Concert Review: First Annual Boston String Improvisors' Festival

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First Annual Boston String Improvisors' Festival
First Parish Church
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Sunday, October 22, 2000


Saturnalia String Trio +1:
Jonathan LaMaster, violin
Vic Rawlings, cello
Mike Bullock, bass
Jane Wang, bass

Jon Rose, violin and electronics

Harald Kimmig, violin
Carl Ludwig Hübsch, tuba

LaDonna Smith, violin and voice

Spontaneous trio:
Mike Bullock, bass
Harald Kimmig, violin
Jon Rose, violin

Spontaneous trio:
Carl Ludwig Hübsch, tuba
Jonathan LaMaster, violin
Vic Rawlings, cello

Spontaneous duo+:
LaDonna Smith, violin
Kat Hernandez, violin
+ other violinists & tuba


Free improvisation can be a very serious business. Often musicians appear on stage, leap into a performance frenzy, and leave the audience to absorb their unbridled creativity with eyes closed.

The First Annual String Improvisor's Festival in Cambridge was an exception. Not to imply that the performers were anything but serious musicians... but the degree of interplay they achieved with the audience, and the occasional levity with which the improvisations were delivered, were something special.

Of course, there's always the usual abundance of banjo jokes to get the audience giggling. Jon Rose, a violinist from Europe via Sydney and various other locales, ended his segment with a banjo sample and a couple of silly questions:

Q: What's the difference between jumping on a banjo and jumping on a trampoline?

A: You take off your shoes with the trampoline.

Q: What's the difference between chopping up an onion and chopping up a banjo?

A: With the onion you at least cry.

During the intermission, Saturnalia cellist Vic Rawlings had another one to add:

Q: How long does it take to tune a banjo?

A: How long do you have?

The relaxed levity of the festival was not simply limited to banjo jokes. For example, when the Kimmig/Hübsch Duo wrapped up their performance, violinist LaDonna Smith (who was slated to be next) found herself in a trance. Jon Rose called back to her:

Rose: "Hey, wake up! It's you! Want a hand with that?"

Smith: "Uh, yes."

Rose got up to help Smith hook her viola up to the mixer. "Want me to do yours?"

Smith: "Uh, later. Not in public."

So much for the quick and dirty: the performance was also jam-packed with moments of serious high intensity as well. What follows is a blow-by-blow description of the individual performances that made up the festival.

Saturnalia String Trio +1

Jonathan LaMaster, a quick and trim violinist, is the unequivocal leader of this group. Unlike many string trios, Saturnalia uses a violin-cello-bass lineup, giving their sound a deeper, more resonant quality. In this special performance, additional bassist Jane Wang joined the group. Wang has spent time recently playing with Saturnalia, and the two basses were well integrated within the group.

Before Saturnalia got started, LaMaster looked around for some rosin. He found some on Rose's table along with a heap of electronic gizmos and connecting cables. He politely asked, "Can I use some of your rosin, Jon?"

Rose's reply: "Of course! It's cheap shit. Nothing special about it. Use plenty!"

Saturnalia launched into an extended group improvisation with delicate interactive interplay, tending toward a dark, open sound. Over time the performance moved through periods of extroverted intensity spaced between sparser, more staccato playing. The group relied a great deal upon overtones and understated harmony to achieve a spacious feel.

Constantly stretching the physical limits of their instruments, members of the group found amazing ways to create new sounds. For example, LaMaster bowed with the wooden side of his bow; he blew into the hole in his violin; and throughout the performance tapped, slapped, and rubbed the body of his instrument to create various wooden sounds with overtones. Bassist Mike Bullock constantly toyed with various ways to get tonal and percussive noises out of his instrument by thumping and scratching; at one point, he pulled a hair free from his bow and pulled it across the strings for a quiet, scratchy sound. Bassist Jane Wang switched between a conventional bow and alternative versions: a collection of wooden sticks taped together; or a drum stick. Cellist Vic Rawlings crept all over the entire range of his instrument, at times playing high bowed notes that sounded just like a violin. Meanwhile, a baby in the back of the audience babbled away, adding to the spectrum of sounds in the room.

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