Composer, arranger, and violinist/violist Lev Zhurbin, a.k.a. Ljova, has a diverse array of musical projects, including commissions by The Louisville Orchestra and collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. His latest addition is SoLò Ópus (Kapustnik Records), a short album of solo improvised music for the six-string fadolín and loop pedal, as well as one viola solo. Ljova frames these tracks as quintessential free improvisations, emphasizing the precarious nature of performing with looping technology and the new scope of creativity that improvising offers. However, the album fails to meet this sell. The pieces are tuneful and demonstrate an ear for evocative string playing, but—looped or not—they do not move beyond the immediate comfort level of a professional musician. Improvisation can be an amazing point of creative departure and an opportunity to challenge yourself, but Ljova clearly has the chops to push his exploration much further.
The album opens with “The Comet,” certainly the most colorful improvisation on the recording. Here, Ljova most successfully demonstrates the possibilities at his creative disposal, with intriguing juxtapositions of material and a fluid, responsive development that showcases the depth of his playing. He uses the loop pedal to good effect, generating a multi-layered orchestration of slithering melodies and ornaments. This builds to a mass culmination before bursting back to a single, lonely melody. Not only does Ljova weave a compelling arc, but he fully explores his materials and how they might interact.
This exploration is the element so critically missing from the remainder of SoLò Ópus. “Say It” is a lilting tune that builds in two sections of layering homophony, the first of which repeats at the end. It’s full of very familiar neo-Romantic harmonies and melodies, which is no problem—but there’s nothing at stake here in Ljova’s improvisation. He points out in his press release how things “go wrong often… It’s challenging to be very precise—I welcome imprecision with open arms and see where it may lead,” but then he generates a texture of Romantic string playing so intensely idiomatic that it is hard to believe he is truly under threat of misplacing a note or forgetting the phrase structure. Perhaps if the textures were more complicated it would seem a feat, but they simply aren’t. Complexity is not a necessity for interest, but I suspect he had little problem keeping rhythmic and harmonic place in this 4×4 grid of eighth note-heavy melody.
The third track, “Lamento Larry,” is a more somber, expressive recording that displays the rich lower range provided by the fadolín’s low F and C strings (hence Fa-Do-lin). The track is fairly convincing, but, as with “Say It,” Ljova fails to rise to the occasion his material offers. He establishes a ruminative bass line, then slowly explores and reinforces the harmonic space with expanding melodies. Some of the chromaticism pushes tonal boundaries, but this is what makes the track exciting at its best. The pulse and tonality grow nebulous, and it seems as though Ljova will lean into the cacophonous web captured in the loop pedal and truly let the lines fly—just as he scales it back and slims the texture down to the opening bass idea.
The final track, “Lullaby for J.S.,” is the odd one out of the bunch, a viola solo recorded by the hospital bed of Jonathan Strasser. Ljova’s gentle pizzicato interacts with the beeping of a monitor and the background chatter of patients, doctors, and visitors. It’s an endearing tribute to a lifelong mentor and doesn’t, I think, mean to be more than that. The criticisms above apply here too—but the context is sufficiently different that it seems less important.
Which brings me to the question of this album; what is Ljova’s goal? What does improvisation mean to him, to musicians or listeners in general? Is it simply performing un-notated music, a fairly broad generalization that captures much on a technicality? Should it reshape familiar ideas, propose new ones, challenge the audience, challenge the performer? Does it imply new practices of interaction? Is it just a means of playing—but then, is there a difference between improvising and “jamming?” Does it matter?
Many people have written extensively and articulately on the nature of improvisation versus rehearsed performance—in addition to Derek Bailey’s Improvisation, notable essays include George Lewis’ “Improvised Music After 1950,” Vijay Iyer’s “Improvisation: Terms and Conditions,” and Edward Said’s “Performance as an Extreme Occasion.” What tends to emerge, though, is that improvisation is fundamentally more than its components; it is a potential site for negotiation of music, identity, and power. It is a reason to learn your instrument intimately: so that you may deeply engage with it—even (especially) if that instrument is a piece of interactive technology—and perform with vulnerability.
Ljova does not seem to position himself within this critical lineage of improvisation, which is fine. But he clearly, as a performer and creator, has the potential to push beyond his current perception of improvised music into an exciting realm of material and performance exploration. SoLò Ópus is perhaps a step on that path.