The label has released reissues, new studio albums and compilations of seminal acoustic guitar works over it’s four year history, including the acclaimed  three volume ‘Imaginational Anthem’ compilation series, and works by Robbie Basho, Richard Crandell, Harry Taussig, Max Ochs, Peter Walker, James Blackshaw, Sean Smith, Shawn David McMillen, and Ben Reynolds, among others. The label most recently released the 3CD set, ‘Fire in My Bones : Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007.’ Tompkins Square has received four Grammy nominations.

I had a friend who collected ‘Hotel California’, the Eagles record. Every time he saw a used copy in the record store, he bought it. He had about 200 copies. I collect too, but not multiple copies of things. Except for one album. 

‘Contemporary Guitar, Spring ’67’ on Takoma Records.

I have three of each of these two pressings. If I see it, I buy it. I can’t help myself. And I haven’t seen it much, because it is quite rare.

What is it about this album ? It came out precisely when I was born. When I listened to it about 15 years ago for the first time, I was struck by the haunting solo guitar tunes of two artists I had never heard of: Harry Taussig and Max Ochs. 

So when I set out to start my label four years ago, I knew I had to find these guys, see if they were alive/active. I contacted Harry, now Arthur, Taussig, an accomplished photographer over the past few decades. I bought the rights to his absurdly rare lone solo album, ‘Fate Is Only Once’, and reissued it on vinyl and CD. It’s one of my favorite loner guitar albums ever, and so EARLY – recorded 1965 – to be making these kinds of sounds while everyone else was still “Folk” with a capital F.

I tracked down Max as well. He was a boyhood friend of Robbie Basho and Fahey, and is Phil Ochs’ cousin. His tune “Imaginational Anthem” was recorded in 1969 for Joe Bussard on Fonotone Records. So he reprised that on my first guitar compilation, ‘Imaginational Anthem Volume One’, and we included the ’69 version as well. Then he recorded a beautiful solo album for Tompkins Square. Max is one of the few remaining active players with close links to a bygone era of American Primitive Guitar, and to blues legends that he befriended in the 60’s like John Hurt and Skip James.

There have been three volumes of the guitar series, ‘Imaginational Anthem,’ (available as a 3CD box set) and I wasn’t sure if there would be a fourth. I felt I had exhausted most of the older-generation players, and I wasn’t hearing too many younger ones I liked. I remember telling my late friend Jack Rose that I wasn’t keen on doing another one. In typical succinct Jack fashion, he said, “Why would you ? You’ve already done three of ’em.” Except two things happened. Late last year, I started hearing some really good young players, getting excited again. And just as I was reaching out to them to start compiling Volume 4 with all young players, Jack died. Jack really mentored, and in a sense, lead the movement. He bridged the experimental and traditional sides, Eastern and Western musical influences of American Primitive, or modern acoustic playing in general. And so there will be a fourth volume this year.

I was so pleased to be asked to put together a show (Jan 26, le Poisson Rouge) for the New York Guitar Festival this year. I have been secretly wishing to do so for years ! Although the label has grown to encompass so much more than guitar, it is a lot of what I do. The opportunity to showcase two young players in NY for the first time is incredibly thrilling.

Nick Jonah Davis from the UK will play first, so you need to come at 6:30. His debut is out now on Tompkins Square via eMusic, and has been hailed in UNCUT and by Steffen Basho-Junghans, among others. He’ll release a new album this year on Tompkins Square. 

Here’s a tune from his debut, ‘Guitar Recordings Vol. 1’, “San Cristobal de Las Casas.”

I got turned on to 20 year old Mississippi guitarist Ben Hall by Charlie Louvin. He is a hot thumb-style picker in the great tradition of Chet Atkins or Merle Travis. Are there any young players doing this kind of music convincingly anymore ? If so, please email me (info@tompkinssquare.com). I’d like to know. I do live here in NY, I don’t pretend to know what’s up in Mississippi, or anywhere else for that matter. But I do know that Ben will give this style a huge boost and a shock. He’s recording his Tompkins Square debut album while in town. He’s playing a warm up gig with a trio at Lakeside Lounge, NYC on Jan 25th, then his solo slot at le Poisson Rouge on the 26th.

