The Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe

By Review

Explorations in Music Series

The Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe, 1992
Davey Williams & LaDonna Smith

The duo of violinist LaDonna Smith and guitarist Davey Williams have been the foremost exponent of the Southern-style, front porch tradition of free improvisation for eighteen years. A resonant shoot-out, the music of Smith and Williams reconciles the soulful power of delta blues with the richness of improvisation” —Cegep, France. “Smith’s viola stroked grand gestures and hoedown tactics behind Williams’ sometimes surrealist6i guitar escapades.  Theirs is the Nip & Tuck School of Improvisation – at its wildest an orgiastic yelp, at its most intimate like the inside of a pumpkin growing.” __Downbeat Williams, who learned guitar from the Chicago blues legend Johnny Shines and cut his teeth on the southern soul circuit is one of the most versatile six-stringers alive, a one man bridge between Derek Bailey, Albert Ayler, Muddy Waters and Spike Jones.  Smith, trained as a classical violinists alternates between “sweet siren and fiendish noise maker” matching  William’s triple-time hair pinning. Masters of standard and extended techniques, Williams and Smith are billed as “the world’s tightest improvising duo, together they predict the present.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Review

Festival of New Music Improvisation

New Music Circle, Graham Chapel, April 14

Philip Kennicott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Classical Music Critic

LaDonna Smith of Birmingham, Ala., was the first muse among equals at the New Music Circle’s Improvisation Fest ’96 at Washington University’s Graham Chapel on Sunday evening. Smith was one of three visiting artists, who joined an eclectic mix of five local players for several forays into the realms of barely tamed chaos. Using a wide variety of vocal expressions and an even wider array of experimental violin techniques, Smith was the unofficial leader of the various ensembles that joined together and drifted apart during two hours of music making. Stage charisma, and an imaginative ear for the possibilities of timber, make Smith an appealing presence. In a solo set, she combined sawing on the violin’s open strings with a set of frenzied wails on the remaining string, over which she sang an eerie cantalina. The effect was an impressive complexity of texture, like some deranged nun chanting next to a devilish fiddler.”

San Francisco Bay Guardian

By Review

Critic’s Choice, Music

LaDonna Smith

Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 07, 2005

This adventurous violinist and vocalist resides in Birmingham, Ala., where she rarely leaves, letting such CD’s as the recent Eye of the Storm (TransMuseq) do her traveling for her. But when she takes her fiddle and voice into the world, creating orchestral textures where jazz improv, bluegrass, contemporary classical, Celtic, and countless other influences commingle, the world is never the same again.

Wire

By Review

Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Richard Scott, Wire, 1993

The difference between improvisation I want to listen to and that which I don’t, probably comes down to something like personality. Every note of LaDonna Smith’s music has something of this quality, as well as a physical directness and a happy foolishness which says, “yes, I know this is silly, but . . . ”

Her solo voice, viola and violin CD scrapes and howls, whistles and whinnys, often making strange allusions to a variety of genres but mainly alluding to nothing much at all. There is a convincing seriousness of purpose behind her highly accomplished stream-of-consciousness playing, most fully revealed in the searching title track.

Freeway

By Review

Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Hillary Fielding & Ross Rabin, Freeway, Volume 2, Number 5, Spring 1993

LaDonna Smith’s new CD puts her clearly in the realm of undisputed masters, regardless of genre, along with John Coltrane, Ali Akbar Khan, OumKhalsoum . . . the point of this pantheonic comparison is to acknowledge that free improvisation has such a dedicated representative. TransMuseq (LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams) has been the only American improvising group which has been devoted solely to improvisation at a consistently high level for a period of time roughly equivalent to the time Brits like Derek Bailey (and company) have been at it. A lot of current players may not be aware of this “tradition,” or may be choosing to ignore it.

