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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.

Omniplug Blogspot

By Review

Deviant Shakti

Michael Evans & LaDonna Smith

Hunter Bell, Omniplug blogspot, 21, 2009

For all of you that know LaDonna Smith, you may –and even must– know that you will not know what you will hear and experience. For me, that’s a very good thing. I like to be in the dark. I like to be on the other side. That is, at least I know when LaDonna Smith plays her viola and violin that I will be taken to another side. That being said, the new CD by Michael Evans and LaDonna Smith does not disappoint.

Improvisational music can be difficult for some to digest. Sometimes it takes a little extra “nudge” and effort to comprehend. However, this new recording is more accessible than many so-called “noise” recordings. The duo are pros at what they create. And they are way ahead of current sound experiments.

This recording is hypnotizing. It is a glorification of strings and percussive output that stings deep inside the eardrums connecting to the psyche.

“Tenacious Rebel Autarchy” pulls the Appalachian Hills and Mountains and fills with a sense of careful and subdued chaos. Chaos is not the focus. It may be the outcome. But solitude is in the moment. It is a reflection of a distant relative . . .  a missed opportunity.

“Atomized Ascension” erodes the very best of anyone’s soul. The piece is creepy and hard to hold on to. It’s a song to forget your long lost lovers. Evans’ percussive beats haunt and hinder for the most chilling accompanying to the stings Smith puts forth

Deviant Shakti is a CD for the meek and agonized. But the concept is for the uplifting, caring and hopeful society.

Make this disk a part of your collective experience.

Killed in

By Review No Comments

Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Wobbly Oddwords, Killed in, April 21, 2009

I’m posting this album not merely because it totally rocks, but to make a political statement, as well. This one: see, not everyone in the Deep South is a benighted bigoted idiot! We even have improv if you know where to look!

The Eye of the Storm is a collection of improvisations for solo violin and viola (with the occasional vocal contribution and, on one track, guitar) from the Birmingham-born and -based Smith, who, with business partner Davey Williams, runs the TransMuseq label and edits the improv journal the Improviser. The pieces here are more structured and melodic than the likes of Yeh, Bradfield or Goldstein, but only in the same way that solo Braxton is more structured and melodic than Arthur Doyle, so this is still not for slouches. It’s dense, heady stuff that showcases a mastery of multiple musical vocabularies, from the cosmic sawdust hoedowns of Henry Flynt to squeeks that sound like balloons deflating to thick sheets of atonal scribbles that betray her years of study: like the best work of its kind, it not only blends the pleasurable and the agonizing, but blurs them ’til they’re indistinguishable. Definitely will please plenty of readers.

Musics Magazine

By Review No Comments

2000 Statues the English Channel

Recording New York, June 5-9 19

Fred Frith, Musics Magazine, No.23, November 1979
I really liked Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith’s duo. They’ve reached a rare degree of telepathy and manage to be fiery without being aggressive, delicate without being ephemeral. LaDonna also manages beautifully to suggest the tension between the degree to which she is in command of her instrument and the degree to which it willfully carries her off to some other planet.

Postage Paid Duets Reviews

By Review No Comments

Postage Paid Duets

David Sait, LaDonna Smith, Gino Robair, Glenn Hall

David Dacks, Exclaim Magazine (Destination Out) 2009

Sait has been an active member within Toronto, ON’s improvising community for a number of years. He specializes in the guzheng: a 21-string Chinese instrument with a sound somewhere between an acoustic guitar and a harp, with a touch of banjo, but with extremely versatile tuning when juxtaposed with duet partners. This instrument is capable of leaping around different scales and a wide range of notes in very unexpected ways. Sait uses a number of different techniques to pluck, strum and scrape the strings, which create endless constellations in his personal galaxy of non-idiomatic improvisation. Of the collaborators, Glen Hall’s halting soprano sax creates tension, while gently urging Sait to explore more outlandish statements. Ladonna Smith brings a more fluid approach to viola and Chinese erhu, which creates a tug of war by equals. Gino Robair’s clatter-y and reverberant metal percussion suggests Far Eastern, gong-like sounds, even though stylistically, he’s not deliberate about going to China for a summit meeting. Although this low budget recording is successful, be advised of a few moments of distortion in tracks featuring Mr. Hall. (Apprise)

Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery, 2009

Featuring David Sait on guzheng & dan tranh, Glen Hall on soprano sax & bass flute, LaDonna Smith on viola, violin & erhu and Gino Robair on drums & assorted percussive objects. A few months back I received a duo CD with Eugene Chadbourne and a Toronto-based musician named Davis Sait who plays the guzheng. I remember checking it out & digging it but then losing the copy into the half dozen boxes of promos that are on the shelves behind where I stand or sit at the counter. I just received another fine improv disc from David Sait, this time it is duos with three other strong improvisers: Glen Hall, LaDonna Smith and Gino Robair. You might recall Toronto saxist Glen Hall from a couple of discs he has on the Leo label as well as trio CD with Lee Ranaldo & William Hooker.

