David Torn’s only sky is a wonderful addition to, and a unique artifact within, the ECM Records catalogue. While I don’t necessarily agree with the “New Age” genre classification that automatically appeared in my iTunes window when loading it to my library, Torn’s music certainly and quickly transcends jazz and classical labels and notions – however broad – within the album’s first few minutes.
only sky is my first foray into David Torn’s work, at least as a solo artist. Aside from being peripherally aware of his past ECM releases, I was keen on this release because of the cross-promotion he’d been doing with saxophonist Tim Berne, a longtime associate of his and someone whose own playing I’ve come to know and admire these last couple years. (Berne also released a new album on ECM this year – You’ve Been Watching Me, produced by Torn, which is quite good. Relatedly, Berne is credited with some of the photography in the Torn liner notes.) And, to put an oddly selfish point on it, before purchasing the album I was struck to learn that Torn performed at Baltimore’s The Windup Space on only sky‘s release tour, which is a small, hip arts venue where Matt Borghi and I performed during last year’s east coast tour. As much as I love ECM and not-so-secretly aspire (in vain, admittedly) to one day join its ranks myself, part of me just wanted to know why such an artist would play a venue suitable for the likes of me (i.e., someone of much lower status). However, having absorbed Torn’s solo work on only sky, I can say that his intimate approach must’ve been a perfect fit for that room in Baltimore.
only sky is a solo album, featuring Torn on guitar and electric oud along with myriad real-time effects and processing. So, even though it’s just one performer and his instrument, Torn creates a sonically expansive universe riddled with nine unique, engaging soundworlds. Improvisation is key, with each piece being heavily if not fully realized on the spot. The first track, “at least there was nothing,” is perfectly emblematic of this. The desolate, calm beginning includes multiple layers of sound. Without the liner notes, one wouldn’t even immediately know that a guitar is the source. This textural – almost ambient – approach continues for a while, with an electric oud eventually entering with the album’s first monodic statements after over five minutes.
Lest you think the whole album is one meditatively ambient work, each tune explores different sonic territory. “spoke with folks,” the next track, changes course and heads in an almost Americana direction. Beginning with a diatonic, folk-like melody, Torn speaks through various iterations that gradually add distortion and head into psychedelic territory, which opens the door for the more rock-based explorations in “ok, shorty.”
“was a cave, there…” returns to the ambient-friendly aesthetic of the album’s opening. But where “at least there was nothing” is like sinking into a warm bath, “was a cave, there…” is like exploring the cold, unpredictable realms of space, featuring dissonance, processing, and effects. Torn then turns your attention from cosmic considerations to those of the Delta blues in “reaching barely, sparely fraught.” Over the rhythmic ostinato of open harmonies, Torn plays a blues that often borders on the swampy. Just as with the previous selections, he’s venturing into new sonic and stylistic grounds. The near devolution into distortion and processing at the very end of the track foreshadows what’s to come in “i could almost see the room.” Here, Torn uses what I’ll call aggressive “harmonic processing” that sound more akin saxophone multiphonics than solo guitar. (I’m not a guitarist, so that’s all I’ve got. Sorry, gunslingers.) This piece features a rough ABA’ form, with with some soloing over self-accompaniment falling in between the multiphonic-like sections.
The title track is a contemplative ballad of sorts, cleansing the palette of the more dissonant and tense playing immediately before. In fact, one could consider this the beginning of the album’s descent, as only sky‘s golden section occurs within the aggressive “i could almost see the room,” suggesting a gradual coming down through the rest of the selections.
The peaceful “so much what” features a lot of washy, strummed chords that eventually give way to almost whale-like calls. This fades into an angelic sound bed, which decrescendos to make room for one of the few instances of “pure” (in tone) guitar soloing to close out the track. It’s a rare glimpse into what Torn may sound like before being fully plugged in. Finally, “a goddamned specific unbalance” picks up where its predecessor left off, with some more soloing, though this time with a more affected tone and starting out in a monodic fashion. This is one of the few instances of arguably jazzy riffing throughout the album. Almost as an inverse of the first track, the soloing eventually transitions to more robust textures after several minutes, eventually moving along and fading into the ether as skies often do.
As I mentioned at the outset, Torn transcends stylistic labels here. Furthermore, there are only a couple instances in which his playing reminds me of others, be it explicitly (though I doubt intentionally) or otherwise. For example, there are a couple brief seconds in the jazz-like soloing of the final track in which I hear shades of John Abercromie (specifically when playing with Charles Lloyd, though his work with Gateway could also be considered sonically related), and a couple of the quasi-ambient passages remind me of Matt Borghi‘s guitar work. No doubt allusions are made to Robert Fripp in various reviews, but, to me, Borghi’s more “orchestral” and arguably un-guitar-like approach to the instrument sticks out as more sonically related. Matt often refers to parts of his guitar work as “contemplative microsymphonies,” a term that, along with an extra dash or two of rock, safely applies to much of only sky.
If you’re looking for something different, thought-provoking, and intimate, I highly recommend this album. I’m glad I took the plunge; you will be, too.
[Hear me discuss the album on today’s episode of The Sound Traveler Podcast here.]