Bhajan, described by one critic as “a pas de deux between violin and electronics,” is in four joined/continuous sections. Influenced by many musics from around the globe, the work tantalizes and bewitches the ear with a breadth of sounds that ebb and flow as if guided by an elusive but inherent sense of logic. The composer performs its electronics/computer part while noted violinist Robin Lorentz (who has appeared on four previous Cold Blue CDs) propels the music compellingly, interacting with the array of synthesized and processed sounds occurring around her.
The composer writes, “‘Bhajan’ is the general term for any variety of Hindu devotional song, typically sung, with a strong melodic component. My work Bhajan…embodies ideas about temporal freedom, melodic non-structure, and fusions of musical genre, disparate ethnicities, and instrumental combinations, and explores…ideas about breath and timing I’ve come to through study of Hindu spiritual/Vedic thought on sound and sound’s role in the making of life. It is deeply influenced by Indian raga, and it resonates with the soundscapes of my Arab heritage, while tonally it remains, intentionally, within the Western classical vocabulary.
“When I sit at my desk to compose, airplanes passing, trucks rumbling, trains bleating, birds, squirrels, and crickets chirping all find their way into my music. When I think of notes for the violin, that sound gets twuisted up with whatever else is happening in the world around me and comes to land on my desk in music like you hear on this recording.
“In Bhajan, the violin is amplified and pitted against fields of oscillating sine waves that are orchestrated in the same way I arrange for an orchestra. Its opening section, ‘Bindu’ (Sanskrit for ‘point’), hangs on a single note: Eb6. One of my teachers, sarod master Rajeev Taranath, explained raga this way: ‘This note is the main note of the raga. But it is not the only note. A raga is like a family, and this note is the grandmother. The grandmother is in the middle, and all the members of the family are around her!’ Similarly, my computer-generated fields require the violin’s repeated Eb—the grandmother note—to give them context.
“The next section, ‘Drshti’ (meaning ‘focused gaze’ or ‘concentrated intention’), also focuses on a single note—D4 (D above middle C), the note that the third string of the violin is tuned to—and the computer captures the player’s live strokes and twists that simple sound into the ghost-melody that you hear. The ghost melody is comprised of…bits and pieces of phrases and whole phrases alike…. In effect, a second performer is ‘playing’ the violinist’s performance….
“The third part, ‘Japa’ (meaning ‘repetition’) is a mantra-like duet between computer and violin. It repeats a single musical idea that leads into the fourth and final section of the work, ‘Bhajan.’ In this closing section, the violin carries an unmetered chorale, rooted in the tunings of the instrument’s strings…. The computer again captures the live performance and plays it back, but shifts the pitches played by the violin to create a ghost-accompaniment.
“Throughout Bhajan, the violinist’s performance has to be carefully nuanced in order for the computer’s output to have any life. If you listen carefully to ‘Drshti’ and ‘Bhajan,’ you will hear how the musical accompaniment (in ‘Drshti,’ the lead melodic line) exactly mirrors and is precisely shaped by the dynamic interpretation of the performer. Subtleties in articulation and dynamics as well as timbre combine to forge the end result—the ghost has a spirit, and that spirit is the performer.
“Bhajan was commissioned in 2011 by Robin Lorentz. Owing to severe health issues, Lorentz hadn’t been able to play for the few years prior to that. I composed Bhajan as a vehicle for her physical therapy. Robin eventually made a complete recovery, and continues to play today with as much strength and ability as she ever had. I’m grateful for her ongoing commitment to and rabid enthusiasm for the work and her wild encouragement as it unfolded between us. And I am grateful that she allowed me to contribute to her physical recovery.”
The composer and performers
Composer-performer Nicholas Chase‘s boundary-stretching music has been described as “brawling yet taut” (Los Angeles Times); “crackling, witty” (Albuquerque Journal); “quietly provocative…compelling” (Textura); “brilliant” (The Strad); “powerful…spectacular” (Whittier Press); and “the human brain at its most imaginative” (LA Weekly).
