360 degrees of music

Tuning the Air is a unique experience of music in three dimensions. At each performance, nine guitarists arrange themselves in a large circle creating a veritable meta-instrument. The audience, seated within and around the circle of players, inhabits this instrument to enjoy something beautiful and rare: the spatial experience of 360 degrees of music.

The repertoire – which can include anything from ambient to rock to classical to minimalist, and includes original compositions and cover tunes – is arranged to make use of this geometry. Musical structures sweep around and over the audience. Imagine an elegant extended arpeggio – and then notice that each successive note of that arpeggio is played by a different player. The performers have cultivated the capacity to play together as if they were a single instrument. Every performance is a musical tightrope walk with joy and exhilaration.

A location-based performance company

Based on the live-theater company model, Tuning the Air is an example of the location-based performance team, an idea developed by Frank Sheldon, one of the founding producers of the project. Rather than taking the show from venue to venue, TTA has established a “home” venue, where the company, featuring the nine-member guitar ensemble, production staff, and administration, stages seasons of the carefully calibrated weekly performances. (162 performances since April 2005!) Part theater, part concert, Tuning the Air defies categorization.

A short history

In the mid-nineties, Seattle became home to a group of musicians who were all alumni of Guitar Craft courses. Developed by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and based on the C-G-D-A-E-G tuning known as New Standard Tuning (NST), Guitar Craft addresses the guitar, the player, and the music in a unique discipline that has influenced players around the world. The League of Crafty Guitarists, the California Guitar Trio, the Argentinean-Japanese trio known as ZUM, and BigTime from Buenos Aires are a few of the groups that grew out of creative relationships born in Guitar Craft.

Drawn to the work of this core group, musicians from around the country have slowly migrated to Seattle. This growing community of Seattle players has experimented with different models of playing and performing together. In 2001, they formed the non-profit Seattle Circle to be a catalyst for music education in Puget Sound, hosting workshops and developing performance opportunities for players.

The first performances of Tuning the Air were held in the Seattle Circle Performance Studio, a third-floor, rented room in a community center in Ballard. This was a wonderfully cozy and intimate setting, with tea service and cushions for the audience. As their following expanded, TTA outgrew this space and went looking for other options that would make it possible to play for larger audiences.

Tuning the Air’s fourth season was held at the Capital Hill Arts Center (CHAC) in the fall of 2007. Their CHAC season brought the team more visibility within Seattle’s dynamic music scene and gave the players an opportunity to, quite literally, stretch out and play with the boundaries of the living instrument they create. The season culminated with a closing performance that enveloped 83 people.

In the spring of 2008, the company established a performance arrangement at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center (FAAC), home to an eclectic mix of performance groups and educational programs. Continuing the spirit of collaboration and play, the space at FAAC has inspired the players to make a mid-show invitation to the audience to move their chairs around and hear the show from a different vantage point. This small gesture often results in audience re-arrangements of intimate aesthetic solidarity that is a joy to see. Now, as the TTA team prepares for the opening night of its eighth season, this time in Fremont Abbey’s Great Hall, they are looking forward to the new possibilities spontaneous music-making will bring.

New musical forms

The ever-evolving outcome of the creative work of a community of people, Tuning the Air employs several musical forms that have emerged from their work together:

Circulations: Circulations can assume many forms, but the most common in Tuning the Air are improvisations based in a particular key. The players – in turn and in rotation – each play a note of their choosing from the selected key. They make their choices in response to the previously played notes, seeking out a spontaneous musicality. The result is a sweeping melody – composed – on the spot by all of the players.

Zithers: Composed circulations that are played at a rapid tempo, zithers sweep around the circle of players. Rather than a single note, each musician plays a chord. These chords overlap as they travel around the circle and create a unified gesture.

Cascades: Cascades are arpeggiated chords, woven between the players. Rather than a single gesture, cascades serve as an intricate ambiance, neither the foreground nor background to a melody, rather, its very atmosphere.

For more information on Seattle Circle, visit http://www.seattlecircle.org.