Here he is playing “Cannonball Rag.” 

James Blackshaw is one of his generations’ best players. I’m really blessed to have five of his albums in my catalog. I am always in awe when I see him. I also think he is a dear person, and his humanity shines through in his music.

So we’ll see you January 26th, 6:30 – le Poisson Rouge. Some of the recordings discussed in this blog can be found here.
Josh Rosenthal
Tompkins Square Label
Tompkins Square, NYC




How was the theme for this year’s New York Guitar Festival Marathon chosen? POD: Instead of presenting a group of guitarists playing a wide range of repertoire over many centuries, we wanted to offer different interpretations of a very specific repertoire, so that the variety would be created by the diversity of approaches. My co-curator David Spelman proposed basing this year’s marathon on the music of Bach since it plays such an important part in the programming of most classical guitarists and, of course, lutenists. The differences in the way each guitarist approaches Bach makes for a very interesting and varied day of music-making. These can range from interpretive choices to the manner of arranging music written for one instrument to fit most convincingly on another.

How have you selected today’s artists? POD: David and I wanted to assemble a group of brilliant instrumentalists who have invested considerable time and thought into the performance of Bach on the guitar and lute, and whose approaches demonstrate the variety of ways in which this music may be brought to life. Whereas some music seems to be most effective when played in a certain way, Bach is so universal that hearing different interpretations side by side provides an even greater appreciation for the depth and complexity of his music.

What is it about Bach that brings artists to him again and again, regardless of instrument or genre? POD: A lot of music unveils its charms clearly at first hearing. But as with all great art, Bach’s music is multi-layered. It is enjoyable the first time, but the complexities and depth can only be fully appreciated after repeated probing and exploration. To convey the overall architecture as well as the most intricate details is a challenge of which one never grows tired. The music reveals new insights every time it is played.

Bach had a rather complicated relationship with the lute, didn’t he? POD: Bach seems to have been enamored of the lute, but he was not a virtuoso player of it, so he invented a new keyboard instrument, the Lautenwerk, to imitate the sound of the lute. He wrote a number of suites for the Lautenwerk in the style of lute music which were then edited in the Bach Gesellschaft edition as “Bach’s Lute Works.” Classical guitarists in the mid-20th century were inspired to make arrangements of the pieces; the quality is, of course, extraordinary and the style is designed to emulate lute music so it appeals to both guitarists and lutenists. However, the original Lautenwerk pieces do not fit the standard 18th-century German lute, a fact that has spawned numerous theories about exotic scordatura tunings Bach might have used to render the pieces playable. 18th-century lutenists arranged some of the pieces for the Baroque lute, changing those notes and chords that did not fit the lute. So while lutenists are loath to accept it, the simple truth is that Bach wrote keyboard works in the style of lute music, and he would have appreciated lutenists arranging them to fit the lute, regardless of the changes it might have required to render them playable. It is both the quality of the music and the complexity of the historical possibilities that makes these works endlessly fascinating.

You have added a few non-Bach works to the line-up. Can you tell us why? POD: The non-Bach works all have special functions, including to provide a taste of the lute music Bach listened to and emulated. His admiration for the music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss was such that he borrowed an entire Weiss lute suite note for note. He used the lute solo as an obbligato harpsichord part over which he composed a new violin part. This violin sonata, BWV 1025, is not often performed because many players don’t quite know what to make of it. But by comparing the lute version with Bach’s setting of it, it is possible to understand exactly how Bach put it together and how it works. There are some details in each version that help to clarify aspects of the other, so it is important to look at both versions when performing either one of them.

