Review—Bird as Prophet: Challenging the Known, Reveling in the Unknown

November 27, 2019
Daniel Schreiner for I care if you listen
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In his own musical pursuits, violinist David Bowlin continues to reflect the spirit of diversity championed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which he is a founding member. Bird as Prophet (New Focus Recordings) is a rigorous and thoughtful addition to Bowlin’s extensive discography. Casting a wide net over its six tracks, the album is resolutely eclectic: pieces responding to the Western classical violin tradition interspersed with works referencing Bulgarian folkloric singing and Vedic chant. Yet Bird as Prophet is united by a permeating restlessness, a sense of grappling with the musical past and endeavoring to rearrange familiar elements into new, transfigured contexts. […]

Du Yun. Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theater

The album closes with Du Yun’s Under a Treean Udātta (2016). Against the gently rolling rhythm of Vedic chanting, Bowlin employs a vocabulary of harsh low tremolos, flitting arpeggiations, wide vibrato, and crunchy microtonal double stops. The most pervasive element of Under a Tree is the drone: supplied not only by the monks’ chanting, but also the violin’s open D string. Yet this drone differs from all previous examples within Bird as Prophet—not as a tonal anchor for shifting, searching harmonies, not as an expressive reflection of the melodic material above it, but as a true constant. While there is a sense of progression in the violin part, it is always in relation to a cyclic, timeless backdrop, a paradox of stillness within movement.

Under a Tree, an Udātta finally grants the listener rest and release from the turbulence of Bird as Prophet’s previous tracks. Striving for new perspectives and reconciliations with the musical past, the album acknowledges the violin’s place within the Western classical tradition, yet also revels in its versatility and ability to engage in dialogue with the globalized future. David Bowlin should be applauded not only for his artistry and command of his instrument, but also for his timely efforts to represent multiplicity and diversity in music, erasing boundaries instead of erecting them.