Liner notes for Melting the Darkness CD

“Melting the Darkness”

Notes by MC (Nov. 6, 2013)

This album ventures into regions of the art of violin-playing the significance of which is now becoming clear. Devoted entirely to microtonal compositions for violin and pieces for violin with electronics, this CD explores works of seven composers who have been challenged by these areas of discovery to create intriguingly fresh and surprising sound worlds.

Like opera singing and ballet dancing, the violin-playing tradition as situated within the Western classical heritage is a tremendously rich vein of history and achievement. It has involved a collective cultivation of craft and technique, an establishing of certain models of sound, and particular styles of virtuosity and performance that have been passed down through a couple centuries. I grew up, like many burgeoning violinists, steeped in this tradition, attending concerts by Nathan Milstein and Isaac Stern, studying with Dorothy DeLay and Robert Mann, listening to recordings by Kreisler, Elman, Oistrakh, Hubermann and more. These influences remain central to my musical identity on some level, as does the largely tonal, Baroque-to-Romantic repertoire that this violin-playing tradition addresses. I also cherish my many formative experiences playing chamber music, often with piano or other string players.

Since turning much attention in recent years to the music being written in my own time, I have found it fascinating to explore certain areas of experimentation that have taken my instrument beyond the familiar glories of its heritage. One of these is the use of microtonality- a system of intervals involving distances smaller than the half-step (the keys on a piano). I have been intrigued by both the physical aspects of working with such intervals, and the idiosyncratic ways in which composers use such intervals for their own expressive aims. Another interest has been noise- that is, non-pitched sounds, often percussive or abrasive, produced by unusual techniques on the instrument. A third area I’ve been eager to explore has been music involving electronics. Since electronic music’s beginnings, using spliced reel-to-reel tapes decades ago, the possibilities of the technology have exploded so that there are numerous ways in which to create or generate sounds and to interact, as a live performer, with them. This has led to a palette of sound possibilities and a degree of agility of response often not offered by traditional instruments. 

 Except for Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001, the composers on this album are all artists with whom I’ve had wonderful collaborative friendships. We have worked together and they heard me perform these pieces live. The works by Burns, Sigman and Rowe were composed for me, and I was involved at certain stages of the pieces’ progress. While most of the works are essentially “dark”, having an overall atmosphere of anxiety, danger or sadness, each piece also has elements that affirm a sense of warmth, hope or clarity. The pieces on the CD are ordered in a way that I feel illuminates the interplay between dark and light in these pieces, and also the different ways in which the composers used the resources of microtonality, noise and electronics.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), a Greek/French citizen, was not only a musician, but an engineer, architect, mathematician and author of major theoretical works on music. In his compositions, he incorporated ideas stemming from his scientific interests, pioneering electronic music, and applying stochastic and aleatoric processes, and set and game theory. While his works derive from highly cerebral concepts and treat sounds as objects put through experimental processes, the results are often surprisingly visceral and emotional. Tension and excitement build up as layers accumulate and clash, and the combination of control and disorder in the rhythm creates a wild sense of motion. Xenakis wrote “Mikka S” in 1976 following his first solo violin work, “Mikka” of 1971. Both pieces are based mainly on the glissando, a sliding pitch effect. Whereas “Mikka” consists of a single line, “Mikka S” ups the ante with two contrapuntal lines that move independently. At times, this requires extreme physical flexibility, as the violinist’s fingers must converge and cross directions, or stretch across strings. The two lines are in almost constant motion and frequently create a buzzing microtonal friction, but they coincide now and then on momentarily consonant intervals. Toward the end of the piece, the energy of the constant sliding erupts into boisterous bowed attacks and jagged, short glissandos.


Oscar Bianchi’s Semplice is a sparkling, virtuosic work in which fleet lightness subtly shades into something more anxious and spiky. Written in a relatively conventional violinistic style, with spiccato flourishes and flights to the upper registers, the piece’s short phrases take on a somewhat more aggressive cast in its middle section, in which microtonal intervals pervade the music and the scratchy noise of ponticello adds an edge of prickliness. Bianchi’s note:

 Partly as reaction towards an overwhelming practice in our times of associating all sorts of notions of complexity with musical representation, I gave to this solo violin work the title of Semplice. This is the Italian word for “simple” or “natural”. Despite being based, as one hears rather quickly, on clearly non-simple musical material, this work aims towards an ideal of an organically simple way of playing. In a similar fashion, Gaudi found in nature an expression of simplicity made by highly articulated forms and complex phenomena. I wished to propose in Semplice a music in which gestures are constituted of subtle quarter-tonal inflections as well as minute, timbral definitions, compressed into quick, almost verbal (vocal) brilliance.


