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They Are We Are

Misha Feigin, Craig Hultgren and LaDonna Smith

Michael Anton Parker, Bagatellen, October 02, 2005

After encountering LaDonna Smith for the first time last week and witnessing a fabulous performance, I was happy to recall this fine recording and pull it out for some overdue proper attention. Smith is one of the pillars of improvised music culture in the US, especially known for her duo with Davey Williams, a musical partnership running for around 30 years and still going strong as I heard from the violinist herself last weekend. Smith’s writing and editorial presence in the pages of The Improvisor has been registered in my mind ever since I devoured a few issues of that remarkable magazine as a nascent free improv fan, and I’m pleased to report that the publication is still alive online these days, with a compilation of intriguing essays well worth digging through. While Smith’s reputation as an underground legend must surely owe a lot to her irresistible spirit of creativity and immersion in live performance I was finally able to enjoy first-hand, she’s a formidable improv violinist and violist taken solely as a recorded entity in this trio program with Misha Feigin and Craig Hultgren recorded and released in 2000.

Misha Feigin is a key example of an artistic career paralleling the transformation of Russian culture from Communist restrictions to Capitalist freedom, and alongside so many other artists documented on Leo Records, he’s a pioneer of improvised music in Russia. More than an improvisor on classical guitar and balalaika, Feigin has formed his reputation as a troubadour of sorts, bridging gaps between Russian-language and English-language audiences with his synthesis of folk tunes, improv, singing, and storytelling. While primarily capturing his skills as a pure improvisor, this disc portrays the scope and aesthetic diffusion of an artist resolving the conflicts between a foregrounded singer/storyteller role with accompaniment and an equal collective free improv format. All told, his voice weighs in as the feature on three pieces totalling about 16 minutes out of a 64-minute program. Additionally, on “Curley” his voice elevates the music considerably as a subtle element of collective interplay for one passage. On “The Singing” and “Dimensions Lost (A Giant Twang Out of the Sky)”, Feigin more or less recites English poetry from his own pen, and while it’s easy to cite the virtues of his wordcraft and the tremendously effective improv that Hultgren and Smith wrap around it, I honestly have found his mildly jarring accent and effusive melodrama to be a bit too much to take on repeated spins through the disc, skipping ahead to the tracks without vocals.

On the other hand, the title track and sole example of Feigin as a flat-out singer is absolutely stunning and not only bears plenty of repeated listening, but is reason enough by itself for anyone to acquire this album. Feigin’s voice has both the confidence and power of a stalwart torch-bearer of some folk tradition and the uninhibited expressive urgency of scattish free improvisor, freely alternating between linguistic and non-linguistic vocal contours as he attacks the moment in genuine free interplay with Hultgren’s cello and Smith’s violin. It’s all too rare to hear vocal improvisation suggesting some imaginary folk music and the accreted treasures of wailed melodies, holding itself accountable to no idiom in particular but accepting the underlying old-fashioned musicality shared by traditional idioms. The Russian feeling of his voice is so strong, however, that it could also just be considered a kind of Russian free folk music. I only wish that the album had a few more tracks with Feigin’s unbridled vocal improv, especially since the string improv in a few pieces can veer towards tedium for all its consistent balance and craftmanship.

It’s hard not to be floored by this disc after the free song music of the title track, mainly because it appears second and the disc’s opener is nearly 15 minutes of flawless and profound free improv fully mining the timbral riches of the three acoustic instruments. “Summer Wind, No Sleep” is also the only piece where the trio dips into the tense and edgy abstraction associated with prototypical non-idiomatic free improv like MIC and the golden years of the Russell/Durrant pairing. Hultgren and Smith squeeze out some gripping sustained soft squeals with their bows and Feigin plucks his way into some uncharacteristically non-linear paroxysms. Delicate harmonics are given as much attention as sawing and riffing, and the mood hovers in elegaic territory contrasting with the more sprightly leanings of other pieces.

Even in this epic wonder, the trio displays its distance and independence from the free improv avant-garde. This is a kind of timeless free improv bearing no self-conscious aesthetic agenda or aversion to familiar musical habits. The tremendous compatibility among the players reflects shared old-fashioned musical values; melody, repetition, riffing, phrasal alignment, and extended motivic development are the primary stuctural concerns. With the adventurous spirit to be expected in a free improv setting balanced against a conservative Euro-centric folk/classical underpinning, the music strikes me as a free improv counterpart to the old-world strains in mid-20th century academic music, especially the full-blooded anti-hermeticism of Alfred Schnittke’s string quartets. The strident, angular rhythms and narrative unfolding of Feigin’s strumming patterns seem rooted in the same East European traditional folk aesthetic that Bartok and so many other pioneers of notationalism adopted to varying degrees of abstraction. Hultgren’s playing in particular has the unswerving sense of purpose and control of someone playing a part in a string quartet they’ve committed to memory as a personal reference point. His virtuosity and confident willingness to repeat lucid motifs instead of constantly searching for new material is evidence of his success in reconciling an academic music background with free improv instead of abandoning this background and groping for a new vocabulary as so many academically-trained players tend to do in free improv situations.

Rarely using extended techniques, but freely accepting harsher sounds as part of their instrument’s full timbral spectrum, Hultgren and Smith revel in the warmth and depth of bowed strings, and that’s at least half the explanation for the copious rewards I’ve found in this album; I really just have an endless appetite for the nuances of cello, viola, and violin in pretty much any aesthetic context, but especially in a context like this where the nuances are brought well into the foreground. Of course, delicious timbres alone don’t tell the whole story; it’s the split-second sensitivity and creativity of master improvisors like these three that complete the timeless package.

Thanks for reminding everybody of LaDonna's provenance in the American free-improv world. It's a shame those 70's releases she and Davey did on TransMuseq are un-reissued and probably will ever remain so.

Tom DjllOctober 5, 2005

Seeing Trans play at the old Race street Gallery in Grand Rapids Michigan ( In 89 was it? ) was one of those tranformational moments. LaDonna is still one of the most remarkable improvisors I have ever heard.

Doug HolbrookOctober 5, 2005