on erik carlson’s piece for 12 violins


Erik Carlson – Piece for 12 Violins (2016)

I long for displacement – to be lost, bent to the will of sound, with my standing expectations and understanding completely deranged. When I received Erik Carlson’s Piece for 12 Violins, I was sure there was a mix up – or at best, conceptual trickery in play. My ears wouldn’t believe they were hearing what the title described.

Carlson isn’t a particularity well know name. Like so many (past, present, and to come), he’s part a bubbling undercurrent within the avant-garde – musicians quietly chipping away, pushing forward, expanding the field. This is particularly present in contemporary Classical music. Our gaze tends to fall on composers, with players seen as facilitators of others’ ideas. Rarely recognized is a long tradition of creative interplay. Particularly in the last fifty or so years, musicians have taken an increasing role in feeding composers’ ideas – commissioning and inspiring works, and sometimes contributing to the cannon themselves (David Tudor, Malcolm Goldstein, and Susan Allen being particularly good examples). The violinist Erik Carlson is one such case. He has had works composed for him by Christian Wolff, Michael Finnissy, Tom Johnson, among numerous others, while steadily recording works by some of the current field’s most interesting voices  –  Antoine Beuger, Catherine Lamb, Rytis Mažulis, etc. What we haven’t heard enough are the inner workings of the man himself. Marginal Frequency’s new cassette of his work, Piece for 12 Violins, takes strides toward setting this straight.

The piece stretches over two sides to a full hour. At first listen, I thought there was a mix up or recording fault – that maybe I missed something, or just didn’t understand. What I was hearing couldn’t be violins. I went as far as emailing Alan Jones (who runs Marginal Frequency), to make sure I’d received the proper thing. I had, and was instantly interested and amused. Piece for 12 Violins sounds like a hulking force bearing down on a complete set of organ keys – tones modulating under rocking and shifting weight. It’s not a record for the faint of heart. A few minutes after popping it in, my girlfriend went running for the door. Fingers scratched the walls, her voice mumbling muffled threats – if I didn’t cease its assault, blood was sure to flow – this coming from a lover of Black Metal, who has happily sat at my side through hundreds of experimental music shows. Unfolding before my ears was one of the best pieces of atonal minimalism I’ve heard – a grinding, evil, challenging piece of work – leaving Norwegian church burners sounding like a pleasantry of Pop. If ever there was thing, balancing the bitter sweats of torture and reward, this is one. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to fight. It flutters and darts – defying the normal path and structures applied to dissonant sound. Within each grating cluster of tone, harmonic sensitivity is easily revealed. Most composers would have applied greater sustain – allowing their listeners to settle and discover beauty within. Here, the challenge and accomplishment of history has been accepted, raised, and gained. There are no laurels, only sounds which refuse to pander, willingly conceding the risk of leaving us behind. What’s striking about Piece for 12 Violins is the strange character of its temporality. It’s sludgy and slow – yet the second you think you know what it is, and where you are, it shifts hard, thrusting a challenge into the depths of your ears. It’s path is one of an anxious sloth. Expected structures have been pushed to the side – it is so grating that it’s almost impossible to catch a picture of the whole, choosing rather to focus on discrete moments of collision between complex chordal arrangements of tone.

Piece for 12 Violins dishes a kind of challenge which has grown rare in recent years. One which breaks you, but isn’t made for its own sake. With every listen it grows, granting those few listeners who can make it through unexpected rewards. In a single stroke, it proves Erik Carlson’s skill as a composer, and indicates that he is as worthy of attention as those whose music he most often supports. I can’t wait to hear what’s coming next. Check it out below, and grab it from Marginal Frequency – once again the fantastic label raises the bar.

-Bradford Bailey




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