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Album Review

Johnny Gandelsman: This Is America: An Anthology

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Johnny Gandelsman: This Is America: An Anthology
Violinist Johnny Gandelsman is as versatile as he is innovative. An accomplished composer, improviser and a producer, Gandelsman defies categorization and excels in the watershed area among genres. A member of both the unique string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Ensemble and the owner of Circle Records, Gandelsman has his finger on the pulse of contemporary music. His response to the historic years of 2020-2021, two years that shook the USA and the world, is summarized in the solo violin (mostly) music on the box set This Is America: An Anthology.

Gandelsman commissioned US based composers of diverse backgrounds for the twenty-four pieces that comprise this recording. Each album has, at its core, a multi-movement suite. For instance Disc One features violinist and visual artist Olivia Davis' three part "Steeped." On "I. Impromptu" Gandelsman deftly alternates jagged lines with quieter moments for a dramatic ambience and a passionate performance. An undercurrent of melancholy prevails until the energetic "II. Moto Perpetuo" that starts off with anxious excitement and fades into the contemplative "III. Cadenza." The latter is a forlorn yet absorbing tune that balances serenity with an explorative sense. Together the three parts form an emotional and stimulation mosaic.

Davis' work is sandwiched between New York based Lebanese expat violinist Layale Chaker's "Sinekman" and bassist Nick Dunston's "Tardigrades." Chaker's contribution starts off with an ethereal and languid wistfulness. Gandelsman coaxes out of his strings a captivating mix of western classicism and levantine lyricism. The meandering melodic "narrative" is like an intimate travelog bridging times and places. Gandelsman interprets Dunston's composition with cinematic flair. Angular pizzicato phrases and percussive con arco notes coalesce into a dynamic and crystalline abstraction. Unexpected turns and twists and bursts of fiery bowing make the track both moving and provocative.

Disc Two contains one of the two tunes on which Gandelsman switches from violin to guitar, penned by Native American poet Bojan Louis, "Dólii (for voice & electric tenor guitar)." The guitar's resonant and expressive chords echo in silent pauses as the folkish motif serves as a backdrop to the evocative spoken word. Gandelsman matches his musical stylings to the poem's poignant stanzas. The cautionary tale about climate change impact is sobering without being preachy, tender in its sadness while avoiding melodrama. Cellist Tomeka Reid's intriguing "Rhapsody for violin" warmly unfurls into a soulful performance. After the gently swaying opening Gandelsman launches into the poignant mid section with gusto. The conclusion is hauntingly ethereal.

Multidisciplinary artist Maya Miro Johnson five-part "Dance Suite for Violin" is the centerpiece of the second album. It starts off with an expectant mood as Gandelsman's strings reverberate like an otherworldly bird in flight. The second movement features the composer reciting, in brilliant prose, directions for specific physical tasks. Gandelsman echoes the words with his breathtaking acrobatics. The more somber third section has Gandelsman flirting with dissonance as he builds a solemn and eerie atmosphere. Meanwhile the penultimate movement also pairs spoken words with Gandelsman's violin. The calmness of the former perfectly contrasts with the nervous energy of the latter. The finale is the most "traditional" segment of the entire work. Gandelsman builds mellifluous and fiery refrains with increasing tempo, demonstrating once again his unparalleled virtuosity.

The third, and final, disc opens with saxophonist Matana Roberts' "Stitched." It is a contemplative piece that Gandelsman interprets with introspection. There is both the melancholy as well as the comfort of solitude expressed in this brief yet intense composition. Similarly meditative is percussionist Tyshawn Sorey's "For Courtney Bryan." The multifaceted and intricately crafted homage to the versatile Bryan is simultaneously impressionistic and abstract. During its natural progression the music goes from quiet and wistful to filled with passion both irate and exuberant. Gandelsman again deftly navigates Sorey's dynamic changes with panache and elegance.

Another highlight of this uniformly superb release is vocalist and multidisciplinary artist Anjna Swaminathan, Carnatic inspired "Surrender to the Adventure." Utilizing pre-recorded sounds and spoken word as a backdrop, the violin plays a spiritual melody punctuated by ethereal vocals. The second movement, "Fenestration," mixes the Indian classical elements with American roots elements. Between devotional incantation and the composer's recitation on the human-like qualities of plants Gandelsman weaves a haunting fable with pizzicato notes and lithe bowed lines. The third section follows a similar pattern with a more eerily memorable soundscape. Echoing chants and Gandelsman's high register, almost flute like, phrases form a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of tonal colors. The last segment maintains Swaminathan's monologue on flora as a foil to Gandelsman's futuristic, free-flowing violin stylings brimming with spontaneity.

Included in the box set is a 40 page booklet with Gandelsman's own introduction, short essays from all the composers, as well as drawings from a few of them. This Is America: An Anthology is a timely and monumental work, appropriate for such historic times. It is, perhaps, the most comprehensive and original musical reaction to the overlapping series of seismic events that shook America and the world.

Track Listing

Disc 1: O; Sahra be Wyckoff; Sinekemān; Stroon; Steeped: I. Impromptu; Steeped: II. Moto perpetuo; Steeped: III. Cadenza; Tardigrades; Dew, Time, Linger; A City Upon a Hill?. Disc 2: With Love From J; Dance Suite Movement I: negating gravity on a molecular level (meditation); Dance Suite Movement II: the virtue of lightness; Dance Suite Movement III: surrender to your tiredness (tragedy); Dance Suite Movement IV: getting rid of our skin; Dance Suite Movement V: the sense of plenty of time (generosity); Dólii; A Current Took Her Away; A través del manto luminoso; Reflections; Tomeka Reid – Rhapsody for violin; Barbary Coast 1955. Disc 3: Stitched; Withdraw; For Courtney Bryan; Surrender to the Adventure I. Blossom /American Dream; Surrender to the Adventure II. Fenestration /All Men Are Created Equal; Surrender to the Adventure III. Inflorescence /The Pursuit of Happiness; Surrender to the Adventure IV. Propagation /A More Perfect Union; Stones; Pallavi – A Meditation on Care; Breathe.

Personnel

Johnny Gandelsman: violin.

Additional Instrumentation

Johnny Gandelsman: guitar (Disc 2: 1, 7).

Album information

Title: This Is America: An Anthology | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Circle

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