Ljova — Melting River (Kapustnik 101)
During college, violist and composer Lev Zhurbin started posting a lot of videos of his improvisational work to YouTube … while simultaneously carving out a freelance career, gigging as a classical violist.
"I didn't want to mess any of that up with stuff I was uploading to the internet, which were improvisations that didn't sound anything like a good classical violist sound," he says. "So I thought, 'Well, whatever it brings, I'm just going to use the intimate version of my name, which is what my parents would call me: Ljova.
"And then as time passed, it seemed like the Ljova alter-ego won and a lot of those pieces that I initially improvised began to get performed. I really appreciated using my intimate nickname. Because in rehearsals, they often say, 'Let's do Beethoven' or 'Let's do the Mahler,' and if you know everybody in the orchestra, it just sounds so formal: 'Let's do the Zhurbin' (and probably they'd say 'Zerbin'). So it sounded so formal, and I just wanted 'Let's do Ljova's piece!' That sounds a lot more intimate and nice."
Ljova explores the intimacy of high fidelity with his latest album, Melting River — available only on LP or via digital download. He says he's a fan of vinyl for a number of reasons, and this recording was a way to distance himself from the limitations of the CD format.
"The CD is a compressed medium," he explains. "Just technologically speaking, the rate is 44.1, 16-bit, and that's all it can be. This album was recorded at 96k, so at a much higher resolution than a CD would allow you to listen to. It's incomparable to how a CD sounds. If you listen to vinyl for 20 minutes, you'll never want to listen to CDs again."
The album Melting River was one takeaway from a dance piece called Awáa, commissioned by Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. Dancers and composers (Ljova shared the dance project's writing duties with fellow composer Curtis MacDonald) convened at the Banff Center in the Canadian Rockies.
"I was there for the better part of six weeks," Ljova says. "Basically every day was three meals a day, watching rehearsal of the dancers for several hours a day and creating new music with no real restrictions. None at all, just the limitations of what I could do with the fiddles."
"I had with me my viola and also this fadolin," Ljova continues. "Those were the two instruments I had. Two instruments and a microphone … and a cabin … and a computer."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. What's a fadolin, you ask? It's related to a famiola. Not much help, right? Standard violins and violas have four strings, but these have six.
"A famiola is a viola with a FA and a MI," Ljova explains. "My 6-string fiddle has a low F and a high E: FA, MI, viola. And a fadolin is the same thing except it's a violin: it's a violin with a FA and a DO. Get it? So it's a fadolin."
So virtually everything you hear on this album is just Ljova, his fiddles and computer manipulation: Loops, layers, pitch-shifting. Sometimes, like in the track called "7-4," it sounds like a double bass …
"That's all viola," Ljova confirms. "The bass notes you hear are viola notes that I transposed down an octave using ProTools or Ableton."
… sometimes like a really dry marimba ("Asha"). And sometimes it sounds like the offspring of a Japanese koto and a bubble machine (as in "Album Leaf").
"That's the same viola, but transposed UP an octave," Ljova says.
Some of these songs were borne wholly of Ljova's time there, in the cabin, in the Rockies. Listen to "Birds" — it evokes that haunting sound of a bird catching the thermals, riding the wind in a distant canyon … interspersed with a greeting from another bird, very present right outside the window … You can hear the second bird later in the piece, as he joins his friends in the echoing canyon.
"There was an Alfred Schittke animation score that very much inspired this. Beautiful film. I believe it's called The Butterfly," Ljova says. "You'll totally see where this is coming from when you watch the Schnittke film."
Ljova also had some musical sketches already in hand when he arrived in Banff — fragments sung into his phone when he walked through Central Park, or notated awkwardly into a Blackberry during his commute.
"It's called "Album Leaf" because I often sketch on the subway," he says, "and for this particular piece, I didn't have any sheet music paper with me. This was back in the days of the Blackberry and I couldn't really write anything on it, so I wrote a sketch for it using notes and durations: Something like D3 F3 A3 A2 A3 … something like that. Very numeral. I sent it to myself as an email, and found it a few months later and then it bloomed from there."
Taking the seed of an idea and letting it bloom seems to be the ethos of this album, Melting River.
"I called it that without any particular river in mind," Ljova says. "For me it was more really a stream. I didn't really see a stream, but I imagined a stream that would then bloom into a river."
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