AFTER establishing his reputation as a major innovator in acoustic guitar technique, Michael Hedges allows his interests in composing (including a college degree in classical composition) to dominate his "Taproot," his first studio effort in five years. Unlike his earlier albums, which showcased Hedges's dazzling technical skills on the guitar, "Taproot" emphasizes chamber- music arrangements that patiently build quiet, intricate rhythmic/harmonic patterns; the results have a lot more to do with Steve Reich's mesmerizing minimalism than with George Winston's New Age pandering.
Hedges describes "Taproot" as "an autobiographical myth told in music," and he even provides a chart that describes his wife as "Chava," his children as "the first cutting" and "shrub 2," and his cousin/manager as "the Jade Stalk (from Nomad Land)." It's all so esoteric that it's more an annoying distraction than an aid to the listener. The music, however, is strong and eloquent enough to survive all this New Age sentimentality.
The album begins with 12 austere, insinuating instrumental pieces, including six guitar solos, three duets with reed player Mike Moore (who recalls Paul McCandless of the pastoral-jazz group, Oregon) and two duets with percussionist Bryan Lanser. Two of the guitar solos are played on the newly invented TransTrem electric guitar, which features a whammy bar that locks modulations in place at definite intervals.
Another guitar solo is played on the ancient harp guitar, which features five harp strings strung across an arch above a normal six-string acoustic guitar. The other instrumental is an eerie, captivating tape collage of flutes and electronic effects. The album's only vocal number is "I Carry My Heart," which finds Hedges, Graham Nash and David Crosby singing an e.e. cummings poem to Hedges's catchy folk-pop.
MICHAEL HEDGES -- "Taproot" (Windham Hill). Appearing Saturday at Lisner Auditorium and Sunday at Schreiber Hall, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (call 301/481-6000).