Maybe music’s a universal language. A note’s a note. But Tashi Dorji , an Asheville, North Carolina, guitarist, has gone and crafted what amounts to a wildly unique patois.
“I play stuff because of ideas,” he said about improvising. “Everything is going to change possibly. And the only way I can play is to know that it’s kind of imperfect.”
Recording his instantaneous compositions over the past several years has yielded a slew of hard-to-find tapes, a 2014 compilation and the recently issued “Appa.” The mostly acoustic guitar derivations are uniquely Dorji’s, but on his latest full-length, a new sort of melodicism went and bloomed.
Contrasted with the sometimes noisy, rattling and extended cuts collected on that compilation, songs on “Appa” conscientiously unfold, radiating a joyful thoughtfulness apparent from every plucked string. And each track wraps up in about four minutes. “Floods,” with its ascending melody, teems with quickly conceived ideas, each disappearing as abruptly as they arrived. Snatches of British folk music’s melodicism crop up, but almost immediately are consumed byDorji’s nonidiomatic progressions and picking.
“It’s always like a practice session. When I first started to go on tour solo, it was really scary to think people were going to pay to just watch for 45 minutes,” he said about the immediate nature of performing. “When I went on tour with [Sir Richard Bishop], Rick plays songs. And I go up there and play off of my head. There was a point when I would play pieces, stop and play another one. It was weird, because I would stop, but what do I say? So, I just try to play 40-minute long pieces.”
Continual transformations hue Dorji’s solo material, but the fecundity of Asheville’s avant-music scene have found the guitarist working in a variety of duo settings as well. Manas, a guitar-drums group he plays in alongside Thom Nguyen, features Dorji in a setting that enables the Bhutan-born guitarist to stretch out in ways that just might not be possible in a solo context. But nothing Manas has recorded and released, nor any of Dorji’s solo output, is angled at propelling him to guitar-hero status.
“I have a lot of musical ideas. And I play with a lot of different people,” he said. “The sound is constantly maneuvering around. It’s interesting to release music, but there’s no inhibition. It’s not so I can sell [records] or get some huge notoriety.”
“Appa,” though, still sports all those melodies foreign to Dorji’s earlier work. In part, he said, the approach sprung from listeners’ expectations of his music, but also from working with Bathetic Records, an Asheville imprint, for the new release.
“I talked to [John Hency, the label’s founder], and I was going to send stuff, but asked him what songs he liked. And he mentioned one song that was really short that had a simple melody,” Dorji said. “It was a stylistically specific thing, so I based the whole album around that … and composed all the songs based on small ideas that I could probably extended.”
The slight shift, one Dorji hopes will disallow him from being pigeonholed as a guitarist engaged with only a single mode of guitar playing, hasn’t deterred a desire that’s propelled him from the beginning.
“The motivation of playing radical music is a kind of political act, just trying to defy regiments of standards,” he said.
Dorji’s revolutionary impulse and the heady nature of his compositions, though, haven’t dissuaded folks from making comparisons between him and John Fahey, the progenitor of what would become the Takoma school of guitar, a style dedicated to ravaging American vernacular music. The thing is, though, when compared to Dorji’s work, that strain of guitar music sounds a bit less profound.
“I can play that stuff and I think it’s interesting,” Dorji said, joking about knowing the Elizabeth Cotten standard “Freight Train.” “I like Mississippi John Hurt and Joseph Spence. And I like John Fahey; some of his records are good.”
That sort of fundamental misunderstanding of Dorji’s playing and its intent extends well beyond just musicological concerns. Living in a North Carolina mountain town — one Dorji said has a dedicated, yet small, experimental music scene — means his performances occasionally abut the lives of unwitting college students attending several universities in the area.
“I was playing the record release show at [an Asheville venue]. And it was a free show on a Friday,” Dorji said. “So, there were random people in there — a lot of college students. And there were people in the back like, ‘I felt so sorry for that guy. He didn’t even know how to play the guitar.’ ”
He’s in rarified company, though, seeing as the same’s been uttered in regard to the expressionistic advances of everyone from John Coltrane to the Ramones. The only difference is Dorji’s using six strings and his roving imagination to spread a musical commotion.