To conclude, a personal question: what are your favorite Bach works, both for lute and in general? POD: I never like declaring favorites because it is like having to choose between one’s children. In the case of Bach, I am generally most fascinated by the piece I am currently working on. That being said, the Fugue from BWV 1001 has been a favorite of mine since childhood, and I still find new things in it each time I play it. As far as non-lute music is concerned, I am always deeply moved by the St. John Passion. The dramatic construction and pacing are so tight and the balance of effects so brilliantly judged that it feels like an opera to me. The final chorus, “Ruht wohl,” is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. Then there is the beautiful accompanied recitative with lute obbligato. So even though I’m supposed to be talking about non-lute works, the lute slips in.


On February 4th at Merkin Concert Hall, Gyan Riley will be performing an original score to accompany a series of short animations by the artist, music collector and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith.

“It’s from a collection called `Early Abstractions,’” Riley explained. “They’re from the mid-Forties to the mid-Fifties, but I think they’re pretty far ahead of their time. It’s brilliant stuff. A lot of it is very rugged in nature, especially compared to what we’re used to today—the animations, especially, that we see today are very refined. His work is really coarse in an incredibly beautiful way.  Often he’ll use shapes as subject material. Circles, for example. He’ll create different presentations and sequences involving circles.”

Riley began the scoring process by watching “everything I could find on YouTube and everything I could get from the [Harry Smith] Archive on DVDs.”

He ended up selecting and scoring sections that at first sight repelled him.

“Some are so coarse that I was almost put off by them, but as I watched them over and over I grew to love them.”

Once he had picked his visual material, he started to consider the music, starting with the basic feel and color he wanted to create.

“I’m primarily a classical guitar player, but I decided not to go with the classical guitar–it didn’t seem to go very well with the visual. I decided to use an electric guitar with a variety of effects boxes, to give the sound a more abstract feel.”

The opening section, he explained, involves a lot of screen static. “That spoke to me in a certain way. It didn’t feel right to use a plain, clean guitar sound. I wanted something corresponding to static. So I used three or four different effects boxes—some delays, some phasing, some loop sampling.”

And that’s what he’ll take on stage when he performs. “Everything will be me,” he laughed. “No pre-recorded material!”

That, and his score. To call it a score, however, may give a misleading impression of what he has created, and is still creating. Part basic score and part springboard for improvisation, it looks less like Bach than, say, Jackson Pollock.

“It’s about two pages long, incredibly messy and full of junk. It’s got a few notes here and there, and a few rhythms, a few illegible words, and down at the bottom my grocery list and a few coffee stains.”

Even for a guitarist as adventurous as Riley, the performance at the New York Guitar Festival presents new challenges.

“I’ve never performed a live sound track before. It’s incredibly challenging. It’s a bit like working with an orchestra and a conductor and looking at a screen at the same time. I’m looking at the screen, at the score, I’m working the effects with my

feet and my hands, occasionally I have to look at the guitar and at its controls…. With a classical guitar, everything is in your hands and right there in front of you. That’s the beauty of it. With this I’m multitasking so hard I’m afraid my head will explode.”

It’s still too early to know whether he’s satisfied with the work.

“I really have no idea. Some things I’m happy with, and some things I’m still working on very hard. And the day after tomorrow I have to go on tour right up until a week before I leave for New York, so I’m going to be putting in a lot of studio time over those few days!”


By Tim Brookes

(Tim is the author of Guitar: An American Life. He blogs regularly on guitar and other matters at www.timbrookesinc.com)

On January 28th, at Merkin Concert Hall, Alex de Grassi will be accompanying a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1918 masterpiece Shoulder Arms.

De Grassi, a renowned Grammy-nominated fingerstyle pioneer and Windham Hill recording artist,  had originally been looking forward to scoring “Modern Times,” with its strong sense of rhythm accompanying the theme of the mechanization of work, and of people. Copyright issues, though, led to changes in the selection, and he sat down to watch a Chaplin film that was new to him.

“It was made when the U.S. got involved in World War I. It has a very strong sense of `Over there,’ of being in the trenches.”

The first thing de Grassi paid attention to was the film’s sense of rhythm.

“Chaplin’s such a physical performer, there’s always a very physical and rhythmic element to what he does.”

