Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Jennifer Koh details her zest for musical collaboration in the two-volume "Limitless"

Based on a recital project that the violinist Jennifer Koh completed last year, "Limitless" gathers her duo performances with eight contemporary composers (Cedille Records). The result is both a tribute to a virtuoso's magnanimity and to the inexhaustible expressive possibilities of the solo violin.

The two CDs cover immense territory of artistic perspectives and partnerships in sound. Koh has long had notable breadth in her repertoire, much of it generated from commissions and specialized projects. Growing up in a Korean-American family accustomed to poverty and mistreatment, the violinist in "Limitless" draws explicit acknowledgments from several of the composers of her resilience and the artistic value of surmounting prejudice and marginalization.

In that vein, the most challenging piece for me was "Give Me Back My Fingerprints," a closely interwoven duo with vocalist Du Yun that features the composer's raw voice, plaintive and deliberately hard to interpret. The result is a 9 1/2-minute fusion of the piece's two disparate components. Thus it represents what "Limitless" is all about while not amounting to a stainless success on its own terms.

More appealing is Koh's work with Qasim Naqvi, using the modular synthesizer, in a brooding, recitative-like piece called "Banquet," which seems to eschew  development for the sake of gradually spreading the focus of each instrument while preserving some rapport between them.
Jennifer Koh extends her reputation for well-grounded novelty in "Limitless."

Its manner of blending of different sound-worlds is taken to a broader canvas in "Her Latitude," with electronics by Wang Lu, which brings real-world sound sources ranging from Buddhist chanting to the tolling of bells and struck earthenware. The composer  is forthright in a program note about her admiration for Koh and the difficulties of adapting triumphantly to an alien culture while bringing forward her family heritage.

Another exotic influence lies behind Nina Young's "Sun Propeller" for violin and electronics, which is said to be inspired by Tuvan throat-singing. This is the two-disc set's only work that keeps striking me as too long, though there must be some complexity responsible for its expanse that justifies it. On the other hand, I was charmed by the three songs in which Koh is paired with Lisa Bielawa's soprano. Called "Sanctuary Songs," the composition is buoyant and defiant of threats to its theme of protection. I just wish the texts Bielawa uses had been included in the booklet.

Tyshawn Sorley's medittative use of the glockenspiel complement's Koh's violin superbly in his "In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams," in honor of a central figure in Chicago's free-jazz history. Another musician with a jazz pedigree working with Koh was Vijay Iyer, who is represented by four brief tone pictures titled "The Diamond." The imagery suggested by an old Buddhist text,"The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion," is looked at through four natural and mental phenomena, each fittingly embodied by "Limitless'" most conventional duo, violin and piano. The gift for evocative miniatures based on sense impressions in abstract music reminds me of Michael Colgrass'  "As Quiet As."

Missy Mazzoli is the only one of Koh's collaborators represented by works that have been done by others. But both benefit by the generosity and commitment typical of Koh's artistry. "Vespers for Violin" has the subtlety and quest for peace of evensong, with the amplified violin given an aura of gentle distortion as some of its gestures resonate against a tapestry of electronics. "A Thousand Tongues" takes off from a mordant poem by Stephen Crane that deals laconically with truth and lies. There is some wordless vocalizing added to Mazzoli's piano, which is subject to electronic washes and tremolo-like commentary.

The one tongue that speaks truth is dead in the poet's mouth, the text says. But there is nothing dead about the piece Mazzoli has built upon Crane's cynical foundation. More important, there is the unmistakable voice of artistic truth speaking clearly throughout "Limitless."

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