The title of Another Timbre’s latest series of releases, “Violin +1”, would seem to imply that the violin is the star, and the ‘+1’ just an accompaniment. However, the label’s recording of composer Linda Catlin Smith’s “Dirt Road” is very much an equal partnership between violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick, if anything slightly skewed towards the percussion. Unfolding over fifteen movements, the order of which is intended to be flexible, the piece drifts and meanders through a wild and intensely-evoked world of forest, weather, and silence.
One of the most immediately striking movements is the second, in which a melody is played in unison by violin and vibraphone. The differences in timbre between the two instruments pushes the sharper sound of the violin to the fore, bathed in the oscillating glow of the vibraphone, as if the latter was the former’s echo. To put it another way, the violin clearly originates from a single point, whereas the vibraphone seems to be coming from everywhere. It’s hard to tell where the melody they play is going, but certain motifs repeat both here and across the work as a whole. The silence used frequently in later movements suggests the silence of the forest, the decay of ringing vibraphone chords and the petering out of violin notes like the just-heard memory, the ‘aftersound’, of a snapping twig or a bird ruffling into flight. Cymbal mallet splashes and violin whines recall gusts of wind, and tricks of aural perspective suggest sounds that are loud and distant or quiet and close.
For me, the ability of “Dirt Road” to capture the feeling of a solitary walk through a forest or wilderness becomes, after a few listens, very powerful and affecting, even though it’s never articulated explicitly. It’s like a kind of re-enactment of such a walk, a kind of “this happened”. A certain mystery and ambiguity means that I’m never quite sure where I am. However, there’s also a sense of narrative to the order of the movements as they are on the album: initial relaxed energy and enthusiasm, a sort of doldrums in the middle as the dirt road gets steeper and tiredness sets in, and towards the end a tense hurrying to get home before dark or before the weather breaks (with a pitter-patter across violin strings already suggesting rain). This is just one way of hearing the piece, of course, and the composer notes that as the order of the movements is flexible, “one can always take a different route home”. In my experience, playing the album on shuffle creates a more twisting, convoluted path.
The piece is impeccably played by Benjamin and Limbrick, with a beautiful measuredness and control that, far from sounding dry, allows the dense stillness of the music to come through. In many ways, the attention of “Dirt Road” feels turned outwards and tuned in to the innumerable subtle soundings and resonances of the world, which is a kind of music I love to hear and one that points, perhaps, to a different, more sensitive way of being. Terrific work!