Smoczyński’s “Metamorphoses” a Fascinating Album

metamorphoses

METAMORPHOSES / M. SMOSZYŃSKI: Dorothy’s Dream. Violin Sonata No. 1, “Metamorphoses.” Manhattan Island. Up-Down. The Farmer. Zakopane. Dragonfly. Midnight Psalm. J. SMOCZYŃSKI: The Old Tune. SUMMER: Julie-O / Mateusz Smoczyński, vln/bar-vln / Zbigniew Siebert Foundation CD-FZS-4

My thanks to Turtle Island Quartet founder David Balakrishnan for telling me about this CD, released this past fall. Mateusz Smoczyński was second violinist of his quartet from 2012-2016, years I missed due to my financial situation and being unable to procure TIQ albums the way I used to. One online description of this album says this:

This is the fourth album by Polish violinist / composer Mateusz Smoczyński and his debut solo violin recording. The album, recorded at the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, presents thirteen compositions, four of which are parts of a violin sonata No.1, which gave the album its title. Smoczyński is the composer of eleven of these compositions, one composition is by his older brother Jan Smoczynski and one is by Mark Summer, the cellist and co-founder of the legendary Turtle Island Quartet. The closing piece of the album, called “Midnight Psalm,” was inspired by the Zbigniew Seifert composition “Evening Psalm.”

The idea to have Zbigniew Seifert Foundation record and release Mateusz Smoczyński’s solo CD was quite obvious, as he won the 2nd Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition in 2016, and the foundation does not limit itself just to awarding the prize but cooperates closely with the competition winners, organising their concerts and supporting them in recording activity.

Despite the strong classical bias of the album—all the pieces here are composed, albeit with room left in for improvised passages—it has received a surprising amount of attention from the American and European jazz press. All of it is positive, but as is usually the case, most jazz critics have no concept of classical form or structure and therefore can’t adequately describe what is going on in this music. Dorothy’s Dream, for instance, is a modal piece in C in which Smoczyński plays chorded notes on the first and third beats of each bar in the opening exposition before moving into gentle rocking figures, playing a single-note accompaniment to himself on a lower string. In the following chorus, Smoczyński accompanies himself in an opposing melody on the baritone violin (dubbed in). This gives the music a second “voice” and it is in this part that he indulges in improvisation. At the end, the top violin falls away and the baritone plays the last few notes.

His Violin Sonata, “Metamohproses,” opens with a mysterious figure played in G, with out-of-chord embellishments and commentary as it goes along. There are pauses between the different sections of the piece, in which Smoczyński changes the key and with it, the color of the music. This first movement, however, never seems to fully develop; it is, rather, almost a sort of warm-up or prelude to the music yet to come. The second movement, titled “Lament,” is really not all that much like a lament; rather, it consists of falling figures that move sometimes chromatically and sometimes stepwise, followed in turn by rising figures that move through several keys. The tempo then doubles, with Smoczyński showing off some nice bow technique in chording. The rising and falling chromatic figures now become more agitated, followed by what is probably an improvised chorus built around the preceding material (and swinging with a bit of a jazz beat) before the tempo doubles yet again in the finale.

We then reach the third movement, “Mantra.” This begins with odd and oddly-spaced chords, searching for a home key but not quite deciding on one. As the movement progresses, Smoczyński shortens the time frame of each chord and omits the spaces between them, eventually adding a bit of the downbow “chop” developed by Balakrishnan. Eventually the music becomes quite agitated—a mantra, indeed! In the last movement, “Confession,” Smoczyński rips through a series of eighth note phrases almost nonstop, creating a swirling cyclone of sound.

From this point on, most of the material is more jazz-oriented although still with a sense of structure. The sequence begins with Mark Summers’ Julie-O, reduced from its string quartet version to be played on a single instrument. Like many of the pieces that follow, Julie-O has not only a jazz feel but also a sort of country bluegrass feel about it. Smoczyński plays some nice pizzicato here on the baritone violin, using strummed chords on that instrument to accompany his solo on the regular violin. He adds a nice touch by slightly displacing the beats in the accompaniment, rearranging them ever-so-slightly to suggest movement.

Manhattan Island, a piece that he wrote and recorded with his own Atom String Quartet, is given the solo treatment here. Although not quite as flashy as his own solo in the quartet version, Smoczyński nonetheless is fully engaged in the music’s urban bluegrass/jazz swagger, again using a second instrument to accompany himself, providing his own “chops” along with some frenetic bowed figures to push the rhythm along. Harmonically the piece is relatively static, sticking to just two chords, but he cleverly manages to increase the tempo ever-so-slightly as he goes along which sucks the listener into his maelstrom of sound.

The Old Tune, written by his brother Jan, starts out with odd single notes, spaced in such a way that they don’t quite make up a melody. There are also pauses between the first few choruses. Then Smoczyński begins to embellish the music slightly, slowly but surely “filling out” the sketchy score to create a real tune, eventually moving into double-time arpeggiated chords played as accompaniment to the melody, now fully formed. Up-Down is another bluegrass-oriented piece, rather uptempo, here using a stepwise melodic line that quickly evolves into a splendid improvisation. Smoczyński really gets going in this one, even to the extent of throwing in some quick double-time figures just for fun.

The Farmer is another bluegrass-type piece, this one quite uptempo and played with almost continual accompaniment from the baritone violin. The brief and somewhat simple theme is briefly heard, then it’s off to the races with improvisation. Smoczyński is quite virtuosic on this one. By contrast, the opening of Zakopane is played on the edge of the strings, creating a weird, almost ghostly sound before Smoczyński moves into a somewhat dolorous sort of melody that resembles Give Peace a Chance. Eventually he starts playing the development section on open strings, accompanying himself with pizzicato (whether on the same instrument or another, I don’t know). By contrast, Dragonfly is a perpetuum mobile played primarily on the baritone violin, although (it sounds to me) with “chops” provided by the regular violin. It’s a dizzying yet repetitive tune, really just a lick or two, over which Smoczyński adds all sorts of unusual sounds, including high string playing, again on the edge, to simulate the buzz of a dragonfly.

We end with Midnight Psalm, which opens in a more classical manner with a fully-formed introduction, alluding to a melody yet to come before actually heading in that direction. When it comes, however, the rhythm has changed—again to a quasi-bluegrass—and the tempo has increased. The fun of the piece comes in the “breaks” between the simple chorded theme where Smoczyński adds a dazzling array of violinistic tricks.

Taken altogether, an entertaining yet enlightening disc!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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