Bill Horist: Abstract beauty

by Keenan Ketzner 

Bill Horist is a multi-talented individual playing somewhere in the ballpark of composer, improviser, and full-time avant-garde enthusiast. Bolstering a simply staggering body of work, it is an understatement to say Bill has been busily broadcasting his impeccable knack for guitar to the world at large, with his range of styles covering everything from jazz, to rock, to folk, to experimental, and anything in between.

“I was born in Washington DC. I lived in Evanston, Illinois… I was 14, then we made a massive lifestyle shift and moved to an unincorporated area outside a small town in Michigan called Fennville,” he said, reflecting on a past just as winding as the musical career he has embarked on. “This afforded me the opportunity to sample both the urban and rural; something that I think informs my persona and aesthetic.”

If you have heard any of Bill’s work, then you can undoubtedly see the impact of this focused, detached environment in his music. Not only in the proficiency of his more traditional composed pieces, but also in his free-range form of avant-garde music, in which he has employed many experimental practices like broad improvisation and extended technique.

Forced to take piano lessons as a child, Bill was enamored early on by the anti-authoritarian vibe that experimental music could offer. “My first exposure to it was through Bauhaus and Sonic Youth in the 80s. I had been drawn to the dissonance and unusual sounds provided by the underground music of the time; punk, new wave and similar ilks.”

After a short period of trying out singing, he soon picked up the guitar around the age of 18. Bill played with this punkish outlet until his mid-20s, when he found himself in the heart of Seattle (where he has since called his home).

It was around that time when Bill started to apply the philosophies of several avant-garde masters (John Cage, Fred Frith and Keith Rowe specifically) to his own work, marking a turn in his musical ideology, as he began to explore experimental music in earnest.

“From there, the aesthetic merits of such a practice began to reveal themselves to me and it became less about an antithetical reaction to something and more about a proactive sense of creating an abstract beauty,” he said.

Bill began to play with the grey area of music where idiomatic structures meld with abstraction, yielding an emotionally raw, but traditionally grounded sound. “[Some practitioners] have an “improv uber alles” disposition… I find that directing or conjuring certain emotional states is often more effectively accomplished with composition,” while still maintaining that “improvisation provides a much richer framework for risk and discovery. It allows a practitioner to experience revelation at the same time as a listener might; an unusual simpatico between performer and audience.”

In recent years Horist has been keeping things odd, focusing primarily on live performances and commissioned work. “One of the things I love about doing something that most people deem strange is the variety of strange things I get asked to do; whether it’s making weird guitar sounds for a Hobbit video game, doing a duet with a coffee roaster, stringing a guitar from a stairwell and wrapping it in dozens of firecrackers, playing with a performance artist with cerebral palsy or making an ignoble appearance on a stupid reality show.”

Bill shows no signs of slowing down his output of oddities, and promises that many things lay over the horizon. Expect to see his score “Mutei,” which originally was composed for a dance production called “Dream Pavilion” with Davida Monk in the summer, as well as an album of more ferocious improvisations called Chemical Language, alongside collaborators Wally Shoup and Paul Kikuchi.

LIVE SHOW: Bill Horist will be playing at the Bellingham Sound Culture: Adventurous Festival happening April 30-May 3. Specific dates and times coming soon. See www.billhorist.com.

Published in the April 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine