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I really had no idea who Gyan Riley was before attending his Fresh Sound @ Space 4 Art debut on April 25 — just a matter of faith, I guess, that curator Bonnie Wright would not let me down.

Of course, I'm not really a person of faith, so it helps that even the weirdest events she has brought to the stage over the years have been ear-opening affairs that I can't imagine having missed.

Riley is a superb guitarist who has translated his considerable classical training toward a dynamic that embraces improvisation, original composition and the influences of North Indian ragas and folk music from pan-global sources into a singular aesthetic.

Opening with a sublime improvisation of rolling arpeggios that stretched his fingers into impossible shapes, Riley touched upon Asian glissandi and bluesy vibrato.

"Irican," took a repeating motif and surrounded it with stunning voice-leading, while "Prelude," began with very Baroque touches (fitting for a dedication to J.S. Bach), that grew progressively more dissonant.

Six short etudes followed, the most interesting of which included "Odd Arpeggios," a study in finger-picked open-string voicings set to uneven meters, and "Trilemolo," an exercise in rapid chording and cross-string trills.

A series of tunes followed that featured Riley's vocals -- all, apparently reflective of a recent romantic disaster. Riley has a pleasant enough voice -- but the lyrical content of these pieces seemed uncomfortably personal, and to be frank, rather pedestrian to me. He conveys more emotive profundity in 3 or 4 notes than is possible in words anyway.

Consequently, when the guitarist made a hard left by switching to a solidbody electric guitar and a ton of effects for "Penumbra Wave," his wordless vocals added mystery to the already intoxicating layers of looped drama he conjured.

All of Riley's electric pieces were fascinating -- but I found myself more impressed with his acoustic classical playing as a whole. At any rate, Gyan Riley is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary guitar.

Photo by Bonnie Wright

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