Gulezian’s guitar playing infused with devotion to music’s power

Aspen Times, CO
Aug 4 2004

Gulezian’s guitar playing infused with devotion to music’s power

By Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The topic of conversation is that subset of contemporary instrumental
music that only an elevator or hotel lobby could love.

But Michael Gulezian has misunderstood my question, and the normally
mild-mannered, spiritual-leaning guitarist has turned into a
fire-breathing beast.

`It’s dreck,’ said Gulezian, using the Yiddish substitute for a word
that no longer can appear in The Aspen Times. `It makes me want to
scream. It’s the audio equivalent of Sominex. It’s wallpaper. If I
hear it in the supermarket, I run out.’

Gulezian thought I had asked what he did when he hears this music,
with its cheesy sounds, formulaic rhythms and empty melodies. But my
actual question was, what does someone like him do that separates his
contemporary instrumental music from the dreck. I explain the
misunderstanding, and Gulezian turns from Anti-Elevator Music Man
back into his humble self.

`Music,’ explained the 47-year-old Nashville resident, `should be an
active, participatory experience, an experience of community, a
common experience of a language that transcends spoken word. To water
that powerful thing down to a formula is shameful, even sinful.’

Gulezian’s music is, in fact, no relation to the simplistic,
synthesized bromide one hears in the hallways of shopping malls. On
albums like `Language of the Flame’ and the forthcoming live
recording `Concert at St. Olaf College,’ Gulezian’s music, mostly
solo guitar work, is inventive and complex; like his heroes of the
finger-style guitar – especially the late Michael Hedges, and John
Fahy, Gulezian’s first major influence – he melds rhythm, melody and
harmony using just one instrument and 10 fingers. The less-humble
side of Gulezian actually boasts that he is `a technical monster.’
But the more artistic side of Gulezian counters that the art is not
about the technique.

`It’s not about the technique,’ said Gulezian, who performs tonight
at Main Street Bakery. `That’s the last thing people should be paying
attention to. It’s about whether I’m transforming something about the
heart and soul to people who are listening. Technically, I can blow
anybody away. But if that’s all you’re going to do, you’re going to
play to an audience of nothing but guitar junkies.’

Though tonight’s concert is his Aspen debut, Gulezian spent his high
school years as a Coloradan, attending a small prep school in Cañon
City, Holy Cross Abbey, run by Benedictine monks. His love of music,
however, was already instilled in him by the time he got to high

Gulezian’s mother, an Armenian born in Syria, sang Armenian folk
songs in a beautiful voice; his father, a New York native also of
Armenian descent, was an ethnomusicologist who transcribed ancient
Egyptian music scrolls for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

`When I say I heard music growing up from other cultures,’ said
Gulezian, `I mean cultures from thousands of years ago. That’s the
environment I grew up in – listening to Motown and the Beatles, and
also traditional classical music from the Middle East and India.’

Gulezian began playing Western classical music on guitar at 7. `But
to be honest, it didn’t resonate in my heart,’ he said. `I practiced
because I was diligent. But nothing really got me until I was 12, 13,
when I heard finger-style players like Doc Watson, and the
Mississippi Delta players like Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt.’

Those blues players got to his heart. But it was Fahy, the pioneering
finger-style guitarist who broke the trail for Leo Kottke and the
like, who got into Gulezian, heart, soul and mind.

`That blew me away,’ said Gulezian. `John Fahy was to steel-string
instrumental guitar music what Andrés Segovia was to classical
guitar. Nobody took classical guitar seriously until Segovia started
playing it.’

For Gulezian, the Maryland-born Fahy opened up a world of
near-infinite possibilities. `He provided the model for someone to be
idiosyncratic and create his own artistic path. I knew I could
express the deepest part of me.’

That seems to get to the heart of the original question. What
separates the contemporary instrumental music played by Gulezian –
and Pierre Bensusan, Kottke, Alex De Grassi and the like – from
elevator sounds is the element of humanity. Gulezian’s music has a
personality, rather than a formula, behind it.

Gulezian concludes: `I guess the answer is I love it so much and
respect it so much and have such awe for the power of music, I treat
it with devotion.’