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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Biliana Voutchkova: DUOS2022

Biliana Voutchkova. Photo (c) Photomusix/Cristina Marx

Biliana Voutchkova is a violinist/composer/multi-disciplinary artist who splits her time between Berlin and the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. She is deeply ingrained in the music scene of Berlin, playing with well known groups such as the Splitter Orchestra and Zeitkratzer, as well as many other groups like Jane in Ether and a duo with clarinetist Michael Thieke. She is also the organizer of the DARA String Festival in Germany and involved in many other endeavors, like for example, the DUOS2022 series on Relative Pitch Records. 
It is this download only series, which we are focusing on here today on the Free Jazz Blog, Voutchkova has developed seven duo collaborations with friends and colleagues. We are linking to the Harmonic Series newsletter, conceived of and edited by long-time Free Jazz Collective writer Keith Prosk. For this month's edition, Keith sat down with Voutchkova to talk about her work (which he has also reviewed throughout 2022). Here on the Free Jazz Blog, Nick Ostrum, Matthew Banash, and Paul Acquaro have written about their impressions of Voutchkova’s DUOS2022 work to date, which you can read in full below.

For those of you curious about Harmonic Series newsletter, there is a Q&A with Keith below. 


Biliana Voutchkova and Joanna Mattrey – Like Thoughts Coming (Relative Pitch, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

On Like Thoughts Coming, Biliana Voutchkova (here on field recordings as well as violin) is joined by Joanna Mattrey on viola. Having first heard Voutchkova on the long-tone Für Biliana and the surprisingly busy though still understated White Bricks and the Wooden Mutes, I expected something more gradualist and more in line with contemporary classical sounds. On that note, cheers to Voutchkova and her collaborators for continuing to push the boundaries and defy my assumptions.

Like Thoughts Coming is still quiet and subtle. It is just of a different, rougher aesthetic than some of her other work. Voutchkova and Mattrey weave hollow, wooden lines over backdrops of cat-meows, bird sounds, and other whispers and sibilants. (Approach Memory and Of Birds are two cases-in-point.) The elements blend seamlessly together. Rather than music performed over field recordings, the striated strings emerge out of that environmental ambiance, and closely placed microphones capture the viola and violin in such a manner that they seem to bleed backwards into the ambient chirps, squeaks and rustling. In short, this sounds full, which is a notable accomplishment given how hushed and wonderfully jagged so much of this performance is.

Like Thoughts Coming is available as a download through Bandcamp:


Biliana Voutchkova and Michael Zerang – The Emerald Figurines (Relative Pitch, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

The Emerald Figurines features Chicago doyen-of-percussion Michael Zerang and Voutchkova. Zerang, of course, has made the rounds through various avant-garde styles numerous times over his career. On this, he reconnoiters the heavily abstract realms he has been pursuing, for instance, on Uruk , though with slightly more verve, or less restraint. What is remarkable about this release is the ways in which Voutchkova’s heavily percussive and scratchy style blends into Zerang’s pattering, but with, as the title implies, a sheen. Voutchkova and Zerang seem to have like-minds on this session, frequently occupying the same space while remarkably refraining from vying to be heard. Rather, they intertwine organically in a series of pieces that evoke an old building battered on a gusty night. The wind howls through its gaps, squeezes the misshapen wood until it creaks, sounds musically on the rusted pipes, and fills the air with its own windstorm of sounds. Loose metal scrapes and old machines purr irregularly. Loose hinges squeak as if they are chimes. Metallic rain pitter-patters on odd surface. At the end of one track, Voutchkova contributes strange passages of inscrutable labials, fricatives and snarls. This is a lot for such understated music, and all of it from just two (master) musicians. The Emerald Figurines is perplexing but deeply interesting, and it grows more so with each repeated listen.

