Friday, June 02, 2006

Patty Larkin on "gender bending"


One of the more intriguing acts of the Strawberry festival was the so-called "gender-bending strings" of La Guitara, the touring version of singer-songwriter Patty Larkin's showcase of female guitar stylists.

At Strawberry, La Guitara consisted of Larkin, classical guitarist Muriel Anderson and jazz player Mimi Fox. The trio played both as an ensemble and in serial solo minisets during their main stage appearance. They also traded off on numbers and took questions from the audience at a Friday afternoon workshop appearance.

My daughter Twyla and I got a chance to chat with Larkin after the workshop. We started by asking about the origin of the La Guitara project.

"A few years back Rolling Stone had an article listing the top 100 guitarists of all-time, and they included Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt, which is fantastic. But it was only two out of 100," Larkin said.

"That got me thinking about getting a bunch of my singer-songwriter friends--Jonatha Brooke, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and others--to do instrumentals on a record. They are all great guitar players, but their guitar work tends to get buried and goes unsung.

"But then my co-producer, Bette Warner, suggested that we should go broader into other genres of music. As we did the research, tons of new names started coming in. People playing classical, rock, blues, everything. It was hard to narrow it down."

In the end, the album that emerged featured 14 performers, including some well-known artists, two "archival" musicians no longer living, and others who are up-and-coming.

Larkin insists that it is not meant to be the complete picture, but an initial sampling. She also said there would be follow-up CDs that emerge from the project, including the singer-songwriter one that was her original vision.

"It's not like we've found something and we're marking it and peeing in every corner. It's like we're marking something that has already transpired, that's already up and gone, and we just want to talk about it. And we want to open up the potential for discussion in an interesting way," Larkin said.

Twyla was especially interested in the rationale behind the notion of "gender-bending strings," and whether there is really anything especially distinct about female guitar styles.

"I think there's a sensibility of how women approach the music. I know that when I produce records with people, it's circular. I want everybody to tell me where they're coming from, what they're thinking, and what they think their contribution could be. And then I tell what to do," she said with a laugh.

"I think it's the same way [with how female musicians interact]. Sue Foley, who's a great blues player from Canada, told me that she did a workshop stage with six women blues guitarists, and instead of 'Step aside, I'm taking the next solo,' it was more like, 'You go? No? Okay, I'll go.' And then they would wail."

I noted the that the guitar can be a phallic image. Larkin agreed that "it often is in our society. I liken it to rock climbing. Last time I was in Yosemite, 30 years ago, rock climbing was a very male-oriented sport, and you've seen that completely turn around. With guitar-playing, there are young women and girls coming up who are changing it. They're changing the approach into something different and including their voices in the repertoire."

The La Guitara project hopes to accelerate that change, in part by raising funds for Guitars in the Classroom, a non-profit based in Santa Cruz, CA, that trains classroom teachers in guitar method and acquires free instruments from manufacturers.

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