Michael Manring – On Recording with Michael Hedges on his album Aerial Boundaries
I’ve been lucky in my career to have been asked to play on lots of recordings — over 200 at last count. One of the ones I get asked about the most is Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries. Michael was one of those rare musicians who changed everything for his instrument. His creativity and vision led him to experiment with expanding the expressive scope of the acoustic guitar through extended tunings, percussive effects, two-hand tapping and new ways to amplify the instrument that allowed for a greater dynamic range. All these techniques and ideas are considered a standard part of the vocabulary today, but they started with Michael and the record of his that people seem to have been most touched by is Aerial Boundaries.
Aerial Boundaries was Michael’s second record. The first was called Breakfast in the Field and I was lucky to have played on that one, too. I met Michael in 1980 when I was 19, playing a pickup jazz gig at a restaurant in Baltimore. I grew up in that area and Michael was studying electronic music at Peabody Conservatory. Michael wasn’t playing that night, but had loaned us his PA, and stuck around to listen. It was a pretty open gig and I got to play one of my little solo bass pieces at the end of the first set. In the break Michael told me he really enjoyed what I was doing with the bass and that he was goofing around with similar ideas on acoustic guitar. We got to chatting and struck up a real rapport. We discovered we liked a lot of the same music, which was a little surprising because I didn’t know too many folks who enjoyed the odd assortment of pop, jazz, world, and twentieth century music I was into at the time. Michael mentioned he was working on demos for a small record company that no one had heard of (including me) called Windham Hill. He asked me if I’d play on a few of them and since he seemed like a pretty interesting guy, I figured I’d give it a try.
About six months later I was flying to California to play on Breakfast in the Field, my first real LP recording as a session player. Windham Hill started enjoying great success around that time and Michael and I played lots of shows together. I remember having long conversations about music during our travels — what we wanted to do, what we thought might be possible with our respective instruments, our hopes, dreams and plans. Michael always had a wonderful ability to focus and it was clear his creativity was growing and expanding. I remember at one point in around 1982 or ’83 he went to stay at his parents’ ranch in rural California for several weeks to compose new music. When I next saw him he had some incredible new compositions. He was really excited about his new approach — so was I, and just about everyone else who heard what he was doing! At the gigs we played, sometimes the audience would laugh at first — I guess because it was all just so unusual, but Michael was a great performer and by the end of the night they’d be on their feet.
Michael recorded his new pieces a few at a time, taking several different approaches — he had a few virtuosic solo compositions, some sweet ballads, an electronic tape realization — but he didn’t quite have everything he needed. One night after a show in our old stomping grounds in Baltimore we went out for a bite to eat with some friends at a local restaurant. We brought our instruments into the restaurant with us rather than taking the chance of leaving them in the car and after the meal, our friends asked us to play something. We were happy to oblige and the restaurant owner didn’t seem to mind, so we sat around the table jamming into the wee hours. Michael was well-known for his Neil Young covers and someone requested “After the Gold Rush,” so I started playing the melody on my bass. Michael was in one of his strange tunings, but was able to play along and was intrigued by the sound of the tune done that way. I didn’t think much more about it, and we went to crash at a friend’s apartment. The next day, Michael woke me up saying, “C’mon, I booked us some studio time so we can record ‘After the Gold Rush’.” We packed up our stuff and drove out to Sheffield Studios, one of the finest studios in the area. I asked Michael to write down the lyrics for me so I could phrase the melody like the original and I remember thinking it was kind of funny to be reading lyrics instead of music. The session went pretty well, except Michael was a little worried about the fact that you could hear the sound of his bead necklace rubbing against the side of the guitar in the introduction, but we all thought it sounded kind of cool and we called it a day.
A few months later, when we were doing a run of gigs up and down the West Coast, we stopped into Mobius Recording in San Francisco to record a trio Michael had written for the two of us and his wife Mindy, a fine flautist. The tune is called “Menage a trios” and I think that was the last piece to be recorded for Aerial Boundaries. I don’t remember when I first heard the final version of the record, but I still have my original pre-release cassette lying around someplace, so I’m sure I got to check it out before the official release date. In any case, it was a delight to hear everything put together and that tape was on the top of my listening pile for a long time.
The public response to Aerial Boundaries was largely underground, but it was clear that Michael had created something extraordinary and within a few years he was playing huge gigs. The recording received a Grammy nomination in the engineering category that year — probably because no one knew where else to put it! It wasn’t jazz, rock or classical, but I think the music community wanted to acknowledge it somehow.
Michael went on to make 5 more records and I played on all but one of them. It’s funny — I never much cared for my contribution to Aerial Boundaries and feel better about some of the other recordings we made together. I was going through a kind of transitional point in my playing then, looking for a new voice, so I wasn’t quite all there, but I’ve always felt proud to have been included on a real masterpiece. To this day I hear guitarists struggling to emulate some of that magical sound that Hedges made 20 years ago and it always makes me smile. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aerial Boundaries is one of those records people are still listening to in a hundred years.
Sadly, like many geniuses, Michael passed away too young. The road to where he lived in Mendocino, California is about as treacherous as you’ll find, and he lost control of his car one November night in 1997 on his way home from the airport. We were scheduled to meet at his place a few days after that to record some new music and I’ll always wonder what clever ideas he was cooking up at that point. I know he would have had something creative, funny or touching, but definitely unique, up his sleeve. He had talked a lot in the months prior to his death about forging a deeper relationship with the guitar. Who knows — he might just have made another masterpiece!