Outside is where musicians go when they're up for adventure. Free jazzers are called outcats. The Wire reviews the most wigged-out records in a column called "Outer Limits". Even when players don't enjoy an actual latitude for spontaneity when they "take it out" at the end of a song, they're likely to try to make it sound like they did. So Steffen Basho-Junghans flew in the face of estab-lished practice when he called the most radical recording of his career "Inside".
But then, Basho-Junghans has never done things anyone else's way. How many people in any field do their ground-breaking work when they're creeping up on fifty years old? He was 45 when he recorded Inside during the first days of 1999. The record (which was released in 2001 by Strange Attractors) was the result of Steffen's epiphanic chance encounter two month's earlier with a newly strung, not-yet-tuned twelve string guitar, which resulted in a marvelous adventure in resonance called "The Virgin Orchestra No. 1" (part 1 available on 156 Strings, Cuneiform, 2002). Seduced by the opportunity it presented to draw new sounds out of apparent disorder, he began to intensely study the sound-making potential his guitars possessed once liberated from the confining conventions of tuning and technique. He's not the only person to refuse to accept received notions of the guitar's possibilities, but unlike Keith Rowe or Kevin Drumm, Basho-Junghans has deep roots in more traditional guitar styles. To conduct his explorations, he had to deny the gravity of decades of learning and accomplishment. Steffen's earlier recordings extend one foot towards the USA-based Takoma records finger-picking posse (Peter Lang, Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Robbie Basho) and plant another near ECM school of guitar impressionism (Egberto Gismonti, Terje Rypdal, Steve Tibbets, Ralph Towner). By linking the two, he has emulated the eclectic example of his adopted guru Robbie Basho, whose own music blended raga runs, bluegrass breakdowns, and flamenco flourishes.
Junghans never met Robbie Basho, but he was so inspired by the reclusive guitarist's recordings that he took the man's name. This wasn't an act of fanboy adulation, nor was it an attempt to capitalize on another man's success; Steffen was already in his 30s, a guy who had lived a bit and knew who he was before he first heard Robbie, who had slipped into near-total obscurity well before his accidental death in 1986. Rechristened Steffen Basho-Junghans, the German learned his muse's tunings and techniques, and immersed himself in American Indian lore. He also championed his instrument in his native East Germany, eventually organizing the country's first all-style guitar festival and directing the Berlin Guitar Centre until 1991.
You can get complete biographies of Basho-Junghans at his website (www.bluemomentarts.de) or in the liner notes of his CD Song Of The Earth (Sublingual, 2001), so I'll just mention a couple more facts that are important to understanding this record. The first is that although he lives in Berlin, he is in fact a country boy who grew up in Kraja (pop. 500), a village in northern Thuringia. His childhood memories are of vast acoustic and visual spaces; broad skies, rural vistas, the complex sounds of the land when people live on it but don't necessarily dominate it. The second is that he is an accomplished landscape painter.
Rivers And Bridges was conceived in mid-1998, but it wasn't completed until spring 2001. This makes it contemporaneous with Steffen's more experimental work, and its release declares that he does not intend to permanently abandon the guitar lore he spent years learning. The names of its briefer pieces - "Hear The Winds Coming," "Rainbow Dancing," "Autumn II" - suggest that they are reflective moments, perhaps turning points in a narrative. Basho-Junghans sequenced the album to evoke "a walk through seasons with streams of pictures, "stories," moods, rhythms, colors." The opening "River Suite" was inspired by Virgil Thomson's "Louisiana Story." Basho-Junghan's guitar evokes a stream's patient and inevitable journey across a varied landscape. Its duration and epic sweep also bring to mind the sweep of Robbie Basho's "Lost Lagoon Suite - Vancouver, Canada" and John Fahey's "America," both large scaled solo guitar pieces that evoke natural and cultural landscapes. The title of "The Takoma Bridge Incident" pays tribute to the record label responsible for so many grand steel-stringed guitar records, but it also draws upon Basho-Junghans' early training as an engineer. It was inspired by a remembered image of "a mighty bridge, connecting different places, but on the other hand a fragile line in the ocean." But the image I get as I listen to its dramatic progress is of Basho-Junghans connecting his life's parts; his country childhood, his love of the land which he expresses in his painting, his devotion to the acoustic guitar and especially the work of Robbie Basho. It makes sense that before he plunged Inside, he'd first take a walk outside.
--Bill Meyer, Berwyn IL, November 2002.