A Good Temperament

Violinist Chris Prosser sent us a copy of Mistune For Violin & Tanpura (RONGOTAI RECORDS RRCD-1) from his home in Wellington, New Zealand. This fellow used to play in the London Musician’s Collective in the 1980s and 1990s, which may imply that he was committed to the free improvisational mode, but his Mistune is a careful combination of improv and composition, designed to explore “harmonic and emotional interplay” between these two instruments, Prosser’s violin and the tanpura of Susan Thomson. There’s something clever about the tunings which is not revealed in much detail in the notes – “not far in distance from standard pitch” is pretty much all he will tell us, but I suppose the clue is in the title ‘Mistunes’. He also takes care to point out that nine strings are available in this musical situation, and evidently he doesn’t wish to lose the potential of a single harmonic event.

Some musicians might elect to proceed down this “wrong tuning” route in pursuit of a rather narrow intellectual point, for instance La Monte Young and his Just Intonation producing jarring discords on his well-tuned piano; or Tony Conrad who seemed to want to undermine the foundations of western civilisation, starting with the ancient Pythagorean tuning and its theory of frequency ratios. Conversely, Chris Prosser is evidently more interested in creating beautiful music. These 15 instrumentals are simply delightful – moving, emotional, and rich in compassion. In places, his warm and understated work reminded me most of John Clyde-Evans, who very coincidentally also played the violin (or at least he did, until he was seduced down an electronic keyboard course to produce his drones) and was likewise a benevolent friend of humanity. The other thing I would note is that Prosser’s method seems to have led him to abandon the restrictions of conventional classical structure, with very good results – each piece is porous and open-ended, with no rush towards an expected climax, and free from the traditional tension-and-release format.

Prosser seems to have found his way to this desirable position simply by exploring tunings, though perhaps there’s some Indian (or other non-Western) influence, if he knows about the conventions of the tanpura. Prosser’s aesthetic and poetic sensibilities are further evidenced by the concise descriptive subtitles assigned to each title, such as “so relaxed it barely comes into being”, “a short wave”, and “smell of the sea”; at times he seems to be painting the landscape around him with his music. Other subtitles could be read as annotations of the compositional structure, such as “tension and resolve continually built in” and “a name that belies neutral temperament”. No formal understanding of musical notation or tunings needed, though, folks – just bring your ears and enjoy a wonderful record. Be sure to look for similar previous records on the Kauri Music label, called Pacific and Flight. From 27th November 2018.

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