Much of the film, of course, presents an obvious rhythmic identity: that of the march.

“It’s a war movie, so there’s a lot of  marching! The first few times I watched through it I found myself  tapping out different rhythms, rather than trying to come up with anything melodic on the guitar.”

His experience in other collaborative compositions, he said, has taught him that “trying to latch on to a tempo or rhythm is a good starting point.” He found himself hearing not only 2/4 rhythms but waltzes and “other off-rhythm-things. An off-rhythm can be very clownish, or give a sense of things being off-kilter.

“I’m not sure how melodic this is going to be. There are some obvious pieces of melody that I’m using as placeholders–`Over There,” for example, and `La Marseilleise’—but I’m not sure yet how I’ll use them, or disguise them, or rework them.”

Chaplin’s films, like many movies of the day, were silent only in the sense of not having a built-in soundtrack: when they were released, printed scores were published with them. How did de Grassi address the challenge of not being unduly influenced by these precedents?

“These films, of course, all came with scores, and Chaplin himself composed a lot of the scores. The first few times I watched the film on a DVD, I turned off the soundtrack. Now I’ll check in to hear what the score is doing. It’s all orchestrated, with a particular feel. A lot is sentimental, though there is a bit of irony as well. My approach, I think, will be less sentimental and a little more ironic.”

When he first allowed himself to listen to the original score, did it strike him how similar it was to his own musical ideas, or  how different?

“A little of both, I think. When I check in on the score, the thing that’s hard to have a perspective on is the way the film was assembled because of the technology of the time—in other words, the fact that it always looks speeded up. We tend to think, `Oh, it’s all funny,’ because the actual speed of the film is not in `real time,’ but perhaps back then, without hindsight of today’ s technology, people perceived that differently, and did not completely associate the film speed as a cartoonish portrayal.”

The same issue comes up when considering how deeply audiences today associate silent comedies with that distinctive honky-tonk vaudeville piano sound.

“I try not to think about that too much. The soundtrack may be comical, but the music is still working the narrative of the film: there’s fear there, and victory, pride, cockiness. There’s a story here. It’s not all schtick. When I listen to the soundtrack, it reminds me, `Hmm. I need to pay attention to that.’ It’s easy to say, `Oh, it’s period music. There’s a frivolity to it.’ What I have to bear in mind is that, watching it in 1918, it might have had a deeper emotional content. It’s hard to know.”

The way to get at that deeper core, he said, is often to resist the urge to orchestrate and over-complicate the score.

“It’s easy to start thinking about arrangements that are too complex. The collaborations I’ve done in the past have told me that I have to strip the music down to its essence. I consider the process of scoring this film a collaboration, even though the collaborator is finished and gone. So I have to remind myself that you can get complicated, but sometimes a little goes a long way.”

He’s still deciding how many guitars to bring to the performance, because as he imagines the score at the moment, it involves a wide range of sounds: percussive effects caused by drumming on the body of the guitar, drumming with his fingers on the strings, using various implements including a slide, preparing the guitar by sticking various objects under or between the strings, muting, damping and tapping.

“Being able to play with a live audience in a concert hall where you have the chance to make those sounds really well heard, as opposed to in a club or a bar—all those subtleties will really project and carry, I think.”


By Tim Brookes

(Tim is the author of Guitar: An American Life. He blogs regularly on guitar and other matters at www.timbrookesinc.com)


Jason Vieaux, esteemed American virtuoso guitarist who’s performing as part of the New York Guitar Festival’s day-long Bach marathon at the 92nd Street Y (92y.org) on Sunday, January 31st, muses about the Baroque genius.

“Bach’s music is a seemingly endless world of discovery. At this writing, I

am still exploring many other (and hopefully better!) ways of communicating

the phrasing and architecture of his music — works that I’ve performed and

taught for years. I think this process never ends with Bach, because with

each passing year, as I grow as a musician and performer, his works are like

a mirror of truth. Even though his these compositions reflect back to me my

own growth as I study, practice and perform them, they also show me where I

need to progress. These examples of Bach’s genius are simultaneously

humbling and inspiring; the ultimate teacher. And… the music is absolutely

gorgeous! I find this music not only exquisite and intellectually

satisfying, but thoroughly sensual; as human a music as any ever created. I

cannot imagine more perfect or complete music.”

