Etudes 4 Violin & Electronix is the Thirsty Ear debut (and the fourth recording overall) by composer, arranger, and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain (aka DBR). It is a provocative one. Roumain, who plays everything from his preferred violin to piano and synth (and, on one track, bathtub, glass cup, sandpaper, steel fork, knife, and spoon), is above all a composer engaged with notions of melody and rhythm. All but two of these nine tracks are duets. Roumain has no need to find larger groups to express his wonderfully varied array of colors and textures, and that is because he has an utterly impeccable grasp of space and dimension. He understands that in order to find vast ranges of inner space he has to limit what lies on the surface. The beats and flutes in "Black Man Singing," which opens the disc, give rise to this. DJ Spooky and Peter Gordon find primary terrain all but uninhabitable in standard time signatures; they reach for whispered pulses and small hidden empty moments to place their own musical heartbeats on the line. Roumain doesn't soar over them or dictate to them with his virtuosity on the violin; instead, he uses it to sing to them and engage with them in finding a new inside track where they can all flourish. On the first of his two duets with Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (and the set's longest piece), "The Need to Be," Roumain understands the pianist's intricate sensibility — especially in the high register — and rather than find a place to create intricate, knotty patterns around that, he plays to the sparse, tempered harmonic structures he has composed for Sakamoto to play. DBR is finding song and a wealth of emotion in the spaces where the keys reverberate, and places his own accents right inside them, tucking them neatly but with enough sustain and tension to offer a newer tonal palette for Sakamoto to find compelling, and the way he nuances his chords tells the listener just how engaged he is. This is dialogue and conversation, intimately and elegantly. "The Need to Follow," the latter of the two, is even more involved lyrically. Though the violin and piano share the pulse, repeating phrases with mere hints of difference in tension and dynamic in order to get beneath the surface of the composition, they create a dovetailed sonic palette where the two instruments are nearly inseparable, becoming so entwined that they express in emotion and beauty what is truly unspeakable in words.
"Metamorphosis" was written with his collaborator in mind. The pianist is Philip Glass, and he does his thing, endlessly repeating phrases and entire lines of the score, varying them only a bit at a time in order for them to become something other; DBR takes his violin and plays directly to these small changes, offering a second possibility in the interim of where the entire piece is going. It's lovely, graceful, and full of a melancholy that embodies both death and resurrection over seven minutes. With Gordon and Spooky, DBR engages the part of his compositional self that encounters the mad DJ's loops and beats and finds places for improvisation, extrapolation, and counterpoint. He finds hip-hop, Gypsy music, and even notions of Appalachian fiddle music to speak back toward the pulsing backdrops and sonic monuments Spooky creates. (And yeah, it is funky and tight.) The two works DBR performs with himself are "Divergence," a solo violin work where piano and synth are woven in for the purpose of revealing the violin's speaking voice more than as dialogue elements, and the stellar "The La La Song," where all the household implements and his voice are used. This is not a novelty piece at all, but a smart, bluesy little funk tune where his dazzling violin work is put on display in pushing at the polyrhythms he creates, but also in weaving together traditions — classical, hip-hop, folk, blues, and rock — that are usually not on offer simultaneously. And not only does it work, it kicks ass. His duet with DJ Scientific on bass, beats, and synths in "Fayetteville" just moves everything in the previous track deeper into the 21st century. The set closes with "Lava." It is an ambient piece that feels like a coda — a place to stop until next time. Gordon's ambient soundscapes contain no meter; they just soar, folding in wave after wave of blissful sound that completely wraps DBR in them and frees him up to express freely, and then reverently, the beauty encountered. This is modern composition that has no need to flaunt itself theoretically or politically. It is, instead, a sophisticated piece of work that dares to use conventional notions of harmonic and melodic scale and stretch them unapologetically, without pushing you out the window as you take in what is on offer. DBR has been influenced by popular music as well as historic music. He shuffles them seamlessly while being honest with himself about what he wants to express emotionally, and in so doing speaks very loudly and gracefully to listeners. This is not only an auspicious and important debut; it is a delight, a work of art that welcomes heart-level participation in its reportage and range of experiences.