Interview with Chris Gibson of Tuning the Air and League of Crafty Guitarists

Are you looking for a unique musical experience? How about one where the audience is surrounded by the musicians? What if I told you that all nine musicians play the same instrument? Now in its 10th season, the guitar ensemble – Tuning the Air – effortlessly switches from rock ‘n roll to classical and everything in between. There is a high level of musicianship, but the results sound like anything but. Tuning the Air is not just about music… it is about the experience. I recently spoke with Chris Gibson who was appointed the Musical Director of Tuning the Air in March 2010.

One Louder Magazine: What is Tuning the Air?

Chris Gibson: TTA is a performance project of Seattle Circle employing a live ‘surround sound’ configuration with musicians encircling the audience. We wanted to bring a location based performance team to Seattle.

OLM: How did the idea come about? What is its history?

CG: I find that this link to our website sums up these two questions well.

OLM: How did you get involved?

CG: I began going to Guitar Craft Weekends and Weeklong Courses in 1997. In Seattle there were many Guitar Craft students who decided to work together on a regular basis. This is known as the Seattle Circle now. To this day many of the guitarists from 1997 are in TTA.

OLM: Guitar Craft…is that the same thing as the League of Crafty Guitarists?

CG: The League of Crafty Guitarists is the performance-ensemble of Guitar Craft, a group which includes players from all over the world. The group performs on acoustic steel string guitars tuned in the New Standard Tuning (NST – CGDAEG), which extends the sonic range of the traditional guitar tuning. Its repertoire is constantly evolving and is open to all styles. The music remains true to a common conceptual approach, and includes a rich variety of original compositions. The LCG was founded in 1986 under the direction of Robert Fripp [King Crimson, et al] and toured worldwide until 1991.

During this first period of activity, several albums were released: Live 1, Get Crafty, Live 2 – Live at Victoriaville Festival, Show Of Hands and Live 3 – Intergalactic Boogie Express. The LCG returned to live performance in January 2002 under the direction of Hernan Nunez, and has been touring and recording in Europe and Latin America since then. The release of a live album featuring the highlights of these tours is now in process. Robert Fripp’s Soundscapes and The LCG toured Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and the United States between June 2006 and July 2009.

As for my involvement, I have worked and toured with the North American League of Crafty Guitarists, directed by Curt Golden, from 2003 – 2004. We did not tour with Robert Fripp, though. We worked in the Atlanta, GA area for 10 weeks, followed by a West Coast tour. A CD was released called Aspiration.

OLM: How often does the Tuning the Air group meet for practice? How often do you practice on your own?

CG: We rehearse twice weekly and perform every Thursday. As for my own practice, I would not say that it is always guitar practice. Instead, I spend time working on composition as well as keeping my guitar playing up to a performance level – approximately three hours a day if I am able.

OLM: How is a set list chosen?

CG: As Music Director of TTA, I get to choose the set list. I take a look at how TTA can tell a story with the music that we have available. We are constantly working in new material to keep it fresh for the audience as well as keeping the players engaged in the creative process.

OLM: What song would you like to see included on the set list?

CG: We are working on Neptune from Gustav Holst, The Planets. It is a very demanding piece. I would like to see that in the set list very soon.

OLM: With nine guitarists, who determines who gets to play what part?

CG: As the Music Director, it is ultimately up to me. I do ask for collaboration and group involvement, as well. We look at what the needs of the song are in a circular performance. How it will sound to the audience.

OLM: What happens if one of the members can’t make one of the shows (e.g. out of town, sick, etc)?

CG: We have not had this happen in awhile. Life does get in the way sometimes and when it does we modify the show. Many of us can play some of the other parts which comes in handy if this happens.

OLM: Where would you like to see Tuning the Air go? How do you see it evolving?

CG: I would like to see it become a bigger part of the community and we do love playing at the Fremont Abbey. I see us sustaining an audience of around 50-100 every week. Right now we are averaging around 35-60, which is a great evolution from five years of TTA.

OLM: How long do you intend to be a part of Tuning the Air?

CG: I intend to be a part of TTA until there is no TTA! Who can say what the future holds? More music of course!

OLM: Do you know of any other musical experience like Tuning the Air in Seattle? Have you experienced other ‘surround sound’ configurations like Tuning the Air in other parts of the world as an audience member?

CG: None that I have heard of in Seattle. I have never been to a performance where I was in the middle of the players anywhere in the world. I’m sure there is something similar out there, but I haven’t seen it yet. We are very unique in that.

OLM: You crossed paths with Robert Fripp recently. How did that happen? What’s the story there?