LaDonna makes the violin sound like a million cranes flapping their wings through an amplifier. Her style includes sounds that transcend the personal, combined with a kind of technique which is obviously practiced, though never arrogant or overstated. Sometimes the music sounds like a motorcycle driven through the string section of an orchestra; at other times she forays into the upper stratosphere of coloratura soprano extracted from her instrument. Her vocals ring out like a fifth string added to the violin. The entire effect is a chorus/string section of worldly/other-worldly creations. She incorporates everything from the most refined, energetic glisses to polyphonics, harmonics and the scritchiest scatchiest horrors of scrape on wooden bones. The only difficulty I have is that listening to too many pieces at one time is like eating too much chocolate. I love chocolate, but too much makes me feel insane.

Two of my favorite cuts are “Conversation With Orchids” and “Oceanic Sleep.” The first is exactly what the title sounds like. It’s the kind of conversation orchids would have as they are rocked by spring breezes. Their small petals and glowing colors uttering excited variations on a million high tones and contrasting with soft leaf-like, sonorous full-bodied long tones. In “Oceanic Sleep” LaDonna plays on viola all the parts simultaneously of a future/primitive early music consort in a beautiful, slightly melancholy improvisation. It sounds like a vast ocean, engulfing everything in harmony waves.

LaDonna’s first solo recording also reflects this oceanic breadth of experience. Her company/ concept, Transmuseq, has an approach to improvised music inspired by the idea of “automatic” writing as practiced by the Surrealists, notably André Breton. Simply, “automatic” means tapping directly into dream states, the unconscious, humor; not allowing conscious decision-making to interfere with the creative process. For the improvisor, this entails a continuous self-overcoming and subversion of one’s own tendencies, licks, chops, tastes and limitations. LaDonna succeeds in playing free music which maintains a productive tension between doing what she “knows” how to do, and letting her inner demons have full range.

If you call yourself an improvisor check out TransMuseq and get this CD!

As saxophonist Wally Shoup said, “A lot of people have played improvised music, but the question is, how many of them will be doing it ten or twenty years later?”

Cadence

By Review

Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Milo Fine, Cadence, August 1993, page 87

Atmospheric Debris or “Saturated Sound-check”/ Constellations, 98 Degrees Fahrenheit/ Conversation of Orchids / Fire in the Old Growth / Traveling Nimbo-cumulous / Viola Coaster Rainbows / Flash Flood In Downtown Decatur / Tone Rays / Oceanic Sleep / Free Radical / Our Changing Weather’ / Eye of the Storm. 11/91, 12/91, 4/12/92, 6/7/92

The title of this CD and the riveting music therein suggests that Smith, after a period of readjustment and re-evaluation, is in the thick of recapturing the imaginative take-no-prisoners flair that, on the basis of public documentation, marked her pre-’89 efforts. Most of her work here revolves around a specific vocabulary and a limited number of strategies – grinding glissandi, which often involve note clusters and/or tone-overtone combinations, sawing sounds, crying plaintive notes and lines embellished with 1/4 and 1/2 tone inflections, and regular use of two-note riffs from which she extrapolates freely. (There’s nary a “normally-toned” passage to be found though she comes close a couple of times.) In tandem with the deep sense of emotional commitment and nuance which permeates these pieces, it is clear that Smith is not only searching, but finding as well. Her vocal obbligato, for instance, which was in the past distracting if not downright irritating, is here less demonstrative and much more integrated into her muse as an effective accessory; sometimes only a slight shadow or coloration. And though vocals are credited only on specific tracks, they actually appear nearly throughout the disk, and in a particularly striking context on the audio verite opener where Smith and Preston Beck converse on technical matters behind the violist’s far-reaching-warm-up.

As for “Our Changing Weather” with long-time partner Williams, their interaction, coming on the heels of an extended viola interlude, yields much less discursive results than that of Travellers (6/91, p.67), but is less surprising than their work of years past, as the guitarist once again all but abandons flights of fancy for grounded metric rhythms and easily definable harmonic progressions. But that doesn’t stop Smith from taking flight, and thus demonstrating clearly that repose in the eye of the storm can inspire and catalyze the creative spirit.

