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Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Hillary Fielding & Ross Rabin, Freeway, Volume 2, Number 5, Spring 1993

LaDonna Smith’s new CD puts her clearly in the realm of undisputed masters, regardless of genre, along with John Coltrane, Ali Akbar Khan, OumKhalsoum . . . the point of this pantheonic comparison is to acknowledge that free improvisation has such a dedicated representative. TransMuseq (LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams) has been the only American improvising group which has been devoted solely to improvisation at a consistently high level for a period of time roughly equivalent to the time Brits like Derek Bailey (and company) have been at it. A lot of current players may not be aware of this “tradition,” or may be choosing to ignore it.

LaDonna makes the violin sound like a million cranes flapping their wings through an amplifier. Her style includes sounds that transcend the personal, combined with a kind of technique which is obviously practiced, though never arrogant or overstated. Sometimes the music sounds like a motorcycle driven through the string section of an orchestra; at other times she forays into the upper stratosphere of coloratura soprano extracted from her instrument. Her vocals ring out like a fifth string added to the violin. The entire effect is a chorus/string section of worldly/other-worldly creations. She incorporates everything from the most refined, energetic glisses to polyphonics, harmonics and the scritchiest scatchiest horrors of scrape on wooden bones. The only difficulty I have is that listening to too many pieces at one time is like eating too much chocolate. I love chocolate, but too much makes me feel insane.

Two of my favorite cuts are “Conversation With Orchids” and “Oceanic Sleep.” The first is exactly what the title sounds like. It’s the kind of conversation orchids would have as they are rocked by spring breezes. Their small petals and glowing colors uttering excited variations on a million high tones and contrasting with soft leaf-like, sonorous full-bodied long tones. In “Oceanic Sleep” LaDonna plays on viola all the parts simultaneously of a future/primitive early music consort in a beautiful, slightly melancholy improvisation. It sounds like a vast ocean, engulfing everything in harmony waves.

LaDonna’s first solo recording also reflects this oceanic breadth of experience. Her company/ concept, Transmuseq, has an approach to improvised music inspired by the idea of “automatic” writing as practiced by the Surrealists, notably AndrĂ© Breton. Simply, “automatic” means tapping directly into dream states, the unconscious, humor; not allowing conscious decision-making to interfere with the creative process. For the improvisor, this entails a continuous self-overcoming and subversion of one’s own tendencies, licks, chops, tastes and limitations. LaDonna succeeds in playing free music which maintains a productive tension between doing what she “knows” how to do, and letting her inner demons have full range.

If you call yourself an improvisor check out TransMuseq and get this CD!

As saxophonist Wally Shoup said, “A lot of people have played improvised music, but the question is, how many of them will be doing it ten or twenty years later?”