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Improv 04


LaDonna Smith

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A Festival of New Music Improvisation

New Music Circle, Graham Chapel, April 14

LaDONNA Smith of Birmingham, Ala., was the first muse among equals at the New Music Circle's Improv Fest '96 at Washington University's Graham Chapel on Sunday evening. Smith was one of three visiting improv artists, who joined an eclectic mix of five local players for several forays into the realms of barely tamed chaos. Using a wide variety of vocal expressions and an even wider array of experimental violin techniques, Smith was the unofficial leader of the various ensembles that joined together and drifted apart during two hours of music making. Stage charisma, and an imaginative ear for the possibilities of timber, make Smith an appealing presence. In a solo set, she combined sawing on the violin's open strings with a set of frenzied wails on the remaining string, over which she sang an eerie cantalina. The effect was an impressive complexity of texture, like some deranged nun chanting next to a devilish fiddler."

Philip Kennicott, Classical Music Critic

Critic's Choice, Music  

This adventurous violinist and vocalist resides in Birmingham, Ala., where she rarely leaves, letting such CD's as the recent Eye of the Storm (TransMuseq) do her traveling for her. But when she takes her fiddle and voice into the world, creating orchestral textures where jazz improv, bluegrass, contemporary classical, Celtic, and countless other influences commingle, the world is never the same again.

-Derk Richardson,

LaDonna Smith

The difference between improvisation I want to listen to and that which I don't, probably comes down to something like personality. Every note of LaDonna Smith's music has something of this quality, as well as a physical directness and a happy foolishness which says, "yes, I know this is silly, but…"

Her solo voice, viola and violin CD scrapes and howls, whistles and whinnys, often making strange allusions to a variety of genres but mainly alluding to nothing much at all. There is a convincing seriousness of purpose behind her highly accomplished stream-of-consciousness playing, most fully revealed in the searching title track.

Richard Scott, WIRE

LaDonna Smith,

LaDonna Smith's new CD puts her clearly in the realm of undisputed masters, regardless of genre, along with John Coltrane, Ali Akbar Khan, Oum Khalsoum…the point of this pantheonic comparison is to acknowledge that free improvisation has such a dedicated representative. TransMuseq (LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams) has been the only American improvising group which has been devoted solely to improvisation at a consistently high level for a period of time roughly equivalent to the time Brits like Derek Bailey (and company) have been at it. A lot of current players may not be aware of this "tradition," or may be choosing to ignore it.

LaDonna makes the violin sound like a million cranes flapping their wings through an amplifier. Her style includes sounds that transcend the personal, combined with a kind of technique which is obviously practiced, though never arrogant or overstated. Sometimes the music sounds like a motorcycle driven through the string section of an orchestra; at other times she forays into the upper stratosphere of coloratura soprano extracted from her instrument. Her vocals ring out like a fifth string added to the violin. The entire effect is a chorus/string section of worldly/other-worldly creations. She incorporates everything from the most refined, energetic glisses to polyphonics, harmonics and the scritchiest scatchiest horrors of scrape on wooden bones. The only difficulty I have is that listening to too many pieces at one time is like eating too much chocolate. I love chocolate, but too much makes me feel insane.

Two of my favorite cuts are "Conversation With Orchids" and "Oceanic Sleep." The first is exactly what the title sounds like. It's the kind of conversation orchids would have as they are rocked by spring breezes. Their small petals and glowing colors uttering excited variations on a million high tones and contrasting with soft leaf-like, sonorous full bodied long tones. In "Oceanic Sleep" LaDonna plays on viola all the parts simultaneously of a future/primitive early music consort in a beautiful, slightly meleancholy improvisation. It sounds like a vast ocean, engulfing everything in harmonly waves.

LaDonna's first solo recording also reflects this ocianic breadth of experience. Her company/ concept, Transmuseq, has an approach to improvised music inspired by the idea of "automatic" writing as practised by the Surrealists, notably André Breton. Simply, "automatic" means tapping directly into dream states, the unconscious, humor; not allowing conscious decision-making to interfere with the creative process. For the improvisor, this entails a continuous self-overcoming and subversion of one's own tendencies, licks, chops, tastes and limitations. LaDonna succeeds in playing free music which maintains a productive tension between doing what she "knows" how to do, and letting her inner demons have full range.

If you call yourself an improvisor check out TransMuseq and get this CD!

As saxophonist Wally Shoup said, "A lot of people have played improvised music, but the question is, how many of them will be doing it ten or twenty years later?"

Hillary Fielding & Ross Rabin, FREEWAY

LaDonna Smith


Atmospheric Debris or "Saturated Sound-check"/ Constellations, 98 Degrees Fahrenheit/ Conversation of Orchids / Fire in the Old Growth / Traveling Nimbo-cumulous / Viola Coaster Rainbows / Flash Flood In Downtown Decatur / Tone Rays / Oceanic Sleep / Free Radical / Our Changing Weather' / Eye of the Storm. 11/91, 12/91, 4/12/92, 6/7/92

The title of this CD and the riveting music therein suggests that Smith, after a period of readjustment and re-evaluation, is in the thick of recapturing the imaginative take-no-prisoners flair that, on the basis of public documentation, marked her pre-'89 efforts. Most of her work here revolves around a specific vocabulary and a limited number of strategies - grinding glissandi, which often involve note clusters and/or tone-overtone combinations, sawing sounds, crying plaintive notes and lines embellished with 1/4 and 1/2 tone inflections, and regular use of two-note riffs from which she extrapolates freely. (There's nary a "normally-toned" passage to be found though she comes close a couple of times.) In tandem with the deep sense of emotional commitment and nuance which permeates these pieces, it is clear that Smith is not only searching, but finding as well. Her vocal obbligato, for instance, which was in the past distracting if not downright irritating, is here less demonstrative and much more integrated into her muse as an effective accessory; sometimes only a slight shadow or coloration. And though vocals are credited only on specific tracks, they actually appear nearly throughout the disk, and in a particularly striking context on the audio verite opener where Smith and Preston Beck converse on technical matters behind the violist's far-reaching-warm-up.

As for "Our Changing Weather" with long-time partner Williams, their interaction, coming on the heels of an extended viola interlude, yields much less discursive results than that of Travellers (6/91, p.67), but is less surprising than their work of years past, as the guitarist once again all but abandons flights of fancy for grounded metric rhythms and easily definable harmonic progressions. But that desn't stop Smith from taking flight, and thus demonstrating clearly that repose in the eye of the storm can inspire and catalyze the creative spirit.

Milo Fine, CADENCE


       Intense and involved, our friend LaDonna sets forth on a (mostly) solo excursion into today. Her viola, voice, and violin will transport you through what (despite NASA hype) is truly the last frontier. Her intricate interpretations take you right to the dead CENTER of the climate she creates for you! For some, who want the throb of 2 or 23 chord pattern in their listening experience, this will be a gullywasher! Those of us who have learned to listen to (and for) the under-currents, though, will hear the many voices of what LaDonna calls the great Musical Spirit beckoning us to become a part of the hurricane rush that is NOW! Deep TIDES move under and through each piece & will transport you UP through the doldrum clouds to that place where light and life illumine each step! In fact, being a veteran listener to many of her pieces through the years, I can say without qualification that this is the most musically mature adventure I have ever heard her perform! The strings are solid throughout and in the end-run, the only assessment can be that this is one experience you MUST have, if you are open (even in the least) to new musical tempests! MOST HIGHLY recommended! Contact LaDonna at 1705 12th St. So., Birmingham, AL 35205 - & I mean, NOW!!!

-Zzaj, Improvijazzation Nation




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