Nicholas Chase has headlined festivals in Europe and the US as a composer, performer, and improviser, integrating kinetic visuals with strong musical statements. His chamber works have been performed by the New Century Players, the California E.A.R. Unit, New Zealand’s 175 East ensemble, the Long Beach Opera, the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Ensemble Sospeso, violinist Mark Menzies, harpist Anne Bassand, and many others. His electronic ensemble works have been presented at the Center for Electronic Art, Information and Technology (CEAIT) Festivals and Stanford’s Music from the Edge festival at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). His interactive site-specific composition NOVA: Transmission for FM radio and closed-circuit TV was exhibited as part of the Whitney Biennial in New York, and his electronic light ballet Ngoma Lungunduopened the New Music+ Festival at the Janácek Academy in the Czech Republic. Chase was an inaugural Composer Fellow at the 2011 international Other Minds Festival in San Francisco and in 2015 received a Certificate of Honor from the International Center for Japanese Culture in Tokyo, Japan, for his koto and cello duo Gayate. His music has been commissioned and performed by the Long Beach Opera, the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, California E.A.R. Unit, New Zealand’s 175 East, and numerous soloists.
Chase earned an MFA in Composition/New Media and Integrated Media from CalArts, studying with Morton Subotnick, Bunita Marcus, Stephen L. Mosko, and Mary Jane Leach. He pursued additional study with Ziad Bunni of the Aleppo Conservatory of Arabic Classical Music, and later compositional study with James Tenney. In 2011 he earned PhD candidacy in Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under the advisement of Pauline Oliveros. Since 2011, Chase has worked in seclusion and spiritual retreat to develop his ideas on integrating Hindu mind/body practices, Hindustani classical music forms, and traditional Western conservatory music and musicianship.
Robin Lorentz is a violinist who has performed around the globe, from Queen Elizabeth Hall (London) to Carnegie Hall to the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) to the Grammy Awards (Hollywood). A champion for contemporary music, she spent over 20 years with the noted new music group California E.A.R. Unit. As a soloist and chamber musician, she has premiered many works, including John Adams’s Road Movies for violin and piano at the Kennedy Center and Yusef Lateef’s String Quartet Number 1: Bismillah at REDCAT, and she has been featured on tours by composers Terry Riley and John Luther Adams. Lorentz has recorded for New Albion, Cold Blue Music (appearing on five Cold Blue CDs), New World, O.O. Discs, Sony, MCA, Columbia, and Echograph and performed as soloist and small ensemble member on recordings by Bob Dylan, Scott Weiland, and T-Bone Burnett. She has performed solos for the films Other People’s Money and Back to the Future III and TV’s Northern Exposure, Gilmore Girls, and Animaniacs, to name a few. She has served as concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series, the Ojai Festival, Santa Fe Pro Musica, and numerous other festivals and ensembles. She has also appeared with Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, Barbara Streisand, John Cale, Dusty Springfield, and Michael Jackson. Lorentz has been on the faculty at CalArts and in residence at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Columbia Universities and Oberlin and Eastman Schools of Music, and at the Aspen and Tanglewood Festivals.
“This new soloist and live processing collaborative release from Cold Blue Music begs the question: Has there been a more effective use of the Eb chord since Wagner’s Ring cycle? It opens the 46-minute Bhajan, and from there, no one looks back. Unlike so much new music, composer Nicholas Chase and former California EAR Unit violinist Robin Lorentz have fashioned a disc whose power and beauty need no garishness for the myriad statements they make.
“That initial Eb chord is rapidly sucked back into silence, and this, as much as drone and controlled virtuosity, is one of the four-part composition’s chief attractions. Silence is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity these days, lost in the thrum, thwack, and buzz of post-post-industrial life, and most music in our immediate environments travels similar terrain. By contrast, Bhajan‘s opening chord and silence prefigure similar relationships governing the third section, while the second takes a page out of Alvin Lucier’s book but expands beautifully on his beat and sweep syntax. Instead of a slow rise with pulses that change tempo and intensity, we are treated to a kind of expansion, Lorentz’s repeated and then trilled violin tones giving timbre to the melody Chase provides. Yet, even the violin repetitions are gorgeously multi-timbral, darkening and brightening as the pulsing and grinding oscillations surround and propel them. As with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the final section begins a half step down from its beginning, and the music is almost Romantic in its tonal beauty, as Lorentz helms a virtual string section. It’s all especially poignant after the many microtonal implications throughout the preceding movements. The ending on A, a tritone away from that opening Eb, is seductively complex by implication but perfectly natural in sound and in execution.
