Eva Zöllner: voces, señales

Sunday 26 November 2023

To use a British euphemism, making an album of solo accordion music by Colombian composers is “a bold decision”. It’s a shared fate of colonial nations that their culture will persistently be regarded as partly borrowed and derivative; as for the accordion, it’s an instrument that has had the case made for it by many talented musicians over several decades without ever fully shedding the popular impression that its full depths are yet to be proved. Eva Zöllner has previously shown that she is a virtuoso accordionist in ability and in the audacity of her repertoire, so her album voces, señales on Genuin succeeds in the aim of pushing back the boundaries of music a little further. The collection here reflects Zöllner’s close connections to the composers and affection for the country she first visited in 2015, with all the presented compositions produced with her consultation.

There seem to be no “Old Masters” present here, with all musicians involved apparently in their mid-40s. An overarching theme emerges of a culture in transition, still wrestling with questions of how to see (and hear) itself; as such, strengths and weaknesses abound. The use of accordion as a traditional instrument in Colombian music is tested, with none of the works resting on appeals to folklore or nature. When these aspects do appear, they are contextualised in pop-art style quotation and collage, most overtly in Carlos Andrés Rico’s Nacido en el Valle, el Río y la Montaña, an attention deficit mashup of accordion tunes and samples that feels a little too self-conscious. It’s one of the drawbacks of working in a place and time where your art needs to make a statement. The use of pre-recorded sounds appear in three of the six pieces, with the album opening with the brash audio diary of Ana María Romano G.’s posdomingo 02.10.2016. The disparate elements, threaded together by Zöllner’s accordion, scored to produce evocative timbres as much as musical accompaniment, present a compelling narrative, but the specifics are lost in translation. The subject matter is the failed peace agreement with the guerrilla movement FARC, an event of great importance to Colombia, but the significance does not transmit to those of us ignorant of Columbian history. It’s necessary for a country’s artists to speak to its own people, yet in the most urgent cases this art will always remain to some degree opaque to an outside audience. A similar fate befalls Jorge Gregorio García Moncada’s Un amor, puro e incondicional, another work of remembrance for an historic event which I can only begin to contemplate after reading the sleeve notes. This last piece also uses electronics and pre-recorded voices, merging with Zöllner to create a heavy atmosphere, unlike the other two collages.

It’s notable that the three pieces with electronics are the ones most dependent on explication, as though they must rely on support from additional media to contain all that they are trying to say. Throughout the album, with and without the samples, Zöllner demonstrates her strength in the volatile and changing character of her playing, making abrupt and startling switches in temperament between the sweet and the harsh, giving the lie to the perceived uniformity of the accordion’s sound. None of the pieces settle to be a mere showcase for her versatility, but they do display her virtuosity, most demonstrably in Carolina Noguera Palau’s Canto del ave negra, a dark piece that escalates into frenzied explorations of pitch and tone without breaking its overall moodiness. Daniel Leguizamón’s signo a cambio is a more substantial work that hews to dark ambience throughout, staying low and slow but keeping enough tension in its materials to prevent things getting dreary. Brother, by Natalia Valencia Zuluaga, presents a contrast with folk materials refracted through her own experience and memory into something uniquely personal, its surface simplicity partly rarefied and partly unkempt, making it strangely relatable.