Even if you've never heard the name Hugh Marsh you almost certainly have heard the sound of his violin. He is a featured player (not just an orchestra member) on major soundtracks by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams, was nominated for a Juno award in 2007, recorded with Iggy Pop and The Stooges, and was in the backing band for Bauhaus' Peter Murphy, yet all of this amounts to a tiny fraction of his decades-long list of credits. The latest addition to that list is Marsh's own Violinvocations, an LP of eight brooding, exploratory tracks culled from daily recording sessions that spanned the six months he spent living in Los Angeles with friend, mentor, and fellow soundbender Jon Hassell.
Though it bears its main instrument in its name, Violinvocations is anything but a straightforward solo instrumentalist affair. Rather, the album is a suite of stream-of-consciousness tone poems that propel the violin well beyond its traditional range of expression. One would be hard-pressed to say with certainty whether violin was even involved in this album without being told so ahead of time. In one moment a ghost is heard weeping into a dictaphone; a digitised anime character is nervously chattering in the next; and in still another, jagged sheets of distortion are avalanching toward the listener beneath an auroric swell of harmony. It's the kind of sound design that requires a dedicated attempt by any Oneohtrixian laptop composer only it's all being generated by Marsh's violin and his curious cabinet of effects pedals often in just one take.
Violinvocations was sparked when Marsh ventured to Los Angeles for an unrelated project only to find out that it had been cancelled upon his arrival. Having just exited a long-term relationship, and now marooned in another city without immediate prospects, Marsh was left with a rare stretch of downtime. Instead of retreating back to his native Toronto, Marsh used the days that lay ahead-- all one hundred eighty-three of them to be exact-- to record at least one piece of music every day. As if this weren't enough of a challenge on its own, all recording had to be completed by ten AM at the behest of Jon Hassell with whom Marsh was living and working (Marsh appears on Hassell's 2018 reemergence Listening to Pictures, and toured as a member of Hassell's quartet).
The resulting pieces of music not only represent Marsh's marathon of recording, they encapsulate his inner life without interference from his conscious mind. In this way Violinvocations functions both as the lab notebook of an eccentric scientist, and as the personal diary of a sound-poet skilled in conveying his own depth of feeling. The mourning of lost love can be heard in tracks like “I Laid Down in the Snow” with its wraithlike moans that sound nearer to the human voice than a stringed instrument, or in the robotic cries of “Da Solo Non Solitaro” whose title seems to refer to the song's creation process and Marsh's personal circumstances equally. The album closes with the soaring, achingly bare string melodies of “She Will” which acts as an inadvertent elegy for Marsh's mother who would sadly pass away shortly after his return to Toronto.
Though there is a fair amount of gravity to Violinvocations oases of odd playfulness keep the gloom palatable and punctual, and vice versa. “Thirtysix Hundred Grandview” bounces with a rhythmic pizzicato that recalls the electro-acoustic zeal of The Books beneath atonal improvisations, and “Miku Murmuration” uses a guitar effect pedal themed around the animated pop singer of the same name to a surprisingly evocative outcome. This pairing of somber reflection and jocular experimentation adds up to something that is uniquely Hugh Marsh's, made all the more timely by the resurgence of Hassell's influence within modern experimental music. But Marsh is more than just a worthy torchbearer, or a behind-the-scenes violin mainstay. Violinvocations reiterates that he is a creative force all his own.