Stephen Nachmanovitch performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist, and at the intersections of music, dance, theater, and multimedia arts. He is the author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.
If you enjoy a live improvisation and play a recording of it many times, is it still an improvisation? If you make a recording and fiddle with it, or overdub more improvised voices, is that improvising or composing? There is no composing, no improvising, and indeed no passive listening; it's all on a continuum.
Improvisations are also “composed” by the instrument and the way it extends the human body. “Period” instruments, with their unique and luscious timbres, are not just for playing period music, but are wonderful vehicles for new music and improvisation. Viola d'amore is an especially rich cross-cultural hybrid that invites invention: a product of 17th century globalization, it blends European violin and viol technologies with Indian sympathetic string technologies and Middle Eastern design elements. Those sympathetic strings were a way of creating electronic music long before there were electronics, stimulating combinations of harmonics and resonances, shifting the phase and envelope of sounds in surprising ways, the sound within the sound.
Improvisations are also “composed” by the influences that have touched our lives. Nothing here sounds like Bach, but he was the great pioneer of making a solo string instrument a self-contained universe, and I could never have gone down this road without him. There are no ragas on this recording, but their influence is strong – Just Intonation scales from India and the ancient Near East, sounds based on the ground of a drone, whether heard or just felt, and the use of sympathetic strings or electronic shadow-sounds to create space and depth. Nothing here sounds like Japanese music, but I have been profoundly influenced by wabi-sabi, the esthetic of impermanence, making something new that feels like it is old and worn. Rust makes things beautiful. The hair of the violin bow is like the hair of the calligraphy brush. Haboku, the calligraphy of “flung ink” – sometimes the brush is fat and sopping with ink, sometimes it scratches or barely touches the paper with a few shadowy molecules of dry pigment.
It is often said that the violin and its kin resemble the human voice. But which voice, among the enormous variety of human voices? The Italian nuove musiche singer, the Tibetan monk, the Blues singer, the Mbuti pygmy? There are so many to choose from, and this is the blessing of being a musician in the 21st century: we have the power to choose what is interesting to us. When the diverse voices that have influenced you or me have been assimilated and integrated within us, they are no longer diverse influences, they are your voice, my voice.
The archaic and the new mingled, neither one nor the other, but both present.