Marisa AndersonPhoto by Jason Quigley

No Words Necessary

A primer on instrumental music with Marisa Anderson

Aside from a few detours like surf and prog rock, the vast majority of post-rock ‘n’ roll popular music falls into traditional song structure, a structure that more often than not includes a vocalist.

Classically trained Portland guitarist Marisa Anderson has built a career playing instrumental guitar music that blends elements of rock and pop with folk and classical — an experimental style that in performance doesn’t exactly fit anywhere but mostly ends up in rock-oriented venues, especially since she often writes and performs on electric guitar. 

There’s a psychedelic quality to Anderson’s knotty phrasing, a little like John Fahey, as well as a new-age mood and atmosphere, and sonic textures from all over the world. For her, the guitar is a mode of transport into the subconscious, where empty space is as important as tone and the overtones produced by fingers and frets are allowed to ring out, taking on a life of their own. 

Anderson’s most recent album, Cloud Corner, came out in 2018, and she plays Eugene this time supporting Godspeed! You Black Emperor, a Canadian group on the forefront of an instrumental rock movement called post-rock.

Godspeed’s last album, Luciferian Towers, came out in 2017. It’s titanic music, with very little central style or tone, as heavy as metal, as breathless as free jazz and as challenging as Igor Stravinsky 

I ask Anderson what draws her to write and play instrumental music.

“When there’s words they tend to take center stage,” she tells me from her home in Portland. “When there’s a voice, it takes the main focus. While that’s fun to do, I love accompanying good singers. When playing instrumental music, my vocabulary is so much greater,” she adds.

“When there’s a song to be sung, you’re at the mercy of structure. Instrumental music you can be more creative structurally,” she says.

Anderson grew up in a small town in California. Her mom was a musician. “She played piano and flute,” Anderson recalls. “I would tag along to her flute lessons.”

When it came time for Anderson to pick an instrument of her own, her mom suggested the clarinet, but Anderson wasn’t interested. 

“I just said guitar,” she remembers. “That’s what came out of my mouth. I started off playing classical music as a kid. My introduction was an instrumentalist, as an accompanist.”

As a listener, how does Anderson appreciate instrumental music?

“It depends. Sometimes I’m listening just because I want to feel the music. Other times, very analytically,” she says. Dynamics are important for Anderson, as well as “the sense the people playing are listening to each other.”

She isn’t always writing new music, especially when her performance schedule is packed. “When I’m in performing mode that channel is not quite open,” Anderson says, but impressions of life feed her writing, and those windows are always open. 

“When I’m home, the flood gates open,” she says.

Marisa Anderson opens for Godspeed! You Black Emperor 8 pm Wednesday, Aug. 21, at McDonald Theatre; $34.50 advance, $37 door, all-ages.

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