Bill Horist has been playing guitar conventionally and otherwise for almost thirty years. He has appeared on over 80 recordings and has performed throughout Europe, Japan, North and Central America. Bill has worked in many genres and his collaborators are equally varied; from leading lights in underground and experimental music to pop, rock and Grammy-winning artists. Additionally, his unique approach has afforded him opportunities to work in film, modern dance and video games. Bill is perhaps most noted for his prepared instrumental techniques in the tradition of John Cage, Fred Frith and others. Employing an arsenal of objects typically unrelated to music-making, he culls wildly varied and haunting sounds that are anything but guitarlike. This highly-augmented palette of expression is achieved by items such as nails, corks, sheet metal and surgical pliers, to name a few, and the unusual and entertaining methods developed to create otherworldly sonic textures.

This interview has been edited for length and concision.

Annie Corrigan: The notes I have on your prepared guitar performance include “toys.” What was the first toy you put on your guitar and how did it sound?

Bill Horist: My first experiments didn’t involve toys per se but rather cutlery — forks, knives and spoons. This was in the early 1990s. I would place guitars on various amps set up in different places in my house (a large old farmhouse in Michigan), thread cutlery between the strings and increase the amp volume until the guitar atop it started feeding back. That was the extent of my involvement. When all set, I would walk around the house and listen to the way the various sound sources mutated as waves traveled throughout the house.

AC: Very cool that you’ve recorded music for video games. Describe what that recording process is like.

BH: I’m very fortunate to have worked with composer Nathan Grigg, originally at Monolith and now with Warner Brothers. He is one of a small number of video game composers that work with live musicians. Though samples he has made of my work have found there way into many video games, the two we worked on live were the relatively obscure “Condemned II” and the more well known Lord of the Rings franchise “The Shadow of Mordor.” It was great fun because in addition to contributing to the actual score, I also did foley work — creating the sound of a zombie dog getting tazed or the whirring of an orc’s sword as it slices the air. We would track these instance in real time as I’d watch video of the scene. Given my own thoughts about my work as more of a biosphere than a construct, this process resonated; making sounds that were corporeal events.

AC: What is it about the guitar as an instrument that allows you to explore these “other sounds” on it?

BH: I’m actually not sure that there is something that drew me to the guitar for this type of application other than the fact that it was what I was already playing when my interests were drawn further afield. That said, there are definitely properties. I would specify that in my case, the exploration is of electric guitar. Amplifying an instrument attached it to a microscope which can enhance the hidden, tiny, and unintentional. Additionally, the physics of string vibration provide many opportunities for stitching and stretching sound.

AC: What comes first… the idea of the sound you want to create, or the implement you want to attach to your instrument?

BH: I’m deeply moved by nature and am a firm believer that design can exist without a designer. Therefore I never start with the idea of a sound before I create it. It can come from blind trial or possibly from an assumption based on experience how object, string and pickup will interact. But the journey always starts with a sound. I’m interested in fostering it, but not controlling it.

Bill Horist At Sound Symposium XIX*

  • Concert — Saturday, July 7 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
  • Workshop, Structured Guitar — Monday, July 9 at 10:00am (LSPU Hall)

See the complete list of SSXIX artists, as well as the full schedule and ticket information.

*Times and locations subject to change.