Release Radar: Houston Composer George Heathco Creates an Album of Guitar Orchestras
AS AN ART form, Western composition in the 21st century isn’t all that different from what it was when Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven somehow, without the aid of computers and social media, managed to harness the forces necessary to get what they heard in their head to the ears of a (hopefully) appreciative audience.
Centuries later, the tools of the trade now include amplified instruments and digital recording software — but composing still requires a good set of ears, plenty of imagination, and free time to get your ideas down on paper (or tape).
Enter Houston guitarist and composer George Heathco, whose new album George Heathco Solo Ensemble, Volume One is a collection of electric and acoustic guitar instrumentals encompassing tightly scored orchestral arrangements, trippy soundscapes, and everything in between. It’s another impressive addition to Heathco’s already extensive resume, which includes composing music for Chapman Dance, Da Camera of Houston, and the University of Houston’s AURA Contemporary Ensemble, and is a great introduction for open-minded listeners to the compositional potential of the electric guitar.
Self-produced and self-released, George Heathco Solo Ensemble, Volume One will be available wherever music is streamed or sold on March 10. In the meantime, you can preview two tracks from the album, the dark, and brooding “Terlingua,” which wouldn’t sound out of place as the soundtrack to a Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino film, and “Dancer,” a stripped-down interlude of folkish counterpoint hovering over an ominous and shifting beds of reverb — evoking memories of sound minus the sound itself. Heathco’s playing throughout GHSE is expressive, tasteful, and conceptually tight, even in moments of noise and near-psychedelic weirdness
“I grew up playing a lot of ‘shred’ guitar and a lot of fast stuff,” says Heathco, who over time has found himself more interested in “space and silence” in his playing and composing. “We think we have to impress all the time,” says Heathco of himself and his axe-wielding brethren. “I think sometimes you get the most impact off of the smallest of gestures.”
Heathco recorded the album’s many layers of electric and acoustic guitars and occasional bass alone in his home studio in the hours after teaching music at The Tenney School. (Heathco now works for HGO as its community and learning programs coordinator.) A few major inspirations for the project include guitarist Les Paul’s pioneering experiments with multitracking; jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s skill in creating music with loops and overdubbed guitars (“He’s always got some ever flowing, every evolving harmonic landscape that’s based on very simple things,” says Heathco.); and the music of Steven Mackey, a rock guitarist who composes chamber and orchestral pieces that include electric guitar.
Heathco also drew inspiration from a daily practice regimen he originated and named the “One Hour Minute,” a sort of “musical journal” in which Heathco sets himself the task to compose and fully produce one minute of music in exactly one hour, using the first idea that popped into his mind. The process helped him discover musical ideas that felt natural and provided a personal outlet apart from commercial work, where he isn’t necessarily working to satisfy a collaborator or please an audience.
As the recording’s digital release date approaches, on social media, Houston’s rock, jazz, and classical music community is rallying its support and enthusiasm for the project. Heathco is quick to acknowledge the support he received from his wife, a former oboist and now program director at American Festival for the Arts, and their 13-year-old daughter.
“It starts to feel more like a collective,” says Heathco of family life. “My daughter loves crafting and making and doing all sorts of things and putting out work as well. It becomes this kind of endless wave when everyone around you is sharing something of their own.”