Molly Joyce: Lean Back and Release
New Amsterdam Records

As backstories go, Molly Joyce's has to be one of the more interesting ones. Originally from Pittsburgh, the Juilliard-educated twenty-four-year-old is currently completing her second year of graduate studies at Yale. And though she might have spent two summers interning at New Amsterdam's NYC headquarters, she still had to prove to the powers-that-be that the material on her debut recording, Lean Back and Release, merited release on the label. It's not her first appearance on New Amsterdam, however; that came about last year when Vicky Chow included Joyce's Rave on the pianists's excellent AORTA album.

The digital EP's material is certainly arresting. Performed by violinists Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino, its two compositions are scored for solo violin, whose presentation is transformed by live and pre-recorded electronic sounds, with in one case a sound engineer “lurking behind the scenes.” In both pieces, Joyce explores the way by which technologies are changing how we think about the modern-day violinist and the range of possible sounds the solo performer can generate.

Executing the title track is Mateo, who first performed it at 2014's Bang on a Can Marathon. Consistent with its title, the violinist, whose playing is situated in the instrument's upper register at the outset, “leans back,” so to speak, to gradually “release” the violin's lower register as the piece advances. Accompanying the downward movement are two pre-recorded violin tracks, one in pizzicato and the other a delay-drenched arpeggio, that enhance the live playing by adding dimensionality, harmonic support, and rhythmic thrust. A lot happens in seven minutes, so much so that multiple listens are needed to absorb and appreciate everything Mateo is doing in this compelling performance.

“Shapeshifter,” performed by violinist Germino and sound engineer Frank van der Weij (who premiered it in April 2015 in The Hague and Amsterdam and for whom it was originally written), explores notions of control by having the unseen engineer initially control the violinist's sound and then gradually cede it back to the musician, thereby allowing the violin to “shape-shift” into a new sound. Once again, interactions between the live instrument and a backing track occurs, with in this case the latter a blend of acoustic and MIDI violin. Of the EP's two pieces, it's “Shapeshifter” that's the slightly more aggressive, given the raw timbres generated by the scrape and saw of Germino's live playing and the overheated effect produced by the interactions between the two elements.

Given the material featured on the EP, it would be reasonable to expect that the full-length Joyce is developing would see her continuing to explore the violin-and-electronics concept. It turns out, however, that the album presently gestating will pursue a dramatically different path from the EP. Since arriving at Yale, she's been playing live sets in warehouse spaces and art galleries using a vintage Magnus toy organ, of which she has five. Not only does the instrument's sound appeal to her, but it's also one that fits her body, as she has a weak left hand because of a childhood car accident that almost resulted in the amputation of her hand. Part of her future plan thus involves working with musicians with disabilities and exploring the ways by which to maximize their performance capabilities.

February 2017