An Hour Out of Desert Center   CB0013

The music

An Hour Out of Desert Center is scored for pedal steel guitars, composer-designed-and-built crotales and sound sculptures, zithers, and a 1948 Bigsby lap guitar (a one-of-a-kind instrument that was owned by famed steel player Joaquin Murphey, who played with Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, Sons of the Pioneer, and other classic country artists). Here, Smith’s musical texture, evolving slowly and continuously over the course of the piece, is without dramatic flourishes. Like the spare landscapes around Desert Center, California, it simply exists in its muted beauty.

Absence of Redemption and Albuquerque 5402 are scored for the same instruments as the first work, but with the addition of Smith’s self-designed-and-built three-neck steel guitar, “guitarzilla,” which he prepares (a la John Cage’s prepared piano) with metal rods and plays with hammered dulcimer hammers. Absence develops in the linear fashion of the first piece. Albuquerque 5402 is a large-scale, two-movement piece constructed from dense, shifting textures that slowly taper away in the first movement and interweave in the next.

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The composer-performer

Chas Smith is a Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and instrument designer and builder who, 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 as The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, and American Beauty.) Smith has also been featured on recordings by composer Harold Budd and with Rick Cox and film composer Thomas Newman in the experimental music ensemble Tokyo 77 (recorded on Intone Records). Smith has performed his own works at various new music festivals and art galleries. In addition to his other CDs for Cold Blue, Nikko Wolverine, Aluminum Overcast, Nakadai, Descent, and Twilight of the Dreamboats (as well as a number of appearances of his music on the label’s anthologies), his music has been recorded on the Arc Light, Cold Blue, Cantil, MCA, and Straw Dog labels.

Although Smith’s music is sometimes somewhat dissonant, the manner in which it presents itself is extremely engaging. As one critic put it when reviewing one of Smith’s earlier recordings: “If the house band on the Titanic sounded this gorgeous when the ship went down, you might have been tempted to stay aboard.”


“Chas Smith composes and performs epic soundscapes…music that reflects the wide-open spaces of the American West. [C]loser attention reveals his subtle layering of instrumental textures. The overall effect is of a shimmering, reverberating soundscape, extraordinarily evocative of the boundless spaces that clearly inspired it: an endless desert under a throbbing sun.” —The Wire

“If anyone needed proof that Smith’s music runs deeper than the novelty impact of gigantic, multi-rodded creatures struck and bowed with odd-shaped apparatuses, An Hour Out of Desert Center nails it…. Smith builds shimmering soundscapes. He stacks track after track of crystal-clear notes and motifs…. Its beauties are immediately palpable, yet they don’t fade with repeated listens…. Beautiful.” —Francois Couture, All-Music Guide

“Perhaps the most deeply impressive composer in the Cold Blue stable, Chas Smith is surely also one of the most original composers working anywhere today…. The latest [Smith CD] is also perhaps the most outstanding. It returns us to the extraordinary sound-world—fresh, understated, always ravishing—that he has made uniquely his own. The sonorities of this world are incandescent…. An Hour Out of Desert Center is a delicate play of lavish colors, a sonic equivalent of the awesome emanation from some mysterious natural light show that changes without articulation or human intervention. Radiant, soaring, dazzlingly lit by its own colliding harmonics…. Absence of Redemption had me thinking variously of bleak wind whistling through power lines, the clangorous hum of resonating steel, the scream of scraped metal echoing remorselessly through cavernous chambers…. Albuquerque 5402…is like a dense, shimmering celestial carillon…as gorgeous a euphony as one is ever likely to hear…. For anyone interested in the music of today—and of tomorrow—this disc is essential listening.” —International Record Review (UK)

“A metal instrument builder and pedal-steel player, Chas Smith belongs to the Brotherhood of Hardware and Scrap Metal Dealers, of which Harry Partch is the Patron Saint. Significantly less harsh than on his previous efforts, his instrumentarium is here put to use in long pieces made of loose strands and wisps, threatening to evaporate. Smith is inventing something like post-industrial ambient, the missing link between John Cage’s sound mobiles and Godspeed’s looser tracks.” —Richard Robert, Les Inrockuptibles (France)

“On this new CD Smith focuses on his pedal steel guitar playing…. The overwhelming effect of the music is space, with an underlying despair or misery suggested by the title of the second long track, Absence of Redemption. This is music which makes space for an unearthly beauty—one found in scrub and sand and dirt and distant horizon lines—rather than trying to create it. It invokes rather than declaims, intimates rather than preaches, and I for one find it obsessive listening.” —Rupert Loydell, Tangents (UK)

“Chas Smith seems most comfortable pushing around clouds of sound. His music is constructed with evolving—or devolving—colors and textures. These changes occur in a timeframe different from the one in which we spend most of our days. Smith’s music ‘happens’ at the same speed as cell division, continental drift, and the formation of black holes—often simultaneously…. [T]his is majestic music—but with fluidity…. [T]hink of Ligeti’s music if it were performed by welders, or by a dynamo in a cistern…let yourself be drowned in it…. A strong recommendation from me [Raymond Tuttle] if you want a transcendental, engulfing experience.” —Fanfare magazine

An Hour Out of Desert Center is a fascinating CD…. Close your eyes and let yourself be carried away, but watch out for rattlesnakes placidly passing by.” —All About Jazz (Italy)

“A heavenly steel guitar drone floating on a cushion of spacious silence…which has an enchanting, hypnotic aura…. Like walking through a valley or desert of drifting spirits or ghosts. Each note glows and is slowly stretched out so that one can watch each drone closely as it floats on by…shimmering in a mesmerizing haze…an exquisite and enchanting world of wonderful spirits. A very special spiritual offering.” —Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter

“A bold and complex feast for the ears…. Smith’s music easily straddles the timeless resonant eternity of spacemusic and the hands-on expressionism of the avant-garde…. Serene and sophisticated…An Hour Out of Desert Center is powerful and sublime, well in the area where terror and beauty meet.” —Star’s End website

“Another priceless disc by this poet of the Californian desert, another great disc from Cold Blue.”Deep Listenings (Italy)

“We are almost always used to hearing a pedal steel guitar used in the same way, as accompanying country mostly. We could almost forget the instrument is also an instrument on its own, with its own sound ready to be rediscovered. Chas Smith gives it a new destiny…. This is great music, and recommended to those who want ambient music with a real musical content, and with a musical structural drive that has a natural inner movement which goes far beyond coincidence.” —Gerald Van Waes, Psyche Van Het Folk (Belgium)

“Chas Smith, a unique instrument-builder, the improbable heir of Harry Partch, whose instruments are as beautiful to admire as to listen to.” —Philippe Robert, Coda (France)

“…the serpentine guitar (“Guitarzilla”) of Chas Smith’s An Hour Out of Desert Center, waves of sand moving to the beat of the wind.”Classica Repertoire (France)

“He coaxes such smoothly wafting layers from a guitar…the sound is both soothing and meditative, yet rich in textural hues in a way that reveals the limitations of synthesizers.” —Exposé