You would be excused for suspecting there's a secret subtext to A Man About a Horse (ECM). Minnesotan guitarist Steve Tibbetts admits that the ebbing and flowing compositions, held together by Indonesian drumming patterns, sheets of feedback-laden electric guitar, and delicate acoustic guitar passages, gang up to tell a story. But he's keeping mum about what the story is, not wanting to spoil our internal video of his emotionally charged if cryptic saga.
But there's another tale to this Horse, and hornets take the starring role. Tibbetts was cleaning the rain gutters of his house and keeping a respectful distance from a formidable wasp nest. But the hornets wanted a larger personal space than Tibbetts had allowed them. They streamed from the nest in an angry funnel cloud that deposited him on the ground, right hand first. He didn't realize the fall had broken his wrist until the crack of his bat at a softball game harmonized with the crack of bone. The solution for staving off long-term arthritis was to allow a surgeon to "slice my wrist open, pin the skin back like a frog in biology class, and drill, screw, and suture things together with bone shavings 'harvested' from my hip," he explains in a background bio. The procedure had to wait until Tibbetts could afford it, which meant after a 40-city tour with Tibetan nun Choying Drolma, who collaborated with Tibbetts on Cho.
Since Tibbetts wouldn't be able to play guitar for six to eight weeks after surgery, he put together a go-for-broke album ahead of time, first laying down percussive tracks culled from his 1991 drum studies in Bali, then performing what he calls the "beserker" electric guitar parts in a single night. "Much of the guitar on this album is from that night. It's sliced, diced, turned inside out and backwards, and often left as is," he says.
While you'd be hard-pressed to say that the results fit into the usual world-music pigeonhole, the Asian instrument samples are omnipresent, the guitar is influenced by equal portions Jimi Hendrix and Indian sarangi player Sultan Khan, and a well-dispersed Eastern philosophic cloud hangs over the whole shebang. Shimmering metallophone notes, choral murmurs, and buzzing guitar textures rise and fall in an atmospheric setting with more layers than a memory of early childhood. The intensive inward directedness suggests devotional music of the Indian subcontinent or maybe the Himalayas. That's no surprise considering Tibbetts's numerous treks throughout Asia from 1985 to 1996 and his Buddhist studies in Vermont.
Eschewing typical song development, compositions surge with naturalistic energy in place of narrative thrust. The approach resembles Chinese traditional music, which mulls over such themes as the ripeness of a fig, the flight of a stork, the fall of leaves on the Yangtze River, and other worldly events that unfold without the need for a climactic resolution. This topography of introspection doesn't merely turn familiar musical landmarks inside out. Tibbetts yanks out the road signs and mileage markers, too, stranding his audience inside a dense chasm of sound with scant indication of where we are and where we're heading. The only solution is to shut up and take it all in. But that doesn't mean A Man About a Horse has anything in common with meditative music. The slashing rhythms of "Chandoha" yoked to alternating quiet and eardrum-shattering dynamics of glorious noise guitar excursions would probably drive anyone but Robert Fripp out of the friendly neighborhood isolation tank.
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The unrelenting descriptiveness can lead to listening drudgery. As the free-floating melodic motifs and exotic timbres begin piling up, it's easy to feel overpowered by sonic sensations and simultaneously underwhelmed by structure. The trouble is compounded because Tibbetts is secretive about the objects and events his songs describe. The title "Red Temple" seems to provide insight into one song until you scan the rest of the back cover and sigh to find "Black Temple" and "Burning Temple" included as well. Ultimately these titles lapse into high-mountain names "Locahan," "Chandoha," and "Koshala," which do little more than reinforce the fact that dropoffs and sheer cliff walls surround us.
Headphones are essential survival gear. Or find a place where you can listen loud enough without disturbing spouses, neighbors, innocent yak herders, or yeti. Let your attention waver, and Tibbetts's big looming landscape suddenly evaporates as quickly as a snowflake on the stove. Yet even a few moments of dedicated attention hatch gorgeous moments such as the bronze-instrument guitar figures near the end of "Burning Temple" that open up just enough to allow the entry of a songbird. And while you miss the middle section of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" or the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" at your peril, you can wander upstairs during Tibbetts's "Glass Everywhere" to feed your cat confident that another series of perfectly rendered micro-events patiently awaits your return.
Probably 80 listenings or so would establish the great, grand groundwork from which this inner well flows. Fortunately Horse is unobtrusively rewarding enough to hold up to that many listenings, and it sounds different nearly every time it plays. If anything, the concentration required to reap the disc's rewards becomes the theme of the song cycle. The music functions as a summons to, metaphysically speaking, wake up, because you need to be awake to appreciate the music. Like a mandala, Horse is both a map and the thing that's being mapped.
Lots of musicians collect instruments and genres from Asia and assemble them into cosmopolitan dance tracks or ambient fare with the inevitable reductions and silly juxtapositions. Tibbetts yokes Asian instrumental sounds and percussive patterns with a way of thinking about music that isn't obviously derivative of East or West. The result is an album of borderless compositions that comes close to a true world music open-ended enough to find an audience just about anywhere on the globe, depending, of course, on the amount of slack you're willing to cut him. And then there's the wasp attack, and the irony that a man whose guitar playing resembles a monstrous cloud of hornets should fall victim to the stinger and tumble to the ground. It sort of serves him right for Horse.