Press accounts of Michael's death:
by Matt Guthrie
© 1996 Naked Eye Press. Written in 1996 for the release of Oracle.
(Since it has not been revised, some information is out of date.)
At one of Michael Hedges 1993 concerts, a fan jokingly shouted, Play something unpredictable!, precipitating a puzzled silence from the crowd and stage. After a reflective moment, Michael responded matter-of-factly, Ive been trying to do that my whole life, precipitating thunderous applause rivaling any given to his music that evening and speaking volumes about his relationship to his audience.
Michael Hedges is perhaps the most innovative and kinetic acoustic guitarist in the history of the instrument, but he is first and foremost a composer who plays guitar, not a guitarist who plays compositions. His innovative techniques are a means to an end resulting from the demands of his compositions rather than conspicuous attempts at virtuosity. Michaels embodiment of contemporary composer, innovative guitarist, and flamboyant performer all in one has led to an eclectic style which consistently defies categorization. He has used various tongue-in-cheek phrases to describe his music over the yearsviolent acoustic, heavy mental, acoustic thrash, wacka-wacka, new edge, edgy pastoral, savage myth, deep-tissue gladiator guitarbut regardless of what he or anyone else calls it, the fact remains that he has defied classification for over fifteen years while still producing profoundly expressive music on his own terms.
Michaels life in music began in his hometown of Enid, Oklahoma, where he flirted with various instruments before focusing on flute and guitar. He eventually enrolled at Phillips University in Enid to study classical guitar, but more importantly, to study under the tutelage of his compositional mentor, E. J. Ulrich. Michael then went on to earn a degree in composition from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore while concurrently nurturing an interest in electronic music. I went to the school of modern 20th century composition. I listened to Leo Kottke, Martin Carthy, and John Martyn, but my head was headed more towards Stravinsky, Varese, Webern, and a lot of experimental composers like Morton Feldman. Michaels interest in electronic music led him in 1980 to Stanford Universitys renowned electronic music department. While playing in nearby Palo Alto, Michael was heard by Windham Hill co-founder and guitarist Will Ackerman, who later recalled, Michael tore my head off. It was like watching the guitar being reinvented.
Just prior to meeting Will Ackerman, Michael met his musical compadre, bassist Michael Manring. The two began their recording careers together on Hedges first Windham Hill release, 1981s Breakfast in the Field, an album which immediately established him as the labels rebel and the pioneer of an entirely new acoustic guitar genre as profound as that created by his self-described big brother Leo Kottke before him. While the album lacked Michaels unmistakable Earth tone which would emerge on later albums, the incredible compositions and performances led fellow musicians from David Crosby to Larry Coryell to note that a new kind of synthesis had been caught on tape.
During the next two years, Michaels compositional and performance skills exploded in sophistication, resulting in his dynamic man-band performances. Combining these developments with revolutionary acoustic guitar amplification techniques, he created a milestone recording unlike anything anyone had ever heard1984s Grammy-nominated Aerial Boundaries. The tone, mind-boggling technique, compositional sophistication, and dynamic range of expression on this recording were truly revolutionary. In a sense, Michael had left his previous album in the dust, or as Joe Gore said in his 1990 cover story in Guitar Player, the tones and techniques unveiled on his first album had fully matured, and Hedges blew the genre apart.
By 1985, it had become clear that Michael would not be confined to the limits of instrumental music, or any other category, including new agethe genre Windham Hill had essentially created. Consequently, the label created a new subsidiary label, partly to accommodate Michaels self-described eclectic record with strange-tuned folk songsWatching My Life Go By. The real crux of the issue is what a composer thinks about when he or she is writing a tune. The term new-age doesnt come into my mind when Im at my writing table or at my guitar. No categories come to my mind, and I think this is very healthy. If I did have a formula, it would be one more limitation that I would have to deal with, and Im not in this business to make limitations for myself. Im in it to get high. Thats what happens to me when I write music.
1987s Live on the Double Planet, recorded at concerts across the U.S. and Canada, is a summation of Michaels development to that point and captures the intensity of his live performance. This album features new and rearranged originals, including two compositions for harp-guitara rare instrument few have mastered and fewer still with anything approaching Michaels grace and range of expressionand three covers, including his ferocious version of All Along the Watchtower. When Im writing a piece, I write it entirely for me. When I play it, I play it entirely for the audience and the audience gives it back to me tenfold. I think you always have to keep that live connection going because thats what music is all aboutits communication between human beings. Performing is more of a sensual experiencecomposing is more of a spiritual one. Music goes from human soul to human soul. My approach to music and my approach to life are the same thing. Im not quite sure what that is, but Im always thinking about the way Im living while Im playing guitar, and Im always thinking about the way Im playing the guitar when Im living. Why think about guitar while youre playing guitar? Why not think about life? You dont want to tell people how youre playing the guitar. You want to tell people how you live. Thats the purpose of playing guitar, from my perspective.
1990s Grammy-nominated Taproot, an autobiographical myth told in music features instrumental pieces and one vocal composition set to the lyrics of e. e. cummings and was Michaels first recording in his Northern California studio, The Speech & Hearing Clinic. The concept for Taproot was influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly, both of whom encourage the development of personal myths and non-literal imagery to define and deepen identity. I have troubles like everybody else does. I needed something to put me in balance, so I wrote a story that had symbols of my life in itas Joseph Campbell would say, a myth to live by. I finished the story and solved all the problems. Then I took the names of the characters, who represent real people in my life, and the events, which are fictional but symbolic, and made them into song titles. Michaels musical catharsis was his most textural and epic to date, ranging from subdued and contemplative ensemble pieces to the savage myth guitar of the signature pieces Ritual Dance and The Rootwitch.
