The Guitars Project

by Jenny Graf

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vinyl picturedisc side a and b

For five months in the beginning of 2002, I introduced electric guitars to six older women with Alzheimer’s Disease and other age-related cognitive changes. “I’m not qualified to learn something new”, and “The guitar belongs to my son’s generation”, were some of the comments made by the women at first, highlighting it’s “male”, “youth” and “pop” connotations.

Despite their initial preconceptions about guitar and it’s relevancy to them, the women wrestled with how to play with the instrument, finding individual and personal uses for the instruments. The guitar was adapted into a very effective social tool, around which formed a very solid group. For some it eased the difficulties of spoken language; some made sound with the instrument, some helped keep time. Dolly participated by simply dusting around the strings, producing subtle incidental sounds. Although their use of the guitar involved moments of discomfort, it also provided relief from social expectations. As Minna remarked, “What is so nice is that this is non-verbal!”.

This project attempts to find new ways to define value for the older woman. Here the electric guitars gave license to Minna, Eleanor, Miriam, Lodelin, Alice and Carolyn to adopt new roles. As a result, two very powerful yet disparate signs in American culture - the older woman and the electric guitar - were given a chance to form a relationship, one that involved frustration, discomfort, joy, expression, communication, shared experience, and for many of these women, new definitions of self.

In Iconic Distortions, the sounds produced by the women have been manipulated, looped, distorted and mixed, offering a re-animation of what they created using the guitar. It offers a map of suggested connections, imagined and real. It is a fantasy portrait of the group, one that aims to present possibilities, not reality. And, as the vinyl picturedisc suggests, with its idealized portrait of Alice with her guitar, and Eleanor in sonic reverie, it is about using the medium of revolutions-per-minute to intervene in the production of a new icon.

Jenny Gräf Sheppard, 2003

Please listen through stereo speakers, not headphones.

This project was partially supported by a Community Arts Assistance Program grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

Compositions were completed during a residency at Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago.

Special Thanks to - Jacob Ross, Saverio Truglia, Peter Margasak, Stephanie Rothenberg, M.V. Carbon, Peter B. and all the participants in the project- Eleanor, Alice, Minna, Miriam, Dolly, Lodelin, Carolyn and to The Council for Jewish Elderly Adult Day Services who provided space and enthusiasm for the project.

Picuredisc photographs by Saverio Truglia
Video stills on insert by Jenny Gräf Sheppard
Other Guitars Project pieces: Portraits, 5 color 11 x 13 photographs,
Exchanges, a 12 minute vide/ sound piece and
Guitars Project Feedback, a documentation of the Guitars Project.


released March 1, 2003



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