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Malcolm Goldstein: A Sounding of Sources

By Dan Warburton
Paris Transatlantic

As John Peel once memorably said after playing a track (I can't remember which one it was, sorry) in one of his Radio 1 shows early one January, "is it too early to name this Album of the Year?" The Malcolm Goldstein discography is far from enormous, but everything he's released, especially since the turn of the century, has been absolutely outstanding. If you only buy one CD this year, make sure it's this one. The word "organic" is bandied about much too glibly nowadays, and stuck on everything from washing powder to baked beans, but it's still the best adjective to describe Goldstein's work. When he uses a map of the rivers and streams of rural Vermont as a score for his The Seasons: Vermont, Malcolm Goldstein knows just what he's doing – you will recall he bought a plot of land in the woods there in the mid-60s and built his own log cabin from scratch.

"At night in the darkness of his cabin, and the silence of the woods, when Malcolm brings out his violin and starts to play for you, you gain a deeper understanding of where his music comes from," writes Peter Garland, in a splendid essay accompanying the disc – detailed and informative liner notes are a New World speciality, and this is one of the best booklets I've seen in a long time, also including an essay by WDR studio director Klaus Schöning, Goldstein's notes on the works, extensive artist biographies, a bibliography, selected discography and reproductions of the composer's immaculately hand-written scores.

Garland writes with precision and passion on how Goldstein's music effortlessly blends composition and improvisation, but the music does it even better. Configurations in Darkness (1995), derived from Bela Bartók's transcriptions of folksongs from Bosnia-Herzogovina, appears here in two beautifully recorded versions, one for Goldstein's solo violin from a concert in Boulder, Colorado, in 2002, the other for five-piece ensemble – in which the composer is joined by flautist Philippe Racine, clarinettist Philippe Micol, cellist Beat Schneider and trombonist Radu Malfatti – recorded in Berne, Switzerland, six years earlier. Both performances are exemplary, and it's especially wonderful to hear Malfatti actually playing the hell out of his trombone too, something we don't get to do much these days.

If composition and improvisation fuse perfectly in Goldstein's work, so do past and future; this isn't just great music, it's acoustic anthropology. In Ishi / timechangingspaces, a tape work originally broadcast by WDR Cologne in 1988, he plays along with scratchy loops of 1914 wax cylinder recordings of Ishi, the last surviving Yahi Indian who emerged from the woods of Northern California, in a truly moving "imaginary encounter" between two men separated in space and time. "Ishi has taught me something deeply about things in our human way and illuminated for me sensitivities within myself as well as in other people," Goldstein writes. "I am thankful to the sound of Ishi's voice. It taught me actually to hear qualities in his voice to affect the tuning of my violin, so that the violin began to sound in new ways I'd never heard before."

In Ishi / "man waxati" Soundings (1988), Goldstein explores some of those "new ways", particularly a retuning of the violin's A string up a quarter of a tone and its D string down just over a major third to sound an octave below the A string. This striking scordatura not only changes the timbre of the instrument considerably, but also allows him to play his characteristic inimitable figurations high on the second string with the open third string as an underpinning drone. From a purely technical point of view (take my word for it, I've spent more than half my life trying to learn how to play the violin) it's fuckin' mindblowing. Nobody else in the world sounds remotely like Malcolm Goldstein. What's more, this version of Ishi / "man waxati" Soundings was recorded in the naturally resonant acoustic of Europe's largest cave system, the Grotte de Lombrives in Ussat-les-Bains in the Pyrenees, and Goldstein's understanding and incorporation of the natural reverb of the space is simply stunning. It's as if the cave itself has become part and parcel of the work itself, and the composer, like the Zen monk in the famous tale, has painted a landscape so perfect that he's walked into it and disappeared. Get hold a copy of A Sounding of Sources at the earliest available opportunity, and disappear into it yourself.