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Jessica Pavone - 27 Epigrams

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Artist: Jessica Pavone

Album: 27 Epigrams

Label: Peacock

Review date: Apr. 7, 2003

Tiny Counterpoint Studies

New York-based violinist and violist Jessica Pavone is best known for her work with improvisers-slash-composers like Jackson Moore, Seth Dellinger and Jonathan Zorn, all of whom studied with Anthony Braxton. Despite Pavone’s background, however, there’s little, if anything, from her improviser side to be heard on 27 Epigrams. Instead, Pavone offers a set of short, apparently through-composed pieces for solo viola, trio and quartet that offer little in the way of rhythmic elasticity, dynamics or anything particularly unique to the instruments she uses.

On paper, this looks about as much fun as eating a plate of hay. But instead of blaming Pavone, let’s blame the zillions of first-year music composition students who don’t know any better than to assume that notes plus rhythms equals music. Pavone is so crafty that she clearly knows better – she chooses to exclude nearly everything but notes and strict rhythms because that’s all she needs to make her point.

The pieces on 27 Epigrams are all only about a minute or two long, which works perfectly for the Pavone's style of composing. Her pieces last only as long as it takes for her to exhaust a simple idea. She sets up tiny hurdles, then leaps over them with ease: a piece might consist of a short phrase played on the viola in several different octaves, for example, or several instruments taking turns rearranging a tiny group of notes. Like a Baroque composer, Pavone rarely writes dynamics into her scores; much of her music and much Baroque music are based around little motives that twist and turn in every possible direction. And both Bach’s and Pavone’s relative lack of concern about timbre or texture are virtues, not problems. Pavone’s concentration on notes and strict rhythms (and counterpoint, and harmony) almost to the exclusion of all else merely reflects her areas of focus, not her limitations. Her clear, simple approach to the way the instruments she uses are actually played allows the listener to concentrate on the lovely way the notes circle around each other.

Pavone also benefits from an excellent recording and fine performances from the other members of her trio and quartet, who bring her music to life without imposing too strongly on her compositions. Not everyone will appreciate music that’s this methodical, and listening to fifteen or twenty epigrams in a row can get a little exhausting, but Pavone easily gets a 10 for execution. Her music moves with balance and grace to spare, and few composers bother to take as much care with as few materials as she does.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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