Gulezian’s guitar playing infused with devotion to music’s power |

Gulezian’s guitar playing infused with devotion to music’s power

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The topic of conversation is that subset of contemporary instrumental music that only an elevator or hotel lobby could love.

But Michael Gulezian has misunderstood my question, and the normally mild-mannered, spiritual-leaning guitarist has turned into a fire-breathing beast.

“It’s dreck,” said Gulezian, using the Yiddish substitute for a word that no longer can appear in The Aspen Times. “It makes me want to scream. It’s the audio equivalent of Sominex. It’s wallpaper. If I hear it in the supermarket, I run out.”

Gulezian thought I had asked what he did when he hears this music, with its cheesy sounds, formulaic rhythms and empty melodies. But my actual question was, what does someone like him do that separates his contemporary instrumental music from the dreck. I explain the misunderstanding, and Gulezian turns from Anti-Elevator Music Man back into his humble self.

“Music,” explained the 47-year-old Nashville resident, “should be an active, participatory experience, an experience of community, a common experience of a language that transcends spoken word. To water that powerful thing down to a formula is shameful, even sinful.”

Gulezian’s music is, in fact, no relation to the simplistic, synthesized bromide one hears in the hallways of shopping malls. On albums like “Language of the Flame” and the forthcoming live recording “Concert at St. Olaf College,” Gulezian’s music, mostly solo guitar work, is inventive and complex; like his heroes of the finger-style guitar ” especially the late Michael Hedges, and John Fahy, Gulezian’s first major influence ” he melds rhythm, melody and harmony using just one instrument and 10 fingers. The less-humble side of Gulezian actually boasts that he is “a technical monster.” But the more artistic side of Gulezian counters that the art is not about the technique.

“It’s not about the technique,” said Gulezian, who performs tonight at Main Street Bakery. “That’s the last thing people should be paying attention to. It’s about whether I’m transforming something about the heart and soul to people who are listening. Technically, I can blow anybody away. But if that’s all you’re going to do, you’re going to play to an audience of nothing but guitar junkies.”

Though tonight’s concert is his Aspen debut, Gulezian spent his high school years as a Coloradan, attending a small prep school in Canon City, Holy Cross Abbey, run by Benedictine monks. His love of music, however, was already instilled in him by the time he got to high school.

Gulezian’s mother, an Armenian born in Syria, sang Armenian folk songs in a beautiful voice; his father, a New York native also of Armenian descent, was an ethnomusicologist who transcribed ancient Egyptian music scrolls for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“When I say I heard music growing up from other cultures,” said Gulezian, “I mean cultures from thousands of years ago. That’s the environment I grew up in ” listening to Motown and the Beatles, and also traditional classical music from the Middle East and India.”

Gulezian began playing Western classical music on guitar at 7. “But to be honest, it didn’t resonate in my heart,” he said. “I practiced because I was diligent. But nothing really got me until I was 12, 13, when I heard finger-style players like Doc Watson, and the Mississippi Delta players like Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt.”

Those blues players got to his heart. But it was Fahy, the pioneering finger-style guitarist who broke the trail for Leo Kottke and the like, who got into Gulezian, heart, soul and mind.

“That blew me away,” said Gulezian. “John Fahy was to steel-string instrumental guitar music what Andres Segovia was to classical guitar. Nobody took classical guitar seriously until Segovia started playing it.”

For Gulezian, the Maryland-born Fahy opened up a world of near-infinite possibilities. “He provided the model for someone to be idiosyncratic and create his own artistic path. I knew I could express the deepest part of me.”

That seems to get to the heart of the original question. What separates the contemporary instrumental music played by Gulezian ” and Pierre Bensusan, Kottke, Alex De Grassi and the like ” from elevator sounds is the element of humanity. Gulezian’s music has a personality, rather than a formula, behind it.

Gulezian concludes: “I guess the answer is I love it so much and respect it so much and have such awe for the power of music, I treat it with devotion.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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