I wasn't sure what to expect from Violin and Electronics, a seven-piece collection of new American music recorded by Butler University professor of violin Davis Brooks. But I was pleased to be sort of grabbed by the throat by the opening notes of "In Bocca al Lupo," a high-intensity, high-altitude, primal scream of a piece by James Mobberley that sees Brooks accompanied by (essentially) himself, in a duet between his live violin and a playback of pre-recorded violin samples. The album's liner notes explain that "In Bocca al Lupo" translates as "Into the Mouth of the Wolf" and is the Italian equivalent of "break a leg," and Brooks certainly delivers a rousing, intense, tremolo-laden performance, which endlessly reaches for climax or resolution.
The album doesn't relent on the second track, C. P. First's "Epiphany for Amplified Mandolin, Amplified Violin, and Tape," which features a pioneer in classical mandolin, Demitris Marinos, trading off agitated, uneasy phrases with Brooks. The two sometimes echo each other's thoughts in an almost improvised, jazz-like fashion, and at other times work in separate worlds, building intricate but chaotic structures.
And then, Brooks offers a breather in the form of Hugh Levick's "Nosotros for Violin and Pre-recorded Electronics," the world premiere recording of a piece I found a little puzzling, its late-'80s drum machine backing track sounding like (say) early Meat Beat Manifesto and uneasily contrasting with Brooks' violin, which slides up-and-down the primitive beats, sometimes drowned out by a drum track. Genuinely puzzling, because one may need to move past a sense that such obviously-synthesized drum beats sound cheesy or outmoded; regardless, the track was less emotionally impressive than the rest of the record.
I've nothing but praise and admiration for the remaining four pieces. "Fantasy for Violins and Electronics" makes its way through different musical languages: from the church, where Brooks trades phrases with an organ-like electronic backing track; to the symphony hall, in which violinist begins to meld with a more orchestral, lush electronic sound; and finally out into the cosmos, where drone and poly-rhythms back Brooks as he plays out into a free, heady atmosphere. As on many of the pieces, the electronic track is largely constructed from violin samples, which, even when manipulated, still tend to retain the characteristic timbre of a string instrument.
I'll give you a trippy image to illustrate Zack Browning's "Sole Injection for violin and computer-generated sounds": a bullet train, its wheels replaced by "Simon" games, which randomly and rhythmically light up and beep as the train inches along, away from the station and into (let's say) Candyland. And I'll share an inspiration: Browning reports in the liner notes that he based the piece on MC Hammer's "Adams Groove," which you may recall as the rapper's contribution to The Adams Family soundtrack. I can think of no worse place to start a song, excepting perhaps Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap" from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, but the song is lost in translation, providing only raw material for Browning's magic square composition techniques, which end up supplying a circular, propulsive, bright electronic background for Brooks' violin.
The second of the two world premiere recordings on Brooks' album is a musical theodicy by Butler composition professor Frank Felice, "Brace Yourself Like a Man." The piece's opening theme, a gentle, reaching lament that's recalled at the close, finds Brooks at his most expressive and lyrical. Felice notes that the piece is concerned with those Job-like moments when man is lost in the whirlwind, and there are appropriate ups and downs to the music, rises and falls that mirror the life's vicissitudes.
In the liner notes for his "Shadow Steps for Electric Violin and Computer Music System," the last track from Brooks' album, Patrick Long points to a couple inspirations for his piece: Conlon Nancarrow, whose player piano studies might be said to have preceded computer music, Nancarrow having cut piano scrolls that employed rhythms too complex or fast to be played by any human being; and Carl Jung, whose work was not particularly influential on the development of computer music. Long sets up conflicts in his piece: between the anima and the animus, so he tells us; but less metaphorically, between the piano-computer in hyperdrive and Brooks, who (intentionally) struggles to keep up with the tempo on violin. It's an invigorating piece that offers Brooks one more chance to dig into a demanding score; and while I wouldn't claim to be an expert on violinists, I think it's safe to say that Brooks brings his impressive facility and emotional aptitude to bear on all of these pieces, offering compelling, thoughtful and, above all, exciting performances of these new (since 1989) electro-acoustic works.
Anyone with a passing interest in new music or electronic music ought to take a listen to Brooks' self-released album, designed on the Owl Studios digi-pack template by that label's graphic designer P.J. Yinger; and anyone with more than a passing interest might stop by Butler to hear what Brooks — or his colleagues Felice and composer Michael Schelle – are up to this year.