Violinist Yvonne Lam (credit: Stephanie Bassos)

Yvonne Lam’s debut solo album blends violin and electronics in an ode to women composers

Watch Over Us
Yvonne Lam, violin.
Missy MAZZOLI: Tooth and Nail
Katherine BALCH: Apartment Sounds
Nathalie JOACHIM: Watch Over Us
Anna CLYNE: Rest These Hands
Eve BEGLARIAN: Well-Spent
Kate MOORE: Synaesthesia Suite
Blue Griffin BGR 647
Release Date: July 28, 2023
Format: CD & digital
Duration: 52:57

Melinda Bargreen | 7 SEP 2023

Fans of new music and great string playing already know the violinist Yvonne Lam for eight years of performances with the Grammy-winning ensemble Eighth Blackbird (of which she was formerly co-artistic director, 2011-2019). Her championing of new works and emerging composers has also led to a career of teaching, mentoring, and residencies at universities and conservatories across the country. She now teaches at Michigan State University.

Watch Over Us: Works for Solo Violin and Electronics is her first solo album, and it is devoted to new works “by remarkable women,” as Lam puts it. And “remarkable” is certainly the right word: inventive, virtuosic, and thought-provoking, the six tracks on this disc are not your usual solo-violin recording.

These are soundscapes, soundtracks, sound-symphonies; sounds that “fall gratefully upon the ear,” and sounds that are more challenging; pieces of dazzling virtuosity and kaleidoscopic colors. This is a recording to make you rethink the range of possibilities available to the solo violin.

BGR 647 cover art

BGR 647 cover art

The six pieces recorded here include new and recent works by Anna Clyne, Eve Beglarian, Kate Moore, Katherine Balch, Missy Mazzoli, and Nathalie Joachim (Joachim’s piece, the title track, is a world premiere recording). The expressive range is dizzying. And as Lam observes in the liner notes, although she is the only live performer in each piece, “It never feels like a solo.” That’s because each composer has created the fixed-media part exactly the way she wants it, as an expression of her musical taste, and Lam feels that each composer is her performance partner. It’s an intriguing concept.

The first work, Missy Mazzoli’s Tooth and Nail, is a real ear-opener right from its aggressive opening – with peppery repeated notes that provide an unsettling background to the violin’s angular solo line. Gradually, these motifs morph into what sounds like an entire string section; the tension decreases as extended ensemble chords provide the background for what sounds like a string quartet. The solo voice recedes and subsides, re-emerging with a soaring line that is interrupted by various outbursts. The piece keeps a constant energy of the repeated notes, sometimes advancing and sometimes receding. Portamento swoops and sliding melodies appear and disappear; lower voices gradually move into prominence, and lower cello-register lines swell and recede while the solo violin provides countering commentary that slowly quiets and calms.

Lam’s beautiful tone quality gives all this an extra dimension, especially near the end: a lingering exploratory line in contrabass territory moves into earshot, with the extended lyrical solo violin and occasional interjections from the ensemble.

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And now, something completely different: Katherine Balch’s Apartment Sounds, which opens with a crash-tinkle-tinkle suggestive of … broken glassware? A ticking clock; plucked violin chords; many sound effects; a bell that sounds like an old-fashioned shop entry; a panorama of delicate sound effects. Meanwhile, the violin continues its plucked perambulation along the way; a subtle bowed violin line gives way to a menacing crescendo and, finally, the faint sounds of a siren in the distance.

The third and title track is the world premiere of Nathalie Joachim’s Watch Over Us, and it offers a soundscape of anonymous sounds – faint noises; flowing “shh-shh” sibilants reminiscent of flowing water; extended notes; the far-distant barely-heard echoes of someone speaking and then gently singing. Over all this, the solo violin capers in scampering lines that end in long, ruminative tones. Underneath, in the background and in a lower register, held notes give a quiet foundation. Gradually, the solo line becomes more agitated, frequently in double-stops. Joachim’s liner note tells us that the electronic track is “intended to be distinctly fixed, yet yearns for the fluidity of the acoustic violin. The work closes with the violin taking on some of that duality – a metaphorical blurring of lines between the hard and soft edges of life.”

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I Rest These Hands, the fourth piece on this recording, is technically an acoustic piece: there is no electronic track, but instead a spoken poem, read over violin double-stops with an extended D and a melodic line that rises above it. Composer Anna Clyne has created restless arpeggios that move up and down in virtuoso lines that sound like an improvisatory cadenza; it’s a real virtuoso piece with a nod to J.S. Bach. Arpeggiated chords lead to soaring, speedy passagework that sounds spontaneous. Then a calmer, slower, powerfully lyrical ruminative line introduces the spoken text (“I Rest These Hands,” a beautiful poem written by the composer’s late mother):

“I rest these hands
World weary
I rest these hands
Toiled weary
Long before they should
These hands
Palmed to palmed
With wonder

The fifth track, Eve Beglarian’s Well-Spent, offers flurries of arpeggios up and down, like an orchestra of agitated birds, as gradually a bluesy melody emerges amidst all the excited flutterings. Lam’s violin sound takes on a remarkable array of characters and colorations.

Finally, the Synaesthesia Suite that concludes the disc is a real showpiece, an aural kaleidoscope. Repeated solo violin notes wander over a meandering background of synthesized violin, with widely varied timbres and textures, though, ultimately, it can seem a little motoric. The final few minutes of this nearly 18-minute track sound distinctly improvisatory, as if the composer (Kate Moore) were trying out various synthesized sounds in the dialog between synthesized and acoustic/solo violin.


About the author:
Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.