By Franklin Abbott
You may not have heard of David Torn but you very well may have heard him. Torn is a film composer, avante garde guitar player and studio musician whose work can be heard in film scores like Friday Night Lights, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski, and The March of Penguins. He has worked with musicians as diverse as Madonna and Jeff Beck and his own albums have been acclaimed for their innovation and reach.
As a child Torn (cousin of Rip Torn) was encouraged by his concert pianist mother and his father who designed stereos. He studied as a child of 10 with Leonard Bernstein in his Music for Young Composers classes. Torn began with piano and moved to percussion and finally fell in love with the guitar. He says, “You have to internalize an instrument in order for it to become truly expressive.”
Torn has taken the guitar to its outer limits. Through a process of looping he can make his solo instrument sound like an orchestra without any synthetic sound being added. He focuses on creating atmosphere and mood. His work, he says, is something like an Impressionist painting. He is quick to add that his work is not just a quiet walk in the woods with chirping birds but full of texture, ellipses and danger.
A defining event for Torn happened over twenty years ago when he developed an acoustic neuroma, a brain tumor affecting the acoustic nerve in his right ear. After brain surgery where he lost his hearing in his right ear and developed temporary aphasia he had to teach himself to hear and speak again. He remembers looking up at his surgeon after the operation who with tears streaming was apologizing for not being able to save the hearing in his right ear, and thinking, “whatever music I had in me before is still in me now.” It was weeks before he could speak again and reassure the doctor who saved his life. Torn said after surgery all the nerves in his brain were on fire with huge waves of sound. His doctor had told him, “things are never the same after you open the brain,” and they never were. Torn’s commitment to learning to understand and interpret sound again has given him greater focus and an ability to “expect the unexpected.”
Torn’s abilities to create a surreal world of sound has not been lost on other musicians. David Bowie is the musician that Torn has worked the most in recent years. He has contributed to all of Bowie’s albums except one since 1991. He describes Bowie as “an incredibly creative human being with incredible respect for other creative human beings.” He holds Bowie in an exalted position among all the many musicians he has collaborated with. He says he thinks fondly of him even through the difficult moments of collaboration.
Torn is at the end of his 23 city tour for his new album only sky. His latest CD was recorded live in a large hall has been widely acclaimed and has topped the charts for electronic music. Torn, who rarely tours, has never performed before in Atlanta. His show promises a big canvas of atmospheric music with an abundance of surprises. Tickets are still available for Torn’s show at Red Light Cafe on June 7 at this link.
Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and poet. Find our more at franklinabbott.com.