A Guide to Loren Connors

We chart a course through the improvisational guitarist’s enormous discography.

Loren Connors’ music speaks of a loneliness that’s almost devastating in its purity. At its best, Connors’ music works at a cellular level, as though the fundamental nature of the piece is implicit in the very first note played: a flower just ready to bloom. But while Connors’ music often comes across as gentle and fragile, sometimes edging close to the vacuum of silence, there is great confidence and courage at its heart.

Learning violin at an early age, Connors would eventually switch to trombone, bass and guitar. It was the latter instrument with which Connors would finally find his real voice, his fascination not just with the blues, but also jazz artists like Lester Young, Billie Holliday, Miles Davis, and particularly Davis’ bass player from the ‘70s, Michael Henderson, informing an approach to the guitar that stripped both playing and composition to everything but its bare, expressive essence.

Connors’ approach to the guitar strips both playing and composition to everything but its bare, expressive essence.

Connors has moved with grace through many periods – from the blues and folk world in New Haven, the late ‘70s improv scene in New York, a period of retreat in the ‘80s, and on into the ‘90s, where his playing flourished and his profile grew through connections with rock/underground figures like Keiji Haino and Sonic Youth. The expressive core of Connors’ music has never wavered through that time, though the amplification and the recording process have.

Ask Connors about his current form, and he’s more likely to reflect on technology. “Nowadays I only record live performances. My Tascam broke. But I play differently now anyway,” Connors concludes, before thinking on his current playing. “I’m kind of surprised about myself – my music is still evolving, changing, still moving forward. I’m concentrating more on full chords and washes of sound now, rather than single notes. It seems to have lifted off into somewhere mysterious, some place I’ve never been to before.”

Here are a select number of entries from a vast discography: good starting points to get to grips with a unique body of work.

Loren MazzaCane Connors
Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations Vol. 1-9
(Daggett, 1979-1980; reissued Father Yod/Ecstatic Peace!, 1999)

“It was pretty intense stuff, I have to admit. I’m still surprised by what they sound like. I must have been a madman. I was just being myself, and that’s what came out. It was shocking, though. It seems that I broke all the rules. And I was such a little loser. Just some guy pushing a broom.” - Loren Connors

As Byron Coley writes in the liner notes, these albums represent “their own stylistic terminus.”

Connors’ earliest music was recorded in a house across from New Haven Green, originally an old office building. Stories abound of the neighborhood’s many dangers – unheated structures vulnerable to the elements, illness, theft and crime. (Connors would sleep with a Ball-Peen hammer next to his bed.) But in this ferment, Connors set out an absolutely unique music which internalised the yearning at the heart of blues song, and then strung it out horizontally via techniques closer to the avant-garde.

Connors’ playing here is intensely refracted, and his consumptive gasps and moans give the nine albums an incredible chill, as though they’re broadcasting from a zone of almost inarticulate desolation. Connors would move closer to traditional blues and folk forms after this, but there really is nothing else like these acoustic guitar improvisations elsewhere in recorded music: as Byron Coley writes in the liner notes, these albums represent “their own stylistic terminus.”

Kath Bloom & Loren Connors
Sand in My Shoes
(St. Joan, 1983)

While Connors was recording the Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations, he was also part of a loose-knit blues/theatre scene in New Haven, performing with other artists like Kath Bloom and the late Robert Crotty (who Connors describes as “the soul of blues music”).

During the early ‘80s Connors released a series of sanctified song-based albums with Bloom, the final three of which focused on Bloom’s own songwriting. Of these, Sand in My Shoes is the pick: not quite as diffuse as later efforts, here Connors’ guitar beautifully shadows Bloom’s gorgeous voice, while she explores blues, traditional work songs, and mountain folk. Bloom would later make minor inroads into the collective consciousness, thanks to the use of her song “Come Here” in Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise, but albums like Sand in My Shoes have her at an early creative peak.

Guitar Roberts
In Pittsburgh
(St. Joan, 1989; reissued Dexter’s Cigar, 1996)

“I had Bell’s Palsy at that time. Wrecked my face. I didn’t want anybody to see how it twisted up my face, so I just stayed in the house making records. I got a four-track, which allowed me to play against myself, and that changed my music completely. In Pittsburgh was the first of those.” - Loren Connors

With a body of work like Connors, it can seem churlish to pick favorites or absolute essentials, but if there’s one Connors album you should not be without, this is it. In Pittsburgh moves through eight devastating studies for electric guitar. Here, his playing alternates between spindly, variegated melodies that feel so brittle they’d disintegrate in the mildest wind, and close clutches of chordal movement, played soft and paced with a sure attention to the silences between the notes. Suzanne Langille joins in on the closing “Blue Ghost Blues,” the duo revisioning Lonnie Johnson’s blues as a spectral lament, Langille’s voice almost winded by the disconsolate lyrics.

“I had Bell’s Palsy at that time. Wrecked my face. I didn’t want anybody to see how it twisted up my face, so I just stayed in the house making records.”

