Trembles from William Hellermann March 13, 1978

He begins by clicking a little steel bar against the end of his amplified acoustic guitar, slowly moving down, so that the bar clicks a little louder, between the two rows of tuning pegs. Gradually the louder clicking takes over from the softer clicking.

(The composer-performer is William Hellermann, and the scene is Phill Niblock’s loft, where Hellermann premiered his new guitar solo, ‘Tremble,’ as part of the Experimental Intermedia series last month. The sounds are relatively soft, but they have a rich resonance because they feed into an air mike and a contact mike, are amplified through Niblock’s fine sound system, and have a 20-foot ceiling to bounce off of.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar occasionally tinkles against the end of one of the strings. Gradually the tinkling has taken over from the clicking.

(The little steel bar in his right hand trembles erratically against the instrument in a quick tight motion. Little fluctuations in tempo and unpredictable accents seem to be determined by his trembling muscles, rather than by any conscious control. The resulting rhythms are more biological than musical, and fascinating to listen to.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar occasionally knocks against the wood just above the first fret. Gradually the knocking has taken over from the tinkling.

(By this time the logic of the piece is pretty clear, and there is little doubt that Hellermann is going to keep trembling the little steel bar on his guitar until he gets to the bottom of his instrument. If it were a murder mystery, we would probably stop reading, but it’s music, and it sounds good, and the fact that we can predict where it’s going seems more reassuring than frustrating.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar occasionally rings against the strings. Gradually the ringing has taken over from the knocking.

(One thing I like about the piece is the way it reflects the structure of the instrument. This music is not merely idiomatic for the guitar, it uses a sequence of sounds that comes directly from the structure of the instrument itself. There’s something appealing about the objectivity of the idea.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar occasionally clicks against one of the frets as it moves down the strings. Gradually a combination of clicking and ringing has taken over from the ringing.

(Written language is of course inadequate in cases like this, and I can’t expect you to know very precisely what the clicking and ringing really sound like. But perhaps it will help if I say that none of the sounds are quite like anything I’ve heard before, and remind you that they are all being amplified over a fine sound system.)

Quite a few minutes later he has moved past the fingerboard to the area over the sound hole, and then his left hand begins its way down the fingerboard. Gradually the strings have shortened, and an ever-changing sequence of quick chords has taken over from the combination of ringing and clicking.

(By this time the piece has been going on for perhaps half an hour, and Hellermann is showing signs of fatigue. Muscles rebel tremendously when asked to make quick little trembling motions for an extended period of time, but Hellermann presses on. The performance becomes not only a musical act and a commitment to a logical process, but also a display of dogged determination, if not outright masochism.)

Soon he breaks the logic of the piece by moving his left hand back up the fingerboard, where it came from. The ever-changing sequence of quick chords moves into a lower register, though by this time one is also quite aware of high tones, which are produced by the short ends of the strings, between the little steel bar and the bridge he is now approaching.

(Later I asked Hellermann why he had broken the downward logic of the piece at this point, and he explained that he was heading for a G that matched the resonant frequency of the room, providing a special sonority for the end of the piece. For me this effect did not seem worth marring the otherwise neat logic of ‘Tremble,’ but I’m not really complaining, since it was the only false move in the whole performance.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar begins booming right 1978/garrett-list-brings-them-together to the bridge. Gradually the booming has taken over from the ringing chords.

(By this time I am trying to figure out how this exceptional piece fits in with Hellermann’s work as a whole, and I am not having much success. Much of his work is humorous. None of it, so far as I know, deals with a simple logical progression as obsessively as this. And I have never seen him play with the kind of extreme performance energy required here. ‘Tremble’ is quite a new direction for him, I think.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar begins cracking on the bridge itself, right 1978/garrett-list-brings-them-together to the microphone. Gradually the cracking has taken over from the booming.

(This is the loudest point in the piece. He is not attacking the bridge hard enough to actually hurt the instrument, but the bar in his trembling hand comes down with fairly solid whacks, and by the time the cracking gets through the loudspeakers, it sounds like the room is full of carpenters. The piece has almost reached the 45-minute mark, and Hellermann’s right hand must be nearly numb with tension. By now it’s strictly a matter of mind over muscles.)

A few minutes later he has moved down a little farther, so that the bar begins tapping softly under the bridge. Gradually the soft tapping has taken over from the cracking, and the piece comes to an end.

(This is one of the most involving pieces of severe minimalism I have heard in a long time, and I am tempted to end with a parenthetical regret that only 15 or 20 people were there to experience it. But the fact is that Hellermann had originally planned to present one of his older, safer pieces, and it was only at the last minute that he worked up his courage to try ‘Tremble’ in public. Bold experiments of this sort simply can’t happen in widely advertised concerts, which underlines once again the value of small, informal showcase outlets such as the Experimental Intermedia series. Now that we know the piece works, Hellermann will probably be trembling all over, but the excitement will never be quite the same as it was that first time, when neither he nor anyone else quite knew whether he would be able to get through it.)