The Violin Player


Angel Records, 1995



There are too many Asians playing violins.

And don't bother contradicting me because I should know; playing a brass instrument in an ocean of strings at my city's youth symphony orchestra, I've noticed that not only Koreans like me but Asians of all nations gravitate towards string instruments, in particular the violin. Though very few artists like Sarah Chang or the incomparable Midori actually catch the public's eye, it is still quite noticeable that the Julliard School of Music is clogged with Asians playing string intruments.

But amid this cacophany of feline vocal cord material (though sheep has become a more affordable substitute), there is one artist whom everyone refers to as "Different." I first saw her on MTV, wearing a sexy tanktop and playing an even sexier electric violin.

She was an Asian and she played violin, but convention stopped there. Her violin had to be plugged in, she wore a pair of not-tacky huge sunglasses, and the music video was classically MTV (meaning anything but classic). But the music was what took my attention (after wondering how those sunglasses would look on me, of course).

The music was familar; "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" by Bach, but played in what Mae herself calls "techno-acoustic fusion", which basically boils down to Yanni-Enya type new age music centered on the violin. The most daring piece of violin work I've heard before Mae was a couple of classically famous artists playing popular tunes and they haven't sold very well, to my knowledge. Unlike those so-called "crossover" artists, Mae goes all the way; I'm quite surprised EMI gave her access to her rosin after hearing what she was doing in the studio.

Non-Koel numbered titles like "Contradanza", "Classical Gas" and "Jazz Will Eat Itself" accompany the richly textured dimentions of the pieces themselves. Of course, fully capturing a complete mood is common nowadays in new age music, but it's something different when hearing it from an instrument with an old, old history; the super-synthesized atmosphere riddled throughout the genre is much subdued. In a piece like "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", the computer is so obvious that it made me wince; not to mention the fact that it was overlong. But it gives a certain point: Vanessa Mae ain't no crossover artist.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

"Contradanza" which follows is a signature to the entire album and a major turning point in All Things Violin. The lyrics coming from Mae make actual statements that could not be expressed better with words. It's such a good mix, sometimes it's hard deciding whether that was a violin or a guitar; and which ultimately has a cooler sound.

It's followed by an I-Can-Be-Heartfelt-Too "Classical Gas", the piece I will always remember as "The single with the funky haircut." The promisingly ethereal intro is taken away by monotonous repetition of the same themes and corny percussion, but it's relief for the disgusted classic-philes in the audience, as long as they didn't walk out during "Contradanza"'s bridge section.

"Theme From 'Caravans'" is a piece that constantly gives the impression of going somewhere, from the title to the continuously flowing percussion. The main theme is the only impressive part on behalf of Mae; the rest could've been jazzier. Why go through all that trouble setting the piece up and cut it halfway?

By the time "Warm Air" comes up on the playlist, I'm beginning to notice the name Mike Batt who seems to be one of those slash collaborators (conductor/arranger/writer in Mae's case) who wrote seven out of ten pieces in the album, and arranged "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor". It works against the album because it lacks diversity overall, but one can't expect many collaborators on one's debut. Besides, she's jarring as it is; "Warm Air" is an elegant piece without Mae's usual raw edge. But it's really a spice added for the next piece.

Despite its promising title, "Jazz Will Eat Itself" has a tedious theme and ends in a very non-jazzy way; if that meant that it had finally eaten itself, maybe Batt and Mae went slightly overboard with that one. And the drum machine doesn't help much either; instead of instilling a good moving rhythm, it hinders the speed of the song and contributes to the monotony.

"Widescreen" suffers the same fate. Different is one thing, but this piece teeters on the edge of going alternative to going crazy. The sound is random, and Mae's violin is tired.

"Tequila Mockingbird" (hilarious title by classical standards) makes a quick recovery using a more thoughtful main theme. It's bridge section is irrelevant but forgiven when the life-giving theme reappears right after. This piece could've gone higher if not for the lack of improvisation, this spontaneous thingamajig that happens in studios everywhere.

Wait a minute here ... I've just noticed; there's not a single cadenza in the entire album, which is a small window of opportunity in classical violin where you could play your own variations. Techno-acoustic fusion, apparently, does not give room for this tradition. So she had restricted herself ... by not restricting herself.

Batt returns to his experiments with T-AF with "City Theme". Such an endless line of messy notes (played clean by Mae) making hardly a blip from the main body cannot be called "alternative"; it's basically a classical piece with another random theme (does the composer in question think "random" means "alternative"? Think again.)

The final piece "Red Hot" sums it up; the Edge, the Rebel in Mae, and also basically announces that I'm done so you can now pounce on me or worship me or whatever. There's a big question mark right out of "The Blob" after this piece.

To answer her question: good album. But only after considering a coupla points. Considering that it's a debut piece, considering that it's so different from what is out there today, and considering that Mae had only a small choice of collaborators. The experiment worked, but there are bugs to work out. It has to be more diverse, less coherent. Potential is written all over this album, and it should teach those stuffy violinists what a Real crossover artist sounds like.

Rating: A-

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