Composer Nicholas Chase and violinist Robin Lorentz have a joint performance at Tuesdays @ Monk Space on February 21. This event will mark the world premiere performance of Chase’s electro-acoustic piece Bhajan, a four-movement work for electric violin and live electronics. This performance, celebrating the release of Bhajan as a new Cold Blue Music CD, will mark a rare return visit to Los Angeles for both musicians. I had a chance to interview both of them ahead of the concert. Here’s what they had to say:
What is the driving force behind Bhajan? What are the unifying elements across movements?
Exploration! That is the driving force behind Bhajan. There isn’t any aspect of it that isn’t designed as some form of investigation both theoretical and physical—including my friendship and musical relationship with Robin. I couldn’t have written this for someone else. Another violinist would have thought I was crazy!
The violin part in Bhajan is very simply constructed and focuses the tuning of the open strings. Virtuosity is a traditional western approach to a large piece like this, but my idea in was to take traditional virtuosic acrobatics out of the concerto scenario and bring the player back to the fundamentals of playing. As it turns out that approach brings out a whole different kind of virtuosity for both of us. So the investigation takes place on stage between the two of us, in a kind of musical conversation. That’s a good way to describe the piece: if you think of the four sections of the piece as parts of a conversation, you’ll hear how they evolve out of each other.
How did you first become involved with Hindi devotional music and Indian raga? What about this music speaks to you the most?
I’m not actually involved with Hindi devotional music and know very little about it. I studied North Indian Classical Music briefly with Rajeev Tharanath at the same time I was studying composition at conservatory. I had studied Schoenberg’s atonal serialism extensively and I felt like I that gave me an interesting springboard to dive into the deeper traditions of raga.
Rajeev discovered that I have a great ear for subtle tunings, tonalities and complex rhythms. I discovered that western formality—even serialism—was too constricting for me. What I love about raga is that within a single raga system the performer can shape her performance with limitless nuances and stylization. That makes the music both personal and alive. That is something I started putting into my writing early on in modular scores. Even though Bhajan isn’t modular, it tallies up everything I learned from writing those.
I started writing Bhajan during a research residency at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. At the time I was hanging out with acoustic technicians and I spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the physical phenomena of sound. I don’t know how I missed it early on, but I discovered that Hindustani music is also concerned with many of these aspects of sound making—with how the sound waves emanating from a string interact with sound waves emanating from another string!
I think it’s the unlikely but exquisite conscious union of science, skill, and craft that draws me to raga.
A good way to hear how I’ve brought all this into Bhajan, take a listen to Drshti, the second section of Bhajan, then listen to Ram Narayan’s performance of Raga Marwa on the sarangi. Wildly, I hadn’t heard this performance until after Drshti was recorded and mixed—I was surprised myself at how the two pieces echo each other. It’s exciting to think that I might have come to a musical conclusion outside of, but still reflecting, an ages-old tradition.
Bhajan was just released by Cold Blue Music in January 2017, but the performance at Monk Space will be its world premiere performance. What do you hope to communicate to the audience with the live performance of Bhajan?
You asked about my involvement with HIndi devotional music above. What I didn’t say is that, even though I’m not involved in devotional music, through nearly a decade of committed yoga practice which I had to take up for health reasons, I realized that making music is my devotion. It’s how I communicate back to the world and the “worlds beyond this world.” What I mean by that is scientifically, we understand that we’re all made up of vibrations. As musicians I think that we’re perhaps more, or at least differently, tied to an understanding of those vibrations. Bhajan is a celebration of the bridge between what we experience and its vibrational source and is a humble offering to that. You know, when someone waves at you, you wave back. Bhajan is me and Robin waving back!
How did you meet Nicholas Chase, and what was the collaborative process like with Bhajan?
I met Nicholas Chase through the CalArts Community and through The California EAR Unit. We were both heavily involved with Cal Arts at overlapping times and non overlapping times, so were aware of one another; but my first chance to work with Nick and get to know him was with the EAR UNIT. Nick wrote some musics for the Unit and so we worked, travelled and concertized together.
The collaborative process on Bhajan with Nick was indescribably and wonderfully prismatic. Every moment a new birth and breath…just like the piece. I love Bhajan so very very much. To have been involved with it in any way has been the richest gift.