Michael has appeared on the cover of every major guitar magazine, winning Guitar Players readers poll award for best acoustic guitarist five years runningand was subsequently named by the magazine as one of the 25 Guitarists Who Shook the Worldbut as Taproot signaled, he had been moving beyond the limits of solo acoustic guitar. [Guitar Player] retired me to the Gallery of the Greats. I took that to mean that I no longer have to prove to anybody that I am a guitarist, thus I am now free to pursue other sounds and interests. I dont want to be limited by what people call a style. I want to write music as I feel it, not what people expect of me because of what Ive done in the past. The result was Michaels first release in four years1994s The Road to Returna predominantly vocal album with significantly more elaborate arrangements and textures than previous works. In addition to acoustic guitar, Michael performed on flutes, drums, synthesizer, harmonica and electric guitar. The Road To Return is an internal voyage. Not like a nostalgia trip. More like a vision quest.
Following The Road to Return, Michael set out on three tours accompanied by Michael Manring. As is typical for a Hedges tour, the performances were not what anyone expected. Michael surprisingly opted to largely ignore material from The Road to Return in favor of introducing many new compositions, a higher percentage of pieces performed on keyboards than ever before, and a foray into yogic performance art. Michael then toured alone for the first time in almost two years, and again surprised many listeners by leaving the keyboards at home and returning his focus to acoustic guitar and harp-guitar. Still more new compositions were featured, including four acoustic guitar instrumentals and his first vocal tune with harp-guitar.
As the abundance of new music indicated, Michael had entered a newly energized and prolific period, which continues to the present. Vocal pieces such as Torched, Rough Wind in Oklahoma, and Free Swingin Soul, and the instrumentals Dirge, Jitterboogie, and Ignition all indicated a new diversity, directness, and intensity. To accommodate the plethora of new material, Michael began work on two projectsthe first, his latest release, Oracle, and second, the tentatively titled Torched.
Oracle signals Michaels full-throttle reemergence into the world of instrumental guitar music. With the exception of his vocal cover of The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows, Oracle is Michaels most diverse and dynamic instrumental effort to date. The album ranges from the intricate and passionate solo fingerstyle pieces The 2nd Law and Baal Tshuvah to the driving acoustic thrash of Ignition to the smooth groove of Jitterboogie to the heart-wrenching Dirge and beyond. In addition, the beautiful multi-instrumental title track (originally titled Fusion of the Five Elements and eventually renamed for the Arizona town where it was written) represents the maturing of the more elaborate production techniques he had experimented with on The Road to Return.
Like his incredible live performances, Oracle further highlights Michaels love of pop and rocks legacies. His arrangements of The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows (performed as a duet with Michael Manring) and his solo guitar interpretation of Frank Zappas Sofa #1 (which Michael created at the invitation of Dweezil Zappa as part of a guitar tribute to his late father) showcase Michaels ability to distill difficult compositions to his own instrument. (Michael had the unique opportunity to perform Sofa #1 for Zappa shortly before his death). Also appearing on Oracle is Henry Mancinis Theme from HATARI!, a formative piece of music for Michael during his youth, as well as the lovely ballad When I Was Four, which was developed from one of his sons guitar tunings.
If Michaels art is driven by openness, the fates were on his side just after he finished The Road To Return. At a concert in Oregon in 1994, Michael was approached by a woman who returned a guitar to him which had been stolen from his van fifteen years earlier while opening for Jerry Garcia. The custom guitar (built by luthier Ken DuBourg and heard on much of Breakfast in the Field) was in dreadful condition, but Michael invested in its restoration and the instruments presence wound up becoming the inspiration for several of the tunes heard on Oracle.
As Michael points out, Oracle fits perfectly into the chronology of his own lifeThe Road to Return was a search for Who am I? Then my old guitar was returned and I thought, Yeah, this is part of who I am. Now, Im open. I have a feeling something new is on the horizon for me, because, after all, how many ways can you slap a guitar? Since Ive been writing songs, Im more conscious of the music Im after. It shouldnt be seen as a new phase of my playing, but just more of me.
Currently, Michael is refining new material for the tentatively titled Torched. A preview of some of the predominantly vocal material indicates a synthesis between the elaborate production of The Road to Return and the focused energy of Oracle. One gets the sense that Michael has come full-circle, albeit with a wider sweep, and, as much of his new songs suggest, is feeling reborn. Michaels genius has always been his ability to use his music as a tool for self-discovery as well as the means for expressing it. This has never been truer than right now.
Road to Return press kit
With E. J. Ulrich outside The Speech & Hearing Clinic, 1990
With Michael Manring in Virginia, 1983 (photo courtesy Michael Manring)
Performing Aerial Boundaries in Cincinnati, 1994, Photo © Naked Eye Press
Performing A Love Bizarre (#2) in Boston, 1994, Photo © Naked Eye Press
Performing Bachs Bourée with Michael Manring in New York City, 1994, Photo © Naked Eye Press
With 1920s harp-guitar, 1996 (photo courtesy Erin Proctor)
On the backyard porch, 1996