Nakadai, which KPFA Folio/Other Minds Radio called “one of the most explosive LPs of the ’80s,” is a set of five works that offer a catalog of musical “waves”—from ripples to tsunamis. It features Smith playing pedal steel guitar solo, overdubbed, and with a mallet percussion quartet made up of Bob Fernandez, John Fitzgerald, M.B. Gordy, and Theresa Knight.
This first CD reissue of Nakadai allows today’s listeners to hear prototypical Smith—music composed when his present style was in its nascent state.
In addition to the original Nakadai tracks, this release includes two “bonus” tracks: 2008’s evocative Ghosts on the Windows and 1991’s Joaquin Murphey, a tribute to the legendary pedal steel guitarist of the same name.
The Towers suspended from the ceiling of Smith’s studio
Chas Smith is one of the most unique musicians working today. He has created his own musical world—complete with its own instruments and “language.” It is a world of expansive musical tapestries and carefully sculpted textures that never sit absolutely still, but evolve via a slow, constant change of aural perspective.
A Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and instrument designer and builder, Smith, in the spirit of Harry Partch, creates much of his music for his own exotic instruments. His compositions, which always display his dualistic fascination with the scientific and the sensual, might owe their split personalities to the diverse collection of composers he studied with in the 1970s: Morton Subotnick, Mel Powell, James Tenney, and Harold Budd.
As a performer, Smith regularly appears on feature film scores, playing both pedal steel guitar and his personally designed instruments. He may be heard on such popular film scores by Thomas Newman as The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, and American Beauty. (He has also worked for film composers Christopher Young, Charlie Clouser, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jeff Danna, and John Williams.) Smith, who has been featured on recordings by composers Harold Budd and Rick Cox (and with numerous country-western bands), has performed his own works at various new music festivals and art galleries. His music has been recorded on the Cold Blue, Arc Light, Cantil, MCA, and Straw Dog labels.
“Smith has a penchant for long tones and drones, as well as an ear and love for magnificent sonorities. From his creations, as well as his pedal steel guitar, he elicits sounds that suggest thunder, approaching jetliners, electronics, screeching machinery, and much, much more. And he doesn’t merely string together his sounds; he integrates them into sumptuous compositions that range from delicate, lyrical vignettes to grating, sometimes horrific tone poems.” —Dean Suzuki, San Francisco Bay Guardian
“Smith’s pieces are music of experiment and discovery: a way of enabling the physical world to ‘speak’ by investigating, harnessing and organizing its sonic properties. The extraordinary sound-world of Smith’s articulately structured music captivates from the start.” —International Record Review
“Chas Smith, musician, composer, engineer, metal craftsman and inventor, is a classic American original.” —New Times (Los Angeles)
“With Smith’s music, the sounds are as compelling as his concepts and instruments.” —The Wire
“Like famed composer and instrument builder Harry Partch, whom Smith readily acknowledges as an influence, Smith creates unsettling music that is both beautiful and eerie.” —Electronic Musician magazine
‘A solitary genius,’ as Susan Alcorn describes him, Chas follows no particular school of composition but his own.” —Paris Transatlantic
Among the other performers
M.B. Gordy is a percussionist who has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and numerous other ensembles in the L.A. area. He is also active as a studio player, performing on innumerable major film scores and popular recordings. Outside of the classical music world he has recorded and/or toured with Frank Zappa, The Doobie Brothers, Don Was, Green Day, Neil Diamond, and many others. He is endorsed by Yamaha Drums, Remo, Vic Firth, and Paiste. For 20 years he has been a clinician and education consultant for Yamaha.
Bob Fernandes is a percussionist who has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, the Erick Hawkins Dance Co., the Ojai Festival Orchestra, the California EAR Unit, the CalArts Twentieth Century Players, and numerous other ensembles in the L.A. area. Fernandez has worked closely with many leading composers, including Morton Feldman, Mel Powell, Earle Brown, Pauline Oliveros, William Kraft, Lou Harrison, John Adams, and Frank Zappa. He has recorded for Angel, C.R.I., Pasha, M.A Recordings, CBS Records, and Cold Blue. He has had a longtime interest in Afro-Cuban folkloric music, and has studied with several of the genre’s most noted practitioners. He is currently compiling a book on the subject.
