Tuesday, 28 February 2017

School of Underground Scrape Part 4 - Proto-Scrapers

Heinrich Ignaz von Biber - Various recordings but I can recommend Reinhard Goebel's interpretations of the Rosenkranz Sonaten (Rosary Sonatas) on Harmonia Mundi as a good start.

The original and the best Biber, this 17th century violin virtuoso smashed many of the conventions of the time, making use of harsh-yet-descriptive polytonality (La Battalia is the prime example and I've had the good fortune of playing it with a suitable rag-tag collection of musicians at a series of gigs once held in the former Brisbane Anarchist headquarters of Ahimsa House) and peasant musics in the Austro-Hungarian courts. For the sake of my, as Henry Flynt once dubbed it, "agenda", I chose the scordatura - meaning mistuning or purposeful mistuning more correctly - works such as the Rosenkranz Sonaten which flashing forward to the 1960s so heavily inspired the drone-scrape of the mighty dearly departed Tony Conrad. These mistunings involved tuning the violin's strings away from the conventional GDAE tuning to various more open and resonant tunings allowing for greater resonance and new moods and vibes within the pieces. On a more technical note they made consecutive octave playing and other technical matters that weren't down pat in the violin technique at the time to be achieved with greater ease. Further, these tunings held symbolic significance in line with the Baroque era's obsession with gesture. For instance, in one movement of the deeply spiritual - obviously - Rosary Sonatas, Biber asks the violinist to not only downtune the strings, but also to cross the middle strings over each other, creating a symbolic cross behind the strings in remembrance of the passion - the crucifixion of Christ for those of you like myself who aren't religious/weren't raised Catholic - and the pain associated with it. Add to this the fact that the score is for solo violin and continuo - read: improvised bass line played in the case of the Goebel renditions on harpsichord and viola da gamba, but could be just one bass instrument or keyboard or fretted instrument - this spare style of accompaniment allowing for greater freedom in improvisation for all parties involved. That's right: mistunings, improvisation, wide-open spaces, there's the fucking recipe right there dear readers.

Ole Bull - A Norwegian Pioneer

My own violin is stamped both on the back, beneath the neck, and within the instrument, with the slogan "Copy Ole Bull, Germany". At the time that my father bought the violin for me - around 2002 when I was getting serious enough in my conservatory studies that I needed an instrument upgrade from the hunk of shit we bought off a mate's sister I was still playing since the age of 8 - I was deep in my studies of Beethoven, Brahms and the like, as well as immersing myself in the raging, icy genius of Norwegian Black Metal. With a dark, rugged tone, the instrument seemed perfect for me, and naturally led me to learn a bit more about its namesake. Bull was one of the 19th century's most famous concert violinists and was part of a movement to push forward a distinctly Norwegian identity in music at a time when Norway was still under Danish rule. Legend has it that ol' Ole lost his shit once while working on an opera in Italy and stormed the Danish embassy in Rome with a Norwegian flag. Bull's technique and compositions were heavily influenced by Norwegian Hardingfiel or Hardanger Fiddle music and by the myths and folklore of his homeland. All in all, from a 21st century perspective, this makes him one of the original grim motherfuckers, a proto-Black Metaller par excellence. While being a troll-obsessed nationalist is problematic in many ways - particularly in light of the fascist piece of shit Americans just voted into the White House - I celebrate Ole Bull, and this rare album 'Ole Bull - A Norwegian Pioneer' I found on a very dodgy Black Metal blog years ago - I don't even know who plays on it - because his violin playing and his music, not to mention his legendarily loose lifestyle, make him a proto-scraper of the highest highness. Ole Bull would no doubt agree when I say: fuck tyranny.

Various Artists - Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow! Vintage Fiddle Music, 1927-1935, Blues, Jazz, Stomps, Shuffles & Rags, (Old Hat)
Various Artists - Violin, Sing the Blues for Me: African-American Fiddlers 1926-1949 (Old Hat)

Anyway, enough of the dead white men. The violin underground is most potent because of the ground-breaking timbres, textures, and of course improvisational techniques, of African-American fiddlers. Even further, as will be discussed in another post (or maybe elsewhere), the fiddle music of West Africa, ancient and extraordinary, and no doubt atavistically inherent in the sounds of some of these fiddlers heard in these compilations, could well be the origin of bowed string instruments if some studies are to be believed, in short, the violin has a black history, remember that. The extraordinary fiddling heard on these two compilations put out by the fantastic Old Hat records shows the forward-thinking genius of hard-working people, marginalised and overlooked, and rediscovered on these great discs. Anyway for a more well informed and well researched look at the history of African-American fiddle music look no further than the work of scholar Jacqueline Cogdell Dje-Dje who is also responsible for a very informative if dry and academic as fuck book on West African fiddle music - indeed it is the book on West African fiddle music - Fiddling in West Africa on University of Indiana Press. And while you're at it listen to Eddie South, lots of Eddie South.

This is just scratching the surface readers...