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All About Music

By Performance, Review

Floating Bridges

Recorded live at “Meeting of Improvisers”
Centrum Sztuki Wspolczenej, “Solvay” Krakow, Poland. June 6, 2007
LaDonna Smith & Misha Feigin

Thomas Gaudynski, All About Music blog, 2008

Floating Bridges radiates with high energy interplay from the first notes and reveals a musical dynamism of fluid invention and sympathetic creation from the String Trek duo of violist La Donna Smith and guitarist Misha Feigin.

Recorded in June, 2007 at the “Meeting of Improvisers” in Krakow, Poland, the set opens with the nineteen-minute “Krakow Concerto.” After the initial shock but superficial comparison to the duo of Smith and guitarist Davey Williams heard live during the 1970s-80s, String Trek comes crisply into focus with its own characteristic sound and approach. This well recorded live performance captures the duo at a high point of artistic collaboration.

Throughout “Concerto,” Feigin ranges over his instrument, picking glittering and articulate lines, pulling strings and producing massive rhythmic chords—drawing sounds out, at times, both delicate and tough, but constantly inventive and responsive to his musical partner. He doesn’t sound like any other free improvising guitarist and has the energy and technique to be the perfect musical foil to the energetic and expressive Smith.

Smith bows clean lines as well as smeared resonances, often joining her voice to that of her unmistakable viola. Neither is the leader, but the two blend into a perfect and satisfying union. “Concerto” fluidly travels from free invention into the players’ shared European folk and Southern blues influences. The melodies that appear seem completely organic and natural with only a hint of cultural exoticism.

“Tribal Reverberation” has both performers vocalizing from z’aum abstractions to extended vocal technique, from folk melodies to rhythmic cadences. A wonderful, but brief, piece of mouth music.

“Klebnikov” is a sober meditation on the transience of life, penned by Velimir Hlebnikov in 1920 and recited here, first in Russian, and then translated by Feigin with pizzicati and chordal accompaniment. The mood continues with “Die to Live,” picking up first with muscular and virtuosic sequences interleaved with rhapsodic lyricism and then integrating Feigin improvising on his poem, “The wind blows through space…,” which ends the sequence as a paean to the fleetness of experience. The integration of the reading with the music is so seamless as to avoid comparison to most jazz/poetry collaborations. In all, a beautiful connection to the Russian language exploration of the Futurist years—a sensibility shared by both artists—and the tenuousness of the art of improvisation.

The concert ends with “Crossed Currents,” an extended exploration of string color restlessly moving from technique to technique and culminating with an energetic vocal and slide guitar send-off. Ending, Smith announces in her characteristic way, “That’s all folks.” A brief encore of a few seconds, “Something Reduced” follows.

Smith’s early Trans Duo recordings were often marred with mediocre recordings and abbreviated sets. The quality of this release, both in clarity of recording and artistic achievement, makes up for that lack. Together, Smith and Feigin have moved beyond Yokel Yen (Transmuseq, 2004) with an organic rightness to their approach.

Bay Area New Music Discussion

By Performance, Review

John Butcher Workshop

Workshop 2004
LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams

Henry Kuntz, Bay Area New Music Discussion, April 30, 2004

Though it drew on any number of philosophical influences, not all musical (nor American for that matter) — things like surrealism, dada, and “automatic writing” —  the most “genuine” (to me), uniquely American approach to free improvisation came from Alabama. That would be from the folks associated with “Transmuseq”, the most well known of whom are guitarist Davey Williams and violinist La Donna Smith. I’ve mentioned their playing and music here before, but most of their early releases (on LP) are not easy to find. One excellent CD, WHITE EARTH STREAK (from LP from early 1980s), featuring them in the company of Torsten Muller and Gunter Christman, has been recently issued on Atavistic.

Aside from the fact that their freely improvised music appeared more or less full-blown on its own in the southern US, i.e. without particular influence from European centers or even from free jazz (from free jazz, I think, more a philosophical than directly musical influence), what seems to me to make their music uniquely “American” (and a peculiarly “southern” expression of same) is its sense of individualism (and total respect for the uniqueness of and contributions of each individual, regardless of musical “training” or “skill”) and an unhurriedness about it, even when moving fast, which reflects the relatively rural surroundings which nurtured it.

I recommend any of the following:


  • Direct Waves Trans Duo – LaDonna Smith & Davey Williams
  • Velocities – Andrea Centazzo-percussion with LaDonna Smith & Davey Williams
  • Jewels – Anne LeBaron-harp, with Davey Williams & LaDonna Smith
  • TRANS II, Folk Music (to be repressed) LaDonna Smith & Davey Williams with Theodore Bowen, bass


  • Transmutating (CD) Duo improvisations by Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith

The Tennessean

By Performance, Review

Ruby Green explores possibilities with improvisational concert

Ruby Green Gallery, 2006
LaDonna Smith, Susan Alcorn and Misha Feigin

Jonathan Marx, Staff Writer, The Tennessean, December 17, 2006

Ruby Green has developed a deserved reputation as one of the city’s most adventurous art galleries, showing outspoken and accomplished contemporary work in a diverse array of media. What many local arts patrons don’t know is that it’s also one of Nashville’s most adventurous music venues.

