Music Interviews
9:51 pm
Wed March 13, 2013

At South By Southwest, A 71-Year-Old Guitarist Makes A Belated Debut

Originally published on Fri March 15, 2013 7:42 am

This week, about 2,000 bands from around the world are performing at various venues throughout Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music festival. Many of the musicians are young and have had plenty of experience performing in public.

And then there's guitarist Harry Taussig, who is nearly 72 years old. On Thursday, he'll be performing live for the first time ever.

Taussig never really meant to be a musician. He majored in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. But like many Berkeley students in the 1960s, he was into Kingston Trio-type folk music and noodled around a bit on the guitar. Then one day in a music appreciation class, his teacher analyzed the opening bars of Mozart's Requiem.

Later that afternoon, Taussig came home and heard North Carolina guitarist and singer Elizabeth Cotten on the radio.

"It struck me that what she was doing, in principle, was very similar to the complexity that Mozart was doing," Taussig says. "And I said, 'The Kingston Trio sort of treats their guitars like ukuleles and washboards, just sort of strumming chords. There is so much more to it than that.' "

So Taussig messed around with the idea of playing both melody and bass at the same time and fused classical compositions with roots music from the South. He started developing his own, mostly self-taught style of guitar, incorporating everyone from John Cage to North Carolina gospel and blues musician Gary Davis.

"I didn't want to reproduce folk music, 'cause hey, I'm a city boy, you know? I'm not from North Carolina," Taussig says. "I should not be playing that stuff. But again, I felt like I could extend it. I could push it further than it had been."

After college, Taussig moved to Southern California, where he'd occasionally play this odd brand of music for close acquaintances. Then, in 1965, a friend asked him if he'd be interested in recording an album.

"It was a 45-minute album and he rented one hour of studio time — which means no retakes," Taussig says. "The album to me is still pretty embarrassing because of flubs and disasters and mistakes. ... It was very scary."

He named the album Fate Is Only Once. It was a mix of traditional songs and some of his own — mostly improvised — compositions. But the album didn't go far; it was a limited run and few copies sold. At the time, further pursuing a career in music didn't seem worthwhile.

"The problem is, I don't play well with other people," Taussig explains. "I tried to play in a band once but it wasn't for me. I tend, for instance, to switch time signatures without warning. ... So, a solo guitarist playing obscure strange music? Ah, no, I don't ever think that was ever a living."

He took his degree in physics and worked in the defense industry. He also took up photography, art and film studies, teaching all three at a community college under the name Arthur Taussig. He even wrote a film analysis book intended to help parents decide which movies to watch with their kids. Music took a back seat: He gave his last guitar away decades ago to one of his students.

But in 2005, the owner of a small record label got a hold of Fate Is Only Once.

"It is very spooky," says Josh Rosenthal, the founder of Tompkins Square Records, who heard something different in Taussig's recordings.

"He was a pioneer," Rosenthal says. "There just were not that many people making music that sounded like that in 1965."

Rosenthal reached out to Taussig and convinced him to reissue Fate Is Only Once, 41 years after its initial release. He says his favorite track on the album, a song called "Dorian's Sonata," is a great example of Taussig's unique sound.

"He's not just melancholy like a lot of solo guitarists," Rosenthal says. "There is something ancient in his playing, and something sort of Baroque in it. And he's most interesting because he's not a guitarist that folks would point to and say, 'Wow, listen to his chops!' Some might argue that he is not that very good of a guitar player."

But the reissue of Fate Is Only Once earned Taussig new fans and sold quite well — so well that Taussig decided to record a follow-up album after a 47-year hiatus from music. He named this sophomore effort Fate Is Only Twice. This time around, he recorded his original compositions sitting on a cherry red love seat in his living room with a lone microphone and a Dell laptop.

The technology may have changed since 1965, but Taussig's songwriting process hasn't. He still relies heavily on improvisation.

"With the music, I want to tell a story but I don't want that story understood," Taussig says. "I want someone to feel there is a story there, but they can't quite connect with it, so it sort of hangs in the air. I like that. It's kind of fun."

Taussig says he often forgets the songs he writes soon after recording them, another reason why he's shied away from performing live. But that fear hasn't stopped him from heading to Austin to perform at South by Southwest. Although it has made him somewhat apprehensive about playing his very first show at 71 years old.

"My great fear is that I'll be eating tomato salads for the next three weeks from what people throw at me," Taussig says. "So I'll bring my own basil and mozzarella to make a nice insalata caprese."

But then he remembers the old saying: "Guitar players are like hookers. When they last long enough, they became respectable."

Gallery: Harry Taussig's Tarot Art

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The annual music extravaganza known as South by South West is happening in Austin, Texas. About 2,000 bands from around the world are playing, many of them young musicians with plenty of experience on stage.

And then there's Harry Taussig. The guitarist is 71 years old and has never performed in public, so tonight will be a first.

From member station KPCC, Alex Cohen has this profile.