You have performed for an incredibly diverse range of artists, composers, and projects. What have you gained from these diverse experiences?
Tickets for the February 21 concert are available at tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/cold-blue-night.
Cold Blue Music is releasing a new album by Nicholas Chase titled Bhajan (CB0046). An engaging mix of electronics and brilliant violin playing by Robin Lorentz, Bhajan is inspired by Hindu devotional music and the Indian raga. The four tracks of this CD are loosely connected by Western classical tonality, yet reflect a diversity achieved through “temporal freedom, melodic non-structure and fusions of musical genre…” The computer-driven electronic sounds realized by Mr. Chase and the sensitive violin playing of Ms. Lorentz make for an intriguing combination.
The first track, Bindu, begins with a series of thin electronic tones that gradually change in volume and pitch. More electronic elements are added, giving a sense of being in the presence of a metaphysical entity. A high repeating Eb violin figure becomes the focal point, fixing the listener’s attention while oscillations, whirring and clicking sounds add to the otherworldly feel. Towards the finish, as the violin figure becomes more strident, an electronic chorus appears and the piece morphs from the strange and anxious to the settled and serene. Bindu fashions an interesting emotional bridge between the familiar and the unknown.
Drshti, track 2, comes from a completely different place. A sharp, but deep bell-like tone opens the piece and a sustained violin-buzz is accompanied by a related drone in the electronics. There is a spiritual feeling to this – like standing in some remote Asian temple. The raspy, monotone pitches in the violin line have the rhythm and cadence of a spoken chant. About midway through, the drone and violin arrive at almost the same pitch, zero-beating, and this is soon accompanied by a stately melody in the electronics. The violin continues ‘speaking’ and the electronic chorus weaves in and around the violin and drone, adding to the strong devotional feeling. Towards the finish, a deep, satisfying bass appears in bursts of short phrases. The music quickly vanishes, as if swept away on the breeze. Drshti is very effective and beautifully extracts the liturgical essence of the ceremonial, even in the absence any specific context or intelligible text.
Japa is next and this track begins with rapid, quiet clicking sounds – followed by a short, vivid electronic phrase – and then silence. More electronic phrases follow, louder and more striking, while the soft clicking seems to move left-to-right at a rapid rate. Now the acoustic violin joins in with recognizably musical phrases, followed by silence. The electronic sounds are pure tones and act as background while the violin phrases are at the forefront by virtue of the familiar tone and timbre so that listener instinctively identifies with them. The periods of silence and the sense of movement in the electronic sounds add to the image of watching something approach and then fade away. The electronic sounds are swirling and amicable – not menacing or formidable – and they seem to be attracted to the violin, as if participating in a conversation. Japa finishes suddenly just as violin and electronics are in mid-phrase. The interaction of the electronics and playing of Ms. Lorenz is especially precise and well-coordinated.
Bhajan, the title track, is the most understated and stunningly effective piece of this album. A soft electronic drone is cleanly heard in the higher registers while a somber violin repeats mournful phrases below. The overall feeling is not one of sadness or melancholy, but rather of wistful reflection. It is very beautiful and does not wear, even as it continues in the same repeating patterns over its entire length. It has a hypnotic mysticism, as watching the sun slowly set over a calm ocean. Towards the finish there is more activity in the electronics, including a low hum that grows in volume. The violin skitters a bit, then recedes as a continuous sine tone, wavering slightly in pitch, fills the foreground. The violin persists, resuming its prominence as the electronics fade at the finish. Bhajan is a warm and comforting wash, introspective and reassuring as well as beautifully performed.
Ms. Lorentz has a formidable resume as an acoustic violinist that includes the music of John Luther Adams, Daniel Lentz, Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, the California EAR unit as well as Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Jackson. To this must be added Bhajan, a masterly collaboration with the electronic music of Nicholas Chase. The art of ensemble playing with other acoustic musicians is, of course, a highly regarded virtue. The ability to play closely and sensitively with music realized by electronics must now be included in the arts of the acoustic musician. Ms. Lorentz and Nicholas Chase have set a standard in Bhajan that others would do well to emulate.
Bhajan is available directly from Cold Blue Music starting January 20, 2017.