Atlanta: What Has 18 Strings and a Quartertone Fretboard?

Mark Gresham
Mark Gresham
Photo by Angela Lee

Athens, Georgia, is probably best known as having been a hotbed of new wave and other alternative rock music during the 1980s and ’90s—the origin and home of such bands as R.E.M. and the B-52s. But this capital of “Dawg Country,” greatly centered upon the University of Georgia and its football culture, has also been a cultivator of the artistically curious and unconventional in many ways.

Athens composer-performer Erik Hinds is one of its creative independents and an occasional visitor to Atlanta’s own alternative spaces, such as Eyedrum. But this December 1, Hinds appeared at one of the city’s smallest musical venues, A Cappella Books, at the behest of staff member Chad Radford. Located in the in-town counterculture neighborhood of Little Five Points, the tiny bookstore occasionally hosts informal musical appearances at the back of its retail space, in a cozy empty area that can accommodate maybe a dozen or so people at most, seated and standing combined. As such, it’s actually an ideal, quiet space for an intimate appraisal of solo music from Hinds’s “H’arpeggione,” a unique instrument with aspects found in guitar, cello, and some other real and imaginable stringed instruments.

“The H’arpeggione is an instrument built for me by Fred Carlson of Santa Cruz, California,” explains Hinds. “I came up with the name, a combination of Hardanger fiddle (a sympathetic stringed violin from Norway) and arpeggione (a bowed guitar from Schubert’s era). The instrument design was a collaborative effort and built as an expanded range (pitch-wise and timbrally) guitar departure.” An acoustic, upright, quartertone-fretted, 6-string instrument, tuned from a contrabass Ab up to Eb (half-step below the high E on a guitar), the H’arpeggione also has 12 resonating sympathetic strings which run through the neck, emerge over the body, and to a separate “buzzing” bridge. The body, made of black walnut with a belly made of recycled redwood, is larger than an acoustic guitar but smaller than a cello. It features an arched fingerboard and bridge, so it can be plucked or bowed, played across the lap like a guitar or, thanks to a supportive endpin, in upright playing position. “I use a piezo pickup to amplify it through two amps [at the same time], one clean, one a little fuzzy,” says Hinds.

Erik Hinds
Erik Hinds with his H’arpeggione
Photo by Delene Porter

Hinds’s performance for the evening was almost entirely improvised, the exceptions being a unique cover of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” and his own “Koité,” an original instrumental song dedicated to Habib Koité, a singer/guitarist from Bamako, Mali. Yes, all on solo amplified H’arpeggione. (Hinds’s live recording of “Koité” includes drums along with unamplified H’arpeggione.)

Despite the quartertone fretting of the instrument, Hinds’s music is hardly the kind that focuses upon rigidly-organized machinations of pitch. Instead, his improvisations draw more attention to variety in timbre and articulation, almost reminiscent of speech, with an undercurrent of driving pulse, whether Hinds is playing with guitar-like technique (which he does most frequently) or in his rare use of the bow which allows him to call forth cyclic drones of color that wail and throb meditatively.

It’s not difficult to pick up on the inspirations. Hinds cites African influences on the one hand, including his personal encounter in 2001 with the highest maleem (master) of Gnawa music, Mahmoud Ghania (or Gania). On the other hand, in the past few years Hinds says he has also consistently been moving away from composed or “pre-determined” music back to his roots as an improviser, a process of getting back to a “natural self” and a “spontaneous” music.

“I began as an improvisational musician when I was 12 years old,” says Hinds. “I feel like, intrinsically, I was instantly able to make music that wasn’t necessarily dependant on genre, time signature, anything like that; almost naturally side-stepping a lot of the hallmarks of what we consider appropriate or acceptable Western music. But I learned quickly that if I wanted to play with other people, I would need to figure out some of [those] specifics, like deliberate pitch and rhythm. So this has been a long process. What I’ve finally been able to do is to shed my music of some of the devices that made my music ‘coherent,’ some of the obvious trappings, so I’m left with underpinnings that still reference what was happening naturally when I was young.”

And his personal use of the quartertone tuning of the H’arpeggione actually falls into that philosophy of avoiding structural conventions of pitch. “That’s something people have talked about,” says Hinds, “and they say, ‘oh you must have some system you’ve developed with the quartertones and certain scales,’ and other things like that. But my approach, with or without the quartertone option, is generally seeking to have a focal or pivot pitch and rotate around that freely. So I’m not thinking in terms of modes or scales, but in terms of a kind of a drone setting.

“One of the things I’m really interested in is taking a single string, and if I play it, whether I pluck it or bow it, you might be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s a C#’—and it might very well be. But what I hear in addition to a fundamental or fixed pitch are a lot of other things. I listen for the scrape of the nail, the whirr of the bow, an overtone or [imperfect] frequencies. And I try to exploit those complexities.”

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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.