Review: Alex Cunningham – Echo’s Bones Were Turned to Stone (self-released, Mar 22)

One of the countless reasons that freely improvised music is so exciting is the near-limitless possibilities that extended techniques open up in the hands (or other body parts) of skilled artists. Standard musical instruments once viewed as innocuous, constrained tools become sources for untamed sonic energy. There’s an online review of Derek Bailey’s Aida by Rate Your Music user ac_church that puts it well (I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted it here before): “it’s strange to find yourself in a same room with a guitar after you’ve listened to Derek Bailey… it suddenly becomes an incredible alien artifact of immense power… ‘you really could do all that? how come I didn’t know?’ ” Alex Cunningham is no stranger to escaping the restraints of a conventional approach; his nimble, abrasive violin assaults instantly drew me in when I first heard Fiddle back in 2018. But as the title track on that release—produced using the self-imposed constraint of “improvise a fiddle tune”—makes clear, Cunningham also owes a great deal of reverence and love to the traditional music to which his instrument of choice is essential. His most recent release Echo’s Bones Were Turned to Stone continues in the direction of last year’s Knell on Fort Evil Fruit with a set of extended dynamic pieces. As always, we not only hear the deep, dense drones Cunningham coaxes from the violin but also the resin-shredding strength of the bowing that produces them, the mesmerizing swirl of cascading string slides and ersatz chords, the moments of invigorating Appalachian fiddle stomp (however brief or abstract). The St. Louis String Sawer’s latest is a jagged, harrowing, and triumphant exclamation from the dark depths of isolation.

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