Michelle Qureshi, who goes by the name “Music as Metaphor,” is a guitarist and composer living in Indianapolis. HiFiveInsider interviewed the composer by Skype on Oct. 27, 2016, for a lively discussion of her music and its influences for her new album: Scattering Stars.
Qureshi’s music has many different genres and influences. She attended the Cleveland Institute of Music and studied the art formally, majoring in classical guitar performance. Her forays into relaxing melodies are of a family with New Age music and America’s growing obsession with trends for mindfulness and meditation. This cross between instrumental classical and New Age sometimes resembles composer Philip Glass’s work.
When asked about her prog rock roots, Qureshi said, “Pink Floyd and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin.” For example, she said she liked “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin. When she was growing up, she was drawn to the innovative things being done with guitar. “Peter Gabriel’s forays into world music and tribal music are definitely an influence.”
Qureshi went on further: “These days, the kind of breakdown of genres means you are truly free to blend and fuse styles of all kinds into unique compositions.” She rarely writes a set list for her performances, and sometimes she will improvise an entire set of music. “Intuitively, my fingers know what to do. Mystics say it’s channeling. There’s an otherness to it. It puts you into the sound. Audience members say, ‘She’s playing from her soul.’ That’s not definable, but it is descriptive.”
A nine-minute song “Spring” off her 2012 album, Illumination, has meditative synthesizer keyboards playing ambient color notes in the background. In the middle of the song, there is an electronic music breakdown with a synthesizer that sounds like bells. The music expresses joy and wonder. When asked about writing “Spring,” Qureshi said, “It’s just life. I’ve had some big ups and some big downs. Music is very grounding, even when it’s this very ethereal place. I’m a mom and a wife, and so I’m in situations of responsibilities that way.”
Qureshi often quotes Sufi mystics to help better articulate her philosophy of music in words. For example, the poet Rumi said, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” In another example, Qureshi quotes Hafiz, who says, “Many say that life enters the body through music, but the truth is, life is music.” Qureshi elaborates, “That’s probably the closest you’ll get to a concise version of my philosophy of music.”
“Audience members say, ‘She’s playing from her soul.’ That’s not definable, but it is descriptive.”
When asked about how she creates tension and release in music, Qureshi was descriptive: “You have to breath with the music and be with it.” This also means going outside of theory or pre-set rules. “Instead of thinking, The five-chord has to resolve here, I might ask, What brought me to that chord in the first place? How did I arrive to this place in the song?” This speaks to Qureshi’s songs as melodies and narratives, such that the listener is travelling through textures and emotions in the music itself.
When asked about her writing process, Qureshi said, “The writing process can vary. A lot of things can start with sitting quietly with my guitar. Sometimes a different tuning or a capo in a new place can be a huge inspiration. I record parts and then I go back in with Logic on the computer in order to complete the songs. Mixing the organic in the solo acoustic guitar and the digital with Logic on the computer means I get an interesting mix of sounds.”
Speaking of different tunings and putting a capo on the guitar, Qureshi does have a great deal of cool techniques. In her use of strange tunings, Qureshi might favorably compare with Nick Drake or obscure 2000s indie rock band, The Books. “There’s no one given tuning. I don’t like to think it through too hard. Sometimes I tune the high E to an Eb and the A string to a G. I try to follow my instincts. One of my big assets is I have my imagination.”
Qureshi’s music is meditative, relaxing, soulful and intelligent. Her authenticity lies in the craftsmanship she puts into her songs. Qureshi is a musician’s musician, because her music has solid theory as a structure behind any of the songs and techniques she uses. And Qureshi is a mystic’s musician, because her music naturally lends itself to the joyful contemplation of the wonders of the world.
Most of all, Qureshi is a listener’s musician, because the music is instrumental and soulful and because Qureshi is connected to spiritual insight directly. Not being subsumed by too much thought or too much criticism, the works are inspiring. “The music is good because it sounds good” might make for overly simplistic art criticism, but it’s a good sign for the work itself.
Cover photo courtesy of Michelle Qureshi’s Facebook page.