“Intense and drony, yet luscious. A welcome reissue of microtonal pieces by this important Los Angeles-based instrument builder and pedal steel guitarist.” —Electronic Musician magazine
“Long icy drones invoke a remarkable soundscape.” —Richard Friedman, Producer/Host, KALW’s Music from Other Minds
“From the gentle west coast minimal music scene comes the outstanding label Cold Blue, of whom we reviewed many CDs before. They have been around for many years, starting out with vinyl. My first encounter, if I recall well, was the Chas Smith album Nakadai, which is now re-issued. I must admit I haven’t heard the LP for some years now, but playing this CD version, I am still amazed by its beauty…. Organic, and simply gorgeous music…. This is a great and most welcome re-issue.” —Franz de Waard, Vital Weekly
“The latest CD from composer/steel guitarist/inventor Chas Smith brings back to light some important previously out-of-print material and combines it with one new work. The first three pieces come from the original 1987 LP Nakadai, and taken together they provide an immersive experience of Smith’s unique sound world. Nakadai—named for the great Japanese actor – builds a rising and falling structure from long, drawn-out swells of pedal steel multi-tracked and echoed into cascading arcs. Each moment of the 14-minute piece unfolds with new, ever-shifting harmonic possibilities, and what might first be perceived as a cloud-like spaciousness begins to take on palpable weight and mass. Hollister, for solo pedal steel, explores the possibilities of glissando and wide tonal/timbral range inherent to the instrument; here, the shifting arcs of sound slide and collide into varied consonances and dissonances, with fuzz-toned textures and seismic, rumbling bass notes vibrating along with the hollow, clear-toned swells.
“The two-part A Judas Within evinces Smith’s penchant for bestowing his most foreboding titles upon some of his most alluring and sensuous music. The first part, Seduction, gracefully blurs background and foreground, the steel guitar textures unfolding and enveloping a hazy, slowly-shimmering pulse of tuned mallet instruments that becomes all-encompassing in its density. Betrayal shimmers also, with what seem to be asymmetrically staggered rhythms played on pedal steel, vibraphone, microtonal chimes, and bowed and struck metal objects. The beating between frequencies generated by all this accrues into a complex and tactile construct of audible color and texture.
“That blurring of the lines between sound and physical presence, between mass and weightlessness, seems to be at the heart of Smith’s music, and is again in evidence on the 2008 piece The Ghosts on the Windows, wherein spectral choirs, orchestral washes, and bell-tones rise from rolling waves of sound generated by steel guitars and instruments of the composer’s invention.
“The CD’s closing piece is one of the most intimate pieces Smith has ever recorded. Originally appearing on a small-label anthology in 1991, Joaquin Murphey is a tribute to the great west-coast steel player who had his heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. Murphey did much of his work while wearing cowboy clothes in western swing bands, a fact which should not deter appreciation of his being, to put it simply, a truly great musician in ways transcendent of genre. His fluid and expressive command of the non-pedal steel guitar was a musical miracle that more people should discover.
“Smith’s piece begins with a single plucked note on steel guitar. It’s a note that rings with the same sort of bronzed, round tone that Murphey used. Sustained tones quickly rise, swell and commingle: sometimes finding lush/ tart harmonic clusters that echo perhaps, in a distant and abstract way, the diminished scale tonalities of Murphey’s jazz take-offs; at other times arriving at almost unbearably gorgeous consonances that echo the intensity of energy and emotion that suffused Murphey’s playing. Joaquin Murphey is an elegant, bittersweet piece of music, and indeed it seems a deep and fitting tribute to a person—and a sound—important to the heart and soul of the steel guitar itself.” —Kevin Macneil Brown, Dusted magazine
“Early and recent work from one of the finest and most singular American composers working today, instrument builder and pedal steel guitarist extraordinaire Chas Smith. Smith is a somewhat reclusive West Coast artist working in what composer/critic Kyle Gann sardonically dubs the ‘maverick’ tradition of American composition, alongside such forebears as Harry Partch or Conlon Nancarrow, but with a much more minimalist bent. The first four tracks date from the late eighties when his compositional methods were beginning to fully flower; tons of shimmering overtones are conjured from the slowly sliding notes of his pedal steel guitar, overdubbed with droney resonances malleted out of either gongs or homemade metallic percussion instruments. He’s a master at conjuring a sort of shimmery, floating, celestial heaviness—massed clouds of sound in which one is totally enveloped in a disorienting and beautiful mist that seems to press in on your being. The highlight here may be a piece from the early nineties, however, a brief homage to country-swing pedal steel pioneer Joaquin Murphy, in which the properties of Smith’s guitar are most fully recognizable, each note sounding like a teardrop slowly falling from heaven.” —Other Music Update
