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Album Of The Week

Monkey Magic: Chimp By Diamanda La Berge Dramm
Marthe Lisson , July 7th, 2022 07:59

The latest album by Dutch violin virtuoso Diamanda La Berge Dramm, based around the poetry of Stephen J Fowler, reveals an artist of restless curiosity and invention, finds Marthe Lisson

Dutch violinist Diamanda La Berge Dramm has been continuously expanding her repertoire and technique over the course of her young, but long career. Her latest release – and first album with her own original material – Chimp is so surprisingly fresh, it feels like a relief to know it is out there. At the same time, in the context of Dramm's work, it is no surprise at all. It just makes sense. Classically trained, Dramm is as comfortable playing Henry Purcell or John Cage. In recent years, she added her own compositions to her repertoire and keeps exploring her instrument's potential, its sounds and, more broadly, sound itself. Along the way she has found, literally, her voice.

Dramm started playing at the age of four. At thirteen she premiered Louis Andriessen’s Raadsels at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Later, she studied at the the New England Conservatory in Boston and the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and in 2018 she became the first string soloist to win the Dutch Classical Talent Tour & Award. Other awards followed, like the Deutschlandfunk Förderungspreis, which resulted in the solo album Inside Out (GENUIN, 2021) with pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and Cage. In 2018 she also released the Violin Spaces series: a collection of concert etudes that she developed with violist Garth Knox. Listen to ‘Ten Fingers’, ‘Sliding’ or ‘The Raven’ and you will understand where Chimp comes from.

Chimp is a conceptual album that, on the surface, seems to fool us. We listen to Dramm vocally performing poems by British contemporary poet Stephen J Fowler. All of which are taken from his books I Will Show You the Life of the Mind (on Prescription Drugs) (2020) and The Great Apes (2022). What appears to be the conquering of new musical territory – singing – serves the development of Dramm as a violinist and artist. All of the sounds and noises on the album are created on the violin, sometimes with the additional help of a Moog synthesizer. Dramm seems to take the violin apart. Strings are plucked and scratched, the bow glides up and down the strings, bass-drums are simulated by knocking on the instrument’s body, notes from previous albums are sampled to create synth sounds. And who knows what else she did with her violin to produce all those undefinable, mysterious sounds.

Dramm and Fowler have collaborated before. Chimp is essentially a continuation of Dramm’s EP Beastings (Pretty Purgatory, 2019). Back then, Dramm played the violin in a comparatively traditional way, despite making the violin sound like an e-guitar. Her voice stayed a little behind the sound. Not so on Chimp. The instrumentation and arrangements are equally minimalist and big. Dramm’s voice is given the space to take centre stage. It has become stronger, more confident and technically advanced. Her enunciation is immaculate. She is always very close to our ears. So, yes, Chimp also represents the conquest of new musical territory. Dramm once told journalist Benjamin van Vliet: “For me, my body, my voice and my violin are all connected and they propel one another.”

The album is conceived with a narrative. To bring together the themes of Fowler’s books that Chimp is based on – chiefly, the brain and monkeys – Dramm developed the idea of a doctor’s waiting room where the album begins and ends. In the corner is a television showing an episode of National Geographic on primates. Mid-way through the album, we are drawn into the television and into the monkeys’ world.

We are eased into the album with ‘Born’, with Dramm’s airy and ethereal voice. She seamlessly moves between speaking and singing on the following tracks. ‘Voices’ is a standout performance. Dramm reads out the poem, with one repeating note providing rhythm and tension (a musical motif of sorts returning frequently). Then an inchoate muttering and chatting sets in. Several layers of voices start to crowd the song until they take over, turning into an intense hissing, and finally evolving into electric rain: the instrumental interlude ‘Jungle’. We are inside the television (CRT rather than flat screen) on our way to the other side. Amidst the rain is song bird. ‘Chimp is Who’ re-introduces the motif that is now a rather dissonant sawing of the strings on one or two notes. Dramm’s singing is a desperate, slightly out-of-tune crying.

‘Orangut, the Orangutan’ is a melodic, song-like composition, underpinned with a classical style string arrangement. Then, we return to the waiting room the way we came. We are shot back into the crowd of voices. ‘More Voices’ re-iterates some of the text of ‘Voices’, but this time everything is calmer and quieter. Something happened in monkey land. The atmosphere of the remaining tracks is weighted. There is a melancholy and soberness in the slowed down music. ‘12 Ways’ and ‘Memories’ both re-iterate the text from ‘Born’. But even though ‘Memories’ offers beautifully harmonious orchestra-like arrangements, the crystal clarity has disappeared from Dramm’s voice and before we know it, the song – and with it the album – evaporates.

Chimp is a grand debut of experimental classical music. While many instrumentalists are satisfied with playing immaculately ever faster, it is the exploration and acceptance of imperfection (whatever that means) that distinguishes the artist from the musician. That and a never-ending curiosity and thirst to learn and expand one’s own skills and repertoire. I hear all of that in Diamanda La Berge Dramm’s Chimp, a pursuit of true artistry.