Through the tireless efforts of local promoter Chris Davis, Ruby Green has welcomed a steady stream of jazz and avant-garde performers. On Thursday, it hosts a promising double bill featuring string improviser LaDonna Smith and steel guitarist Susan Alcorn.

In Nashville, music fans usually associate the steel guitar with the yearning twang of classic country music, but Alcorn locates within the instrument a meditative, even spiritual dimension. Though she moves among the world’s elite improvisational musicians, her music doesn’t shriek or skronk; it hovers and flows, practically caressing the listener, even in moments of deep mournfulness.

Based in Houston, Alcorn also knows her country music, having spent time in the band of Brian Black, brother of Clint. On her latest CD, Curandera, she covers Tammy Wynette’s ”You and Me,” but her range is broad enough to include versions of Curtis Mayfield’s ”People Get Ready” and a work by composer Olivier Messiaen.

When Alcorn comes to town this week, she’ll collaborate with Nashville art critic David Maddox, who also happens to be a skilled improviser on the saxophone.

Sharing the bill is Birmingham-based musician LaDonna Smith, who will team up for this performance with Russian-born guitarist Misha Feigin. Smith has long been a champion of improvised music in the Southeast, having been a member of the Tuscaloosa collective Raudelunas in the 1970s. (Middle Tennessean Craig Nutt, now much better known as a craft artist, was a member of the same group.)

Where Alcorn’s music has a soothing quality, Smith’s can be spontaneous and excitable, but she always remains attuned to the distinct character of her chosen instrument, most often the violin or the viola. What the two musicians share is the understanding that music serves as a vehicle for heightening the senses, for allowing performer and listener alike to experience each moment as unique and fully alive with possibilities.

New Music Box, Web Magazine of the New Music Center

By Performance, Review

Concert at ISIM 3rd Conference

Concert Performance
December 2, 2009
India Cooke, Joelle Léandre & LaDonna Smith

Stephen Nachmanovich, New Music Box, Web Magazine of the New Music Center, ISIM 3rd Conference, 2010

The physics of moving bodies: as I watch violinist India Cooke playing with bassist Joelle Léandre and violist LaDonna Smith, I feel their connection to the play of Newtonian forces as bodies and instruments fly around in space and time—a hallmark of improvised music. This is not to say that performers of composed music are not also profoundly tied into their physicality, but in improv the connection is front and center. As the bassist’s arm ricochets through the air with each stroke, we wonder (cliffhanger) how that stroke is going to land, how it will bounce and follow through into a one-of-a-kind sound. Sound and movement co-create each other, dance-like, along with the acoustics of that particular room, the attentional qualities of the audience, connected into context in a way that even beautiful and amazing performances of notated music seldom attain. Thus we become conscious, moment to moment, of being present at an event which can happen only once in the history of the universe. (Several months later, I’m in the car hearing whatever shuffles in next on the iPod—music from many worlds, but each recording contained within a nice, professional context. Then I hear this thwacking, breathing, harrumphing, string-and-vocal exuberance. It’s Joelle Léandre and India Cooke. As Blake said, exuberance is beauty.)

Pioneers like the Shaking Ray Levi Society in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and LaDonna Smith in Birmingham, Alabama, are combining far-out sounds with down-to-earth compassionate work with community groups, with children, with disabled people, veterans, people as far as possible from the art world and from the self-conscious avant-garde.

One pattern much in evidence is the fluid interface or continuum between improv and composition. A number of participants, like Walter Thompson and Pauline Oliveros, have contributed templates and methods for semi-structured large-group improv. All music vibrates on that continuum, and on the related continuums between freedom and form, individual personality and cultural heritage. Listening to each other’s methods and practices, no one seems to need to take a stand that x is better or more important than y.

III. Presence

Each encounter with fellow improvisers leads not only to new partnerships and new sound worlds, but to a treasure trove of research. A friend will tell me about the artists who have influenced her work, many of the names unfamiliar. After exploring their recordings, I realize that I should have known about these people long ago. One of the interesting things about living in a vast country where the arts are so vibrant and so poorly supported is that in my late 50s I keep making new friends and discovering whole new branches of music and allied arts that I had no idea existed. There is such a ferment of artistic exploration today, almost entirely below the radar of the mass media and the high-culture media.

To me, these encounters bring forward the element of music that is even more important than sound: people, interacting and present for each other. At each moment we are there to witness an event which has never taken place before and will never take place again. Of course this is true of everything in life, but improv makes the game exquisitely clear. The key to creativity, the algorithm for improvisation, is other human beings. As we realize this in our day to day practice, our art becomes, in George Lewis’s words, a power stronger than itself.