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The Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe

By Review

Explorations in Music Series

The Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe, 1992
Davey Williams & LaDonna Smith

The duo of violinist LaDonna Smith and guitarist Davey Williams have been the foremost exponent of the Southern-style, front porch tradition of free improvisation for eighteen years. A resonant shoot-out, the music of Smith and Williams reconciles the soulful power of delta blues with the richness of improvisation” —Cegep, France. “Smith’s viola stroked grand gestures and hoedown tactics behind Williams’ sometimes surrealist6i guitar escapades.  Theirs is the Nip & Tuck School of Improvisation – at its wildest an orgiastic yelp, at its most intimate like the inside of a pumpkin growing.” __Downbeat Williams, who learned guitar from the Chicago blues legend Johnny Shines and cut his teeth on the southern soul circuit is one of the most versatile six-stringers alive, a one man bridge between Derek Bailey, Albert Ayler, Muddy Waters and Spike Jones.  Smith, trained as a classical violinists alternates between “sweet siren and fiendish noise maker” matching  William’s triple-time hair pinning. Masters of standard and extended techniques, Williams and Smith are billed as “the world’s tightest improvising duo, together they predict the present.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Review

Festival of New Music Improvisation

New Music Circle, Graham Chapel, April 14

Philip Kennicott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Classical Music Critic

LaDonna Smith of Birmingham, Ala., was the first muse among equals at the New Music Circle’s Improvisation Fest ’96 at Washington University’s Graham Chapel on Sunday evening. Smith was one of three visiting artists, who joined an eclectic mix of five local players for several forays into the realms of barely tamed chaos. Using a wide variety of vocal expressions and an even wider array of experimental violin techniques, Smith was the unofficial leader of the various ensembles that joined together and drifted apart during two hours of music making. Stage charisma, and an imaginative ear for the possibilities of timber, make Smith an appealing presence. In a solo set, she combined sawing on the violin’s open strings with a set of frenzied wails on the remaining string, over which she sang an eerie cantalina. The effect was an impressive complexity of texture, like some deranged nun chanting next to a devilish fiddler.”

San Francisco Bay Guardian

By Review

Critic’s Choice, Music

LaDonna Smith

Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 07, 2005

This adventurous violinist and vocalist resides in Birmingham, Ala., where she rarely leaves, letting such CD’s as the recent Eye of the Storm (TransMuseq) do her traveling for her. But when she takes her fiddle and voice into the world, creating orchestral textures where jazz improv, bluegrass, contemporary classical, Celtic, and countless other influences commingle, the world is never the same again.


By Review

Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Richard Scott, Wire, 1993

The difference between improvisation I want to listen to and that which I don’t, probably comes down to something like personality. Every note of LaDonna Smith’s music has something of this quality, as well as a physical directness and a happy foolishness which says, “yes, I know this is silly, but . . . ”

Her solo voice, viola and violin CD scrapes and howls, whistles and whinnys, often making strange allusions to a variety of genres but mainly alluding to nothing much at all. There is a convincing seriousness of purpose behind her highly accomplished stream-of-consciousness playing, most fully revealed in the searching title track.


By Review

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 André 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?”