Nicholas Chase: Bhajan
Cold Blue

In stating that he has played “mannequin limbs, walkie-talkies, record players, transistor radios, sitting inside a piano, [and] riding a bicycle,” Nicholas Chase's bio portrays him as a modern-day dadaist, a provocateur intent on upending convention and keeping Cage's renegade spirit alive. And yet while such a characterization isn't inaccurate, it's not the whole picture. He's also someone who since 2011 has sought to merge Yoga practices and Hindustani classical forms with traditional Western music, a prime example of which is Bhajan, a four-part work for violin and electronics commissioned in 2011 by one-time California EAR Unit violinist (1984-2005) Robin Lorentz. (Independently released by Chase a few years ago, Bhajan is now receiving a second go-round courtesy of Cold Blue.)

With health issues having sidelined her playing since 2007, Chase conceived of Bhajan as a form of physical therapy for Lorentz, who, after four months of preparation, recorded the electro-acoustic setting over five days on Mercer Island, her violin augmented by Chase's signal processing and programming treatments. Though electronic effects are central to its sound design, the forty-seven-minute work, whose title refers to Hindu devotional songs that are typically vocal-based and strongly melodic, is heavily indebted to the conventions of Indian raga. One might characterize Bhajan as a pas de deux between the violin and computer, with the former amplified and interacting with oscillating sine waves.

The meditative, unhurried tone of the material is evident from the beginning of “Bindu” (Sanskrit for ‘point'), which features Lorentz hewing to a single, vibrato-laden pitch (Eb, which Chase, reiterating a view espoused by one of his teachers, sarod master Rajeev Taranath, calls “the grandmother note,” the central one around which the others gather), and repeatedly voicing the note as a locus of orientation for Chase's effects. Even when the violin recedes, the pitch remains as a suspended echo, the ghostly residue of the instrument kept alive by the faint sine wave and undulating warbles of the painterly synth flourishes and electronic treatments. As restrained as the material might generally be, it's also marked by insistence, particularly in the needling, somewhat insect-like incessantness with which the pitched note repeats.

A single pitch is also adhered to during the entrancing second part, “Drsti” (‘focused gaze' or ‘concentrated intention'), though this time the note is lower (D4, or D above middle C) and deviations from the pitch are generated when the computer transforms the violin's strokes into shadow melodies that arise in tandem with the instrument; during such passages, the sounds undulate meslismatically, rendering the connection between Chase's composition and Indian music all the more pronounced. Straying from the one-pitch idea, the third part, “Japa” (‘repetition'), introduces a haunting theme the computer and violin return to repeatedly, its presentation different each time but the familiar melody always declaring itself clearly, after which the last, titular section of the work arrives, a comparatively plaintive chorale whose restrained string expressions are offset by the pitch-shifting swoop of the computer accompaniment.

Characterizing Chase's quietly provocative Bhajan as a drone piece isn't wholly accurate, given its foundation in Hindustani music, but it does exude some of the immersive characteristics of ambient-drone material. At the same time, there's a melodic dimension in play, even if sometimes a subtle one, that puts some degree of distance between this rather bewitching electro-acoustic creation and ambient-drone material in its purest form.

January 2017