Stephen Magnusson’s Garden of Sound

By John Shand

Stephen Magnusson is naturally self-deprecating, the guitarist routinely turning the conversation towards being about other musicians he admires rather than himself. It is a quality that comes across in his music, too: a humility that is interwoven with the veil of something close to sorcery he casts over all he plays. Of course humility alone, although invaluable, will not make an exceptional musician, and Magnusson is not only among the most versatile improvisers in Australia, but he is a master of that most basic musical building-block: sound.

One of his first musical obsessions as a child was listening to the Beatles, which he describes as ‘a magical experience, because it was so produced, and because of this amazing journey that they’d take you on. Especially from the mid-’60s on, they just explored sound.’

Sonic Dreams

Stephen Photo 1Listening to Magnusson you hear a player with a profound interest in and instinct for how sounds intersect, interact and merge. Aside from being a compelling soloist he has developed an ability to create breathtaking backdrops behind others that lie well outside simply comping on a guitar. In his youth, at the same time that he absorbing the linear playing of George Benson and Wes Montgomery, he was also fascinated by Andy Summers of the Police ‘who played,’ he says, ‘these beautiful colours that didn’t sound like pop music at the time… I just loved exploring that principle.’ Later he heard Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny, and observes that the latter ‘follows the sound of the instrument and the context that he’s in, and that generates the story.’

These days he is haunted by the stunning sounds generated by such jazz pioneers as saxophonists Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and guitarist Django Reinhardt. ‘Miles [Davis] was all about sound, too,’ he says. ‘Especially form Kind of Blue on, I reckon. The whole band has a thing with sound, and they all respond to him sonically.’

Magnusson plays in extremely diverse contexts, and part of the appeal is that it allows him to draw on the huge array of sonic possibilities at his disposal. ‘I’ve never driven a sports car,’ he says, ‘but I can imagine getting in a Ferrari, and it just asks to be driven a certain way. I think the guitar’s the same. I’ve got 11 guitars in front of me, and I don’t play them all the same. The instruments sort of take me there. It’s just like playing music with friends: you play with different people and the music takes you in certain directions. You’re attracted to sound, and your response to their sound and how we blend sonically. I love that. I think that that’s the thing that I love to keep exploring… But hopefully when I do my thing, even though the context might be varied, it still sounds like me.’

While Magnusson draws the line at having band-leaders asking him to try to sound like someone else, he does not mind suggestions about what sonic territory to enter. ‘It’s like a director if you’re an actor,’ he says. ‘It’s nice sometimes to have somebody just guide you in certain directions. But at the same time I do like to be left alone. Let me just do what I want to do, and I’ll do the best to try and make it as musical as possible in the context.’

Within Melbourne’s live scene guitarist Ren Walters was a major influence, and a pivotal moment in Magnusson’s career came when Walters asked him why he didn’t start playing his own music ‘So I started writing music then,’ he says, ‘and started a band that we called the Jennifers, because we were into Jennifer Keyte, the newsreader. We started playing music that was a poor man’s version of Ren’s thing, but it got us on our way of asking, “Well, what are we doing?” And then you start exploring sound and language in another way.’

Acoustics and Electrons

Magnusson is among the rare guitarists to have both exquisite touch on an acoustic instrument and complete command of the electronic devices filtering an electric one. ‘I loved the button pushing and all those pedals, and I used to buy all the guitar magazines,’ he recalls of his youth. ‘I had a paper round, and I’d save up the money and I’d buy a pedal. I’d go into my bedroom at night time and just put all my pedals on and just lose myself in sound. It wasn’t that I was even playing the guitar any more. I was just kind of exploring what these things did.’

So the two elements – learning the instrument and the untold possibilities of manipulating the sound – grew together in his mind. ‘At home, now, I usually don’t get my pedals out very often,’ he says. ‘I play acoustic guitars at home a lot of the time… It’s got like an in-built resonance in certain keys. So I try and find that with these electric guitar effects. And the looping thing that I do and all that stuff is that I just like to find unusual things; things that you’ll just go, “Oh, that’s a bit strange. What’s that?” It’s a bit like looking at a Michael Leunig comic strip: it’s sort of strangely beautiful, but it’s also a little bit dark, too. He’s someone that I find incredibly inspiring, and I think of things like that sometimes, too: that the effects are kind of offsetting the beauty… I do love the darkness and the beauty that he conjures up. And I kind of find that in the music and musicians that I like, whether it’s Stravinksy or Messiaen or [Scott] Tinkler. Scotty’s got that too.’

Magnusson wishes he encountered more concert contexts (such as his duo with Ren Walters) which were suitable for playing unamplified acoustic guitar. ‘It’s all about the room,’ he says. ‘If the room doesn’t offer that resonance then you’re struggling because your touch suffers. You play too hard. I don’t hit the guitar hard. I play light, so it requires the music to be quieter for it to kind of breathe in that way… The electric guitar can conjure up all this sonic mayhem and be quite loud, but it’s beautiful when you get into those really little spaces… Space and dynamics are crucial.’

He thinks the greatest mistake an improviser can make is to impose recently-practised techniques on the music. ‘It’s like when someone’s talking about cake-decorating,’ he says, ‘and you want to talk about chainsaws: it doesn’t seem appropriate. Improvising is real-time interactive conversation. The moments when it’s not happening are great moments too, because that’s where there’s a chance that it could go anywhere.’

Mag at Wang

Magnusson describes his latest project, Kinfolk (with Tim Neal on Hammond organ, Dave Beck on drums and Frank DiSario on bass), as ‘kind of rootsy’, reflecting the fact that he grew up playing the blues. ‘It’s not like I’m trying to start a blues band, but I love the colours of those sorts of grooves,’ he adds.

At Wangaratta he is a judge of the National Jazz Awards and plays with Enrico Rava, Kinfolk and in a quartet with fellow guitarist James Muller. ‘It’s not like a battle of the guitars,’ he says of the latter. ‘It’s more like, “Let’s try and blend these two sounds in this context.”’ That’d be right.


Stephen Magnusson on the web

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues