invisible dance for violin: chrissie caulfield on troy schafer

March 31, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Troy Schafer – Action for Solo Violin (tape, Dusty Grass Imprint, edition of 100 or download)

troy schafer - action

I’m a sucker for a solo violin piece.  It’s not the purity of the single instrument, oh no. I have no time for purity in music, for me hybridity is the way, but I love the idea of taking a single instrument and stretching it as far as it will go, or combining it with something unexpected. Like dance. Or, in this case, an invisible dance!

For that is what Troy Schafer has done here. It’s a dance for a violinist, but you don’t see the movement – just four tantalising photos giving a mere hint of what is going on in the course of this album. The reviews quoted on the download site lament that there is no video available of the performance but I think this is actually a feature and not a bug (as we say in software). By leaving the movements up to your imagination, Shafer is making you imagine what might be happening rather than giving it to you on a plate. If I’d seen the performance live I’m sure I would have been transfixed, but at home I’d rather listen to a recording and make my own pictures than watch them on a screen, at least where music is concerned.

Where the release does fall down, in my opinion, is that it seems to have been recorded with a single microphone so there is no stereo image to help you with your internal visualisations. A spaced pair would have added hugely to the interest in the sound here and given us a few clues, at least, as to what might be going on. Another thing I feel I would have quite liked him to do would be to detune the strings occasionally to give us more variety in the notes that come through.

And what is going on? Well audibly it’s mostly a lot of clicks, pops and scrapes, there’s quite a lot of scratching of the bow on the strings, plucking them behind the bridge. These are done with much variety, intensity and variety of intensity – he goes from barely audible scratches to sounding like he’s in a small aircraft about to take off. What you won’t find are any ‘normal’ notes. The few times the bow is drawn across a string it’s with such pressure or at such an angle that any semblance of a note is almost a figment of your imagination.

And imagination is key to this recording, I think. Both in Schafer’s idea to make it in the first place, and in your own mind as you listen. As I experience this piece I can imagine all sorts of contortions that the performer gets up to, with both violin and bow, and every time I listen to it those movements change depending on my mood. Of course all music sounds different each time you listen depending on mood, but here you have the four visual starting points to get you going with the dance each time too, and I do strongly recommend looking at the photos before beginning a session with this album.

Surprisingly (well, it surprised me) there really is enough going on to keep you hooked for the full 40 minutes. Just. The interest comes from the subtlety of differences between the effects and the juxtaposition of them. As soon as you begin to wonder whether a particular gesture is going to go on forever, Schafer moves on to something else – sometimes literally as you hear his feet shuffling on the floor. It’s a hard listen at times, there are no long sounds here at all, it’s sparse and percussive for all of it’s duration. I got this as a download rather than the cassette but I think you still need the time between movements to rest your ears and, metaphorically or physically, turn the tape over. In my case I load the album one file at a time into my player software rather than using a playlist.

This album might be mainly a work for violin-nerds, I think I know how all the sounds here were produced and can visualise what is happening at least at the micro level of the performance – e.g. what the bow is doing on the strings – but maybe some ignorance or less detailed knowledge of the instrument and its extended techniques might actually help [Editor’s note: if you want ignorance of technique then I’m your man!]. Perhaps not knowing what on earth is going on adds even more to the mystery dance.  Have a listen and let me know!

—ooOoo—

Dusty Grass Imprint

Troy Schafer on Bandcamp

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