CULTURE- INTERVIEW- Vive Pierre: Bensusan helps Prism say 'au revoir'

Celebrated acoustic guitarist Pierre Bensusan is one of the strongest proponents of DADGAD, an alternate method of tuning the instrument that opens up a world of woefully under-appreciated compositional possibilities. For years he has steadfastly insisted on playing at the Prism whenever he comes to town, and he's among their most prized repeat artists. His performances this week will likely be an unofficial last hurrah for the original venue, which moves to its new home in Gordonsville next month.

The Hook: What was your goal with your most recent record, Altiplanos?

Bensusan: The difference from the previous record, which was completely instrumental, was to have a different writing approach and to bring the vocals back into the scenario.

The Hook: How does adding vocals change things for you?

Bensusan: Well, it used to not change the game at all, but lately I've felt that I have to separate the two and conceive an album with or without it. I think that doing it without the new brought something new, because before the vocals were always in the picture. I think some people hate the voice and some don't. Well, they don't hate it– they just don't expect it from an instrumentalist.

The Hook: Why is it that you split your performances according to language?

Bensusan: That's a gimmick suggested by Fred Boyce. It's a university town with a wide language program, and we found that for some people it was very rewarding to come to a French event. It has become a trademark, but I think it's cute, and nothing more than that; it's a cheap exotic trick. Some people like it, but it makes me feel a little schizophrenic.

The Hook: Do you do that a lot?

Bensusan: No. That's the only place in the world.

The Hook: How long have you been performing at the Prism?

Bensusan: It's been for 15 or 20 years at least. Every time I've played in Charlottesville I've played there, except once.

The Hook: Have you heard that they're moving?

Bensusan: I don't know what to think about it. Is it because the lease is ending? Sometimes people want to expand and go into a bigger venue. I must say that I really care for the Prism as it is now, but sometimes you can't be attached to things. I try to not stop that process. I hope it's for the best.

The Hook: How does the alternate tuning alter your playing?

Bensusan: Some people use it, but haven't really studied it, so they end up playing the same things, the things that happen when you let your fingers do their thing on the fretboard. I like that open tunings tend to give the music a very different rhythmic attitude.

The Hook: Can you make your music work with standard tuning? Or with another instrument, for that matter?

Bensusan: Me? No. But people playing standard tuning? Yeah. A lot of classical players took my work and played it, which means that it worked. And piano players, too. When music works, it can be done on any instrument. Me, I don't play in standard tuning at all, except for the title track on Altiplanos. That was the very first time I recorded in standard tuning. It's my trademark, but at the end of the day, nobody cares which tuning I use; only guitar players will care. The music must be stronger than that. If the music is not stronger than the tuning, then you've got a problem. I don't play DADGAD anymore. I used to, before I knew what I was doing. Since then, I've been going deeper.

Pierre performs at the Prism in French on Friday, April 7 and in English on Saturday, April 8, but his annual technique workshop has been cancelled this year.

Pierre Bensusan