Practical Materialism: Lesson Three


Concerning the Duende


duende / n. 1 an evil spirit. 2 inspiration. [Sp.]




“All that has dark sounds has duende.”

F.G. Lorca: ‘Theory and Function of the Duende’, in Selected Poems: Penguin Books; 1960,

p. 127


As the Spanish Instrument par excellence, the guitar comes pre-loaded with a burden of extra-musical cultural significance. When we play the guitar, we are always playing with a caravan of images which trail us like ghosts across a television screen. Jimi Hendrix; Robert Johnson; and a crowd of anonymous Spanish gypsies, swarming like penitents on the road to Santiago.


The spirit of the guitar is the duende, neither angel nor muse, but animating spirit, equally malevolent and indifferent, demanding nothing but blood on the strings.


“Spain is always moved by the duende… being a nation open to death.”

Lorca, p. 136.


For me as an artist, sound is the central activity - which in my case is the attempt to say something from the self itself. Opening the self to allow this expression to emerge is a problematic exercise. The best results come from a loss of conscious control over this process, an opening to ‘something other’. In the Spanish model, this is the duende speaking. Being an evil genius, the art inspired by the duende is never simple; clear; or light-filled. It is dark; ambiguous; and tinged with horror - the horror of our contingent existence. This is why an appeal to the duende is always a looking-within, this is where the abyss opens.


‘Diving in’ is the metaphor of improvisation. A recital of compositions cannot be a real encounter with the duende, only when we put ourselves on the line is the duende awakened.


“The appearance of the duende always presupposes a radical change of all forms based on old structures”

Lorca, p. 131.


For me the guitar has endless possibilities, especially once the twin tyrannies of the song and of conventional technique are overturned. In this way the realm of practical freedom is briefly created, within the alienated form of artistic expression. Lacking easy access to the euphoria of the revolutionary moment - Paris 1870; Petersburg 1917; Barcelona 1936 – the option of creating a personal space for revolution on stage is more readily achievable as a laboratory for the duende.


Using the guitar purely as a noisemaker has the effect of ‘gutting’ the troubadour archetype, ‘the gypsy with the guitar’. The ‘bits’ of the archetype are still there, ‘the rebel’ (actor), ‘the guitar’ (signifying object), ‘the stage’ (context) but put together in the wrong order. The dislocation experienced by the audience [‘what is this noise?’] is the crack through which the duende can enter a public space, like a matador entering the bull ring, banderillas in hand - a las cinco de la tarde.


The guitar as loaded cultural signifier is vital to this process, its abuse is the jemmy-bar that opens the window of opportunity to admit the unwelcome shock of the new. Everyone understands what the guitar ‘means’ in the context of a performance. Inverting this is a potent signifier of cultural dislocation.


Practical freedom presupposes an outlook of practical materialism; an engagement of autonomous subjects with real objects within a social context. The duende is a metaphor for creativity in just such a setting. It elevates human subjectivity to a higher plane of existence, an all or nothing throw of the dice, balls on the line man, ‘do you take a chance, fan?’.


“The real struggle is with the duende… to help us seek [it] there is neither map nor discipline.”

Lorca, p. 129.


Having ‘made’, or ‘had made for one’ the choice of the electric guitar over other potential contenders in instrumentation, certain parameters are set.


Technical limitations in terms of guitar playing can be a positive advantage in the creation of a genuinely ‘alternative’ vocabulary for the electric guitar. To be technically limited in the traditional sense, can be combined with developing aptitude at an extended and idiosyncratic form of technique, that is predicated on rather different strategies from those of most players. If one works with the guitar as a signal generator, and as a noise-maker in the acoustic sense, there is much that can be achieved with a complete ignorance of musical theory, notation and conventional aesthetics. I myself am not much interested in the specific frequencies and harmonics of the sound, or even making them predictable or explicable. My interest is in textures of noise, and juxtapositions that are often outside the vocabulary of ‘real music’.


For me the performance is in a real sense a wrestling bout with an implacable foe. The duende resides in the guitar, in the electrical circuitry, in the exigencies of the performance itself. All these variables can conspire to seek to overcome me. How, or if, I emerge unbloodied is the drama of every performance, with or without an audience at hand.


There is no practicing with the duende, every encounter may be le dernier combat.


“The duende can never repeat itself.”

Lorca, p. 137.


The main thing is to keep surprising oneself, as well as the audience, in that way every performance involves giving the utmost to the audience, or nothing at all.


For me the guitar is a totem; my efforts with the guitar underpin every piece of sound praxis I attempt in an artistic sense. I have the courage to experiment with other things, when I have the urge to do so, because I am anchored in my relation to the guitar. The real trick is to express something inherent to myself, and uniquely of myself, in this more or less arbitrarily chosen activity. It would be inauthentic to deliberately choose an artform at which I was naturally gifted. That would be too easy. The duende does not emerge from ease and familiarity, but from danger and uncertainty.


The real attraction of the guitar for me (as instrument qua instrument, apart from the cultural baggage alluded to earlier) is that it is a resonating object. With a keyboard or a sampler, you just push buttons; with a guitar you have wood, metal, strings, wires and pickups. If you hit a string hard, it sounds different than when you hit it softly. If you hit it with an object, it sounds different again. If you smack the body of the guitar with a hammer while moving a five-pound flat-iron up the strings, it sounds different again, both at the instant you hit it, and for quite some time thereafter, in a dialectic of truly electro-acoustic attack and decay. Further, the pickup is a microphone that generates an electric signal, that too can be the subject of ‘interventions’. It changes depending on the signal path (effects) and relationship to the speaker (feedback).


All guitars are very sensuous instruments, any movement can set them going. Merely tuning the strings in sympathy can be enough to activate a sound-torrent of positively Dionysian proportions. ‘Sensuous’ in this sense means ‘responding to physical stimuli’, and ‘existing within the realm of the physical’. The opportunities to intervene with the electric guitar are very many, if the player approaches the business with the correct attitude, and in willingness to admit the influence of the dark spirit over the form the activity will take.


“It is clear that each art has a duende of a different kind and form, but they all join their roots at a point where the ‘dark sounds’ of Manuel Torres emerge, ultimate matter, uncontrollable and quivering common foundation of wood, of sound, of canvas, and of words.”

Lorca, p. 139.


The potential limitation is not in the instrument, but in the instrumentalist, and his or her willingness to be situated in the realm of practical freedom.


When the duende comes to the door of the bar “…dragging her wings of rusty knives along the ground” [Lorca, p. 132.], there is only one way to respond to the apparition - we play.




Bruce Russell

Lyttelton, NZ

April 2004