Strings (2), mostly bowed

Sunday 24 September 2023

As well as the two Sarah Saviet albums, I’ve been listening to several more albums of solo violin music. Well, not exactly violin: Sarah-Jane Summers’ Echo Stane is performed entirely on Hardanger fiddle. It’s an unusually folksy release for Another Timbre, abounding with modal melodics. Summers’ techniques never stray towards the outer limits of improvisation, yet she finely distinguishes each of the nine pieces here with attention to the characteristic attributes of her instrument. The fiddle’s sympethetic strings are used to give a steely sheen to some pieces, while in others the focus is on softly bowed melody with added resonance and reverberation. Double-stop fiddling is frequent but never lapses into full-on hoedown, with Summers using the buzz of the strings as colouration to some refined harmonic work, most notably in the opening track when playing melismas over a drone. The short, central piece is made up mostly of harmonics, pushing the fiddle’s sympathetic overtones to the forefront. The only letdown here is my ignorance of folk music and thus how well it adheres to or violates the bounds of the genre has me describing it all like an alien visiting Earth.

The title and cover art of Inger Hannisdal’s solo album Free Folk suggests this will be the same only more so. Nope, it’s a bait and switch. The first of the eight short tracks presents some rustic fiddle riffs, suddenly getting all handsy and half-plucked for a little bit in the middle but otherwise nothing suspicious. From there on, however, the odd rough edges heard on the first track predominate, with Hannisdal getting into the guts of the instrument, so to speak, using preparations on the violin strings to produce wheezy harmonics, gong-like pedal tones, detuning and distortion. However remote it may be, the vocabulary of folk music is always present in some faint form, keeping the strange sounds and disjunctive noises in service of succinct musical compositions, instead of just playing with acoustic effects. The ‘double-tone’ effect of prepared strings is particularly effective here, with each thin, high sound shadowed by a softer but more resonant subharmonic.

Violinist Christopher Whitley has compiled six pieces by various composers in an LP-length collection titled Describe Yourself. It’s the title of Leslie Ting’s piece on the album, not so much a reflection of the album forming a composite portrait of the artist. If the latter sense was intended, then the album is unsuccessful, for unfortunately as a collection it doesn’t add up to much. Whitley has an adventurous taste in finding new music, with most of the works here composed last year and each taking a very different approach to the solo instrument, but the resulting package is a compendium of ideas in want of a statement. Nicole Lizée’s Don’t Throw Your Head in Your Hands pits Whitley against a collage of karaoke tapes, but like much of her work it makes all the right and modern cultural and technological connections while producing something neutered and inconsequential. Ting’s titular Describe Yourself is the now-dreaded “lockdown” piece with Zoom videoconferencing, with Whitley and Ting exchanging commonplace anxieties of today’s culturally invested, music as afterthought. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s three Patterns in High Places is yet another sad case of a confident electronic artist suddenly at pains to make their acoustic music as undemanding as possible. The “old” piece is Jeffrey Ryan’s Bellatrix from 2001, which starts off the whole set simply because Whitley gets a kick out of playing it and why not: it’s flashy but compact and it’s hard not to like a piece in which the composer demands the soloist begin with a Miss Piggy “Hii-YAH!” Of the stronger new pieces, Fjóla Evans’ In Bruniquel Cave uses multi-tracked violin to spin out a translucent veil of frail pitches, while Evan J. Cartwright uses digital manipulations in his Six Tableaux for Violin to create electroacoustic objects out of Whitley’s playing, each morsel clear-edged and multi-faceted while the susbtance remains a mystery.