ALEX COHEN, BYLINE: Harry Taussig never really meant to be a musician. He majored in physics at UC, Berkeley.

HARRY TAUSSIG: I should not have been a physics major. My grades in physics were B's and C's, especially in math. I was really terrible at math.

COHEN: Like many Berkeley students in the 1960s, he was into Kingston Trio-type folk music and he noodled around a bit on the guitar. Then one day, in a music appreciation class, his teacher analyzed the opening bars of Mozart's "Requiem."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, MOZART'S "REQUIEM")

COHEN: Later that day, Taussig came home and heard North Carolina guitarist and singer Elizabeth Cotten on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAUSSIG: It struck me that what she was doing, in principle, was very similar to the complexity that Mozart was doing. In the bass, he is going...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAUSSIG: On top, he's going...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAUSSIG: If you put the two together...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COHEN: So Taussig messed around with the idea of playing both melody and bass at the same time - mostly teaching himself. He fused classical compositions with roots music from the South.

TAUSSIG: If it was Elizabeth Cotten or someone playing this, it'd be...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAUSSIG: So that is an improvisation on the first measure of Mozart's "Requiem." He's taking a bass line...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAUSSIG: And basically this is what all the folk musicians did, and then putting a melody against that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COHEN: Taussig started developing his own sound, incorporating everyone from John Cage to North Carolina Gospel and Blues musician, Gary Davis.

TAUSSIG: I didn't want to reproduce folk music, 'cause, hey I'm a city boy. You know, I'm not from North Carolina. I should not be playing that stuff but I felt like I could extend it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COHEN: After college, Taussig moved to Southern California where he'd occasionally play this odd brand of music for close acquaintances. Then, in 1965, a friend asked if he'd be interested in recording an album.

TAUSSIG: It was a 45-minute album and he rented one hour of studio time, which means no retakes, just straight on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAUSSIG: The album, to me, is still pretty embarrassing because with all the flubs and disasters and the mistakes. But there was no re-dos, so...

(LAUGHTER)

TAUSSIG: ...it was very scary

COHEN: He named the album "Fate Is Only Once." The album didn't go far, it was a limited run and few copies sold. At the time, pursuing a career in music much further, didn't seem worthwhile.

TAUSSIG: A solo guitarist playing obscure, strange music - ah, no. I don't ever think that was ever a living.

COHEN: So he took his degree in physics and worked in the defense industry.

TAUSSIG: I was teaching guitar at the same time. And I just said, you know, I really enjoy teaching. I felt, well, maybe I should teach science. So I went back to get a doctorate in biophysics, masters in biochemistry.

COHEN: He also took up photography, art and film studies, teaching all three at a community college under the name Arthur Taussig. He even wrote a film analysis book intended to help parents decide which movies to watch with their kids.

Music took a back seat. He gave his last guitar away decades ago to one of his students. Then, in 2005, the owner of a small record label got a hold of "Fate Is Only Once."

JOSH ROSENTHAL: It is very spooky.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

COHEN: Josh Rosenthal, founder of Tompkins Square Records, says he heard something different in Taussig's recordings.

ROSENTHAL: He's just a really heady player and a very inner player. There's a lot in his music that's really masked.

COHEN: Rosenthal reached out to Taussig and convinced him to re-issue "Fate Is Only Once." Rosenthal says his favorite track, a song called "Dorian Sonata," is a great example of Taussig's unique sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DORIAN SONATA")

ROSENTHAL: There is something ancient in his playing, something sort of baroque. And he's most interesting because he has not a guitarist that folks would point two and say, wow, listen to his chops. And, in fact, some might argue that he is not really a very good guitar player.

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: But the re-issue of "Fate Is Only Once" earned Taussig new fans and sold quite well. So well, that Taussig decided to record a follow-up after a 47-year hiatus from music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COHEN: Taussig named his sophomore effort "Fate Is Only Twice." This time around, he recorded in his living room on a Dell laptop with a lone microphone.

TAUSSIG: Now I can do it over, and over, and over again and take all the time in the world, which is a blessing.

COHEN: The technology may have changed since 1965, but Taussig's songwriting process hasn't. He still relies heavily on improvisation.

TAUSSIG: I want to tell a story but I don't want that story understood. I want someone to feel there is a story there but they can't quite connect with it. And I like that. I think that's fun.

COHEN: Taussig says he often forgets the songs he writes soon after recording them - another reason he's shied away from performing live. But fear hasn't stopped him from heading to Austin to perform at South by Southwest, though it has made him somewhat apprehensive about playing his very first show at 71 years of age.

TAUSSIG: I guess my great fear is that I'll be eating tomato salads for the next three weeks from what people throw at me. So...

(LAUGHTER)

TAUSSIG: I'll bring my own basil and mozzarella to make a nice ensalata caprese. So...

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: But then he remembers the old saying: Guitar players are like hookers, when they last long enough they became respectable.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You can learn more about Harry Taussig and see some of his visuals art at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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