The Velvet Watt Vol. 2: Bhajan
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 hardly the whole picture. Chase is 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 by one-time California EAR Unit violinist (1984-2005) Robin Lorentz.
With health issues having sidelined the violinist's playing since 2007, Chase conceived of Bhajan as a form of physical therapy treatment for Lorentz, who, after four months of preparation, recorded Chase's piece (and continues to play to this day). The two recorded the electro-acoustic work over five days on Mercer Island with her playing augmented by his 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 could describe 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 pitch (Eb) and repeatedly voicing the note as a locus of orientation for Chase's effusive 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. As restrained as the material might generally be, it's also marked by insistence, particularly in the insect-like incessantness with which the violin attacks the note repetitions. A single pitch is also adhered to in the second part “Drsti” ("focused gaze" or "concentrated intention") though this time the note's lower (D4, or D above middle C) and deviations away from the pitch are generated when the computer takes the violin's strokes and turns them into shadow melodies that arise in tandem with the violin. 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, “Japa” ("repetition") introduces a haunting theme that the computer and violin return to over and over, 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 string expressions are offset by the pitch-shifting swoop of the computer accompaniment.
Characterizing Chase's quietly provocative Bhajan as a drone work 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 compelling electro-acoustic creation and ambient-drone material in its purest form.