Every act needs a hook. Something to draw the customers in. Once there, though, it is up to the performers to keep them there. With the fear of sounding politically incorrect (something I do all too frequently anyway) Dorothy Wagner is Aerial Acoustics' hook. At least from a purely male perspective. She's what they call "a looker." I first saw Aerial Acoustics perform at last year's Classic American Guitar Show and, judging from the crowd that gathered around, their hook works. Of course, Dorothy Wagner has two other important things going for her. She really can play. Quite beautifully, I might add. The other is her partner, Dennis Smith. He, too, can really play. If that wasn't enough, they have a second hook. She is a formally trained classical guitarist. He cut his teeth in bars and clubs and plays a flat top. Two very different backgrounds, two very different instruments, one perfectly balanced sound. If ever two opposing forces could perfectly compliment each other, it is the music of Dorothy Wagner and Dennis Smith. Well 'what is the deal with these two? After seeing them perform and hearing their new CD, Tandem Flight, we decided to find out. We found the two at Dorothy's house rehearsing they are not playing out much right now as Dorothy and her husband are expecting a child any second (literally) to pose a few questions and explore a little deeper how Aerial Acoustics came to be and where they are going.

TCG: How did you guys get together?

Dorothy Wagner: Well, we have a mutual hobby of kite flying. We discovered that we were both musicians and we started playing together. The kite thing is why we came up with the name Aerial Acoustics.

Dennis Smith: I knew she played when we met but she didn't know I played. When we were competing one time, she gave me a tape with four or five tunes she had made. I decided to fly a routine to one of her songs.

DW: The kind of kite flying we do is two-line flying where the kites are maneuverable. You can choreograph to music and that is what we do. If you have a three-minute tune you work out a routine similar to what they do in ice skating. I had given Dennis a tune I did and he flew a routine to it. That's when I discovered he played and he had added a part to one of my solo pieces. That was the first thing we did together. It is called "Hot Air Balloon" and it’s on the new CD.

TCG: Dorothy, you come from a formal, classical training, right?

DW: Yes. I have my Masters from Yale and I teach as well as playing with Dennis.

TCG: And Dennis, you come from a very different musical background.

DS: Yeah, I came from New Jersey, playing in bar bands. I never really stuck to a particular style of music because all of the bands I've been in have been different. Rock and roll, blues, jazz, all types of bands.

TCG: Does Dorothy ever correct you on technique?

DW: No. Even though we come from such different backgrounds I can't think of a time where Dennis has said he wanted to do something and I didn't like it or when I played a tune of mine where he didn't like it. We always seem to have the same musical taste.

TCG: What about from the prospective of you coming from classical training and Dennis coming from a background that is a little freer, do you find things that Dennis plays that are unique or are there parallels to what you play?

DW: I think actually, that even though I studied classically, I always liked a lot of different kinds of music. Many classical players restrict themselves as to what they listen to and play. I listen to a lot of different styles and I like a lot of different styles. Anything that Dennis approaches me with we work out. He arranges them and the way things develop is great.

DS: On the other hand, though, because I came from mostly band situations where I could hide behind on a drummer or a bass player or a singer, I had to really calm down and concentrate on what I'm doing. I am now a lot more disciplined.

TCG: With one exception on the CD, you two have written all of the songs. Do you collaborate or is it more like that first song where one comes up with one idea and the other adds to that?

DW: It's very interesting. The way I write, I just come up with self-contained solo pieces. They really come to life, though, when Dennis puts his part in it. Then there are the ones that Dennis has written and I do the opposite. I add my four bars to his song. Melodically, one of us will write a tune and the other will add a second part to it. So far we haven't written a tune together but that is a goal for the future. I'm sure as things develop we will do things a little differently.

TCG: How long have you been playing together?

DS: We are in our third year.

TCG: How do you go about doing an interpretation of something like "Roundabout"?

DS: I've always liked the song. When I am doing a cover, I try to take the song and add a lot more to it then just play the song straight out. With "Roundabout," I wanted to put our feel in there, change tempos and different techniques. But there are a lot of parts in the song that I couldn't play and Dorothy was able to play a lot of that especially the beginning. It's like what we do with "Take Five" on the CD. I wanted to do an arrangement of that but I added an arrangement of a Quicksilver Messenger Service song called "Gold and Silver" in the middle. "Gold and Silver" is in 3/4 but "Take Five" is in 5/4 so I had come up with a way to put the two parts together.

TCG: People are still talking about your performance at The Classic American Guitar Show last year.

DS: That was a wonderful experience. It was so different for me because I am not used to playing an arched top guitar. I was using some of the instruments from Scott Chinery's collection.

DW: We are playing at the upcoming show, too. John Buscarino has asked us to play. I just got one of his guitars, a Cabaret.

TCG: It's a classical?

DW: Yes. I just got it a few months ago. He made it custom for me and really went all out. The sound is just beautiful.

TCG: How did you hook up with John?

DW: I had actually seen one of his guitars at Mandolin Brothers. It was an arched back guitar and I was just blown away. When we were at the guitar show, Buscarino heard us playing and he lent me a guitar while we were playing. I put an order in and he had it done for me in a few months. He put a little rose inlay on the headstock for the baby. It goes so nice with Dennis' Taylor.

DS: When Dorothy saw the Buscarino, we had gone up to Mandolin Brothers to pick up my Taylor 510 which was in getting a new saddle. Since then I sold the 510 and I am now playing a 514C with the cedar top.

DW: It blends so nicely with the classical.

TCG: Back to the Buscarino for a minute. It’s an arched back, flattop, cutaway classical?

DW: Yeah, he calls it a Cabaret. A lot of classical players would be turned off by it because it has a truss rod and it has a cutaway and the scale is a little smaller.

DS: Buscarino considers it a jazz guitar.

DW: He does consider it that and purists probably will frown at it.

DS: When I tried out the 514, at The Mandolin Bros. I didn't know what to expect because I was used to a brighter sounding guitar. But I think the cedar top is why we sound so good together. The guitars blend together well and I'm not so far out front. Plus they look cool together.

TCG: So, we will see you in May again.

DW: I think so.

TCG: Where do you go from here?

DW: It is sort of dependent on my schedule with the baby. We're playing a lot now and the CD is doing pretty good. Dennis will keep doing his arrangements and I'll keep writing.

TCG: How was it recording the CD?

DS: We always wanted to do one and we had all of the songs and arrangements so we just decided to go into the studio and do it. We recorded it in one day, three weeks later it was complete and two months later it was out.

DW: It's a tough thing, a fine line. We wanted to do a good job on the CD but at the same time we didn't want it to sound too impeccable. Some of these people are maniacs. We wanted to capture what people apparently like about seeing us live. There is a lot of spontaneity. I never know what he is going to through my way. The CD seems to capture that spirit.

DS: We also wanted to capture a big sound.' For two people, we can make a lot of noise We tried to get that big, open sound on the CD.

TCG: Dennis, with Dorothy pregnant, do you see the hazards of a female partner?

DS: Well, it gives us a chance to sit back and do some more writing and practicing.

DW: Yeah, he's been coming over every weekend. It's fun. It seems like never-ending possibilities. I don't think we will ever run out of ideas.


Lawrence Acunto "20th Century Guitar" magazine