“Though most of the shimmering drones on Chas Smith’s Nakadai were laid down in the summer of 1987, the album sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday, so simpatico in spirit is the Los Angeles-based composer’s work to that of current electronic artists. Nakadai‘s first four tracks were issued on the original album and are joined on the CD re-issue by an elegiac 1991 piece, Joaquin Murphey, that pays tribute to the pedal steel guitarist of the same name, and the 2008 setting, The Ghosts on the Windows, which features Smith augmenting his steel guitar and pedal steel guitar with a customized instrument he calls the ‘Towers’ (Smith, in the spirit of Harry Partch, is renowned for creating his own exotic instruments). The title piece begins the album with the instantly recognizable sound of Smith’s pedal steel guitar which, multi-tracked, comes at the listener in waves and swells into grand tidal formations and blocks of reverberating sound. Spookier by comparison, Hollister finds Smith generating slow-motion wails, swoops, and rumbles whose multi-tones sometimes dissonantly rub against one another and sometimes corrode. At full volume, the effect is nightmarish, especially when the squealing mass achieves lift-off near the track’s end. A percussion quartet joins Smith for the two-part A Judas Within but its contributions are subtly woven into the overall tapestry of his compositions; the vibraphone, marimba, and hammered dulcimer that join the pedal steel guitar on Seduction, for instance, thicken the tonal mass expansively without calling too much attention to themselves. Microtonal chimes and bowed rods do, on the other hand, add prominent gamelan-like colour to Smith’s phantom washes during Betrayal. Twenty years removed from the preceding pieces, The Ghosts on the Windows—an apt title for a setting of such haunted character—doesn’t depart radically in style though it does indicate Smith has expanded his style to accommodate an even greater amount of atmospheric texture; if anything, the new material brings the advanced character of Smith’s earlier material into sharper relief. One of the most striking things about Nakadai is the remarkable patience and control Smith brings to the music’s execution throughout. His slowly-evolving pieces unfold over fifteen-minute distances with absolute assurance, similar to how a high-wire artist incrementally makes her way across the wire at a death-defying height.” —Textura
“Slow, gliding drones, the kind that pick you up and mesmerize you with their tonal variation and knowing expression.… The title track itself brims with round, carefully sculpted layers that proliferate and resound together…. A Judas Within‘s ‘Seduction’ and ‘Betrayal’ feature a broader array of instruments, from Smith’s trademark pedal steel guitar, to vibraphone, marimba, and hammered dulcimer. Both unfold as thick masses of vapor, in which the listener can only just hear the texture of each instrument against the others. In these two works, the delayed and pent-up tension of past movements is slowly released, as space solidifies into a tangible mass, time largely collapses, and individual voices, without fully losing their singularity, are organized into a spellbound, instinctive swell.… With this re-release he shows that he not only has a well-conceived aesthetic, but the discernment and rigor to see it through to new heights.” —Max Schaefer, Tokafi
“Chas Smith is a California original—an instrument builder, composer, and performer who creates psychedelic labyrinths of sound using stringed instruments fed through various electronic processors. For the uninitiated, Nakadai, his fifth CD of material released by the intrepid Southern California-based label Cold Blue, might just be the perfect place to begin since it offers a great overview of his work.… Nakadai for multitracked pedal steel guitar presents one long sustaining but continuously evolving harmony. Hollister for solo pedal steel guitar is much the same, but adds subtle microtonal shifts to the mix. For A Judas Within, Smith is joined by four percussionists for two alternately scored movements: ‘Seduction’ adds marimba, vibraphone, and hammered dulcimer; ‘Betrayal’ eliminates the dulcimer and adds microtonal chimes, bowed rods, and ‘small metal objects.’… Joaquin Murphey, a solo for steel guitar from 1991, begins with an uncharacteristically clear, piercing tone which then morphs into a blurry dreamscape that is the most euphoric music on the entire disc, but before long more ominous harmonic amalgamations ensue. For the new work, Ghosts on the Windows, Smith multitracks steel guitar, pedal steel guitar, and something he calls the ‘Towers,’ but the resultant work shows that his approach has remained consistent despite the generation separating this from the other works on the disc.… The booklet for the disc contains a tantalizing photo of the necks of Smith’s steel guitar.” —Frank J. Oteri, NewMusicBox
“I used to think Smith’s music evoked the flat, wide-open spaces of the American West. Now I think a more accurate description is the limitless interiors of the mind. Not that the two are mutually exclusive; in fact, they compliment one another. But the West, finally, doesn’t have the space to contain all that this music suggests. The title work evidences this. The pedal steel on Hollister shapes a gigantic streamlined metallic spaceship—you can listen to it ascend and descend by turns. If this suggests anything at all pulp, the result is anything but. Seduction for pedal steel and percussion comes across as celestial cimbalons. Betrayal is an abstract gong-filled temple of the imagination. This is the most various and impressive Chas Smith record I’ve ever heard. His palette is broader and the resonances are deeper.” —Richard Grooms, The Improvisor