LaDonna Smith is an influential string player from Birmingham who has been organizing gigs, a magazine and was a part of the early downtown scene with her partner Davey Williams. Bay area-based percussion wiz Gino Robair has also been a longtime part of the west coast scene playing with the Splatter Trio and dozens of other great musicians as well as running the Rastascan label.

The guzheng is a traditional Chinese musical instrument, which belongs to the zither family of string instruments and is similar to the Japanese koto. I’ve heard/seen the great Xu Feng Xia play it at both the Vision & Victo Festivals. David Sait plays the guzheng as well as an adapted 18-string version and a dan tranh or a Vietnamese zither. Mr. Sait plays a series of duos with each of the other three musicians here and although the guzheng comes from a much different background it does work extremely well with each improviser.

On the first piece, both LaDonna (on viola) and David play acoustically and like to push their instruments past their familiar sounds. David sometimes plays with harp-like swirls and occasionally banging on the strings with some object(s). On “The History of Shape and Glue”, Gino Robair plays an e-bow snare, motors, bike horn & assorted odd percussion. This gives David a much different sound to work with, sometimes rhythmic sometimes stranger sonically, but all fascinating nonetheless. The duo with Glen Hall on soprano sax and David on adapted guzheng is also something else. While Mr. Hall plays tentatively and with restraint, David is tapping on or plucking the guzheng with some object.

LaDonna plays an erhu (Chinese 1-string violin) on “Bless Up” and this works with the guzheng which is also Chinese, yet both are not played in the traditional way. The erhu sounds as if it weeping at times while LaDonna often bends notes completely inside-out. On each piece approach to the guzheng or dan tranh is different, hence it always sounds a bit different. And since each of David’s partners switch off on a different instruments, each duo sounds quite unique. Each duo works extremely well in its own distinctive way.

Stef Gijssels,, 2009

Of all the traditional music genres that I’ve heard, only Andean and Chinese music I find difficult to relate to, often impossible to listen to, hard to swallow, even to the extent of getting almost physical allergic reactions. And I am referring to the original music, not even to the kitschy mutants (Zamfir, Vollenweider . . . ) that haunt some highly frequented public places, and that will make your humble servant jump through the nearest window when exposed to it.

But then, you get to hear this pretty unique album, beyond categorization, unlike anything you’ve heard before. The main instrument is the Chinese guzheng, a zither-like instrument, played by Canada-based David Sait. Because of the instrument’s nature, the music has this Chinese twang to it, to say it irreverently, but it is fully improvised avant-garde, played in several duets, with LaDonna Smith on viola, violin and ehru, Gino Robair on a variety of percussion, including motors and bike horn, and Glen Hall on soprano sax and bass flute. The result is pretty stunning. With the limited instrumentation of the duet, quite broad soundscapes are created, some of extreme beauty, some full of wonder and surprise, some of weird sonic intensity, vulnerable, open … The music is quiet, unobtrusive yet very captivating. The album is the second in a series of “Postage Paid Duets”, where the improvisors don’t actually meet physically, but improvise based on the other one’s taped music, or something to that extent. Despite the geographic and temporal distance, or maybe because of this, the coherence is very strong of all pieces, with the improvisors not wanting to stray too much from the core. I think I’ve listened to this album a lot in the past week, and I mean a lot, a few dozen times probably, and one time I think I prefer the duets with Robair, then the great interaction with LaDonna Smith, and then another time the sax and flute get the preference, just to demonstrate that the quality is high, and that there is variation, despite the music’s unique vision. It isn’t jazz, because it’s beyond any existing genre, but it will certainly please those interested in free improvisation. A musician with something to tell, and in his own authentic voice. Really great.

The Village Voice

By Review No Comments
Ytterbium 2

YTTRBIUM  Table of the Elements

LP orange vinyl, 2004
LaDonna Smith

“Chemistry Class”
Exploring the sounds of science experiments, on slabs suitable for turntables or framing.

Andy Beta, The Village Voice, August 02, 2004

Birmingham’s LaDonna Smith based her improvisations of violin and viola on a web-found blurb of her assigned element, ytterbium. Going at the malleable and ductile metal like a gypsy in a lab coat, she pressurizes the sawed Bartók lines until they squeal like Stockhausen, her severe processing of the strings proving the piece’s resilience “when subjected to very high stress,” and it sprays vicious sparks throughout.