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Manchester Files, Bomba Music

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One-Man Band

Ljova Lev Zhurbin sat in an open field one evening in Spring Valley, New York, on a break from an orchestra rehearsal. He could hear distant sounds: a dog, an owl, a trombonist, frogs and birds, and an airplane, providing a perfect crescendo and decrescendo as it flew overhead. With his mini-disc recorder on hand, Zhurbin captured the sounds, along with a tune hed improvised on his viola. The song, aptly entitled Spring Valley Sunset, became the final track on his debut album Vjola: World On Four Strings," released in July on the Kapustnik label.

As a listener, you might picture an energetic contraband of string musicians recording the 15 songs on this album in blissful collaboration and with incredible precision. But, had you visited Zhurbin during his recording process, you would have found only one maverick artist, triply skilled as a violist, composer, and arranger, recording each song using his viola as a multi-tracked instrument.

Take, for example, Bagel on the Malecon and Crosstown, both of which include multiple rhythmic pizzicato lines as an accompaniment to the melody. Another, a cover of Bjorks Army of Me, incorporates several viola voices playing harmonics, evoking an ambient feeling. And dont be fooled by the sound of a double bass on many of the trackshe accomplished this sound by digitally transposing the viola down an octave.

Zhurbin describes his choice of solo-ensemble as much artistic as it was a matter of convenience. The [faux] ensemble was cheap, hungry for a new sound, and very much of a similar mind.

Prior to recording the songs, Zhurbin chose to notate little if anything at all, and the album is comprised mostly of first-takes. Improvising on these tunes inspires all kinds of gestures and ways of accompanying that havent been done, so you avoid rhythmic clichés or recurring harmonics, he explains. Its a way of bringing the freshest, most immediate, post-creative moment into a recording.

While Zhurbin is a Juilliard-trained violist, the album originated from his desire to expand his repertoire beyond the standard Western classical fare. What I disliked about the classical world was always playing the same piece in the same way. So I kept looking for a direction that was improvised and fresh.

The Romanian and Gypsy sound on much of the album no doubt lends itself to the composers heritage; he was born in Russia to parents of Eastern European origin (his mother is a prominent poet and his father is Russias foremost composer for film and musical theater). The song Middle Village, for instance, was written in Middle Village, Queens, yet it has a distinctly Romanian sound. And Garmoshka, in which Zhurbin is accompanied by accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman (the only track on which he is not playing alone) is a Russian tune. Zhurbin met Ward-Bergeman while they were both recording Osvaldo Golijovs Ayre on a September 2005 recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label, which inspired them to collaborate on Garmoshka. Heritage aside, the albums mix of world-music sounds also stems from Zhurbins extensive work as a composer for film, and his arranging music from India, Iran, Indonesia, China, Mongolia, and Tanzania for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, as well as for the Kronos Quartet.

Perhaps the strongest factor influencing the non-Western style of these songs is the diverse neighborhoods and cultures of New York City, where he lives and works. His gig schedule goes something like this: Monday night, a Gypsy trio; Tuesday night, klezmer; Wednesday, classical meets bluegrass; Thursday, a gig with a French accordionist; and Friday night, a band of his own performing songs from this album.

New York is the world. Every day we go for lunch in Thai places and for dinner in Cuban places, for example, and it is totally normal, he explains. So as a result of living in New York, I started playing all kinds of music.

Indeed, tokens of New York City (bagels and the crosstown bus, to name a few) figure prominently throughout the album, which opens with Central Park in the Dark. Unlike Ives composition by the same name, Zhurbins piece is blues-based; it originated while he was walking through the park one night and saw a homeless man, whom Zhurbin imagined humming this tune.

Speaking of humming, let the listener be forewarned: once you spend time listening to these tunes, you will likely find yourself unable to stop humming them.

Some tunes will appeal to my grandmother and people in her generation. Some will appeal to a certain experimental crowd, some to film-makers, and others to a string audience, Zhurbin anticipates. I hope kids who play stringed instruments hear and play this stuff because it frees you up and opens up so many possibilities.

By Laura Schiller
Excerpted from Strings magazine, December 2006, No.144
Link to Article: http://stringsmagazine.com/article/144/144,3849,Encore-1.asp

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