By: Brady Lavin
Arizona classical guitarist Brad Richter just released American Landscapes a week or two ago, and it is already one of my favorite collections of mood setting songs. These pieces, which are mostly meditations on outdoor landscapes that speak to Brad, are perfect for that; they are incredibly detailed and meticulous in their composition and adventurous in their use of new and interesting techniques, so seriously music-minded people have a lot to chew on and digest. If heard just in passing by the casual music fan, however, they just sound incredibly pleasing to the ear.
That dichotomy is what Richter is best at: bridging the gap between the extra-discerning ears of new music listeners who want to hear adventurous music, something new and exciting composition-wise, and the normal Joe on the street, who just wants to hear “cool stuff.”
Richter is great at the whole “cool stuff” thing, and he never really gets too inaccessible, which is a cliff where many contemporary composers can sometimes lose a good chunk of their audience. He does include some more daring elements to sate the appetite of the hardcore new music folks.
The perfect example of this is “Celebration Day,” which is a bouncy, upbeat piece that mostly stays in its major key, but it also has a few moments of shocking outside playing, and it begins with a highly chromatic introduction that builds tension into the decidedly tension-less main melodic/harmonic idea.
Since so much of the music is diatonic, when he does go off the deep end for a bit, it is that much more powerful; it makes you sit up and think, “Whoa, where did that come from?” Then the next time that idea comes around, though, the listener is ready for it, latching on to that departure and riding it out to the next landscape that appears in Brad’s playing.
Richter’s inclusion of a couple pieces with long-time collaborator, cellist David Finckel, nine-time Grammy Award winner, is a welcome oasis within all these vivid landscapes. While the solo guitar portions of the album, which are the vast majority, have some of the most beautiful and spellbinding music I have heard in a long while, it is always nice to include another timbral element.
A highlight is the second movement of the guitar/cello duo, entitled “Circles.” It begins with an ominous cello chord using harmonics, but quickly jumps into a disjointed interplay between the two instruments with decidedly eastern melodic ideas. As Finckel’s cello shifts to smoother playing, Richter wows with his rhythmic playing, incorporating percussive elements into his playing, like tapping on the body of his guitar near the sound hole. Richter has David Finckel perform some technical feats on his cello, as well. At one point, Finkel is using left hand hammer-ons, plucking open strings with his left hand and bowing the melody, all at the same time. This Ben Monder, guitar-esque technique translates well to cello, weaving a thick tapestry, especially along with Richter’s imaginative playing.
The centerpiece of American Landscapes, however, isn’t the compositions, amazing as they are. The undeniable feeling of Brad’s guitar playing is what really makes this music stand out above so many others. His playing brings these pieces into the listeners heart, making us feel what he feels as he contemplates on slower passages, and when Richter gets upbeat… well, sometimes it’s hard not to dance. He does not need lyrics to relate to his listeners; he knows just how to connect with an audience through music alone.
American Landscapes definitely has a whole lot to delve into and appreciate, as Brad Richter is one of the most innovative composers of contemporary guitar music around today. His barrage of impressive techniques never gets in the way of the pieces; quite the contrary, actually. All the wilder elements, like the slapping, cascades of harmonics, and guitar percussion all serve the music, helping to create this series of vivid landscapes, which transport the listener to where Richter was when he was inspired to write “Snow Melt,” “Forest At Dusk,” “Ebb and Flow” and others.
Check out Brad playing “Leaving Marble Canyon,” the sixth track on the album, live: