Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor. First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes. Second, the joy: All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.
So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers. She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.
Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.
It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.
Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.) She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.
Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres. Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard. The work is in three short movements.
Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints. The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.
Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer. The AACM was founded in Chicago.
I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17. The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener. The concert took place in 2012. Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page. Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.
Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin. The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion. This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition. But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.
As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration. First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu . This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work. Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds. This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part. It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.
Next up is Vijay Iyer. Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece. It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism. It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.
The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer. She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”. The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics. The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one. The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting. Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.
Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.