The Emerald Figurines is available as a download from Bandcamp:


Biliana Voutchkova and Susan Satos Silva - Bagra (Relative Pitch, 2022)

Biliana Voutchkova and Leila Bourdreil  - The Seventh Water (Relative Pitch, 2022)

Years ago when I was first getting into jazz I drove crosstown Charlotte, NC, at rush hour listening to Lee Morgan’s Cornbread and swear I made every light between here and there, about six or seven intersections spaced out just enough to make making them as dense and slippery as Mercury. And for a long time that was my litmus test of an album - how good did it sound in a crosstown drive? Did it make all that static blur by?

I’m much younger than that now and listened to Bagra and The Seventh Water, two recordings from Biliana Voutchkova along with a kindred musician, while walking my dogs on crisp mornings in early Autumn. It worked equally well. Each album is a solid, affirming aural document of soulful, intrepid artists playing idiosyncratic music that stretches time and messes playfully with sonorities.

Bagra has the duo of Biliana Voutchkova and Susan Santos Silva on violin, voice, piano, percussion, objects as they swap, tones, sounds and spirit.

As Voutchkova explains in the notes, “The recording of Bagra was done in one breath. It was deeply enjoyable to be in a state of completely circulating synergy, deep understanding and liberation. The two long tracks of the album are the first we played, released without any editing. And that’s exactly what it sounds like, the two letting it rip live in the studio.

The soundscapes created together are bringing me to a new zone of exploration, into a world of lush and rich sonorous string timbres full of color and spectral overtones, where music and noise happily coexist as pure luminous sound.

Voutchkova pairs her violin with Leila Bordreuil’s cello on The Seventh Water. This recording has twice the songs but less time. The fewer instruments and lesser time don’t matter a bit and only exemplify Voutchkova’s esprit de corps in general.

Music like this isn’t always easy. The way it bubbles and flits, burps and plucks can cause one to check the smoke detector’s battery, you know, make you hear things. But that is one of its strengths and certainly not only one of its many features.

It never ceases to amaze me when artists use their media, instruments or resources to transcend them in delivering an aesthetic promise. Biliana Voutchkova is a deep artist who plays well with like-minded others. The symbioses of these recordings make it stunningly obvious.

Biliana Voutchkova and Tomeka Reid - Bricolage III (Relative Pitch, 2022)

By Paul Acquaro

This edition of violinist Biliana Voutchkova's DUOS2022 series, a growing set of digital releases from the boundary pushing Relative Pitch Records, is a collaboration with Chicago based cellist Tomeka Reid. First brought together in the virtual world for the Goethe-Institut Chicago supported Bricolage series, by curators Magda Mayas (Berlin) and Dave Rempis (Chicago), this encounter then turned into another virtual performance at Reid's Chicago Jazz String Summit and finally an in-person performance at Voutchkova's DARA String Festival in Berlin.

The end result of these meetings is Bricolage III, a ethereal and visceral cooperation, complete with an accompanying video by Voutchkova that expresses a visual side of the duos work. In fact, the video is a visual feast of both monochromatic and colorful textures, and motion that rolls with the flow of the music. In the first section of the film, a close up riven tree bark reveals an intricate topography that seems like it could function as a graphical score to the musicians earthen, woodsy timbres. Later, images of the two musicians hands, in slowly moving poses provides other imagery to the music. The second part of the film begins with the close up of flowers, now in full color, presaging a return to the hand imagery. The music in this section is over a dark, alluring figure from Reid, with Voutchkova adorning it with rough sonorities (entitled 'For giving' on the recording).

On the recording, the tracks are entitled "For showing", "For getting", and "For giving," of which all captivatingly capture the friction, tensions, releases that the synergy of the two musicians generate. The music is full of swirling lines, scratching and percussive textures, and deeply empathetic playing.


Q&A with Keith Prosk

FJB: Tell us about your newsletter Harmonic Series, how did you decide to start it? 

