The June 23rd Wordless Music concert by Colleen, with Katya Mihailova, at SubCulture, was an oasis of cool in several respects. For one, rainforest conditions outside made the air-conditioned subterranean space on Bleecker Street a refuge on this early summer evening. More pertinently, the night’s inspired pairing brought together two performers whose low-key stage demeanors belied the fact that both are sonic adventurers bent on reimagining traditional instruments for the twenty-first century.
Headlining was the French musician Cecile Schott, who performs under the name of Colleen, touring behind her fifth and latest album, Captain of None (Thrill Jockey). Opening for her was the New York-based pianist Katya Mihailova, whose debut album is scheduled for release this fall on a label to be determined.
Colleen’s primary instrument is the viola da gamba, a product of the Baroque era and approximately the same size as a modern-day viola. But rather than play the gamba with a bow, Colleen held it upright in her lap and plucked and strummed short phrases that she captured through a delay pedal at her feet. Electronically processed, those phrases reached the audience as enormous, attenuated bass lines that went rippling outwards in slow motion and gradually filled the room, even as Colleen moved onto the next sequence. The overlapping textures quickly coalesced into a kind of immersive aural environment: my eyes and ears stayed focused on what her hands were doing on the strings while at the same time I could feel those bass lines through the soles of my feet.
If the vibe Colleen enveloped us in readily brought classic Jamaican music to mind, that was very much by design. In promotional interviews for Captain of None she cites dub—in particular the work of Lee Scratch Perry—as the key influence behind the new album, and on this evening it wasn’t hard to discern the immortal “Dr. Lee, PhD” as an inspiration—not only in the booming bass but also in Colleen’s meticulous on-stage tuning and knob-twiddling, which at times lent this soft-spoken performer an engaging mad-scientist air.
The middle of her set shifted in a pop direction, with breathy, ethereal vocals becoming central to the sound collage. While I appreciated the way her repetition of terse, enigmatic phrases like “this hammer breaks … illusions” and “the ocean shines” made them begin to sound like incantations, overall this portion of the performance felt less original than her earlier numbers—a step back from the echoing, extra-dimensional portal opened up by her forays into dub.
But the final arc of the show veered rewardingly into still different directions, with virtually every song another showcase for Colleen’s versatility on the gamba. Bass lines, it turned out, aren’t half of what she can do. A bow finally emerged for “The Weighing of the Heart” (the title track from her previous album), and a children’s lullaby from the soundtrack to The Night of the Hunter became an opportunity to explore drone-like effects. In a final sequence, Colleen not only coaxed harp-like glissandos from the gamba but also managed to evoke the sound of a zither and, to these ears, the guitar stylings of vintage African pop. Not a bad night’s work for an instrument that’s more than 500 years old.
If the crowd at SubCulture seemed especially receptive to Colleen’s sonic exploring, that may have been because they were primed by the equally intrepid opening act. Mihailova steered an attentive audience through atmospheric solo piano music by Josquin (in a Charles Wuorinen arrangement), Satie, and Messiaen, with the French theme—she explained from the stage—having been chosen for the occasion in Colleen’s honor. But Mihailova finished even more strongly with one of her own compositions, Deja Vu, for a prepared piano with loop pedal. Mihailova accompanied the piano with hardware that included electronic sensors attached to her forearms, effectively making her own body part of the instrumentation, and there was an ingenious Rube Goldberg aspect to watching her work through the piece’s increasingly exuberant rhythmic sequence. Though I would guess that Deja Vu is still a work in progress, the final impression it left was that, like Colleen, Mihailova is an innovator clearly determined to go her own route.
JEFF TOMPKINS, a writer and comics artist in New York City, is the Online Content and Community Manager for the Library of America.