CD: The Hours
Artist: Manfred Melcher
I’m pleased to be one of the first music journalists to shine a spotlight on the debut album of a multi-talented artist named Manfred Melcher. I use the term “multi-talented” because in addition to being an accomplished finger-style acoustic guitarist and contemporary instrumental composer, Manfred is also an actor who has appeared on TV shows like Seinfeld, 21-Jump Street, Growing Pains, and more, as well as having a professional career as a psychotherapist and author of a book on that topic. Although born in Brooklyn, New York, Manfred was reared in Bamberg, Germany until the age of 7 when his family returned to the New York City area. It was only a few years later when he first picked up the guitar and began learning folk songs from the 60’s, continuing on to compose his first instrumental at the age of 16. However, his musical exploration eventually took a detour for a number of years until he was in his early 30’s when he re-engaged with the instrument and discovered alternate tunings (by accident.) Now at the age of 48, Manfred is proud to release his first recording, The Hours.
On this album, and in Manfred’s instrumental music in general, the focus is on conveying a story. In his words: “Story-telling is vital to being human. No other form of storytelling conveys the nuances of human experiences as music. Each of these compositions is a story… the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the beauty of nature, the fragility of hope, the joy and comfort of love. Music is capable of giving expression, meaning, and purpose to life. If a composition activates a thought, image, or feeling in the listener, it is good.” For Manfred, it is about “painting ‘sonic pictures,’ and giving musical form to our shared humanity.” The tales his music tells blend new age influences, jazz voicings, Celtic themes, and traditional/ folk textures into a sound that evokes echoes of a number of classic Windham Hill acoustic artists.
The first six-string story Manfred tells on the album is entitled “Overflow,” of which he says “Sometimes I’m overcome by the simple beauty and wonder of being alive. I wrote this piece at such a moment. I play it often to remind myself of my blessings.” It’s an interesting synchronicity that I’m writing this article on the day after Thanksgiving, and being focused on counting my own blessings. One of the first things I couldn’t help noticing about Manfred’s music, being a guitarist myself, is the resonant beauty of his guitar tone. For those who may be interested, he plays a Breedlove “Northwestern,” Sitka spruce top with tiger maple sides and back. It’s got a lovely sonic signature that perfectly compliments his dexterous fingerstyle playing.
The next track is one of my favorites and merits special mention for the introduction of new elements. Entitled “Ghost Woman of Bamboo Forest,” along with guitar, the piece features subtle synthesizer textures and the cello accompaniment of Jordan Proctor, whose soulful playing graces other tracks on the album as well. This composition is a great example of what Manfred referred to as “painting sonic pictures,” and definitely evokes imagery in the mind of the listener, especially with the atmospheric synth sounds, which includes an ethereal female vocal emulation. This song was written while Manfred was studying the pipa, or Chinese lute, and for him, tells the story of a young woman lost between worlds and her heartbroken lover. There is quite a cinematic and impressionistic air about it.
The title track, “The Hours,” is an elegant and moving piece that is a memorial to a late family member. The name of the song, according to Manfred, “refers to the brief moments of time that we string together to form our memories and cultivate our life’s story.” One of the things I appreciated most in his playing on this composition was the use of space, as well as the notes. As Manfred describes: “I prefer a single note (or better yet, the use of silence) to the flurry of notes or the display of fancy fretwork on the guitar. I am focusing on quality of tone/sound and the delicacies of phrasing that are capable of being created on the guitar.” Although I will say that he is quite capable of some “fancy fretwork,” which is evident on the album. One of Manfred’s areas of expertise on the guitar is the use of alternate tunings. He is adept at over 20 of them, and utilizes 8 different tunings on this album. A good example of one of these is an appropriately dreamy piece called “Lullaby No. 1.” According to Manfred: “This piece wrote itself on the day my daughter was born. I intentionally put the guitar into the tuning DADGAD (notice the word Dad) and let the guitar tell me what I needed to hear. It’s a lovely piece and the cello accentuates it perfectly. An equally tranquil tune in an alternate tuning entitled “Lullaby No. 2” commemorates the birth of Manfred’s son. The album draws to a conclusion with what is perhaps my favorite song, “Treetop A Cappella,” a mid-tempo number with a folk music feel and a trace of semi-classical influence. I particularly liked the interweaving of cello and subtle synthesizer to add richness to the composition.
The Hours by Manfred Melcher provides a peaceful listening experience that can be enjoyed either as background music or with more focused attention. As mentioned, the use of space and Manfred’s tasteful phrasing allows the music to breathe and flow. The sometimes-understated nature of his playing is intentional, and in his words: “I have abandoned the goal of being a fast guitarist… I bore quickly of myself if I try to impress others or play the guitar from a place of ego. In writing or performing my music, I strive to be in the background…focusing rather on telling stories. I hope the listener is taken on a journey of their own internal reflection and emotional reality.” This debut release shows great promise, and I’ll look forward to hearing more from this evolving artist.