CG: Since my initial exposure to Guitar Craft in 1997, I have been very active in the Seattle Circle as well as going to other parts of the world to work with others in this way. Robert has directed most of these courses. I was involved in one of Robert’s courses in Italy in March of this year. After a week of work together we performed as Robert Fripp and The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. It included 100+ guitarists. We performed in a very beautiful old church in a place called Sassoferrato. Here are a few YouTube videos of that performance:

OLM: Very interesting stuff. With a 100+ guitarists, there must be a method to the madness. What is it? What do you gain from attending these courses? Do you plan on attending more of these Orchestra courses in the future?

CG: Well, it was hard to see the whole of the performance as one of the 100+ players in the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. I just trusted the vision that Robert had and did my best to be awake and aware of the sounds and players moving around me. I had to let go of any preconceived musical ideas and notions. I needed to respond to what was happening in real-time. That was very difficult most of the time.

What do I gain from attending these courses? I would like to say that I have seen what it’s like to do something with high quality. This includes playing music, cooking, sharing space with others, etc. These can all be accomplished at a certain level of competence, but what if you could raise the bar a little and see what you can contribute to the situation to make it better for everyone? If that carries over into an Orchestra performance, even better! As for the future, I would like to attend another Orchestra project if time and scheduling allows.

OLM: How long did it take you to learn how to play in Fripp’s New Standard Tuning?

CG: I would say five to six years to get familiar with the tuning. I have been working with it since 1997. It is definitely a lifelong pursuit.

OLM: Do you ever play in standard tuning [EADGBE] anymore? How about any other tunings? Do you have a favorite tuning? What is it and why?

CG: I have not played in standard tuning since 1998 and I’m not really interested in other tunings.  No particular reason, though; NST keeps me busy as it is. As for EADGBE, there are too many ghosts floating around from earlier years. Anytime I pick up a regular guitar I play old tricks and licks. There is not much connection with who I am now. It’s a very strange thing to put into words. Imagine moving back to your first apartment or driving your car that you had in high school. For me there is more to explore in NST.

OLM: The League of Crafty Guitarists has released several albums. Is your playing on any of them?

CG: No. Those were released before my involvement in Guitar Craft.

OLM: The California Guitar Trio got their start via The League of Crafty Guitarists. They have released a dozen albums and gone on to play international tours, including opening for King Crimson, John McLaughlin, Taj Mahal and many more. Do you see yourself trying to follow in their footsteps or are you happy to be playing locally with Tuning the Air?

CG: I am not personally interested in extensive touring at this time, and that would be essential to that kind of pursuit. The reason we play once a week is to try and bring the touring experience to a local performance base. There are over three million people in the Seattle area. We have our work cut out for us.

OLM: In your teens and early 20s you played guitar in a progressive metal band [Continuum]. Do you ever feel the need to just “plug-in-and-shred” like the old days?

CG: Yes! I am currently working on a solo CD that is influenced by progressive metal as well as ambient and jazz overtones. It should be completed by year’s end.

OLM: Will this be something for yourself and friends or are you looking for distribution? Will there be live shows? What’s the name of this project? Is anyone else from Tuning the Air on it?

CG: I will look to do some distribution once the album is completed. I think this could be fun in a live setting if I could find the right players. The project has no name yet, but I want to stay away from things like The Chris Gibson Experience or Chris Gibson Presents… I need something with a ring to it. We’ll see. I have asked a few TTA friends to play on it, as well as keyboardist Chris Wood from my Continuum days [Ed note: see also Fan of the Month]. There will be some heavy-duty harmonica on one tune.

OLM: What guitars are you currently playing? What amps? Are there any specific devices, foot pedals, rack mount gear, etc, that you use to acquire your tone?

CG: I play an Ibanez SZ320MH. I replaced the pickups with DiMarzio DP228 Crunch Lab and DP227 LiquiFire. I have been really into Guitar Rig 4 from Native Instruments. It seems to do the trick for the tone I want for the CD: Modern Polished Metal Tone.

OLM: The desert island question: if you could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?

CG: The Beatles, Ozric Tentacles, Johann Sebastian Bach, Django Reinhardt, Pantera.

OLM: Ooh, Pantera…nice! Do you envision Tuning the Air ever playing one of their tunes?

CG: That probably won’t happen. A Pantera riff would be fun to play around with, though.

OLM: Who is your guilty listening pleasure?

CG: Jim Croce.

OLM: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Chris…last question! How can people get more information about Tuning the Air and The League of Crafty Guitarists?

CG: Tuning the Air and The League of Crafty Guitarists

Check out Tuning the Air’s YouTube Channel

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