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Vic Rawlings: Hardball

By Published: January 10, 2010
The cello has been his instrumental constant, although its function has changed over the years. He used the cello earlier in his career more traditionally (if that's the word). More recently, he has relegated the cello's role to that of a sounding board. These days he often will eke out the most minimal plucks and bows from the instrument and then shift back to his table of circuitry.

It should be noted that Rawlings rebuilt and designed the instrument entirely himself out of a basic plywood model. He added twelve sympathetic strings (although one of them broke) beneath the standard four, to give it an Indian sitar feel, and many other niceties and nuances, also of his invention, can be admired within and without upon close inspection. In his mid-1990s band Mile Wide, he started with a carved model but, he says, "the feedback was too quick, the overall mechanism too delicate."

"I used to play more notes on the strings; occasionally I still do, when the music merits it. As so many others were in Boston, I was somewhat under the spell of [saxophonist and clarinetist] Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
1927 - 2009
and by extension, John Lockwood—the guy who often played outrageously great bass with him. Also, Randy Peterson was an influence—he was the drummer. He had a great ability to lengthen a phrase and to suspend time," Rawlings says. "Phrasing/pitch/harmony/timbre—in that order—were a big thing for many players back then. That was cool, but then it was something to move beyond."

"Back then I usually tuned to standard cello tuning, CGDA, detuned to make the strings loose (as low as A), but always purposefully a little bit out of tune so there wouldn't be a perfectly in-tune sound if two open strings rang out together," he continues. "Perfect intervals were too strong, bold, old-world sounding to be too present in our music as it evolved. Now the tuning of my cello strings is always to the room or whatever else is making sound. It's a bit intuitive and a bit scientific. The design—the sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard—is taken from instruments in a museum in Vienna, but not the pitches."

Likewise, his usage of circuitry has changed. A student of his (and yes, you must be a student) can trace this evolution through his eight or nine albums. In 2003, Rawlings recorded two discs, joining percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani
Tatsuya Nakatani
Tatsuya Nakatani
and bass-balloon kit player Ricardo Arias to form N.R.A. (an acronym for the musician's names). Rawlings has a wry sense of humor, though. He is a pleasant and witty gentleman with a dead-serious, bitter acerbic core. In other words, the band's name could as well be biting political satire. The music from this time was likewise heavy-duty, no-frills disciplined abrasion. It rested somewhere between the Musica Elettronica Viva and The Taj Mahal Travellers, though not as academic as the former or as trippy as the latter. All told, the political label sticks, as the work gives off the impression of enlightenment through aggression or, to be sure, aggression through enlightenment.

Mawja is an ensemble—ongoing but currently on hiatus (for geographical reasons)—with bassist Mike Bullock and Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj. The group recorded two CDs, Studio One and Live One (both released Al Maslakh, 2007). To these ears these definitely have that trippier, TMT feel—an eclectic "world" feel (if the term can be drained of its suggestion of bland bathos) with drones and long, oceanic passages that seem a call for peace and global unity. Still, a percussion instrument rattles here and there like a spun revolver chamber; elsewhere, one hears what sounds like a foghorn. At the end of Studio One, there's a dystopian bucolic soundscape that suggests to me, in a kind of warped impressionist take, flies buzzing around swine.

That said, Rawlings insists, "There was certainly no conscious going for any certain idea other than trying to play and make it sound good. I have only done thematic/interpretive music a few times and usually don't like it." He allows, however, that "devastation and beauty share the same forms and modes; both include calm and activity....My notion is that 'harsh noise' is a silly idea. If it's good harsh noise, it becomes beautiful; the harshness is when it's done poorly. The macho appropriation of noise is a funny thing. It's really not so macho." But what about mimesis? Again, he's not so sure. "We were listening to Mazen's stories of gunfights and rocket attacks—violence and weariness," he says.

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