Improvijazzation Nation

By Review

Eye of the Storm

LaDonna Smith

Dr. Zzaj, Improvijazzation Nation, 1992

Intense and involved, our friend LaDonna sets forth on a (mostly) solo excursion into today. Her viola, voice, and violin will transport you through what (despite NASA hype) is truly the last frontier. Her intricate interpretations take you right to the dead CENTER of the climate she creates for you! For some, who want the throb of 2 or 23 chord pattern in their listening experience, this will be a gullywasher! Those of us who have learned to listen to (and for) the under-currents, though, will hear the many voices of what LaDonna calls the great Musical Spirit beckoning us to become a part of the hurricane rush that is NOW! Deep TIDES move under and through each piece & will transport you UP through the doldrum clouds to that place where light and life illumine each step! In fact, being a veteran listener to many of her pieces through the years, I can say without qualification that this is the most musically mature adventure I have ever heard her perform! The strings are solid throughout and in the end-run, the only assessment can be that this is one experience you MUST have, if you are open (even in the least) to new musical tempests! MOST HIGHLY recommended! Contact Ladonna & I mean NOW!!!

All About Music

By Performance, Review

Floating Bridges

Recorded live at “Meeting of Improvisers”
Centrum Sztuki Wspolczenej, “Solvay” Krakow, Poland. June 6, 2007
LaDonna Smith & Misha Feigin

Thomas Gaudynski, All About Music blog, 2008

Floating Bridges radiates with high energy interplay from the first notes and reveals a musical dynamism of fluid invention and sympathetic creation from the String Trek duo of violist La Donna Smith and guitarist Misha Feigin.

Recorded in June, 2007 at the “Meeting of Improvisers” in Krakow, Poland, the set opens with the nineteen-minute “Krakow Concerto.” After the initial shock but superficial comparison to the duo of Smith and guitarist Davey Williams heard live during the 1970s-80s, String Trek comes crisply into focus with its own characteristic sound and approach. This well recorded live performance captures the duo at a high point of artistic collaboration.

Throughout “Concerto,” Feigin ranges over his instrument, picking glittering and articulate lines, pulling strings and producing massive rhythmic chords—drawing sounds out, at times, both delicate and tough, but constantly inventive and responsive to his musical partner. He doesn’t sound like any other free improvising guitarist and has the energy and technique to be the perfect musical foil to the energetic and expressive Smith.

Smith bows clean lines as well as smeared resonances, often joining her voice to that of her unmistakable viola. Neither is the leader, but the two blend into a perfect and satisfying union. “Concerto” fluidly travels from free invention into the players’ shared European folk and Southern blues influences. The melodies that appear seem completely organic and natural with only a hint of cultural exoticism.

“Tribal Reverberation” has both performers vocalizing from z’aum abstractions to extended vocal technique, from folk melodies to rhythmic cadences. A wonderful, but brief, piece of mouth music.

“Klebnikov” is a sober meditation on the transience of life, penned by Velimir Hlebnikov in 1920 and recited here, first in Russian, and then translated by Feigin with pizzicati and chordal accompaniment. The mood continues with “Die to Live,” picking up first with muscular and virtuosic sequences interleaved with rhapsodic lyricism and then integrating Feigin improvising on his poem, “The wind blows through space…,” which ends the sequence as a paean to the fleetness of experience. The integration of the reading with the music is so seamless as to avoid comparison to most jazz/poetry collaborations. In all, a beautiful connection to the Russian language exploration of the Futurist years—a sensibility shared by both artists—and the tenuousness of the art of improvisation.

The concert ends with “Crossed Currents,” an extended exploration of string color restlessly moving from technique to technique and culminating with an energetic vocal and slide guitar send-off. Ending, Smith announces in her characteristic way, “That’s all folks.” A brief encore of a few seconds, “Something Reduced” follows.

Smith’s early Trans Duo recordings were often marred with mediocre recordings and abbreviated sets. The quality of this release, both in clarity of recording and artistic achievement, makes up for that lack. Together, Smith and Feigin have moved beyond Yokel Yen (Transmuseq, 2004) with an organic rightness to their approach.

