For over a decade, the University of Memphis' Lily Afshar has been a premier classical guitarist, but with the release of her latest album, Possession, she has entered new territory, melding virtuosity and lyricism into a more contemporary sound. Her first collaboration with producer Ward Archer, Possession presents modern works by eight composers, including three world premieres written expressly for Afshar -- "Scherzo, Op. 47" by Salvador Brotons, "Broken Slurs" by Barbara Kolb, and "MKG Variations" by Kamran Ince (arranged for guitar by Afshar). The result is an album that is lyrical, melodic, and innovative: It does not revisit the past but instead tries to explain the present -- in Afshar's terms, "the here and now."
Afshar's "here and now" changes constantly -- the music is dark and suave yet colored by flashes of joy, melancholy, tenderness, and fury. Her technical mastery of the guitar gives her the flexibility to make these mood shifts, at times achieving a depth of vulnerability while also hinting at self-indulgence.
Working closely with the composers, Afshar played the pieces several times, even making suggestions, before recording. "[I needed to] live with the piece for a while [in order to] come up with the best way to convey the composer's message," Afshar says. For "MKG Variations," for example, Afshar and Ince spent a year converting the original piece for cello into a guitar piece, rearranging and changing chords and dynamics.
A tenet of Afshar's method is that to sing a piece is to know it. "[Singing the compositions] really opens you up a lot and gives you a lot of ideas for how to play the piece," she says. Indeed, the recording of the album's ninth track, Barbara Kolb's "In the Innocent Air," features Afshar's humming. "It came out more peaceful and angelic [that way]," Afshar explains.
Afshar says that her silent collaborator on this project, producer and label-owner Archer, gave her the time to develop the pieces as she felt necessary, including experiments with microphone placement.A veteran of the local recording scene since 1979, Archer decided to employ a Memphis-style method of recording. "Not being a classical music engineer, I examined a number of classical guitar recordings and found a lot of reverb," Archer says. "But, in Memphis, most bands place their drums up front for recordings. I decided to record her with the mike as close as I could get it without it getting in her way. I wanted to get a warmer sound." Placing the microphones closer to Afshar's guitar brings an added dimension to Possession. There are sounds here probably never recorded before -- unexpected harmonies, undertones mixing with overtones, Afshar almost attacking the strings. Recording the guitar at such close range was not without difficulties, though, because the simple replacement of a string could upset a recording session.
"Evolution or revolution" is an age-old question about the nature of change, and for Afshar, "an artist has to change. We just can't keep playing the same way. It's impossible." Afshar's work on Possession reflects a commitment to change that Archer encouraged.
"I was interested in experimenting," Archer says. "We didn't start with a set plan, but we both got excited with what we were recording." As Archer and Afshar developed the project, Afshar brought more modern pieces in. "We would get great recordings of them and go on to some newer works. Then, at the end of a session, she would want to play one of the pieces from an earlier session again, and she would blow me away," Archer says. And what began as a strictly classical album evolved into a more contemporary, dynamic one.
Although Possession is not as thematically linked as Afshar's previous two albums, 24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195 and A Jug of Wine and Thou, the album is full of literary influences, including four lullabies (tracks six through nine) and a poem, "Omar's Fancy," which is apparently self-referential. Afshar also explores Cuban- and South American-inspired works and jazz and folk themes. She plays Rodrigo's "Invocation and Dance" with zest, pausing slightly between phrases, perhaps as an afterthought. The first track, "Scherzo, Op.47" by Brotons, is exceptional: High harmonics mixed with low open strings move along uneasily but never at the expense of the listener.
Afshar is currently in the middle of a world tour that takes her to the Northeast, California, Vancouver, Illinois, Iran, Paraguay, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia, during which she'll be playing music from all three of her albums and conducting master classes for guitarists. It's a tour that befits an artist who claims both Iran and Memphis as home but who considers herself "a citizen of the world."Afshar's playing -- inclusive, inviting -- allows us into her world.
For more information about Lily Afshar's Possession, go to www.archerrecords.com.
by CHRIS HERRINGTON
Local punk label Soul Is Cheap Records will hold its second annual all-day music festival Saturday, May 18th, at the Premiere Palace, located at 629 Monroe. The label, which has released several seven-inch singles from Memphis-connected punk bands, also has a compilation CD featuring songs from bands across the state, which it hopes to have available at the festival. Doors open at noon for the event, with the band lineup shaping up like this:
1 p.m. -- Three Pipe Problem
2 p.m. -- Cadre
3 p.m. -- The Coach and Four
4 p.m. -- Haymarket Riot
5 p.m. -- Pezz
7 p.m. -- Whispering
8 p.m. -- Bury the Living
9 p.m. -- Kill Devil Hills
10 p.m. -- Serotonin
11 p.m. -- Staynless
1 a.m. -- Lucero
An after-party with DJs will follow Lucero's set.
Shangri-La Records has just released the fourth edition of its cult-favorite travel guide Kreature Komforts: Low-Life Guide to Memphis. For travelers of a certain ilk -- i.e., music aficionados into good, cheap eats, which is just about everyone who picks Memphis as a vacation spot -- Kreature Komforts is a whole lot more useful and a lot cheaper (three bucks at the counter, four dollars by mail) than Fodor's or any of the like. And it's a good bet that most locals will also find some useful tips. (Harry's Detour has the fifth best barbecue sandwich in town? Who knew?) And, at the very least, it's a fun read. A more funky, friendly, and irreverent travel guide than anything else you'll ever read. Available at Shangri-La and a few other local shops.