As inscrutably simplistic as the Rothko multiforms that inspired them, the seven “blues” studies on Loren Connors’ Blues: The Dark Paintings of Mark Rothko on the surface only hint at their visionary complexity. A commentary on the perception of blues-based music as much as Rothko’s paintings were on the notion of contemporary art, Connors’ unapologetically avant-garde approach to this decidedly tradition, American art form requires a great deal more consideration than it is often afforded in order to fully land. Sparsely structured and largely subdued, this is primitive music rendered as high art: post-modern deconstructions, American primitivism through Abstract Expressionism.
Originally released in a series of 200 on Connors’ own St. Joan label in 1990, Blues, a long sought after piece in the voluminous Connors catalog, is finally granted the wider release it rightly deserves. Those familiar with Connors’ basic aesthetic will largely know what to expect with these sparsely constructed solo guitar experiments: it’s an approach to the guitar as immediately identifiable as that of Rothko’s to the canvas. Built around series of bent upper register notes and lazily contemplative bass notes, these seven tracks often sound more like a duet than the work of just one man.
But the approach is far too deliberately contemplative, often bordering on hesitant, to be anything but a solo performance; the work of one mind seeking to recreate visual representations of emotions within an auditory context. Approximating the sound and feel of the Rothko’s that inspired these performances, tones blend into one another. A slide passage or warbling, bent note will become lost in the droning of the bass strings just as those same low strings melt into the brighter, more melodic phrases emanating from the upper reaches of the guitar’s neck.
Like the paintings themselves, the music is unhurried, unfussy, largely unadorned with superfluous flourishes. Instead there’s a slowly unfurling, deliberate approach that adds an emotional depth and resonance to each phrase. Operating on the gentler end of the avant-garde guitar spectrum, Connors here often feels almost tentative, hesitant in his note choices, feeling out each to find the appropriate emotional resonance to approximate the impenetrable paintings of Rothko.
On “Blues No. 4”, his slide work and subtle bass progression sounds like that of an old cowboy song, lost and wandering on the range for years, delirious and little more than the shadow of its former self. It’s one of the more structurally recognizable performances here in terms of an apparent chord progression, but even that, like Rothko’s paintings, toys with the basic notion of understood form and function. Where others deliberately wander, here he hints at traditional song structure without ever fully embracing it, teasing fragments of recognizable melodies here and there to often infuriating degrees. Like all good art, it provokes a response and makes the listener feel something.
While his playing can be as frustratingly vague and seemingly simplistic as Rothko’s multiforms, there is an inimitable quality to these performances that could come from no one other than Connors. Just as amateur attempts to cop Rothko’s approach would fall far short, so too would those looking to deconstruct guitar-based music in a manner approximating Connors. It’s an astonishingly complex approach to simplicity that requires a great deal of thought and emotional context to fully execute. That Connors manages so deftly to do so here is further testament to his genius.