April 22, 2019
Evil Rabbit Records ERR 27
Benjamin Finger/James Plotkin/Mia Zabelka
Moving between antithetical musical conceptualizations on these discs is Viennese violinist/vocalist Mia Zabelka who pursues these sorts of challenges regularly. For the string player, who has collaborated with musicians like Pauline Oliveros and Elliott Sharp, couldn’t have picked two more contrary trios in which to play. Trio Blurb, filled out by veteran British improvisers, guitarist John Russell and sound-singer Maggie Nicols, is the last word – or perhaps inflection would be more appropriate – in acoustic free improvisation. Contrarily Pleasure-Voltage is brazenly electronic, matching Zabelka, playing electric-violin, electronic devices and so-called alien objects, with input from Norwegian Benjamin Finger on synthesizers, piano, field recordings, electronic devices and more alien objects and American James Plotkin, with his output coming from guitar and granular synthesis. Zabelka’s background in modern notated music and non-Jazz improvisation serves her well in both situations.
Russell’s foursquare chording and blunt finger-picking on W’s two extended tracks is the underpinning upon which Zabelka and especially Nicols can express themselves. That doesn’t mean that Russell’s flattened slurred or bellicose flanges – or the fiddler’s mixture of recital-ready sweeps or jagged pops and stabs – aren’t prominent, it’s just that the vocalist’s exaggerated lingual theatrics literally takes centre stage. Her blend of stream-of-consciousness semi-monologues, lyrical warbling and mumbling cackles and asides has characterized her work since she began performing with John Stevens in the mid-1960s and remains consistent. Accordingly Zabelka’s spiccato pops add emphasis to Nicols’ yodels cries and gurgles; plus her tonal arpeggios provide the soothing blanket for a vocal pseudo-lullaby; while pirate captain-like growls from Nicols are met by aggressive guitar picking and upwards violin thrusts. Deference in sound and creativity between the two tracks is pretty minimal, except on “Work and Wild”, when Nicols shamanistic cackling and syllable shakes seem to lapse into expressive near-Gaelic at one juncture, although Russell’s unperturbed rhythm guitar strokes keep the situation from getting out of hand – or throat. The track’s summation illuminates the mark of sophisticated improvisers, who like someone patting his head and rubbing his stomach at the same time are able to cannily pursue two parallel lines. As the vocalist trades her disconnected parlando for more atonal growls, yelps and yodels and after the violinist’s pressurized fingering adds to the dissonance, the instrumentalists join to play what seems to be “Theme from a Summer Place”.
Despite motifs from more instruments and voices, the two performances on Pleasure-Voltage are also very much of one piece, but completely different than those on W. Crushed together into one, individual prowess is subordinated to a blurry program of granular synthesis and blurry oscillations. Vocal and aviary sounds appear to mingle at the beginning of “Hostile Structures”, and this hostility towards individualism lasts throughout the disc. During that track, undulating and undifferentiated timbres finally unlock enough so that piano key strumming, guitar string splats and violin plucks are briefly heard. From then on sweeps, whooshes and pumps combine into blurry interface that until a crackling resolve becomes droning echoes infrequently interrupted by cogwheel-like ratcheting. “Kaleidoscopic Nerves” may promise more from its title. But the same narrative exist as if all the instrument have been shoehorned into a single reverberating tone, with only the occasional hiss and palimpsest-like spiky thrust also audible. String plucks and harp-like glissandi signal another sequence change that also inflates to a wash of organ-like chords which manage to both coalesce timbres into one sfumato mass, and toughens enough so that human-instrument-produced flanges are audible by the end.
These two instances of magnetic sounds demand the same sort of attention for full appreciation. If your preference is for individual expression rather than group work, you may be drawn more to the fully improvised “W”, but if you prefer sonic collages than “Pleasure-Voltage” will be more to your tastes.
Track Listing: W: 1. Wilcumestowe 2. Work and Wild
Personnel: W: John Russell (guitar); Mia Zabelka (violin and vocals) and Maggie Nicols (vocals)
Track Listing: Pleasure: 1. Hostile Structures 2. Kaleidoscopic Nerves
Personnel: Pleasure: Benjamin Finger (synthesizers, piano, field recordings, electronic devices and alien objects); James Plotkin (guitar and granular synthesis) and Mia Zabelka (electric-violin, electronic devices and alien objects)