Jazz Review: Mimi Rabson Premieres ‘The Berklee Violin Solos’

By J. R. Carroll

Violinists are a fortunate lot. Granted, many years of painstaking study and practice are required to master the instrument, but once achieved, that mastery can be taken in almost any direction–or in many directions. As part of what she describes as her “never-ending quest for new vocabulary,” Mimi Rabson has headed off in a half-dozen of these directions by commissioning original compositions, each of which poses a particular technical or interpretive challenge, by fellow faculty at the Berklee College of Music. When eventually published and recorded, they will collectively be known as “The Berklee Violin Solos.”

Violinist Mimi Rabson has always impressed with both her virtuosity and her versatility as composer, arranger, and musical director.

Five of these pieces received world premiere performances (the sixth has also been heard on a previous occasion) before a group of intrigued students attending a string seminar at the Longy School of Music on Monday, Feb. 16, and will receive a more formal premiere this Thursday, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Berklee’s David Friend Recital Hall. (Additional presentations of the solos will take place on Monday, Feb. 23, at 7:00 p.m. at the Boston Conservatory of Music and on Sunday, Mar. 14, at 5:00 p.m. at the South Shore Conservatory in Hingham, MA.)

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Mimi Rabson in a variety of different contexts–with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, RESQ (the Really Eclectic String Quartet), and the Pablo Ablanedo Octet, among others–and she has always impressed with both her virtuosity and her versatility as composer, arranger, and musical director. In recent years she has extended her seemingly boundless stylistic curiosity by exploring more deeply new aspects of string technique (e.g., “chopping,” a percussive bow effect resembling a turntablist’s scratching), modifications to the instrument (she currently performs on a five-string violin), electronic transformations of acoustic timbre, and live interactions with computer-generated sounds. All of these are well in evidence in the Berklee solos.

The first three pieces in the set eschew electronics. The technical challenge in Norman Zocher’s “Rock Ethic” is its “guitaristic” character, employing, among other things, “power” chords that are straightforward on guitar but demand fiendish double- and triple-stops on violin, as well as rapid-fire runs (reminiscent of fusion bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra) and an interesting echo effect built on repeated notes that are alternately accented. Despite its hard-rock tinge and improvisatory feel, “Rock Ethic” is completely through-composed except for the final cadenza.

Winston Maccow’s “Tell Me” is a new spin on a very old idea, variations on a ground bass–if your bass happens to be Larry Graham or Bootsy Collins. Rabson gets to use her “chopping” here in funk patterns that switch off with a more Afro-Cuban groove over a terse, repeated chord sequence.

“Canto Iberico” by Victor Mendoza spins its Latin-inspired melody over a long, harmonically rich form. The challenge here is more interpretive in nature, requiring phrasing–especially in the improvised section–that conveys the feel of the underlying rumba clave without ever laying it out explicitly.

Rabson plugged in for JoAnne Brackeen’s “Mimi’s Mood,” though more for amplification than timbral modification. (This piece preceded the others by a year, so she’s had a chance to live with it a little longer than the others.) Brackeen’s characteristically intricate and unpredictable melody takes advantage of the violin’s unique capabilities (arpeggiated chords, double-stops, drones) with rapid, accented passages framing a contemplative central section that incorporates a freely improvised portion where the violinist was instructed to “play something you’ve never played before.”

Perhaps the most fascinating work in the set is the aptly titled “Mimi’s Metamorphology” by Neil Leonard, in which the live performance triggers digital samples (using the Ableton Live program, for all the electronic music geeks reading this), derived from Rabson’s prerecorded improvisations and utterly transformed. The startlingly lyrical first section evokes a sort of ambient commentary from the computer, which goes tacet in the arpeggiated second section. The third section plays pizzicati against the computer’s percussive outbursts, while in the highly rhythmic finale it echoes the violin’s gestures (particularly its double-stops).

The final piece, Stephen Webber’s “Flash Meets Miles,” supplies the soloist with a set of looped samples intended to provide a point of departure for extensive improvisation. Rabson got to fully display her prowess with pedal-controlled electronics, including a harmonizer and especially a looping box that allowed her to aggregatively improvise against what she had just previously played.

There will be three more opportunities to hear “The Berklee Violin Solos” in live performance. Tell all your fiddler friends–or anyone curious about the new possibilities for an old instrument.

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