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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Few composers can boast that their music has made it to the moon and back. Ralph Towner's music not only ended up on a cassette that astronauts took to the lunar surface, but they also named two craters after Towner's compositions: Ghost Beads and Icarus.

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HANSEN: Ralph Towner's career goes back more than 30 years to the days when he played with the Paul Winter Consort and was a founding member of the group Oregon. Early on he played trumpet and piano, but acoustic guitar is now the main tool for Ralph Towner's extraordinary musical talent.

He pioneered the playing of jazz on classical and 12-string guitars, has enjoyed a rich solo career, and has recorded a long string of albums on the ECM label. His latest is called Timeline.

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HANSEN: Ralph Towner is with us today in the NPR Studio 4A.

Welcome, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. RALPH TOWNER (Musician): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: Now, if I understand this correctly, Timeline was actually recorded at a monastery in the Austrian Alps?

Mr. TOWNER: Yes, it was. (Unintelligible) idyllic, like a postcard, really.

HANSEN: I had read though that oftentimes you approach a recording, and particularly preparing for solo albums, you put a lot into it, that your approach is almost monk-like, you almost live like a monk when you're composing.

Mr. TOWNER: Well, maybe, yeah. Now not so much. The actual act of composition is a very private thing. It's similar to being a novelist or a writer. When you're working on something like that you're really in your own world, in your head.

HANSEN: Is there an example of perhaps a tune that's on the new CD, where you might be able to demonstrate how it built, how it started with one thing and began to build?

Mr. TOWNER: Well the first piece I could do, I could explain that a little bit. The very first few notes are from this idea.

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Mr. TOWNER: That kind of figure...

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Mr. TOWNER: So the first thing you discover was...

(Soundbite of notes)

Mr. TOWNER: I used to do that as sort of an introduction in concerts for, to warm up slowly and it became kind of an etude, because it is kind of an etude really.

HANSEN: This is Oleander Etude?

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah. Because it involves pulling a (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOWNER: But anyway, this is the theme of it. And it's completely written, there's no improvisation in this tune.

HANSEN: It's completely written?

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah, so it's...

HANSEN: You're going to play the whole thing for us?

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah, I'll play the whole thing.

HANSEN: Now, Oleander is a beautiful but deadly flower?

Mr. TOWNER: I don't know if it's deadly. It might be because its, if you're driving it might be deadly. The Oleander grows like crazy in Italy, in Sicily particularly, between the lanes, the on-coming lanes on the highways. And this piece sort of has such emotion to it. It sort of suggested to me the way all this Oleander, it just goes on for kilometers actually. But its whizzing by your window as you're driving down the highways, so this is sort of a reference to that blur of color that's going by.

HANSEN: Ralph Towner playing Oleander Etude.

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HANSEN: Oleander Etude played by Ralph Towner on the guitar here in Studio 4A. That tune can be found on his new CD on the ECM Label called Timeline.

Your wife writes plays. You've written some theater music. There's a tune on this CD. It's actually an older piece that you wrote a long time ago for a theater production, Always By Your Side. Was that originally written for theater?

Mr. TOWNER: Well, it was. It was tossed out. It didn't work so well. That was, I did a score for the Tempest, actually, Oregon Shakespearean Festival. This was one piece that I really liked but it really wasn't suitable for that play, for the Tempest. It kind of was a love song for that. Anyway, it's emerged later. It became very useful later.

Sometimes I'll write something that will find its niche much later.

HANSEN: It's interesting, some people that have heard it have said that it reminds them of the theme to Cinema Paradiso.

Mr. TOWNER: Oh yeah. It might have some, somebody asked me if I was influenced by living in Italy, if it influenced my writing. And I can't really say literally because I'm not being imitative at all, but I'm sure something must seep into you because. The Morricone piece is, you know, that kind of writing is nice, but I've always had this lyrical bent anyway so. But this particular piece is quite romantic. It seems like it could have some lyrics really. First I wrote it and said, hmm, that's kind of an off-Broadway ballad. But so you have to approach it a little bit more dryly than you would, you have to watch out, you know, to fall all over edge.

HANSEN: Interesting you say it could use some lyrics; maybe folks listening to you play instrumentally might come up with some.

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah, I might get a barrage of lyrics. I got a lot, a barrage of lyrics for this tune Icarus years and years ago. Which is now, I mean, I wrote that in 1970, and it had its heyday around then and it was used for all manner of things; it popped up in Canada for hamburger commercials. It was used by this, this cult group in Guiding Light or something like that. It just found so many uses. But as I said, I had a barrage of lyrics about flying, you know, getting your wings burned off.

HANSEN: Well, this is Always By Your Side.

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HANSEN: Always By Your Side performed by Ralph Towner here in Studio 4A. I'm going to ask you to double it now perhaps by putting down your six string and picking up that 12 string.

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah, the monster, yeah.

HANSEN: The monster. So what's your relationship with the 12 string as opposed to your relationship with the six string?

Mr. TOWNER: Kind of love/hate, actually. It's hard on your fingernails. But it has some things that it does very well. It's very resonate in all these strings, of course. And they're steel strings, so they have a lot of clarity and sparkle to them. But as I say, it's kind of a unwieldy, ungainly instrument to play. But I've somehow gotten trapped into playing it. No normal classical guitarist would even consider risking their fingernails on this thing.

HANSEN: Really? You're trapped into playing it?

Mr. TOWNER: Well, kind of. I was a member of a band called the Paul Winter Consort in 1970. And he had a lovely 12 string. He said, oh you just have to play this on this piece, and asked if I would do it, and I really drug my feet but I agreed to do it. And then I started playing in his concerts, I started playing little solos, pieces that sounded, I would make up renaissance pieces on it, it sounded very much like a harpsichord. But then I kept playing and I started writing music for it because, as I say, it was unwieldy but it did certain things that, that I would ride toward its strengths rather than, you know, what it couldn't do, because it's not easy to zip around on it that much.

HANSEN: You've referred to the six string as a Ferrari and the 12 string as a dump truck.

Mr. TOWNER: Oh, I said that and that's kind of cruel because it's not really a dump truck. I mean it does, I mean, I have to say it's served me well. In fact I'm having kind of a rejuvenation with this instrument lately. I mean I'm realizing how nice it actually can sound.

HANSEN: But the 12-string then almost became synonymous with you?

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah I mean I became one of the few people that would be stupid enough to risk their fingernails on it.

HANSEN: You're going to risk your fingernails on a Gershwin tune?

Mr. TOWNER: Yeah, right, and this is sort of my connection with Bill Evans, who recorded this piece. And Gershwin songs. And I was just fascinated with this nice dark melancholy feeling that Gershwin has.

HANSEN: And Bill Evans actually did this tune, My Man's Gone Now?

Mr. TOWNER: Yes. Right.

HANSEN: Before you play it, I just want to first of all say thanks a lot for coming in to play with us today. Ralph Towner.

Mr. TOWNER: Oh, well, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Ralph Towner playing for us in Studio 4A. His new CD Timeline is on ECM Records. There's more information and music on our website, NPR.org.

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