Look and Listen Festival 2011
Upright Piano Brigade

Digital Fiddler

DSC02837The CD release “party” has become a tired cliché in the indie/new music world: an exercise in self-promotion that usually disappoints, because most bands have no idea how to replicate their studio-cooked sound in live performance. Not to mention the "party" part is usually pretty lame.

A notable exception was violinist/composer/technologist Todd Reynolds' show at The Stone last Wednesday night, celebrating his ambitious solo debut, Outerborough (Innova). (This was actually Todd’s second “party”: the first was at LPR back in March, when Outerborough was released.) For the past few years, Todd has dedicated his life to exploring alternative means of violin performance, pushing the instrument well beyond its inherent limitations. To achieve this, he hooks up his two 18th C. Italian violins (or “fiddles” as he calls them) to a full battery of modern technology: pedals, wires, and a MacBook Pro through which he runs Ableton Live and MaxMSP, allowing him to process sounds and create loops in real time. (I’ve written - or at least attempted to write - about Todd’s use of Ableton previously.)

Wednesday’s show was also the culmination of an outrageously bold leap of musical faith. Four years ago, Todd left ETHEL, the renowned new music quartet he co-founded in 1999, decamping from NYC to industrial North Adams, MA, where he set up his musical workshop. He had everything to lose, banking his success on various technologies that were practically still in beta when he started. And, he pretty much went it alone, exploring everything from classical, to jazz, to techno. In the process, he managed to reinvent his instrument without ever falling down the “fusion” rabbit-hole.

Outerborough is actually a double-CD: “Outside” is filled with commissions from some of today’s leading composers, while “Inside” contains Todd’s own compositions. Both are remarkable, somehow managing to be both accessible and challenging, disturbing and satisfying.

Owen Pallett and Andrew Bird are the only other violinists I can think of who are doing anything like this at the moment (though their playing sometimes gets lost in their simultaneous singing.) And, like those other violinists, Todd has mastered the art of digital media, frequently using everything from Twitter (@digifiddler) to Facebook. It's as if he switched bodies with an indie rock kid trying everything he can to break through the clutter. 

For Wednesday’s show, Todd mostly stuck to others’ music, many of whom were in the audience for the occasion. Phil Kline’s “A Needle Pulling Fred” was a creepy mix of solo and samples. Michael Lowenstern's "Crossroards" was a blues-hued tribute to Robert Johnson. Paula Matthusen's "End of an Orange" was filled with scintillating pulses, while David T. Little's "and the sky was still there" used clips of an interview with former Army soldier Amber Ferentz, who spoke of her troubles with being gay in the military. Michael Gordon's "Tree Oh" for three violins - all played by Todd on the album - was performed with dancey intensity by Alarm Will Sound vets Caleb and Courtney Orlando. Throughout, trippy live visuals were provided by Todd's frequent partner-in-crime, Luke Dubois.

At the end of the night, we finally got to hear some of Todd's own compositions. "Taskforce Farmlab" was an essay in melodic propulsion. And the spiky, ridiculously complicated "Centrifuge" was played by a guitar robot - or GuitarBot - that has spent much of the past year touring as part of Pat Metheny's Orchestrion Tour. (You can watch a video about the GuitarBot here.)

As the last notes floated out of the speakers towards Avenue C, I came to the sudden realization that Music will carry you with it, and take you all the way across the finish line, no matter how improbable or far-off your goal might seem. I guess Todd's known that all along, hasn't he?

More pics on Flickr.