Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Marc Ribot and the Book of Heads

I have been on a recent kick of listening to Marc Ribot. I feel that he is one of the most unique guitarist out there today, having a great blend of melodicism, incredible time, attention to sonic detail, originality, and an ability to play any music while retaining his sound. Recently I have been checking out his CDs "Don't Blame me," "Saints," and his duo record with Bill Ware "Sir Duke," where the two of them play all Ellington tunes. Yesterday, I received John Zorn's score through interlibrary loan (if you don't know about this, find out immediately, I know all I know today because of this system) to his set of late 70s guitar etudes written for Eugene Chadbourne titled "The book of heads." I actually have never heard of recordings of Chadbourne playing any of these etudes, but Marc Ribot has recorded all 35 of them on the Tzadik label. I spent all of yesterday subsequently listening to the etudes while following along with the score.

The first thing I kept in mind, was some information I had heard in an interview about how John Zorn, especially in the earlier days of the 70s and early 80s would write music that was very tiny. Something about him liking the idea of people having to lean over and squint in order to read the music. The scores to this work consist of a single page to each individual etude. These etudes are in the middle of the page, leaving 80% or more of the page open unused white space. But still given that, I am having a tough time reading the text instructions of the piece! Also each page has an estimated length of time for the etue, for instance the first one being 30 seconds long. This is similar to John Zorn's earlier works being very short musical ideas, influenced by film and cartoon.

From part of the score:
"List of Accessories Needed:
Balloons (20 or more)
Violin bow
Alligator clips
Metal slide (ring not bottleneck)
Resonant spring for scraping
Pipe cleaners for scrapes (wrap around string)
Pencils for extra bridges
Up to 3 different guitars may be required (acoustic, electric, and dobro, etc.)
30 grains of rice inside a balloon
At least 2 mbira tongs (metal nail files will do)
Finger cymbal
Creaky tuning peg (wooden clothes pin will do)
Ratchet sound
Extra strings to be broken or changed
Scordatura may be used at your discretion where necessary to play written chords

General Note:
These "heads" are meant to be played as written and serve as the basis for improvisation. The improv may occur before, after, both before and after, in between two different heads or the same head twice, or not at all during your performance."

There is also a Glossary of Symbols page which involves body knocks, spoits, whoops, popping balloons, playing or bending strings behind the nut and behind the bridge, and many others! The recording of Ribot playing these pieces are genius, and it is a pleasure to hear how he manipulates the compositions in improvisatory ways, always structuring the etudes in different ways.

My other reason for putting together this blog post, is because I just located a Marc Ribot documentary online called "The Lost String." It is a relatively new release, and below are the links to it, which I am will be watching very soon!

As always, Enjoy!


  1. who publishes the book of heads score? I am trying to find it!



  2. I found this score circulating on interlibrary loan, so you could check that out.

    1. what library did it come from? i found a copy at michigan state in ann arbor but im not sure it is requestable

  3. fyi: a dear friend and old colleague of mine, christoph funabashi, just recently recorded the complete "book of heads" for the "schraum"-label. if you're interested, you can take a look and (if you like) place an order here:

    might be worthwhile to get another view on the subject matter, other than marc ribot's excellent rendition. enjoy :)