“A piece such as this needs a detailed production and recording to make it work, and both are fortunately top-drawer. Space and morphing environment, such an important component especially to the music’s conclusion, never outweigh detail and timbral exchange. This is my introduction to this composer’s work, and if it’s any indication of what has been and what’s to come, his is a voice well worth hearing!” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine
“In an introductory note to this CD, Nicholas Chase writes about his childhood, when his father, Syrian by birth, took him to Damascus. Although he was only four at the time, young Nicholas soaked up the sounds of the city’s daily life—and not just the music. He concludes, ‘That experience shaped my understanding of the world as an ongoing, uninterrupted musical experience.’ Bhajan does not seem to be specifically inspired by that experience. Instead, Bhajan sounds like a product of the idea that sound is music and music is sound. Not an original idea, perhaps, but one worth giving time to nevertheless.
“Bhajan was commissioned by violinist Robin Lorentz, who performs it here with the composer. In Hindi, bhajan means a devotional song, and one that usually is very melodic. In addition to giving the work its overall title, it also is the title of the fourth section. The first three sections are ‘Bindu’ (Sanskrit for ‘point’), ‘Drshti’ (‘focused gaze’ or ‘concentrated intention’) and ‘Japa’ (‘repetition’). The four sections are played without interruption, and each lasts a little over ten minutes.
“The sound of Lorentz’s electric violin reminds us that violin-like instruments have long been part of Middle Eastern musical culture. In ‘Bindu,’ the violin obsesses over a single note, played in many different ways to produce a variety of colors. At times it becomes almost unbearably intense. In the more lyrical ‘Drshti,’ it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish Lorentz’s violin from Chase’s electronic sounds. The violin’s statements are broken by long silences in ‘Japa,’ while the complexity of its sound is increased through double stops and other mechanisms. Finally, in ‘Bhajan,’ there seems to be a long summing up and transformation of the ideas presented in the previous three sections, and one gets a peaceful sense of closure…. Chase’s electronics range from beautiful long glissandi and woofer-shaking low notes that are felt as much as they heard, to shimmering, open textures that suggest heat and brilliant light. (I was not surprised to read that he studied with electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick, who loves sounds like these in his own works.) Although they usually do not sound similar, there’s always a sense that the electric violin and the electronic sounds are aware of each other and interacting.
“Bhajan is a nice space to wander in. It is like one of those dreams in which you find yourself in a totally unfamiliar and yet comforting place…. The only thing that makes me sad about this release is the fact that it isn’t longer.”—Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine
“We find composer Nicholas Chase on computer and electronics, performing along with Robin Lorentz on electric violin…. The four pieces here flow into each other and perhaps this is not entirely the kind of music you would expect from Cold Blue Music. It is perhaps with this electronica that it sounds different, but also the violin is a bit different from what we are used to with this label. This is all less about the refined modern classical minimalism…in a way it sounds, from time to time, much more improvised, but in a very gentle way. Neither electronics nor violin do anything, quite rightfully I would think, to upset the listener, but it’s also a bit less ‘light’ and ‘delicate’ than we are used to. That is all not to say I don’t like this music; in fact I do like it a lot. This is full mystery, building tension with sometimes sine wave-like sounds, Eastern-sounding melodies on the violin, and sometimes very much electro-acoustic-sounding electronic interference. Perhaps less minimal and just very modern classical? Either way, it works well.”—Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly (The Netherlands)
“Bhajan, by composer Nicholas Chase, is a four-part work for amplified violin and electronics. The piece, whose title derives from the generic name for a Hindu devotional song, reflects the influences of Hindu philosophy on Chase’s concept of sound, as well as his acceptance of ambient, accidental sounds as a kind of continuous music in its own right. Bhajan is built of often minimal materials—a single, long-held note on violin; fragments of melody interspersed with empty space; intermittent electronic interventions. Throughout the work the amplified violin, played by Robin Lorentz, casts an image that often leaves an electronic shadow overhanging the surrounding silences. In the final movement the work’s predominantly abstract sounds coalesce into a simple, hymn-like set of cadences in measured, though irregular, steps.”—Daniel Barbiero, Percorsi Musicali (Italy)
“Cold Blue Music is releasing a new album by Nicholas Chase titled Bhajan (CB0046). An engaging mix of electronics and brilliant violin playing by Robin Lorentz, Bhajan is inspired by Hindu devotional music and the Indian raga. The four tracks of this CD are loosely connected by Western classical tonality, yet reflect a diversity achieved through “temporal freedom, melodic non-structure and fusions of musical genre….” The computer-driven electronic sounds realized by Mr. Chase and the sensitive violin playing of Ms. Lorentz make for an intriguing combination.
