Barbara Lüneburg: Weapon of Choice

How wonderful it is to discover violinist Barbara Lüneburg taking the classical road less traveled. Rather than giving the world one more recording of, say, a Brahms concerto, she opts on Weapon of Choice to present a bold programme of contemporary experimental works. In keeping with the DVD presentation of the material, the works included are also more than purely musical in nature, with video an equally important dimension. Having studied at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and performed with numerous groups (the Xenakis Ensemble Netherlands and ASKO Ensemble among them), Lüneburg is currently the artistic director of the ensemble Intégrales and teaches at Medienhochschule Darmstadt. For the Ahornfelder recording, she invited composers and visual artists to collaborate with her to create multi-media works for electric or acoustic violin. A major part of the project's effectiveness derives from the contrasting character of the five pieces, with each offering an experience different from the others.

The album opens strongly with Stream Machines and the Black Arts by composer Henry Vega and visual artist Emmanuel Flores Elias. At the start, spherical geometric shapes mutate in sync with the music's changes, the shapes at times morphing into nebulae formations and eventually full-screen patterns of bright linear textures. While the otherworldly visuals develop, electronic sounds glisten, drone, pulsate, and sparkle, with the keening voice of the electric violin snaking its way through Vega's electronic terrain and sometimes soaring overtop of it. Another strong piece is Fluid Calligraphy, which combines Dai Fujikura's music and Tomoya Yamaguchi's visuals. In this case, the violinist's playing is very much front and center, with Fujikura having scored the work for acoustic violin only. Yamaguchi responds to Lüneburg's swoops and careens with simple, rope-like linear displays whose arcing movements correspond to the music.

The album's longest piece is Re: Mad Masters by Yannis Kyriakides, which he based on Jean Rouch's film Les Maîtres Fous. In this multi-sensory piece, manipulated film stills and footage and samples of military and African musics taken from the original film appear along with stark text displays and the embedding of Lüneburg's electric violin and acoustic violin within a mutating field of experimental electronics. The inclusion of real-world sounds adds to the complexity of a soundtrack that often assumes more of a collage-type design with which Lüneburg interacts. Though the piece is twenty-five minutes in length, there's a constant flow of sound and visuals and thus no lack of stimulation to keep one engaged, plus the textual display presents a story-like narrative that keeps one more involved than not. Lüneburg's playing is as excellent here as it is elsewhere, but the relentless churn of Kyriakides' music doesn't make for the most enjoyable listening experience, and seeing an occasional writing error show up in the text—receive misspelled repeatedly, for example—is off-putting too.

Lüneburg herself appears in two of the videos, which makes for a more engrossing experience, simply because the viewer is able to see how her movements trigger certain video effects. Alexander Schubert's Weapon of Choice, for instance, connects her violin playing to a motion sensor (affixed to the bow and a camera in front of the violinist, both of which feed data to the processing software), resulting in visual patterns being displayed behind Lüneburg as she generates them. On musical grounds, the oft-dissonant piece (made up, in part, of improvising by Lüneburg) is hardly easy on the ears, but the interactive display between performer and visuals proves to be an interesting spectacle no matter how violent the music gets. The least appealing of the project's pieces comes last, with Marko Ciciliani's Alias presenting a nightmarish sound world that doesn't encourage repeat visits. Lüneburg again appears, this time playing her electric violin in a green-lit space wherein laser beams pulsate. With the video display split into mutliple frames in tandem with insistently repeating violin patterns, the piece succeeds more on visual than musical terms, with Ciciliani opting to punctuate Lüneburg's always listenable playing with cacophanous intrusions and assorted other electronically treated materials.

Whatever the caveats (and there are some), Weapon of Choice is nevertheless a project worth endorsing for the sheer boldness of the concept. As a general rule, such artistic audacity is always worth encouraging, even when the results aren't completely satisfying.

August 2011