WHEN was the last time you heard reverse guitar? Those of a certain age and musical disposition may remember with fondness the Beatles getting venturesome with their tapes in I’m Only Sleeping or Tomorrow Never Knows, Hendrix following suit in Are You Experienced?
That other-worldly “reverse tape” sound became something of a staple in psychedelic rock, but when did you ever hear a classical guitar recorded and played back in reverse?
The eclectic Scots classical guitarist Simon Thacker pulls it off in a spectacularly weird-sounding conclusion to a striking new album, Rakshasa, with his East-West fusion quartet Svara Kanti. The album’s title track is a sort of futuristic raga, composed by Thacker, combining both forward and reversed multitracked guitar, as well as Svara Kanti’s master percussionist, Sarvar Sabri, contributing tabla drums, Tibetan singing bowls and the wobbly chimes of a waterphone. Rakshasa is Sanskrit for a kind of goblin or demon, here suitably invoked by the buzzing and gibbering of the reverse guitars, as notes fade-in to crescendo slam or slide off into the dark corners of what Thacker describes as “a parallel universe, a soundworld that subverts the natural order”.
And yes, Thacker, who is 34, can trace his own interest in backwards recording to listening to Hendrix from his mother’s record collection. He’d had the concept for the track in his head for many months before he went into Castlesound Studios, conveniently handy for his home in Pencaitland, East Lothian
“I’d never done anything manipulation-wise in the studio before,” he says, “so it took a couple of months just learning the technique. You wouldn’t believe how weird the rhythm is when reversed. The engineer was laughing his head off.”
Rakshasa’s multitracked nature precludes live performance. The other 13 tracks on the album, however, are conventionally recorded and superbly played by Thacker, Sabri, western classical violinist Jacqueline Shave (leader of the Britten Sinfonia) and north Indian vocalist Japjit Kaur. As well as his own compositions, the album features Edinburgh composer Nigel Osborne’s Five Elements, its movements ranging from the sublimely near-pastoral to flamboyant unison work between singer and instrumentalists, and the American-based Indian composer Shirish Korde’s Anusvara – 6th Prism.
It is perhaps an indication of Thacker’s stature as a musician that he can commission from the likes of Terry Riley, patriarch of American minimalism, who wrote the 14-minute SwarAmant, which develops from a languid, Ástor Piazzolla-like introduction into sometimes explosive interaction between the three instrumentalists.
“To have someone of Riley’s level write for you is a great vindication of your musical vision,” says Thacker, “and he came up with a fantastic piece.” That tango-like introduction, he suggests, is Riley “tipping his hat to the influence of the Rajasthani gypsies who are known to have travelled to Spain … and then the Spanish went to Latin America.”
Thacker’s own compositions here – including Multani for guitar, violin and tabla, which he premiered at last year’s Glasgow Jazz festival – reflect his own far-ranging musical journey: witness the echoes of flamenco that emerge in pieces such as the opening Dhumaketu. Since childhood, he says, he has been absorbing blues, jazz, flamenco, even heavy metal, along with his classical training, following these influences to where they led him. “That’s the process for basically everything I’m doing, with all these styles coalescing and developing.”
The journey continues, but not only with Svara Kanti. He is working on new programmes for his “world jazz” ensemble Camerata Ritmata with pianist Paul Harrison, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Stu Brown, which performs everything from contemporary Latin American to medieval Spanish cantigas. He’s also busy writing for a new duo with the young Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska.
Unlike the weird reversals of Rakshasa, Thacker’s progress seems one of unstoppably forward motion.
• Rakshasa is on Slap the Moon records, see www.simonthacker.com