Tashi Dorji picked up a guitar for the first time in circumstances befitting any American teenager. He was playing basketball on an outdoor court close to his home when he noticed some kids hanging around nearby, idly playing tunes by The Doors and other usual rock 'n' roll suspects.
He stopped dribbling long enough for a guy to show him one chord. Though he loved listening to music, he'd previously only tinkered with hand drums. But now, he wanted to know about all of it.
That wasn't going to be as easy for Dorji as it might have been for an American teenager: Dorji lived in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, the mountainous and sparsely populated country clasped like a pearl between India and China. With a population of around 100,000, Thimphu was the largest city Dorji had ever called home. His father, a government worker, had moved his family from one of the country's remote regions to another before finally settling in the capital. Even in Thimphu, there was no Internet and very little television, so Dorji would tune his shortwave radio to intercept signals from Eastern Europe and the BBC. Western culture—and, in particular, hot-blooded American music—offered the allure of pure exotica.
"You're yearning for something else. The idea was to grab hold of anything you could hear, in terms of music—pop, glam rock and metal, especially in the hills of the Himalayas," says Dorji, now 35. "If you grow up in such a remote place with a heavy culture, there's a lack of outside influence. So young people are constantly seeking other things. It's new."
And now, 15 years later, Dorji is one of the most exciting new acoustic guitarists and improvisers to emerge in America in recent years. Based in Asheville, where he works part-time at a food co-op, Dorji is quickly amassing a catalog of extemporaneous and highly inquisitive guitar pieces. Those recordings have earned praise in international magazines and caused another marquee musician, Six Organs of Admittance founder Ben Chasny, to start a record label for the express purpose of issuing Dorji's music. But no matter how people respond, now or in the future, the opportunity to make music at all compelled Dorji's 8,000-mile relocation.
"I play, and I'll keep playing," he says. "I have an insane amount of music that will just keep coming."
Thanks to his obsession with American bands in the late '90s, Dorji learned that, though most Bhutanese students traveled to India for further education after high school, some shipped off to the United States instead. In a college catalog, he stumbled upon an entry for Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts school just outside of Asheville. He mailed them a hand-written, one-page letter, an earnest memo that simply explained how he loved playing music and wanted to come to college stateside. His expectations were limited, he admits, but his hope for adventure wasn't.
"Growing up, letter writing was my mode of communication. I used to write to radio in Russia and the BBC, joining writing competitions out of pure curiosity," Dorji says. So he waited. "It took four months, and after that, I got billions of letters from school. They gave me pretty much a full ride. After that, I was just here."
Asheville is only slightly smaller than the Bhutanese capital Dorji left in 2000. But new inspirations were ubiquitous. Dorji didn't even finish his education, largely because he found what he'd been looking for outside of the classroom. He lived with a few Asheville punk rock musicians, and they showed him how underground rock 'n' roll scenes could thrive in small cities. His musical world exploded: He learned of free jazz and, after purchasing his first laptop, downloaded entire discographies of artists that friends would mention. He consumed John Zorn's output several albums at a time.
Dorji had been in North Carolina for five years when he finally saw the performance that changed the way he perceived his own work forever. An acoustic guitarist and a saxophonist ripped through a series of improvisations in a small club. Dorji was in his mid-20s and still uncertain of what kind of music he should be making at all. But this is what he wanted to do.
"The thought that you could just sit there and play and improvise sounded really fun," Dorji says. "It was self-indulgent, and it sucked me really deep in. I was hearing things and playing off of them, just responding to what I was hearing."
During the past decade, a fresh wave of young acoustic instrumentalists has emerged internationally. These pickers often pull from the ragged blues and wayward experimentalism of John Fahey or the more elegant creations of his British counterparts. But Dorji's music works beyond those fashionable sounds, exploring more obviously alien terrain. As John Cage did with a piano, Dorji sometimes "prepares" his guitar, adding bits of chopsticks or foam around or beneath the strings to alter the way they vibrate and snap against the guitar's neck. And like British progenitor Derek Bailey, Dorji plays in starts and stops, hiccups and halts. His guitar doesn't sing so much as it stutters, breaking narrative flow into strands of hyperlinked thoughts.
During "Improvisation I," the stunning nine-minute opener from a 10-song cassette he issued on Asheville label Headway in 2012, Dorji climbs and descends a hidden staircase of sound with his guitar strings. He shifts from gently chiming harmonics to a frantic tussle of notes so immaculately played and placed that they seem computer-generated and digitally edited.
Like this one, his best pieces radiate the ecstasy of possibility: Every unexpected note becomes a discovery on the journey to some unknown end.
"I'm mesmerized by people in the world. I grew up imagining things, and I've never lost that kind of romantic nostalgia. It helps me create my music," he says. "This is my storytelling. I look forward to wherever it will take me."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Peak amplitude"