle players, especially those who use loops and tapping, perform in an instrumental style, but you sing and write lyrics as well. What inspires you to express yourself through lyrics as well as your guitar work?

Michael Garfield: Improvised instrumental loopscapes are becoming a bigger and bigger part of my shows, but my poetry had about a ten-year head start on my musical life. I picked up all of these eclectic techniques because I’m a ravenous mind fascinated by finding new combinations and connections, and because they set my performances apart as more richly textured and sonically complete than the average solo songwriter.

But, for better or worse, I spend more of my time these days writing and lecturing than singing, and music is just one of several media through which I can engage people and hopefully inspire them.
The underlying motivation is your garden variety extreme desire to express something transcendent by any means possible. I find that the constraints of the song form force a kind of hypertextual thinking – it allows multi-valent communication in a way that “mere” instrumental music or “mere” essay-writing do not.

To say something profound in few words feels like writing a sacred text – the Old Testament is full of puns, because the ancient Hebrews appreciated the utility of language’s imprecision. While I love making instrumental music, I find heart-exploding depth easier to accomplish with a few well-chosen signifiers.

It flows both ways, though. Human language raised several octaves sounds exactly like birdsong; there’s a fractal structure to communication from the electromagnetic emissions of DNA on up. So I like to write as if the words are music, but I also like playing guitar as if the guitar is actually saying something.

As I give more attention to reproducing the cadences and rhythms of speech, a new dimension opens up in my playing. The guitar literally sings.

Plus, as a male mammal, I find it necessary to pee on fences, and there really aren’t too many people out there who are cultivating both skills. Michael Hedges sang and tapped a little, my boy Stuart Davis does some beautiful work in that department, but it’s way under-represented. I feel like an art form isn’t really mature until it’s used to accomplish something more ambitious – kind of like how I wish dubstep would grow up and become a sub-technique in beautiful orchestral compositions.

I feel like tapping the guitar isn’t really noteworthy as anything but a circus act until it’s being wielded for a larger vision.

Matt: There’s a cool video online of your painting and talking over a percussive guitar line, can you talk about this video? How did it come about, what was the inspiration, how did this project come about?

YouTube Preview Image

Michael Garfield: You’re talking about my video “Painting Is Dangerous,” which combines a timelapse video of me painting live at a concert with my looped and effects-drenched acoustic “cyberguitar” and an voiceover on the risk inherent in the creative process.

On one level, it’s a press kit item; I can’t think of any better way to deliver in all three of my chosen media through a single integrated vehicle. It’s tiresome to explain how much I’m trying to accomplish at once and ask that people read this, listen to that, check out this gallery…I want to people to feel transported, not give them a stack of homework assignments.

On another level, the video itself is pretty overwhelming – the music is loud enough that you kind of have to strain to hear the words, and if you’re trying to watch me paint at the same time, well, good luck. But that’s what the essay I’m reading is all about: how saturated our culture is with novelty, and we are so overcome by content that it’s easy to forget that everything we experience is changing us.

That creativity destroys, and true originality abolishes you completely. So as Marshall McLuhan is so frequently quoted as saying, “The medium is the message.” What better way to comment on the psychedelic vividness of our age, than by assaulting people with everything I can do at the same time?

It’s probably the closest I’ve gotten to the brilliantly-engineered romp in future shock, Charles Stross’ novel “Accelerando“. As William Irwin Thompson, one of my favorite philosopher-poets, would say, it’s a performance of the culture – an expression of and by the super-saturated multimedia ecology that is currently spreading its wings in us and as us.

Matt: It seems that Boulder is a hotspot for young, creative musicians in recent years. What is the scene like there and do you see yourself being based out of there in the future or do you want to relocate to a larger center at some point down the road?

Michael Garfield: I love it here. Nontheless…I’m not certain what you mean by “hotspot,” because wherever I look I see the music scene in Boulder organizing around the comfortable and familiar, whether that’s folk and bluegrass or club electronica.

People here definitely get into a concert-going lifestyle more than anywhere else I’ve lived, but it seems to be more about the social dimension than it is about the music itself…there isn’t the same hunger for innovation I’ve recognized in certain other cities.

Having Denver half an hour away helps with Boulder’s dearth of good small venues, but in general the whole Front Range seems to prefer charisma and danceability over all other traits in its musicians. I’ve never written much groove-based music, and I’m not interested in playing popularity games.

On the other hand, the younger people here don’t give a damn about genre boundaries, and strongly identify as early adopters, so if you can appeal to people on the tribal level you’ll have an easy time of it. In the last few years that I’ve been bouncing in and out of this town, I’ve changed my strategy to be less of the band-standing visionary artist and more of the integrative cultural servant, recognizing that my own success and well-being is contingent on how well I use my talents to empower and enliven other people.

There are fewer people in Boulder suffering from a crisis of meaning and creativity than in most other towns in the country, so in that sense things are a little too good for me to do my real work, here. That makes Boulder a wonderful place to rest and recuperate and plan ahead, if my goal is to tour the universe. Which it is.

Michael Garfield Tapping With a Loop Station

Matt: You are also an avid writer as well as a guitarist. How does that side of your output connect with your life as a guitarist, composer and performer?

Michael Garfield: Frank Zappa has that famous quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Most people take that to mean it’s lost in translation – the whole cultural anthropology thing, you know, “You’ll never understand what it’s like to be Zulu/queer/a postmodern philosophy student/whatever.”

Deconstruction is so vogue. Why stop at the two cultures of art and science, when we can make everyone an island? Language is all interpreted, so we’ll never really understand what’s going on in someone else’s experience.

Only I see this as intellectually and morally bankrupt. If we have nothing in common, there’s nowhere to go, and no reason to go there. I think it’s far more fruitful to, as my man art critic/professor Michael Schwartz puts it, “constructively deconstruct” these categories to show how they’re arbitrary divisions, how we can use each other’s language to find the points of connection.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and not because it’s a futile enterprise.

Architecture is about space and psychology, our relationship to our surroundings. Dance is about the movement of the body and its emotional effects on us. Once you strip these disciplines down to their essentials, it’s easier to say that architecture is really a kind of fossilized dance, and that dance is really a kind of ephemeral architecture.

I think almost everyone could tell the difference in a contemporary dance recital between “gothic cathedral” and “office building.”

Likewise, with music and writing: music is a language; writing relies on rhythm and cadence. Music and verbal language are both organized syntactically; they use many of the same parts of the brain; major and minor keys reflect universal constants in the intervals of happy and sad human speech; jazz is a conversation, and a symphony’s a sermon.

And if we want to take it really far back, these two domains weren’t always differentiated from one another. Written Sanskrit may have emerged as the direct translation of patterns that sand made on the head of a drum as it vibrated at certain frequencies; the seed syllables of the ancient wisdom traditions are all based on specific frequencies and their effects on the body-mind.

Contrary to the nonsense of neuroscientists like Aniruddh Patel, who is neither a musician nor an evolutionary biologist, these are not two separate things that evolved independently of one another. And in all likelihood, as the contents of human experience continue to become more and more complex, our communication will start to take on more dense and hyperdimensional characteristics, combining the traits of music, written language, and image. We’re already seeing it in cinema and interactive gaming.

Matt: Where do you go from here?

Michael Garfield: I’m going on national tour this October, and will hopefully be getting involved with a few different communities of healers and visionaries around the world in the next year or so. Booking more gigs as a musician and live painter and lecturer at festivals and private events.

But there is always a way to scale up an idea to make it more meaningful for more people, and I’m always interested to hear people’s suggestions…if I’ve turned anybody on, you can reach me at website.

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