“Nakadai is the sound of jets taking off in the distance, a shimmering drone inches above black tarmac in summer. It is struck metal echoing and decaying, lingering in the heat and ear. It is the sound of instrumental wizard Chas Smith’s multi-tracked pedal steel guitars; it is sculpted and twisted sound, music at it’s most minimal and out there. But if this puts you off, it shouldn’t: this music is also achingly beautiful. After the multitracked opening title track, Hollister sounds little different, despite being a solo instrument—less depth of sound perhaps, but just as desolate and physial. By the time the added sonic palette of vibraphone and marimbas etc. comes in for the two-part piece A Judas Within, the listener is set up for every minute addition and variation in tone and texture, the simply complexity of this ensemble playing. Two more tracks complete this fantastic CD, which strip away the instruments again until only the ghostly steel guitar is left on the final track, Joaquin Murphey. This is a more liquid and sparkling piece, more vertical than horizontal, perhaps less defined and more tentative. It ebbs and flows towards the silence that follows.… The CD is a kind of compilation, with previous tracks from a 1987 LP, a 1991 compilation, and a new 2008 piece, but you’d never know it unless you’d spotted the lack of Smith’s own homebuilt instruments which have featured on more recent releases. Here, as noted, it’s guitars to the fore; if, like me, you first heard of Chas Smith through his guitar work with Harold Budd and others, it’s both no surprise and a delight to have more of this work available.” —Rupert Loydell, Stride Magazine (UK)
“As I’m writing, [Nakadai is] spinning for the fourth time in 12 hours—and my heart and brain are spiraling, too. Chas Smith is among the mavericks who have managed to create a personal niche, his work with pedal steel, self-built instruments, and sonic sculptures is legendary. He does not saturate the market with recordings: each record symbolizes a wonderfully uncommon daydream through which one might put a finger on that part of the inner nature that suggests the correct behavior when the world proposes the exact opposite. A music of solitude, of utter awareness, a soundtrack for the struggle of the few sensitive humans remaining against daily mediocrity. Sounds that fuel the necessity of what Pauline Oliveros would define as “deep listening.”… Either via superimposed guitars or with the help of other musicians on tuned percussion (in this case Bob Fernandez, John Fitzgerald, M.B. Gordy and Theresa Knight) Smith treats the listener to majestic swells of indefinitely echoing harmonies…chords that flutter and waver in complete suspension, continuously morphing tonalities.… They shift in the air and move us within.… Despite the total difference of the initial sources, these pieces frequently recall the discerning complexity of Roland Kayn’s breathtaking visions, bringing back that state of grief-stricken realization of something inaccessible that can just be intuited and wished for. A sort of prelude for the phase that’s going to come after life, when those who really understood—people who teach by remaining in silence, talk with a hint of the eyes, and make their essence resound without the need of bombast—will be turned into another kind of energy, hopefully similar to the untainted vibrations elicited by Smith’s marvelous creations.” —Massimo Ricci, Brain Dead Eternity (Italy)
“For lack of a better term, let’s say that when we produce or listen to sounds that an instrument was not principally designed to generate, we are playing or hearing ‘beyond the instrument.’ Give it to Bartok and his slap, Cage and his prepared piano, Frith and his alligator clipped strings: what was once a marginal aspect of expressive notation has steadily become an expected component of new and experimental musics, now grown broad enough to embrace signal processing, sampling and pretty much any manipulation—physical or post-production—of pretty much any source. Smith’s Nakadai, a reissue from the 1980s, performs well beyond the instrument and after some quarter century the work shows no signs of wear. While any variety of drone-oriented music was available during that decade and well before, Smith accomplishes his pieces with pedal steel guitar and percussion, specifically percussion rid of its usually abrupt envelopes As such, being sourced electro-mechanically and acoustically rather than electronically, the five pieces—which string together in a suite-like seamlessness—possess a rich timbral depth and harmonic complexity that was very different from the purely synthetic works of that decade. Smith offers glimpses of suspended and active states, moments that might infer Ligeti at one turn or the long and pitch-shifted sustains of Fripp at another. Beautiful stuff, shorn of prettiness and decoration to reach an absolute sound of almost continuous invention.” — K Leimer , Exposé
“Immensity is the concept that this album can evoke best in the imagination of the listener. Drifting from experimental music to the most ethereal sector of ambient music, this work displays both a daring stylistic concept and the excellent level that Chas Smith has achieved as a music innovator. The music takes the listener on a journey through incredible universes, creating soundscapes that suggest astral voyages beyond the limits of space or time. The composer is able to generate unearthly ambiences whose absolute clarity provides them with an overwhelming realism.” —Amazing Sounds (Spain)