Bird as Prophet: Challenging the Known, Reveling in the Unknown

In his own musical pursuits, violinist David Bowlin continues to reflect the spirit of diversity championed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which he is a founding member. Bird as Prophet (New Focus Recordings) is a rigorous and thoughtful addition to Bowlin’s extensive discography. Casting a wide net over its six tracks, the album is resolutely eclectic: pieces responding to the Western classical violin tradition interspersed with works referencing Bulgarian folkloric singing and Vedic chant. Yet Bird as Prophet is united by a permeating restlessness, a sense of grappling with the musical past and endeavoring to rearrange familiar elements into new, transfigured contexts.

Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) opens the album with a sweet, lyrical violin line that quickly accumulates tones beyond the solo violin’s sustaining capabilities. Davidovsky’s Synchronisms are experiments with electronic fixed media, and in Synchronisms No. 9, the electronics act as a subtle shadow of the violin itself: enhancing and manipulating the attack and decay of certain pitches, adding hidden overtones, and playing with the listener’s ability to identify timbre. As the piece progresses, however, the electronics’ role increasingly shifts to that of imitative accompanist, mirroring Bowlin’s fractured and frenetic arpeggiations, trills, and glissandi. Synchronisms No. 9 reads like a Cubist rendering of a Romantic violin concerto: full of familiar-sounding gestures—from soaring melodies to showy technical figuration—yet spliced and forged into a surprising, much more oblique kind of cohesion.

David Bowlin

David Bowlin

Also in conversation with aspects of the Western musical tradition, Martin Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet (1999) directly references Robert Schumann’s “Vogel als Prophet” from Waldszenen, Op. 82. This mysterious miniature’s main motive is marked by an emphasized C-sharp resolving to D in the home key of G minor. Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet, featuring Tony Cho on piano, also begins with C-sharp, in the form of a sustained violin note. But instead of resolving up a half-step to D, the note diverges into two: C-sharp and D, co-existing uncomfortably together. Like much of the music in Schumann’s time, Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet carries forth a sense of dialectic conflict between competing tonal centers. The conflict here, however, is harder to identify and ultimately remains unsolved, in keeping with Postmodernist sensibilities.

George Walker’s pithy violin solo Bleu (2011) may seem anomalous within Bird as Prophet’s lineup, but a similar spirit of idiosyncratic recombination is at play in this short but dense work. Originally meant as an encore piece, Bleu has since been deemed “too challenging,” probably due to its frequent switches from lush double stops to undulating arabesques of triplets (something Bowlin navigates with aplomb). Agitated Romantic lines eventually merge with languid, almost coy lyrical moments, in turn colliding with a whimsical quotation of a jazz tune—giving a new shade of meaning to the “blue” of Bleu.

George Walker--Photo by Frank Schramm

George Walker–Photo by Frank Schramm

The refined and enigmatic music of Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin figures heavily in Bird as Prophet, comprising almost half of the record’s entire length and adding an important dimension to Bowlin’s explorations of tradition versus the new and uncharted. Kastena (2003) features a drone in the cello part, played by Katinka Kleijn, but this is an activated drone. Bending slightly in pitch, sliding into sul ponticello, and even coming to a temporary halt with pizzicati, the cello does not simply resound underneath the violin’s decorative melody, but instead echoes its expressive contour, not unlike the fixed electronics in Davidovsky’s Synchronisms. The cello drone finally breaks under the building pressure and rises to interact with the violin in a breathless, virtuosic, and highly syncopated duet, contrasting greatly with the piece’s mysterious sotto voce ending.

Karastoyanova-Hermentin’s Mari Mamo (2009) roughly translates to “Hey, Mother” in Bulgarian, and is “used as a heightened way to greet a woman, or a mother in particular,” in the composer’s words. Joined by flutist Conor Nelson and percussionist Ayano Kataoka, the nearly 17-minute work reads like a through-composed epic, its main melody passing between instruments in a variety of contexts and sound environments. The piece’s first half propels itself forward, rising steadily towards a plateau of highly charged marimba outbursts; a sudden caesura then initiates a long, balancing release of energy across the piece’s second half, beginning with a quiet ethereal section of breathless flute whistling, glockenspiel tinkling, and high violin pizzicati. As Bird as Prophet’s possibly most ambitious statement, Mari Mamo carries a poignant reverence for the Bulgarian singing tradition, yet squarely within Karastoyanova-Hermentin’s unique musical world.

Du Yun--Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theare

Du Yun–Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theare

The album closes with Du Yun’s Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016). Against the gently rolling rhythm of Vedic chanting, Bowlin employs a vocabulary of harsh low tremolos, flitting arpeggiations, wide vibrato, and crunchy microtonal double stops. The most pervasive element of Under a Tree is the drone: supplied not only by the monks’ chanting, but also the violin’s open D string. Yet this drone differs from all previous examples within Bird as Prophet—not as a tonal anchor for shifting, searching harmonies, not as an expressive reflection of the melodic material above it, but as a true constant. While there is a sense of progression in the violin part, it is always in relation to a cyclic, timeless backdrop, a paradox of stillness within movement.

Under a Tree, an Udātta finally grants the listener rest and release from the turbulence of Bird as Prophet’s previous tracks. Striving for new perspectives and reconciliations with the musical past, the album acknowledges the violin’s place within the Western classical tradition, yet also revels in its versatility and ability to engage in dialogue with the globalized future. David Bowlin should be applauded not only for his artistry and command of his instrument, but also for his timely efforts to represent multiplicity and diversity in music, erasing boundaries instead of erecting them.