Loren Connors

“The first time I saw Loren, we didn’t speak. I was just another person in the far back of the audience. He was playing just a few pieces as part of an evening of several different performers in a short-lived New Haven restaurant and bar. I thought he looked a bit like a spirit. I also thought he was probably the only real artist in the room. Not that the other performers didn’t have talent or ability, or even creativity, because some of them definitely did have quite a lot of that. But that’s not enough to make someone an artist in my mind. Everybody else seemed to want something, and their main purpose in being there was to get it. Loren was different. He was a conjurer, and he was giving himself entirely over to it. Not a drop of his energy was deflected to ego or even self-awareness.” - Suzanne Langille

Guitar Roberts
Blues: The “Dark Paintings of Mark Rothko”
(St. Joan, 1990)

“I saw the black paintings in 1986, at an exhibit at the Pace Gallery, which used to be on 57th Street in Manhattan. The brush strokes seemed careless, like a first take. It’s a quality I like.” – Loren Connors

Blues: The “Dark Paintings Of Mark Rothko” sits closely, both temporally and mood-wise, to In Pittsburgh: again, his recent four-track acquisition allowed Connors the ability to duet with himself, and with this avenue open for exploration, you can sometimes hear Connors taking the pressure off the single stream of notes, and rather conceptualising his compositions fully, all while still allowing space for incident and improvisation. Mark Rothko’s seven blues have a particularly keening quality, and much like Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, they manage both to sit in quiet communion with the gargantuan silences of Rothko’s paintings, while articulating their own world with fierce clarity.

Loren Mazza Cane
(Road Cone, 1994; reissued Enabling Works, 2011)

Loren MazzaCane Connors & Suzanne Langille
(Black Label, 1996)

Loren MazzaCane Connors
(Road Cone, 1998)

A curious thing happened in the early 1990s: Connors’ music found a new home within the post indie-rock underground developing at the time. Collaborations with like-minded players, such as Alan Licht, Keiji Haino, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore took place. It was also a period of stylistic change: Connors started to embrace volume and distortion.

The purest distillation of Connors’ music through this era can be found on Moonyean, Crucible and Evangeline, three mid-late ‘90s albums which form a rich, deep cluster of Venusian blues exploration. Moonyean oscillates between pearl-like studies for haunted electric guitar, and silver strings of melancholy from a dampened, distorted guitar.

“I learned a lot from poetry, especially William Blake. The sound and placement of each word is so critical. If a song is not a poem, then it’s not really a song, either.” – Suzanne Langille

On Crucible, Langille’s deeply moving solo vocal recitals alternate with Connors’ elemental melodies, flinty and unyielding, strung out from a reverb chamber; with Evangeline, the two are in yet closer consort. The “Evangeline” theme is one of Connors’ and Langille’s most heartbreaking collaborations. While Langille had been collaborating with Connors for some time, it was on these records that her immeasurable impact on Connors’ compositions and playing really made itself felt, by nudging Connors to further articulate the essence of his playing from that very first note, so she could dive in and ride the waves.

“I learned a lot from poetry, especially William Blake. The sound and placement of each word is so critical. If a song is not a poem, then it’s not really a song, either.” – Suzanne Langille

Loren MazzaCane Connors
(Road Cone, 1999)

Inspired by traditional Irish song, Airs is perhaps the ideal entry point to Connors’ music. Played quietly, with a gentle, opalescent guitar tone that sends every note shivering into the night skies, the fifteen tracks collected on this album tint any room they’re played in. Airs clearly reveals two things about Connors’ playing that are always present, yet never quite so evident as they are here: firstly, his masterful control of string volume, the way he can vary pressure on the string to change the accent or narrative of the melody; and secondly, his understanding of spacing, the need to let certain tones, or clusters of notes, slowly die away before inserting a new line.

(Airs is also compiled on Family Vineyard’s As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002 set; both are essential, but hunt down and listen to Airs as it was originally conceptualised, the album unto itself.)

Loren Connors
The Departing of a Dream Vol. I - III
(Family Vineyard, 2002-2004)

“[They] are all done with a bass guitar and an acoustic guitar. That’s my band with just me. I never did that on any other records. I had a little lightweight Vox bass guitar, but I sold it, like a fool. So I can’t do any more of those things.” – Loren Connors

Another step forward for Connors, as his “fake band” submerges his melodies in wreaths of smoky reverb, while wah-wah’d notes plume out and then slowly disappear, sucked back into the mire. Connors reaches for greater variance in tone on the Departing trilogy, which can feel a little jarring if you’re expecting Connors the miniaturist, but once you adjust to the broad brushstrokes here, you really start to appreciate how Connors moves blocks of sound through the air. Much of Volume Two returns to Connors’ traditional minimalism, but interspersed with field recordings, which gives the album a weird, “audio verite” edge. Volume Three mops up the various methods, while opening with the 20 minute “Her Love,” which crests and recedes, repeatedly.

Loren Connors
Red Mars
(Family Vineyard, 2011)

The first ten minutes of Red Mars is taken up by “On Our Way,” Connors’ collaboration with double bass player Margarida Garcia. Her history in improvised music suggests a responsiveness and tact that is in clear evidence throughout, but the revelation is her absolute comfort with saying as little as possible, just enough to help sketch the contours of the piece. Connors has collaborated with many players over the years, but Garcia feels like his closest musical companion.

It’s as though he’s trying to remove the attack of the notes, as though he wants nothing to have a definitive starting point.

The rest of Red Mars shares the fragility of other recent albums like The Hymn of the North Star, with Connors diving deeper into reverb; often, it’s as though he’s trying to remove the attack of the notes, as though he wants nothing to have a definitive starting point. Instead, everything is in a process of perpetually being. If you don’t start, then you can’t really end. Red Mars is infinite music, sailing into view amongst clouds of hiss and ether.

By Jon Dale on May 2, 2014