Jason Vieaux

January, 2010


The New York Guitar Festival commissioned Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees’ Chris Rosenau to create new scores to two of Charlie Chaplin’s classic short silent films. They perform the scores live at Merkin Concert Hall
on Thursday, January 21st, as part of our Silent Films/Live Guitars series.

We started working on all of this a while ago now.  Taking a look back at some of the initial emails, Justin asked me to perform with him for this festival almost a year ago; the end of February 2009.  We were both honored and excited to be involved, and really excited to work together on something again after finishing up the first Volcano Choir record in early 2009.  The idea of scoring films live together was a new challenge, but definitely an incentive.

Then Charlie Chaplin entered into the equation.

Justin was on constant tour with Bon Iver for pretty much all spring and summer of 2009, not leaving him with any time early on to devote to this performance.  That was fine; we had a plan: start watching the movies we had to choose from during spring and summer to narrow them down, pick some films of interest and start writing and emailing ideas back and forth during the fall, and really nail everything down for the specific performance films we selected at rehearsals together in fall/winter of 2009.  

Plenty of time.  

Totally reasonable. . .

. . .but that left me alone with Chuck Chaplin for a couple or months.  

It was pretty weird.

I have worked to a limited degree on movie scores before, but this was totally different.  Normally, in my experience with scoring movies, there are extended, overlapping, recurring themes that one can use as a foundation to develop musical ideas upon.  With Chaplin, with whom I had very little exposure before this performance, the task at hand seemed kind of impossible, at least after the first couple of viewings; scenes changing every 15 seconds. . .relentless waddle walking from one polar opposite scenario to the next. . .nothing really thematically to latch on to.  For a couple of months in the late spring / early summer of 2009, I didn’t know at all how we were going to pull this off.  I watched a lot of the movies trying to figure out what resonated with me, personally first, but then potentially for Justin and I musically as well, trying to select one that was a good fit to try to score.  To no avail.  I kind of freaked out.  

But then, thankfully, after many viewings, I started settling into some of the films.  Longer motifs became clearer within the really dynamic micro-scenes. . .and the movies we were choosing from were all ~ 30 minutes long.  We wanted to perform for ~ an hour, so dividing and conquering seemed a great way to proceed; we’d each loosely musically map out one ~ 30 minute film, and figure it all out when we got together.  Perfect.

I finally settled on One A.M as the first film I was interested in tackling.  It resonated with me personally, and after watching it a bunch of times, I really started to enjoy it.  I knew Justin would dig it as well.  

One A.M. is the only movie that has Chaplin cast almost exclusively by himself for ~ 30 minutes.  The general plot description seems misleadingly simple; Chaplin is trying to get to bed after a night “out on the town”.  That’s technically true, but when watching it minute to minute, it is really much more complex than that.  After improvising while watching the film a lot just to generate ideas, an approach developed; a common key and theme to voice his drunkenness, with moving parts over the top that changed depending on the situation.  We got together in November at Justin’s house, had a blast, and added the meat to the skeleton I had loosely mapped out. . .and it all clicked perfectly.  Now we were really excited.

This first weekend we rehearsed One A.M. we also watched lots of Chaplin movies as we were setting up, taking breaks, etc., to figure out the other film we wanted to score.  Easy Street grabbed us right away.  I think it was the initial, really peaceful scenes of him on the street and in the church that did it, but then, after getting One A.M. under our belt, embracing some of the quick changes and insanity that happen in this movie really interested Justin.  I agreed. . .this idea, of trying to react to the film on a scene by scene basis even more than we were doing with One A.M. was perfect for the multi-actor scene changing of Easy Street.

Justin had also been having fun experimenting with some more traditional American finger-style techniques around that time, so we agreed to go in that direction for Easy Street.  We worked just like we worked for One A.M., except for Easy Street Justin developed the initial themes and parts and emailed them to me as they came to him.

