This album of improvisations for prepared solo violin is an intensely focused work, one that rewards close listening and yields up more riches on each successive listen.
Davies is an accomplished musician, one at ease in both improvising and composition, with a wide discography as part of varied range of ensembles and groups. She’s a specialist in art of ‘preparing’ her violin – adding objects or materials to it to extend its sound making properties. These studies are part of her continued investigations into this practice, with Davies adding a plastic peg, spring and nail file to the strings and body of the violin to see what transpires.
Although Davies says the studies are sketches rather than finished pieces, I think she’s understating their stark beauty. While it’s true that the studies are anchored firmly in the particular techniques or preparations with which she’s experimenting, the dexterity with which they are applied opens up a varied, textured sound-world.
‘Circular Bowing Study’ hisses and chuffs like a mechanical engine as clusters of harmonic and overtones burst out, the furious vigour of Davies’ bowing matched only by the restraint with which she holds this energy in check.
The three movements of ‘Balancing Spring on Strings’ meanwhile, are austere and astringent, alternating plucked twangs with long, almost grating drones. They remind me of the atonal yowl of John Cale’s vandalised viola on those early Velvet Underground tunes – Venus in Furs, Black Angel’s Death Song – but with Cale’s sheer aural terror replaced by a keening whine, a solitary distress beacon in a ruined alien landscape.
This feeling is heightened in ‘Pizz, Nail File and Fingers Study’, the whine of the strings underpinned by a rough scuffing sound, rather like a stylus gradually being blunted as an empty turntable revolves, and punctuated with occasional plucks.
The studies were recorded and mastered by Sebastien Lexer, and he has done a great job at not only capturing the fine detail of Davies’ improvisations but the ambience in which they were recorded.
The cold, clear silences around Davies’ sound ring and hum with the after echoes of her playing. In ‘Tremolo and Plastic Peg study’, the sound of this space helps give the piece a sense of almost unbearable tension, ratcheted up as the insistent buzzing and bowing gives way to a full on hurricane of sound, before dying away to silence.
The CD is released on Mark Wastell’s Confront Recordings label, in the distinctive metal box packaging with the rather utilitarian titles of the studies– ‘Balancing Spring on Strings’ and the suchlike – printed on the back. With this release, Davies really does do exactly what she says on the tin. And then some.