Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Black History Month: Lifelong Ambitions

Black History Month at HurdAudio turns a focused listen toward Lifelong Ambitions - a duet album for violin and piano recorded at Washington Square Church, NYC on March 11, 1977 by Leroy Jenkins and Muhal Richard Abrams.

"Greetings And Salutations" begins with a melodic motif outlined by both instruments before launching into an independent interaction that finds the opening melodic line quoted frequently in the piano part in various registers. The applause at the end is well deserved.

"Meditation" opens with some dramatic gestures. Some held tones on the violin - absent any vibrato - answered by loud clusters on the piano. This sequence is expanded as a melodic line with generous quantities of held, brittle notes on the violin accompanied by percussive dissonant chords on the piano. Much of this material is boldly fortissimo. I can hear Jenkins' breathing with an intense focus on these loud, clearly declamated tones as the bow drags across the strings.

"Happiness" opens with pizzicato on the piano strings with the pedal held down as Jenkins explores some quiet territory with sul ponticello (bowed on the bridge) and some light col legno technique. The twin pizzicato part that follow is an exquisite pianissimo texture of tranquil intensity. This track is my personal favorite.

"The Blues" begins with a solo violin line with a traditional dose of vibrato. The piano answers in nearly neo-classical style. The thematic development sounds almost through-composed. A slow journey through a set of blues changes begins to unfold with plenty of room for embellishment and ornamentation for both performers. The broken fragments of blues lines and gestures slowly gel into cohesive "image" by the end of this composition.

"The Weird World" builds up a loud texture of freely improvised gestures. The clipped, fragmented staccato and harsh tone of Jenkins' violin cuts through and blends well with Abrams aggressive work at the piano. This composition consists of a focused act and react between these two performers.

"The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost" features a descending line in the piano part as the violin moves freely between ascending and descending passages. As this texture develops it forms a study of scalar lines moving along different trajectories and the surprising harmonies that emerge. After an applause these two play a short coda of three near-unison phrases to end the evening's performance. A unity in the wake of so much independence.

Each of these six Leroy Jenkins compositions clocks in at almost exactly six and a half minutes. And I suspect that this is not an accident. I hear a distinct "ding" from an egg timer that marks the point when each of these pieces truncates - often prematurely. And for almost all of these ideas this is simply not enough time for my taste. Through quiet sections I can hear that timer tick tick ticking away. It's a joy to hear these creative souls play together and it would be even better to hear them unrestrained by external time constraints. But even within 390 second-long excerpts there's already a wealth of ideas and compositional substance to keep me returning for repeated listenings.

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