Hugh Marsh Violinvocations

[Western Vinyl; 2019]

Styles: stream-of-consciousness tone poems, “Fourth World”, nu jazz, electro-acoustic, minimalism
Others: Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, Oneohtrix Point Never, Jon Hassell, Brian Eno

As I write this, it’s early February in Olympia, Washington. A blanket of snow covers the lawn. The lake that I live beside is partially frozen over. Yet the world goes on. Ducks paddle in pairs through the water, turning a commuter’s nightmare into a romantic getaway. Birds of all types — wrens, sparrows, even blue jays — wing around excitedly; some rest on branches; others hop across the snow, foraging for food. Snowflakes fall softly to the ground.

Electric violinist Hugh Marsh enjoys a good contradiction. Violinvocations, his latest solo album, muddles expectations rivaling those within his career. In 2007, Marsh was nominated for a Juno Award in jazz, a genre that he grew up playing as a child. But jazz is only one facet of his practice. As a featured player, he has also made rounds on soundtracks by Hans Zimmer, like The Da Vinci Code, and by Harry Gregson-Williams, contributing to everything from Armageddon to Shrek 2. He’s recorded with rock icons such as Iggy Pop and Peter Murphy (Bauhaus), Celtic songwriters, and Turkish DJs. The only constant is contrast: brightly colored birds playing in the snow.

Although billed as a suite of solo songs, Violinvocations sounds like a sprawling band project. The title of the single “Da Solo Non Solitaro” translates roughly to alone, but not lonely. This could describe the history behind Marsh’s album: Violinvocations was recorded when the Toronto-based Marsh arrived in Los Angeles for a recording project that, unbeknownst to him, had been canceled. As if that weren’t enough, Marsh was recovering from a recent breakup. Transforming setbacks into hope, Marsh set out to record a track per day. Furthermore, since he was sharing a studio with fellow musician Jon Hassell, he was forced to finish by 10 AM every day. Empowered by constraints, Marsh mined the following six months into inspiration.

Violinvocations evokes the same sort of mid-winter wonderland aviary — cold to the touch, yet happy to be alive. Although permeated by a subtle sorrow and an art-damaged aura, its eight tracks dazzle with a perplexing sort of joy, a winged playfulness that makes a home of hardships. Defying weather reports and gravity, Marsh draws deeply from his instincts, often recording in single takes. Even the darkest moments are imbued with renewal.

“I Laid Down In The Snow” is thick with sleet. Guitar arpeggios ripple through radio noise, while violin seesaws in a synthetic vibrato. The helium-huffing “Miku Murmuration” references the Japanese pop idol, using a guitar pedal to process a cartoonish vocal melody. “Thirtysix Hundred Grandview” plays ping pong with pizzicato notes. A hillside of cicadas duet with a weeping violin on “The Rain Gambler.”

Blessed be distortion pedals! “A Beautiful Mistake” makes no apology for its rock allegiance, transforming a gurgling, swirling mass of steel string into Hendrix-approved electric riffage. Marsh evokes Noh theater with “Da Solo Non Solitaro,” the performers garbed in sheets, twirling against a backdrop of shooting stars. “Across The Aether” reaches back into time, enacting the Big Bang with rays of sweetly bowed violin emerging from crackling static.

The album’s closer, “She Will,” wasn’t intended to be a eulogy. Unfortunately, Marsh’s mother passed away soon after he finished the album. Although recorded before her passing, a reflective sadness permeates the recording. It takes grace to lend one’s sorrow strength. We’ve come full circle. While “I Laid Down In The Snow” busied itself with snow angels and toboggans, “She Will” sits with the silence that comes only after great storms. Trees sag with snow; birds return to their nests; twilight reveals endless constellations.

The contrasts within Hugh Marsh’s Violinvocation draw beauty from darkness. Of course, lingering outside in this weather isn’t recommended, but that won’t stop some from trying. Others with less insulation may prefer indoor comforts. Just light a fire, and grab a mug of warm cider. It’s the perfect opportunity to call a loved one. Don’t let the day pass without a prayer.

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