Keith Prosk: I think I started for quite a few reasons! I really truly enjoy contributing to The Free Jazz Collective but I wanted to be more comfortable writing about music that doesn’t have a foot in jazz or is understood to lean towards improvisation; the newsletter still includes a lot of that kind of music, it’s just an avenue to write about other stuff too. And I had difficulty getting my foot in the door of other publications and might have some strong thoughts around music writing so I decided to start my own thing. I copied the email newsletter format from Tone Glow because so much of the networking in this music happens via email and I thought that was fitting. I also appreciate Joshua Minsoo Kim’s longform, raw interviews and adopted a similar approach for harmonic series’ conversations over the typical profiles cut with a writer’s context because I’d personally rather hear it from the horse’s mouth so to speak. There’s the notations - I see I can go into depth about this in the next question. And then there’s reviews, open but often for recently released recordings of music, where we try for a charitable engagement focused on interpretation or decoding how parameters of sound create an experience over evaluation or hand-holding readers through the press package. There’s a lot of variability baked into the larger and smaller features, the only limits are those of the newsletter contributors, and I’m glad to host essays or recurring features on sound in film for instance but it’s just worked out that it’s always interviews and notations so far. 

FJB:  What interests you in graphic notations?

KP: I was probably first drawn to non-standard notation by the novelty of representing sound with something other than standard symbols, the possibility that I could actually understand scores as someone that doesn’t read standard notation, and the rarity of writing or presentation around non-standard notation. Beyond the recurring feature in harmonic series some other writings on non-standard notation that I’m aware of include: John Cage & Alison Knowles’ Notations from 1969 and Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21 from 2009 for books (both out-of-print); periodicals like Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen’s IM-OS, Ryoko Akama’s mumei, Magda Mayas & friends’ Graphème, or Sound American’s exquisite corpse feature; and more infrequent efforts including Christopher Williams’ navigable dissertation Tactile Paths, some Daniel Barbiero writings such as Graphic Scores & Musical Post-Literacy, Casey Anderson & friends’ The Experimental Music Yearbook, a recent issue of Bill Dietz & Woody Sullender’s Ear | Wave | Event, or the Center for Deep Listening’s A Year of Deep Listening celebrating what would have been Pauline Oliveros’ ninetieth year by sharing text scores daily. In quantity these efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to other words around music but I think they’re important for a number of reasons.

Many listeners most often approach sound through recordings and performances and, particularly in the case of the latter, there can be a bias in which one interpretation or realization is considered the way the music should sound, whereas access to the score might illuminate a field of interpretive tensions and possible realizations, especially with something like shape, color, or other methods of conveyance without a standard sound result traditionally associated with them. The experience and creation of sound are so broad to be limited by standard notation or really any system so something as nebulous as everything under the sun accommodates the diversity of approaches to sound composers and performers could have. Similarly from a pedagogical perspective I think it’s beneficial to demonstrate a low barrier to entry in writing music that can allow for a greater range of complexity and can be customized to remain truer to what a composer or piece or performer wants to convey. As a bonus pieces can often stand as visual art or poetry on their own. This is what’s coming to mind for now but I’m always learning and I expect to continue learning for some time because I’ve found the practitioners of non-standard notation number many more than I ever expected, including many people familiar to blog readers that might not necessarily be associated with composition.

FJB: Speaking now of the focus of our feature, how did you discover Biliana's work? What do you enjoy about it?

KP: Blurred Music is the first time I listened to Biliana. I picked it up off a music forum from Alex Tripp, who runs the endaural blog, and I don’t remember whether I was drawn to it by recognizing Biliana and Michael’s names from Splitter Orchester, whose roster I was using as a resource to begin to dig into echtzeitmusik at the time, or having interest in what improv Alex would be into, which the split credit probably gave away. I think Biliana’s sound is often the right mix of frequently conceptual approach, expansive textures, fluid and often slow time, and quiet dynamics that I tend to find comfortable. Following our conversation, I also prefer listening to smaller groups, where I feel I can understand the interaction of individual contributions with group dynamics better, and to things in series, where I think subtle variations across iterations can reveal the kernel of the work. So I was excited to hear that Biliana now has more time to explore sound in series and travel to present it.