We got together for another weekend at Justin’s house in December and worked through Easy Street.  It ended up being a really fun and really different way to approach scoring these Chaplin movies; with a common tuning to represent Chaplin and the general story line, but many themes and tempos to mirror the scenes from the film.

Now it’s early January 2010, and we have one more weekend scheduled to rehearse the two movies together.  We can’t wait.  It has been a really rewarding process, maybe because it started out seeming kind of impossible, but mostly because we both ended up really getting into the movies and each others ideas.  It is also interesting that, while we never talked about the idea of representing “the guitar” in the performances (since this is after all for a “Guitar Festival”), somehow it just ended up happening.  Between the two of us, we both play acoustic and electric guitars.  We play everything from clean tones to kind-of-freak-out electronics at times.  We play everything from traditional finger-style chicken picking to mutli-loop-based poly-rhythmic riffs.  We play lap steels and slides and mini-string fans and eBows. . .  

Totally guitarded.  It’s perfect.

We’re *psyched* do finally do it.  We hope you really enjoy it.

 – Chris Rosenau

6 January 2010


Birch II

“Making my own list, I found you can find a hundred other great or profoundly influential guitarists without breaking a sweat.”  –Tim Brookes

Laurindo Almeida
Sergio and Odair and Badi Assad
Chet Atkins
George Barnes
Arthur Blake
Agustin Barrios Mangore
Pierre Bensusan
Vahdah Olcott Bickford
Julian Bream
Lenny Breau
Junior Brown
Leo Brouwer
Charlie Byrd
Maybelle Carter
Martin Carthy
Tracy Chapman
Charlie Christian
Francisco Corbetta
Robert Cray
Reverend Gary Davis
Alex De Grassi
Paco De Lucia
Ani DiFranco
Jerry Douglas
Bob Dunn
Eddie Durham
Duane Eddy
Herb Ellis
Tommy Emmanuel
Bus Etri
Tal Farlow
Jean “Matlo” Ferret
Eliot Fisk
William Foden
Stephen Foster
Bill Frisell
Diego de Gastor
Slim Gaillard
Freddie Greene
Mauro Giuliani
Davy Graham
Tiny Grimes
Woody Guthrie
Jim Hall
Michael Hedges
Justin Holland
John Lee Hooker
Sol Hoopi’i
Eddie “Son” House
Sharon Isbin
Lemon Jefferson
Tom Jobim
Lonnie Johnson
Stanley Jordan
Laurence Juber
Phil Keaggy
Joseph Kekuku
Barney Kessel
Albert King
Freddie King
Carl Kress
Fapy Lafertin
Bireli Lagrene
Nappy Lamare
Eddie Lang
Roy Rogers
David Russell
Joe Satriani
John Scofield
Bola Sete
Martin Simpson
Roy Smeck
Fernando Sor
Willie Smith
Francisco Tarrega
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Merle Travis
George Van Eps
Dave Van Ronk
Ben Verdery
Ana Vidovic
Frank Vignola
Joe Walsh
Muddy Waters
Doc Watson
Jimmy Webster

Let me count . . . Okay, so that’s more than a hundred.

Of course, this list is largely bogus, too. Where are the contemporary country Fender players? The great Fado guitarists? (Fado is a kind of Portuguese blues–and in case you are wondering what Portuguese music has to do with a history of the guitar in America, WJFD-FM in New Bedford, Massachusetts, broadcasts 50,000 watts entirely in Portuguese.) Where are the great Russian seven-string players of the early twentieth century? The emerging African guitarists?

Wait a moment. I can’t believe I forgot John Williams. And Waylon Jennings. And Jack Marshall. Goran Sollscher. Stefan Grossman. Duck Baker. Cindy Cashdollar. John James, the Welsh ragtime wizard…

* * *

In addition to books on asthma, hospice, SARS, and hitchhiking, our friend Tim wrote Guitar: An American Life.