a literary review
I’ve written about guitarist Charlie Rauh in these pages before. We at the museum first became aware of his work through his collaborations with the poet and songwriter Cornelius Eady. Rauh is incredibly prolific. His playing is subtle and precise; his attack features a hybrid right-hand technique employing both the plectrum and the fingertips. He is as adept at accompanying singer-songwriters as he is at composing instrumentals. Rauh is a scholar, not just of musical theory and guitar, but also of poetry, from which he draws so many of his haunting compositions.
His latest EP, The Silent Current From Within, takes its title and theme from Anne Brontë’s poem, “If This Be All.” The opening, title track features a haunting vocal performance by Ess See, a frequent Rauh collaborator who is a brilliant songwriter and vocalist in her own right. The story behind this a cappella number is fascinating. Rauh wrote a minor-key guitar arrangement and Ess See conjured it for voice, singing it note-for-note from memory. The result is stunning.
The same air ends the record, only this time it’s accompanied by Rauh’s nimble guitar phrasing and a layered choral arrangement. Here the EP’s sadness accrues the force of mourning. This final track has an elegiac feel, which makes sense when we consider poet Anne Brontë’s life, losing multiple family members to pulmonary tuberculosis before succumbing to the disease herself at 29. This final track, titled “If This Be All,” has the quality of mourners wailing in a cathedral, unable to square a poignant loss with the notion of a just God. In this sense the music is performative of some of Brontë’s major themes, including her theological apologetics.
The band Rauh has assembled for The Silent Current From Within is the perfect small ensemble for his skilled and gentle playing. The rhythm section of Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo/Wilco) on drums and Jonah Kraut on upright bass give these compositions a painterly texture. When I listen to music, I often wonder over what we might call a musician’s “attack” on their instrument. I think of Charlie Rauh articulating each note on his Collings Baby 1 MH parlor guitar, knowing exactly how to touch the La Bella Silk and Steel strings with his fingertips and plectrum to ensoul his phrases.
Similarly, Coomer’s performance on the track, “A Marked and Mended Sign,” a composition that takes its inspiration from a prose piece by Rauh’s sister, the writer Christina Rauh-Fishburne, is something for the ages. The way he brushes his crash cymbal and the quiet hiss he gets out of his snare drum, the occasional hit on the floor tom that makes a controlled, fully formed note as opposed to a shambolic thump or a hum are the kinds of subtleties in playing and accompaniment that all percussionists should aspire to. Jonah Kraut’s impeccable rhythmic knowledge coupled with his restrained bow work are simply masterful. There is deep listening going on among these musicians, which makes it all the more amazing that this EP was recorded remotely (I should also note that in addition to composing this music, Rauh produced, engineered, and mastered each track).
Another literary touchstone on this record is the experimental Canadian poet and essayist Anne Carson. “As Simple As Water” is minor-key brilliance, cinematic in its evocations. Rauh starts the track playing a basic, but ear-worm phrase with the plectrum. Then a quick flourish of notes culminates in hard down strums on a dissonant chord. Coomer gets the sticks out for this track and hits some hard percussive notes on a muted snare during Rauh’s down strums, right in sync with Kraut’s plucks of the big bass fiddle. But just as quickly as that build happens, Coomer and Kraut back off while Rauh begins to articulate the next movement.
With this recording, Rauh reminds us what a visionary artist he is. His guitar-playing is buoyed by a rare intelligence, almost as though he’s using the instrument to annotate the poetic texts that are so close to his mind and heart. He’s a musician for whom disciplinary and genre distinctions among poetry, classical composition, and song don’t hold up. Rauh’s label, Destiny Records out of Austin, has an impressive stable of musicians, but in Charlie Rauh they seem to have discovered a legitimate rising star. I truly hope that in the near-future this ensemble records an LP. The music here is great, but one suspects these top-rate players have more exploring to do together.
The Silent Current From Within will be released on Destiny Records on March 12, 2021.
NYC based guitarist/composer Charlie Rauh has been invited to be resident composer by such organizations as The Rauschenberg Foundation, The Klaustrid Foundation, and The Chen Dance Center. His work as a soloist has been supported by grants from Meet The Composer, The Untitled Artist Group, and The Fractured Atlas Group. Rauh’s approach to solo guitar composition takes inspiration from folk lullabies, plainchant, and the imagery of various poets ranging from the Brontës to Anna Akhmatova. Acoustic Guitar Magazine notes that “Charlie Rauh plays guitar with a quiet intensity, each note and chord ringing with purpose…With these lullabies Rauh gives a gentle reminder that playing soft and slow can be more impactful than loud and fast.”