Memory Select: Avant-jazz radio
March 2, 2011

One year after marveling at Lisa Bielawa’s Kafka Songs at the Other Minds festival—almost in time for the next Other Minds festival, actually—I’m finally realizing that Kafka Songs has been available on CD for years. Call me slow.

Bielawa more recently worked with Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobsen on a double violin concerto, performed with Colin Jacobsen. On this piece, as on Kafka Songs, Kihlstedt’s voice and violin are put to use simultaneously, creating a role that’s rare in classical music and probably challenging to pull off.

First, to the part many of you knew all along: Kafka Songs came out on A Handful of World, (Tzadik, 2007), paired with two of Bielawa’s vocal works.

At Other Minds in 2010, Kihlstedt introduced each of Kafka‘s seven movements by reciting the text to come—an important step for those of us who’ve always had trouble interpreting the words in classical singing. That’s not on A Handful of World; you’re flying blind. On the plus side, this keeps the mood of the piece intact—there was a bit of fourth-wall breaking in Kihlstedt’s introductions —but I liked that touch with the live version. It made us consider the texts as well as dwell on the music.

As I recall from last year, there’s a definitive character to each of the segments—the flutter of a bouncing bow, on Lost, or the massive intervallic leap that recurs on A Handful of World, set up each time by three quick notes, a poise-and-jump reflex. Each is like a little study in a different violin technique, accompanied by slow, airy singing drawn from the gray skies of Kafka’s world.

The suite has some of the emotional weight you’d associate with Kafka, and yet it’s not too heavy. The gentle, fading riff that ends the piece even has some lightness to it.

Double Violin Concerto, included on In Medias Res (BMOP/sound, 2010), is more about the orchestra—that is, it’s about the soloists, but I found myself getting snared into the sound of the full orchestra, sometimes at the expense of listening to the actual lead violins. It’s a patient, moody piece, and the soloists’ fireworks are subtle. On “Portico,” the calmly sad opening movement, the soloing is almost camouflaged by the gossamer background strings.

Kihlstedt’s vocal soliloquy comes in the second movement of three, “Song,” wandering slowly against a repeated arpeggio (you can’t help but recall that Bielawa once sang in the Phillip Glass Ensemble). It’s another movement with a slow mood, but more tense than “Portico,” more suspenseful. The mood bursts open when Kihlstedt’s song—taken from Goethe’s Faust—winds up dramatically, calling up the entry of some circusy brass to quickly end the movement.

There’s some lovely very-high-register dialogue in the third movement, “Play Within a Play.” For a couple of passages, the two violins toss phrases back and forth, as if completing each other’s sentences. Late in the movement, they ally in a series of unison and near-unison phrases, finally teaming up with the orchestral strings sometimes answering with the same theme. This movement, taking up about half the total concerto time, was where I could really savor the sounds of the two soloists.