Bay Area New Music Discussion

By Performance, Review

John Butcher Workshop

Workshop 2004
LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams

Henry Kuntz, Bay Area New Music Discussion, April 30, 2004

Though it drew on any number of philosophical influences, not all musical (nor American for that matter) — things like surrealism, dada, and “automatic writing” —  the most “genuine” (to me), uniquely American approach to free improvisation came from Alabama. That would be from the folks associated with “Transmuseq”, the most well known of whom are guitarist Davey Williams and violinist La Donna Smith. I’ve mentioned their playing and music here before, but most of their early releases (on LP) are not easy to find. One excellent CD, WHITE EARTH STREAK (from LP from early 1980s), featuring them in the company of Torsten Muller and Gunter Christman, has been recently issued on Atavistic.

Aside from the fact that their freely improvised music appeared more or less full-blown on its own in the southern US, i.e. without particular influence from European centers or even from free jazz (from free jazz, I think, more a philosophical than directly musical influence), what seems to me to make their music uniquely “American” (and a peculiarly “southern” expression of same) is its sense of individualism (and total respect for the uniqueness of and contributions of each individual, regardless of musical “training” or “skill”) and an unhurriedness about it, even when moving fast, which reflects the relatively rural surroundings which nurtured it.

I recommend any of the following:

LPs

  • Direct Waves Trans Duo – LaDonna Smith & Davey Williams
  • Velocities – Andrea Centazzo-percussion with LaDonna Smith & Davey Williams
  • Jewels – Anne LeBaron-harp, with Davey Williams & LaDonna Smith
  • TRANS II, Folk Music (to be repressed) LaDonna Smith & Davey Williams with Theodore Bowen, bass

CD

  • Transmutating (CD) Duo improvisations by Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith

Bagatellen

By Review

They Are We Are

Misha Feigin, Craig Hultgren and LaDonna Smith

Michael Anton Parker, Bagatellen, October 02, 2005

After encountering LaDonna Smith for the first time last week and witnessing a fabulous performance, I was happy to recall this fine recording and pull it out for some overdue proper attention. Smith is one of the pillars of improvised music culture in the US, especially known for her duo with Davey Williams, a musical partnership running for around 30 years and still going strong as I heard from the violinist herself last weekend. Smith’s writing and editorial presence in the pages of The Improvisor has been registered in my mind ever since I devoured a few issues of that remarkable magazine as a nascent free improv fan, and I’m pleased to report that the publication is still alive online these days, with a compilation of intriguing essays well worth digging through. While Smith’s reputation as an underground legend must surely owe a lot to her irresistible spirit of creativity and immersion in live performance I was finally able to enjoy first-hand, she’s a formidable improv violinist and violist taken solely as a recorded entity in this trio program with Misha Feigin and Craig Hultgren recorded and released in 2000.

Misha Feigin is a key example of an artistic career paralleling the transformation of Russian culture from Communist restrictions to Capitalist freedom, and alongside so many other artists documented on Leo Records, he’s a pioneer of improvised music in Russia. More than an improvisor on classical guitar and balalaika, Feigin has formed his reputation as a troubadour of sorts, bridging gaps between Russian-language and English-language audiences with his synthesis of folk tunes, improv, singing, and storytelling. While primarily capturing his skills as a pure improvisor, this disc portrays the scope and aesthetic diffusion of an artist resolving the conflicts between a foregrounded singer/storyteller role with accompaniment and an equal collective free improv format. All told, his voice weighs in as the feature on three pieces totalling about 16 minutes out of a 64-minute program. Additionally, on “Curley” his voice elevates the music considerably as a subtle element of collective interplay for one passage. On “The Singing” and “Dimensions Lost (A Giant Twang Out of the Sky)”, Feigin more or less recites English poetry from his own pen, and while it’s easy to cite the virtues of his wordcraft and the tremendously effective improv that Hultgren and Smith wrap around it, I honestly have found his mildly jarring accent and effusive melodrama to be a bit too much to take on repeated spins through the disc, skipping ahead to the tracks without vocals.

