J. PAVONE STRING ENSEMBLE – LOST AND FOUND (ASTRAL SPIRITS, 2020)

Experimental composer and violist Jessica Pavone leads her unconventional string ensemble through a striking series of modern classical pieces.

Jessica Pavone’s string ensemble is unconventional right down to its instrumentation – using two violas and two violins (as opposed to two violins, one viola and a cello), the quartet is able to create a unique sound that thrives on a kind of musical tension that is also, in a sense, oddly calming. The ensemble’s first album, Brick and Mortar, released last year on Birdwatcher Records, was busier and bolder. With Lost and Found – out on Oct. 4 via Astral Spirits – Pavone’s approach is more subtle, with a concentration on sustained notes within the group improvisation.

The ensemble, which consists of Pavone and Abby Swidler on viola and Erica Dicker and Angela Morris on violin, move through Pavone’s compositions with an unhurried air, as if time is not a consideration. Time, in fact, was very much on the musicians’ minds, as a digital clock was often used to mark sections, durations and cues. Within these sonic blocks of time, the long tones produced by the musicians often create a steady droning effect. What’s more, the musicians’ improvisations are executed as a group, as opposed to traditional improvisation that spotlights the individuals. Here, the ensemble improvises simultaneously, creating a texture that is both rich and haunting.

The opening piece, “Rise and Fall,” sets the scene with elegant grace, exploring a sound that is both modern as well as reminiscent of early 20th century classical composition – it’s almost like a minimalist take on the lento first movement of Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1. As with the rest of Lost and Found, “Rise and Fall” depends greatly on creating a calming drone with undertones of tension.

“Nice and Easy” introduces a great deal more atonality, and with the lack of cello to provide a consistent lower register, the ensemble is able to create an exquisite high-end droning – with the exception of a couple of brief sections where all four musicians attack with a series of quick, punctuated notes. Slow glissandos also add a mesmerizing texture to the piece. These pitch glides are one of the defining characteristics of “Pros and Cons,” an eclectic piece that threatens to lull the listener into a sense of relaxed complacency before piercing, upper-register attacks provide an assault that brings with it an almost punk-like energy.

The closing title track continues along the same lines as the preceding pieces, but in certain sections there’s something of a doubling down on the album’s themes. Sustained notes often reach superhuman levels, as if it’s a type of endurance test. On paper this sounds like gimmickry of the highest order, but Pavone and the ensemble achieve a rich texture that is both admirably dexterous as well as gorgeous on a purely sonic level. To refer to this specific piece, or any other parts of this deeply felt and superbly accomplished album as simply “ambient” or “drone music” is giving it short shrift. The compositions and performances here are simply too stunning to lump into genres.

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