“The first track, ‘Bindu,’ begins with a series of thin electronic tones that gradually change in volume and pitch. More electronic elements are added, giving a sense of being in the presence of a metaphysical entity. A high repeating Eb violin figure becomes the focal point, fixing the listener’s attention while oscillations, whirring and clicking sounds add to the otherworldly feel. Towards the finish, as the violin figure becomes more strident, an electronic chorus appears and the piece morphs from the strange and anxious to the settled and serene. ‘Bindu’ fashions an interesting emotional bridge between the familiar and the unknown.
“‘Drshti,’ track 2, comes from a completely different place. A sharp, but deep bell-like tone opens the piece and a sustained violin-buzz is accompanied by a related drone in the electronics. There is a spiritual feeling to this—like standing in some remote Asian temple. The raspy, monotone pitches in the violin line have the rhythm and cadence of a spoken chant. About midway through, the drone and violin arrive at almost the same pitch, zero-beating, and this is soon accompanied by a stately melody in the electronics. The violin continues ‘speaking’ and the electronic chorus weaves in and around the violin and drone, adding to the strong devotional feeling. Towards the finish, a deep, satisfying bass appears in bursts of short phrases. The music quickly vanishes, as if swept away on the breeze. ‘Drshti’ is very effective and beautifully extracts the liturgical essence of the ceremonial, even in the absence any specific context or intelligible text.
“‘Japa’ is next and this track begins with rapid, quiet clicking sounds—followed by a short, vivid electronic phrase—and then silence. More electronic phrases follow, louder and more striking, while the soft clicking seems to move left-to-right at a rapid rate. Now the acoustic violin joins in with recognizably musical phrases, followed by silence. The electronic sounds are pure tones and act as background while the violin phrases are at the forefront by virtue of the familiar tone and timbre so that listener instinctively identifies with them. The periods of silence and the sense of movement in the electronic sounds add to the image of watching something approach and then fade away. The electronic sounds are swirling and amicable—not menacing or formidable—and they seem to be attracted to the violin, as if participating in a conversation. ‘Japa’ finishes suddenly just as violin and electronics are in mid-phrase. The interaction of the electronics and playing of Ms. Lorenz is especially precise and well-coordinated.
“‘Bhajan,’ the title track, is the most understated and stunningly effective piece of this album. A soft electronic drone is cleanly heard in the higher registers while a somber violin repeats mournful phrases below. The overall feeling is not one of sadness or melancholy, but rather of wistful reflection. It is very beautiful and does not wear, even as it continues in the same repeating patterns over its entire length. It has a hypnotic mysticism, as watching the sun slowly set over a calm ocean. Towards the finish there is more activity in the electronics, including a low hum that grows in volume. The violin skitters a bit, then recedes as a continuous sine tone, wavering slightly in pitch, fills the foreground. The violin persists, resuming its prominence as the electronics fade at the finish. ‘Bhajan’ is a warm and comforting wash, introspective and reassuring as well as beautifully performed.