On the other hand, the title track and sole example of Feigin as a flat-out singer is absolutely stunning and not only bears plenty of repeated listening, but is reason enough by itself for anyone to acquire this album. Feigin’s voice has both the confidence and power of a stalwart torch-bearer of some folk tradition and the uninhibited expressive urgency of scattish free improvisor, freely alternating between linguistic and non-linguistic vocal contours as he attacks the moment in genuine free interplay with Hultgren’s cello and Smith’s violin. It’s all too rare to hear vocal improvisation suggesting some imaginary folk music and the accreted treasures of wailed melodies, holding itself accountable to no idiom in particular but accepting the underlying old-fashioned musicality shared by traditional idioms. The Russian feeling of his voice is so strong, however, that it could also just be considered a kind of Russian free folk music. I only wish that the album had a few more tracks with Feigin’s unbridled vocal improv, especially since the string improv in a few pieces can veer towards tedium for all its consistent balance and craftmanship.

It’s hard not to be floored by this disc after the free song music of the title track, mainly because it appears second and the disc’s opener is nearly 15 minutes of flawless and profound free improv fully mining the timbral riches of the three acoustic instruments. “Summer Wind, No Sleep” is also the only piece where the trio dips into the tense and edgy abstraction associated with prototypical non-idiomatic free improv like MIC and the golden years of the Russell/Durrant pairing. Hultgren and Smith squeeze out some gripping sustained soft squeals with their bows and Feigin plucks his way into some uncharacteristically non-linear paroxysms. Delicate harmonics are given as much attention as sawing and riffing, and the mood hovers in elegaic territory contrasting with the more sprightly leanings of other pieces.

Even in this epic wonder, the trio displays its distance and independence from the free improv avant-garde. This is a kind of timeless free improv bearing no self-conscious aesthetic agenda or aversion to familiar musical habits. The tremendous compatibility among the players reflects shared old-fashioned musical values; melody, repetition, riffing, phrasal alignment, and extended motivic development are the primary stuctural concerns. With the adventurous spirit to be expected in a free improv setting balanced against a conservative Euro-centric folk/classical underpinning, the music strikes me as a free improv counterpart to the old-world strains in mid-20th century academic music, especially the full-blooded anti-hermeticism of Alfred Schnittke’s string quartets. The strident, angular rhythms and narrative unfolding of Feigin’s strumming patterns seem rooted in the same East European traditional folk aesthetic that Bartok and so many other pioneers of notationalism adopted to varying degrees of abstraction. Hultgren’s playing in particular has the unswerving sense of purpose and control of someone playing a part in a string quartet they’ve committed to memory as a personal reference point. His virtuosity and confident willingness to repeat lucid motifs instead of constantly searching for new material is evidence of his success in reconciling an academic music background with free improv instead of abandoning this background and groping for a new vocabulary as so many academically-trained players tend to do in free improv situations.

Rarely using extended techniques, but freely accepting harsher sounds as part of their instrument’s full timbral spectrum, Hultgren and Smith revel in the warmth and depth of bowed strings, and that’s at least half the explanation for the copious rewards I’ve found in this album; I really just have an endless appetite for the nuances of cello, viola, and violin in pretty much any aesthetic context, but especially in a context like this where the nuances are brought well into the foreground. Of course, delicious timbres alone don’t tell the whole story; it’s the split-second sensitivity and creativity of master improvisors like these three that complete the timeless package.

Thanks for reminding everybody of LaDonna's provenance in the American free-improv world. It's a shame those 70's releases she and Davey did on TransMuseq are un-reissued and probably will ever remain so.

Tom DjllOctober 5, 2005

Seeing Trans play at the old Race street Gallery in Grand Rapids Michigan ( In 89 was it? ) was one of those tranformational moments. LaDonna is still one of the most remarkable improvisors I have ever heard.

Doug HolbrookOctober 5, 2005