Jennifer Koh Spotlights Composer-Performer Collaborators on Limitless

Limitless is an imaginative album featuring collaborations between violinist Jennifer Koh and eight different composers on new duos with the composers as performers. The two-disc release from Cedille showcases the intimate relationship between composer and performer, highlighting the talent and multiplicity of all involved. Koh’s astute approach to the concept, organization, and execution of Limitless penetrates the works, showcasing the raw, visceral process of collaboration.

Koh’s warmth and delicacy opens the album, blending into subtle manipulations of Qasim Naqvi’s modular synthesizer drones in his work, The Banquet. Naqvi’s surgeon-like dissection of complex textures would be daunting if not for the immense patience in pacing. Lisa Bielawa’s work Sanctuary Songs features text by women poets writing in 1920. Moments of well-refined contrapuntal lines reframe the text to give new meaning to the word “Sanctuary,” while in other instances, Bielawa’s vocals overpower Koh. The work presents an at times lively, other times somber, text painting with clarity and confidence, though occasional over-dramatization in performance and composition creates a lack of large-scale cohesion.

The overpressure and instability of tone and color in Du Yun’s give me back my fingerprints is a standout collaboration. Brilliantly laid out noise and gesticulating resolutions lead to unsteady stillness; the unstable techniques between voice and violin lean into a deeply raw display. Through Du Yun’s undeniable voice as a composer, the visceral work throws the listener unforgivingly into the struggle of “a woman’s scream for independence”–uneasy but impossible to turn away from. Koh’s execution of subtle manipulations and a myriad of techniques is fluid and masterful, but the duo’s performance moves beyond the technical mastery of their crafts. Koh’s concept to focus on the collaboration propels the work into a poignant and immersive experience.

Du Yun--Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theare

Du Yun–Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theare

In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrahms by Tyshawn Sorey, who doubles on glockenspiel, offers a more contemplative listening experience. Reminiscent of Morton Feldman in its stillness, Sorey incorporates more textural elements and dissonance to the violin, allowing the colors to beat against each other and create a greater depth of sound. Sorey’s light touch and unwavering patience are refreshing in their simplicity.

Nina Young’s Sun Propeller is another standout collaboration featuring Young on live electronics. Koh takes hold of the listener and does not let go, masterfully weaving together Young’s immensely detailed and disparate textures. Young’s subtle manipulations of the violin and electronics often combine into one indiscernible timbre through an incredible display of the multitude of color-techniques on the violin. The intense detail in the violin is matched with filtration techniques in the electronics; the meticulous structures form a vast environment that cannot be fully appreciated on just one listen.

One of the most interesting collaborations on the album is Her Latitude by Wang Lu. The use of Buddhist chanting, nuclear alarms, and old Korean pops songs processed and performed in a semi-improvisatory duet is unmistakably authentic and unapologetic in its unpredictable pacing and unrelenting nature. The calm, spiritual nature of Buddhist chanting repeatedly fades in and out but never dies off; where many would abandon the sound to move on to new material, Wang repeats it, distorting its serene nature as a structural pillar. Moments of simple beauty mix into divergent forms and dissonances that make the work a rarity.

Jennifer Koh--Photo by Juergen Frank

Jennifer Koh–Photo by Juergen Frank

The Diamond by Vijay Iyer is a refreshing change of style in its programmatic nature. Iyer’s deft knowledge of more traditional harmony creates a wonderfully dramatic narrative for piano and violin. Iyer’s precision and expressive performance places a theatrical framework around the Buddhist text The Diamond Sutra. The deep emotional journey is well expressed through an adept use of lush harmonies and story-like melodic development. Occasional moments of thoughtfully placed timbral elements color the work through its journey.

In a powerful cinematic rush, Missy Mazzoli’s A Thousand Tongues utilizes pulsations and delays from sampled keyboards and organs, driving the work through peaks and valleys. Koh gives an impassioned realization of the simple melodic lines that blend in an ethereal nature. Mazzoli’s mature sense of pacing elongates directives beyond expectations, utilizing small changes to the material for maximum impact. In Vespers for Violin, Mazzoli invokes ghostlike delays on violin gestures that meld with the atmospheric electronic backdrop, creating an ultimately satisfying experience.

Limitless is an impressive array of works performed with dedication and devotion of craft. While Koh commands the performance, she often steps out of the spotlight to let the composer-performer project their own talents. The ultimate result is a truly unique album that allows audiences to experience people, relationships, and collaborations in profoundly tangible ways. It is rare to see an album under an artist’s name focus so much on their collaborators instead of themselves, and Koh deserves an immense amount of credit for finding that space.