Kinesiology of the Viola
Last September, I remember feeling a little dizzy while looking at the Pablo Palazuelo piece Diferencias XII (1987) in the Ahmanson Building at LACMA. The painting is a lattice of yellowish-white lines that break and melt into each other against a dark-as-night backdrop. At certain points of linear crossover, their milky hues expand and take the form of thick rectangular or triangular bulges. The Spanish artist illustrates a Bauhausian insistence on repetition—it’s not coincidental that Moholy-Nagy and Albers pieces hang just around the corner from Diferencias—yet in contrast with that school, he seems to anticipate a rupture within his sequence of repeating lines. The precarious visual movement, of shifting from an orderly sequence towards formlessness without fully representing it, was what contributed to my weakened balance.
The disorientation that Palazuelo achieved through gouache-style painting, Brooklyn-based composer/improviser Jessica Pavone executes through her viola on her latest release In The Action (Relative Pitch). She has been entrenched in New York’s experimental community for over the past decade, best known for playing in Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra and collaborating often with avant-garde jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson. In The Action is third in a series of solo viola albums from Pavone, following 2014’s Knuckle Under and 2016’s Silent Spills.
The artist’s melodies burrow inwards and fold on themselves as she explores the timbral and tonal possibilities within a set of three or four different notes. Her bent for working with so few notes evokes the basic melodicism of traditional folk music, but she integrates this element of simplicity into her avant-garde framework of microtonal and drone techniques, enhanced with pedals. Over the course of a composition she diverges from a clear, simple phrase towards dissonance, without veering into total chaos. The press release for In The Action mentions that the album’s four compositions “connect Pavone's interest in the tactile experience and use of the body while creating sounds.” If Morton Feldman, who she has cited as an influence, metaphorically treated notes like delicate physical objects, then Pavone renders them malleable and immersive, stretching out each object like Silly Putty and—this is how the “use of the body” factors in—molding a cavity big enough to metaphorically dive into.
In its opening passage, “Oscillatory Salt Transport” asserts itself with intensity and clarity, but the notes waver periodically and a chorus effect on some of them is discernible. Pavone bows microtonal variations of A and G in subsequent repetitions. At one point, holding down both a G# and an A, she slowly glides across that half-step, relishing all of the sounds along the way. This composition’s sonic counterpart is the title-track; both celebrate the tonal imprecision inherent in her instrument, as Pavone drones on microtones and gouges her bow into accidental harmonics. She stresses the fact that a note, on whatever instrument, can never sound exactly the same as any prior instance (hence diatonicism’s promise of tonal predictability is false).
Pavone’s trajectories towards dissonance are more immediate on “and Maybe in the End,” which is a cycle of slow-burning two-note figures. Two pizzicato notes swell amid distortion and subside after a moment. Perhaps the distortion has potential to crescendo further, but Pavone restrains the effect before it gets out of control. The accompanying music video for “and Maybe” builds on these qualities. Directed by experimental artist Neil Cloaca Young, it sees a dark string hang vertically down the screen against a backdrop of the sky. Although later revealed to be the hoist rope of a crane, it’s initially reminiscent of a string on an instrument, calling back to Pavone’s own viola—where the notes she plays lose their shape amid the expanding distortion; similarly the visibility of the string, when stared at for long enough, fades before the clouds.
She unleashes distortion and other effects on “Look Out - Look Out - look Out,” so much that the acousmatic source is almost entirely lost; we can only presume that the viola, in some vague capacity, factors into this noise composition. Harsh as it is, the piece is both dynamic and fluid. It gurgles, stutters, crackles; actual notes sometimes emerge but then fade away amid the undulating low and high-end frequencies. Pavone carefully whittles away at the behemoth of noise generated by her pedals, providing a loose structure to this sonic disarray.
While “Look Out” sounds the opposite of what she’s doing on the album’s three other compositions—that is, deviating from a sense of order—it’s nonetheless an acute expression of kinesthetic movement: the galvanizing yet disorienting effects that noise music is known to produce on the listener’s body. It aligns with the overall conceit of In the Action, which is that each musical detail sparks an urge to be plunged into.