“Ms. Lorentz has a formidable resume as an acoustic violinist that includes the music of John Luther Adams, Daniel Lentz, Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, the California EAR unit as well as Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Jackson. To this must be added Bhajan, a masterly collaboration with the electronic music of Nicholas Chase. The art of ensemble playing with other acoustic musicians is, of course, a highly regarded virtue. The ability to play closely and sensitively with music realized by electronics must now be included in the arts of the acoustic musician. Ms. Lorentz and Nicholas Chase have set a standard in Bhajan that others would do well to emulate.” —Paul Muller, New Classic LA
“Though electronic effects are central to its sound design, the forty-seven-minute work, whose title refers to Hindu devotional songs that are typically vocal-based and strongly melodic, is heavily indebted to the conventions of Indian raga. One might characterize Bhajan as a pas de deux between the violin and computer, with the former amplified and interacting with oscillating sine waves…. The meditative, unhurried tone of the material is evident from the beginning of ‘Bindu,’ which features Lorentz hewing to a single, vibrato-laden pitch, and repeatedly voicing the note as a locus of orientation for Chase’s effects. Even when the violin recedes, the pitch remains as a suspended echo, the ghostly residue of the instrument kept alive by the faint sine wave and undulating warbles of the painterly synth flourishes and electronic treatments. As restrained as the material might generally be, it’s also marked by insistence, particularly in the needling, somewhat insect-like incessantness with which the pitched note repeats. A single pitch is also adhered to during the entrancing second part, ‘Drsti,’ though this time the note is lower and deviations from the pitch are generated when the computer transforms the violin’s strokes into shadow melodies that arise in tandem with the instrument; during such passages, the sounds undulate meslismatically, rendering the connection between Chase’s composition and Indian music all the more pronounced. Straying from the one-pitch idea, the third part, ‘Japa,’ introduces a haunting theme the computer and violin return to repeatedly, its presentation different each time but the familiar melody always declaring itself clearly, after which the last, titular section of the work arrives, a comparatively plaintive chorale whose restrained string expressions are offset by the pitch-shifting swoop of the computer accompaniment…. Characterizing Chase’s quietly provocative Bhajan as a drone piece isn’t wholly accurate, given its foundation in Hindustani music, but it does exude some of the immersive characteristics of ambient-drone material. At the same time, there’s a melodic dimension in play, even if sometimes a subtle one, that puts some degree of distance between this rather bewitching electro-acoustic creation and ambient-drone material in its purest form.”—Ron Schepper, Textura
“Over the course of five days on Seattle’s Mercer Island…California EAR Unit violinist Robin Lorentz taped Bhajan, four movements without pause she had commissioned from composer Nicholas Chase, in which her playing was augmented by his signal processing and programming treatments. With health issues having sidelined the violinist since 2007, Chase conceived Bhajan as physical therapy for his friend; the choice of a title referencing free-form Hindu devotional songs similar to ragas seemed natural given Chase’s work with free-range SoCal musical giants Morton Subotnick and Lucky Mosko, with Ziad Bunni at the Aleppo Conservatory of Arabic Classical Music, and with James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros, and indeed his own recent interest in yoga.
“In fact, Bhajan was the composer’s first work shaped by his new understanding of the relationship between music and spirituality, and there is a feeling throughout of waiting for a response. Initially, Chase and Lorentz create a musical environment constructed with a vast inventory of electronic ear candy, like music that R2 D2 and C 3PO would be listening to over cocktails. Gradually, the delightfully tactile digital textures seem to become almost instrumental: a horn in the first movement, a hurdy-gurdy drone in the second.
“The sci-fi ambience sets the stage for the full impact of Lorentz’s expressive, lyrical, rhapsodic virtuosity; and yet, at the end, after an extraordinary arc of pure sound has led to a celestial rainbow, there is still, as at the beginning, a sense of waiting.” —Lawrence Vittes, Gramophone
“Bhajan is an extended four-movement composition for electric violin (played by Robin Lorentz) and computer and electronics (played by Chase) that clocks in just shy of 47 minutes. In the opening movement ‘Bindu,’ electronic sounds skitter and swirl around the electric violin which is essentially playing variations on a single note over its entire eleven minute duration, with all sound occasionally dropping to silence before the interplay of ideas returns. The electronic sounds seem to stretch the sound like elastic in numerous directions while the violin remains the static force. ‘Drshti’ is the next movement, again with the violin expressing variations on a single note (but a different one than the previous movement), while the computer captures those live violin strokes and plays them back in processed form, sometimes at various compimentary pitches creating a melody line, and other times just a few cycles off from the original, creating a beating effect. The third movement, ‘Japa,’ features the electronics alternating with violin in creating an other-worldly exchange of melodic ideas, and much like the first movement uses a fair amount of silent spaces to punctuate the proceedings. The closing movement is ‘Bhajan,’ and in a way similar to the second movement, the violin’s notes (a few different ones) are captured by computer and ghosted back at different pitches, offering subtleties in articulation, dynamics and timbre combining together to produce the end result.” —Peter Thelan, Exposé
“Very little happens in this four-part work of Nicholas Chase. The violin, electrically amplified, obsessively repeats a single note, held for long stretches, almost blending into the background of synthesizers, discreet and mysterious. The scene that presents itself is bare, almost desolate. But slowly, towards the middle of the composition, a glimmer of light begins to appear: sketches of melodies begin to emerge and gradually take shape, occupying at least part of the sound space and coloring its emotional reverberations, leading us to what is perhaps the real purpose of the piece—to take us into a state of meditation in which new visions slowly form.” —Kathodik (Italy)