Why is it, when it comes to instrumental music, we so often rely on the physical world to describe what we hear? With each note, the mind paints details of places we’ve seen and the sensations of various seasons. In some cases, a place’s pull is so strong it’s almost as if the composer has little control and the music just bubbles up from the mud and soil.
Such is the case with guitarist Kerem Atalay’s latest recording, Summer Winter. The local software engineer and data science student has taken on all that comes with being a solo guitarist living in John Fahey’s Takoma Park. While some players bristle at being categorized as American Primitive, Atalay invites it and isn’t shy about his influences (one of his dogs is even named Basho, after the late great guitarist Robbie Basho).
Summer Winter stems from the southern blues of Fahey’s earlier work. Split into two seasonal sides—“Summer” and “Winter,” four parts each—Atalay asks listeners to lean in closely to spot the subtle differences in how his guitar, all acoustic with no effects, translates hot and cool.
The familiar ways to differentiate the seasons are present. “Summer” is often faster, louder, and has a warmer tone, while “Winter” is cooler in tone, quiet, and slower. The trap with these traditional fingerpicked methods is that one could make “Winter” less complex and less compelling. Atalay avoids this with a clever choice: He tweaks the weight of the notes.
In “Summer,” the bass line is heavier, at times plodding. It feels like sweat dripping and cratering the dust. “Summer II,” which first appeared as “II (Groundhog Crosses Barracks Road)” on Atalay’s 2017 release Sugar Hallow, moseys along, teetering from one note to the other until “Summer III,” also a reprise from Sugar Hallow, kicks in and Atalay’s fingers fly, but still land heavy as if the groundhog tumbled down a hill.
On “Winter,” the underlying lines are lighter, barely there, allowing Atalay’s fingerpicking to skitter across the top like a windswept drift. Each string seems to shimmer as it’s picked. None of these songs are blizzards. “Winter I” winds from wistful to cautious to the edge of bold and seems to paint a picture of some folks testing out the ice before the first skate of the year.
One of Atalay’s strengths is quickly building these images out of nothing. Unlike many solo guitarists, he’s swift to get the point. All songs but one are less than three-and-a-half minutes and two are less than a minute and a half. The whole record breezes by in 21 minutes. There are moments when Atalay could dig in and explore a theme just a little longer; the one minute, eight second “Winter III” is over in the blink of an eye and feels like the coda to something we didn’t get to hear.
Still, it’s better to leave the listener wanting more than dozing off. Atalay’s strong instincts and sense of place should have solo guitar fans eagerly awaiting what he conjures next from the banks of Sligo Creek.