Georg Friedrich Haas has probingly explored the sonic, harmonic, and expressive possibilities of microtonality. His work uses minute intervals like eighth-, sixth-, and quarter-tones, and pitch relationships from the overtone series, causing intense beating of frequencies and “difference tones” that buzz along. In addition to generating a radical focus on sound itself, Haas’ insistence on microtonality has created new wells of expressive meaning in these relatively unfamiliar sonic distances. Resonating with the malaise and despair of much twentieth-century art, his music finds nuances of despondency and pain, but also surprising beauty, in the uncomfortable spaces between tones. Haas has revealed that, while composing de terrae fine (2001) on a sabbatical in Ireland, he was mired in a severe depression. The title, meaning “from the end of the world”, evokes not just an apocalyptic vision but a devastating sense of isolation. The music’s single line of winding microtonal motions seems to trace the twinges in a person’s lonely, anguished train of thought. Long tones swell in heaving sighs. At times, the overwhelming feeling of desperation gives way to a sickly nostalgia, with startlingly sweet double-stops and sliding arpeggios. About halfway through the work, the mood turns to anger, as pounding chords burst out. Moving upward by microtonal increments, the chords build in accelerating waves to a violent frenzy of raging despair- followed by a collapse into exhaustion, as a few wisps disappear into silence. 


 Christopher Burns composed Come Ricordi Come Sogni Come Echi after we had been working together on Luigi Nono’s La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura, an hour-long duo for violin and electronics. In Nono’s piece, the violin is a vulnerable, human protagonist amidst the ominous environment of recorded sounds. In Burns’ homage, this protagonist is taken out of the threatening context, and attention is focused on the intimate details of the violin sound, the grainy friction noise, and the warmth of the human voice, which, as in the Nono, joins in polyphony with the violin pitches. In the fourth and fifth movements, microtonal counterpoint creates a delicate tension. Burns writes:

 I’ve been performing Luigi Nono’s La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura since 2002. Nono’s composition is one of my most cherished musical experiences as a listener, and my continuing work with the electronics part has been profoundly influential on my development as a musician. Composed in 2011, Come Ricordi Come Sogni Come Echi is a series of six studies exploring a few of the most intriguing elements from the violin part of Nono’s work, and seeking points of connection between La Lontananza and my own compositional idiom. The title (which translates from the Italian as “like memories like dreams like echoes”) is a performance instruction in Nono’s score, and reflects the ways in which Nono’s materials and ideas resonate through my homage. The piece is dedicated to Miranda Cuckson, whose thoughtful collaboration, detailed musicianship, and inventive approach to the performance of the Nono inspired the creation of these etudes.


Alex Sigman’s VURTRUVURT for violin and live electronics was commissioned for this recording. In this piece, the violin is a live denizen of an urban sound world, adding its startling noises to a world of machines. The electronics part is triggered and adjusted by an additional live performer. The piece was recorded in studio, after which the composer added some further sound processing and also created the spatialized imagining found on the 5.1 surround disk. Sigman writes:

 V is for Vehicle and Volume, not Violin. U is for Union. R is for Resonance, Recording, Reflection...and T is for Trigger. VURT refers to the 1993 cyberpunk science fiction novel by Jeff Noon. Set in a dystopian Manchester, the novel chronicles the (mis)adventures of a gang of Stash Riders, who travel between Manchester and a parallel universe called Vurt. The boundary between the universes remains permeable, as Vurt creatures and events materialize on Earth. The sound sources employed in VURTRUVURT include elements evocative of the decaying urban and industrial environments described by Noon, as well as songs by Manchester bands of the 1980s-90s that were influential upon the his writing. These sources were also central to generating the violin material. In performance, the electronics are projected through a pair of small sound exciters: one attached to the violin, the other to a resonating glass surface.  The violin thus becomes an electrified tension field, a physical point of actual/virtual intersection and cross-influence. 


Ileana Perez-Velasquez’s work “un ser con unas alas enormes” is for violin and fixed media: the electronics were previously recorded onto a CD as one single track, with which the violinist performs in real time. The piece evokes a lush natural world with dangerous-sounding animal calls and insect noises in the electronics. Cuban motifs and a full-throated, heated lyricism characterize the violin part. Perez-Velasquez’s note:

“un ser con unas alas enormes”, which translates as “a being with enormous wings”, was inspired by the 17th Freeman Etude for violin by John Cage. Within the hectic gestures that are a major part of this etude are passages reminiscent of Cuban rhythms. An important idea for Cage is that human beings can be better themselves by overcoming their limitations. This piece translates that spirit; humans improve through the use of their imagination. The title is also related to the literary work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “un hombre muy viejo con unas alas muy grandes”. The tape part, as my departure of style, is fragmentary, and contains processed excerpts from the Freeman Etude. The piece also includes concepts of silence that are present in non-Western music. The use of silence as a conscious part of the piece yet again reflects back to Cage.


For Robert Rowe’s piece, Melting the Darkness, the violin part was written and recorded first; the composer then created the electronics as an accompaniment to the violin part, using processed snippets of the violin-playing, samples of percussion instruments such as the tabla, and other synthesized sounds. The violin propels the narrative of the piece, with a warm, largely conventional style of violin-playing.  Rowe writes:

 Melting the Darkness was written for Miranda Cuckson and commissioned by the New Spectrum Foundation. The piece is built around contrasting styles of music and performance, ranging from gritty, rhythmic phrases to more lyrical and slowly shifting sonorities. These contrasts are amplified and elaborated by an electronic commentary consisting of fragmented and processed material from the violin performance as well as a number of secondary sources. The title comes from The Tempest (as it should when a piece is composed for Miranda): “…as the morning steals upon the night, Melting the darkness…”