The Art of Modern/Primitive Guitar

Shawn Persinger is Prester John

Innova 610


1. What is Modern/Primitive Guitar?


A world of content musical paradoxes:

· Dark yet playful · Sophisticated yet naïve

· Technically demanding yet sloppy · Haphazard yet exact


Modern/Primitive Guitar is a style of guitar music that is the aural equivalent of the visual Modern/Primitive art form explored and developed by such painters as: Jean DuBuffet, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, William Henry Johnson, Paul Klee and Karl Appel. All of these artists were highly skilled yet worked with a more visceral approach, technique and vision. The same attitude and ideas are found in the Modern/ Primitive Guitar style.


Sonically, M/P Guitar combines the radical musical styles of avant-garde musicians such as Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith and John Zorn with the more traditional leanings of guitarists such as Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges and Larry Coryell. The vocabulary and form found in the music of such "concert works" composers as Leonard Bernstein, Astor Piazolla and Igor Stravinsky also play a role in the M/P sound.


Modern/Primitive Guitar derives its name from both the Modern/Primitive visual arts (also known as Outsider Art and L'Art Brute) and as an evolution of the American Primitive Guitar sound developed by musician John Fahey.


2. What are the Key Elements of Modern/Primitive Guitar?


As the name implies, a major element of the Modern/Primitive Guitar style is contradiction. Mixing genres and themes that seem radically dissimilar yet coexist happily by building off each other's differences. Examples of this are the musical paradoxes mentioned at the beginning of this introduction. Other characteristics that are not necessarily contradictory, and certainly are not exclusive to any one genre, include:


·  Dissonance ·  Nontraditional song structure ·  Animated  · Brevity ·  Rhythmic invention ·  Repetition

·  Large Interval Leaps (Octave Displacement) ·  Angular Melodies ·  Odd Meters ·  Aggressiveness

·  Abrupt changes in tempo, key or meter  ·  Sound effects using extended techniques, e.g.:


1. Using the guitar body as a percussive instrument. 2. Playing notes behind the nut.

3. Bending the headstock and guitar neck.                  4. Scraping the strings in a coarse manner.

5. Preparing the guitar with items such as slip rings, pencils and foam rubber.


Ultimately there are no hard and fast rules for Modern/Primitive Guitar, only elements of style. I am not interested in limiting myself (or anyone else) to only these components. Nevertheless, these are the main ingredients that create the foundation for the M/P Guitar sound.


Interestingly enough when different, specific, audiences are presented with a workshop on M/P Guitar what is "modern" and what is "primitive" can have altered meaning. What is new and unusual in one genre of music is often viewed as standard repertoire in another and vice versa. When giving a talk and demonstration at an academic-based composers conference in Washington D.C. I found that audience members thought the idea of extended technique to be conventional in the world of "concert" music. Whereas in the world of the mainstream music listener, extended technique is often a new and eye opening concept. By contrast, what most 20th century composers consider to be standard "modern" musical vocabulary i.e.: the use of dissonance and pantonality (or atonality as it is more commonly known) and extreme rhythmic syncopation, is still very foreign, shocking and "primitive" sounding to commercial audiences. It is the unification of these two distinct worlds of music I am interested in.


3. Who plays/composes Modern/Primitive Guitar?


As far as I know, I am the only musician/composer to have used this term to distinguish a style of music. But I would NOT dare to claim I am the only person playing the guitar in this manner. There are far too many guitarists on the planet for such a statement to be valid. In my search I have found other guitarists who have hinted towards similar leanings but, to my knowledge, have not produced an extended body of work or given it a classification. Composers I consider influences of this genre include: Janet Feder, Marc Ribot and Don Van Vliet, as well as all of the previously mentioned artists.


I should mention that the Cuneiform Records Compilation CD: "156 Strings" (which includes one track by Shawn Persinger is Prester John) features several guitarists working in a similar style, though most with strictly avant-garde and experimental slants. There are many excellent performances on this CD. If anyone reading this knows of other guitarists or composers working in a similar style I would love to learn about them, I have no interest in flag planting.

- Shawn Persinger, Winter 2003


All songs composed, performed and produced by Shawn Persinger

© 2004 by Shawn Persinger

Published by Prester John Music ASCAP


Recorded, mixed and mastered by Shawn Persinger at

 6 or 7 Records • New Haven, CT. • November 2003


CD art and design by Martin Stephenson

A transcription book of this album written in both standard notation and guitar tablature is

available from Quixotic Books. If you are interested in purchasing a copy please contact:

E.H.P. Productions

post office box 1338 • new haven, CT 06505 usa •

[email protected]

Contact E.H.P. for any and all correspondence and booking information.

Shawn Persinger plays Elixir Guitar Strings and Taylor Guitars

Director: Philip Blackburn

Director of Artist and Product: Chris Strouth

Innova Assistant: Chris Campell


Innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation

and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.