Music has changed in radical ways since the string quartet was established in the 18th century, but as a vital force, this fundamental ensemble of two violins, viola and cello endures, and even thrives. So much so that contemporary string quartets, in both their performance practices and choice of repertoire, may inhabit aesthetic worlds more or less removed from that which we ordinarily think of as classical. Violet Spin, a Viennese quartet of eclectic inclinations, blends the influences of jazz improvisation with compositional forms reflecting more recent classical usages.
Founded in 2012 by violinist Irene Kepl, Violet Spin have performed throughout Europe and in Java. Spin is their first release, and it effectively captures the group’s ability to play within and between genres. The musicians—in addition to Kepl, Andreas Semlitsch on violin; Martina Bischof on viola; and Fabian Jäger on cello–are grounded in the discipline of classical performance and deliver a precise sound when called for, but they can also reach beyond those constraints into the looser language of creative extemporizing.
Improvisation is the predominant element in most of the fifteen pieces included here; in contrast to the conventional string quartet’s reliance on contrapuntal relationships, Violet Spin tend to favor the sound of solo voice soaring over a support of pulsing ostinato, chordal vamps or walking lines. There’s a discernible flavor of gypsy jazz, allusions to Latin rhythms and rock chord progressions, and above all, a rhythmic drive, some of it encoded in craftily changing time signatures. (Dare one tap one’s foot to a string quartet? Violet Spin give permission.) But there is another side to the group as well. The three “Chromalog” tracks are sparsely beautiful pieces in which the negative space of silence plays as important a part as the minimal sounds it surrounds; the aptly titled “Grau” weaves unpitched sounds into an acoustic grey noise. And the a capella “face 2 face” turns a handful of syllables into material for a human beat box.
In one new and one recent release, Austrian violinst Irene Kepl appears in two different contexts: As unaccompanied soloist and as a composer and participant in small ensemble play.
SololoS, the new release, consists of twelve improvised solo performances. The performances are for the most part built around a limited set of motifs or techniques which Kepl develops through series of variation, some of them quite minute. She’s especially effective at creating rhythmic motifs out of insistent bowing patterns, which she subsequently colors with changing accents. Many of the pieces are densely textured with all four strings sounding simultaneously, to which Kepl occasionally adds her voice as a fifth layer.
Resonators, released late last year, is a trio recording with Kepl on violin and electronics, George Cremaschi on double bass and electronics, and Petr Vrba on clarinet, trumpet, and electronics. As the title implies, the recording was made with the acoustics of the performance environment foremost in mind; the four pieces on the CD were recorded in two particularly resonant spaces in the Czech Republic. In order to fully exploit the natural resonance of the spaces, the acoustic instruments were fortified with amplification and feedback. Feedback dominates the first track, Cremaschi’s Affective Labor, which conveys a sense of sounds drifting in an expansive space. Kepl’s two compositions stand in pronounced contrast to each other, Soma focusing on timbral variability through bow articulation and slow counterpoint, and Pirol collecting brief, frenetic fragments of pitches and sounds. Pirol’s scattering of quick sounds is quite a different thing from the piece that precedes it, Vrba’s gravely beautiful Locus Resonatus. Here strata of long, overlaid tones create ambiguous harmonies that slowly accumulate tension as the dynamics build to a very gradual crescendo. The richness of the acoustic instruments comes through most clearly, helped along by Vrba’s switch from clarinet to trumpet as the piece unfolds.
The open form composition—the composition that leaves significant aspects of its realization to the discretion of the performers—combines the immediacy and in-the-moment awareness of improvisation with the thought-out architecture associated with more conventional, premeditated writing. Get Weaving!, a work by Austrian violinist / composer Irene Kepl, is just such a composition, here performed by a quintet comprising the composer on violin, Ingrid Schmoliner on prepared piano, Petr Vrba on trumpet and speakers, Werner Zangele on alto saxophone, and Susanna Gartmayer on bass clarinet.
Kepl’s score addresses a limited but well-chosen set of parameters–instrumental groupings, foreground-background relationships, durations and timbral effects—and engages them in dynamic ways. Her compositional choices, along with her skill in conducting the ensemble through its 43-minute-long performance, produce a rewarding, profoundly textural experience consisting in a constantly changing panorama of densities and voicings, with a particular emphasis on contrasts of pure and aggregate colors.