When you hear the word “feral” used to describe a musical instrument, the first thing that comes to mind is probably something wild and ferocious like an electric guitar, a saxophone, maybe even a double bass—but probably not a viola.
Unless, of course, you are composer Peter Vukmirovic Stevens. In his latest album, titled “Feral Icons,” he explores the tempestuous and untamed territory of solo, unaccompanied viola. The performer on the album is violist Mara Gearman, a Seattle native and a member of the Seattle Symphony.
Stevens is a Seattle-based composer, pianist, and multimedia artist whose music is deeply influenced by visual media, literature, and travel—and “Feral Icons” is no exception. The music was inspired, in part, by his travels and his interest in art history.
“I’ve been surrounded by icons my whole life, growing up,” said Stevens, whose first musical influences came from the Serbian Orthodox church where he sang during church services as a child. His new album was especially inspired by the rich history of icon paintings in places like Cyprus and Bulgaria, where he recently visited.
“I was doing my research on that art form, which I think is unique in the Western world in that it’s very symbolic,” he said. “The work is done anonymously by the artist, and the amount of symbolism that is present in icons was a great vehicle for adding live musical ideas as musical representations of icons and people that I admire…Each piece is sort of an icon, a painting in itself of a particular attribute.”
The album is a suite of six pieces for solo, unaccompanied (and very assertive) viola which combine the instrument’s rich tone with an exotic harmonic language and a thematically rich musical arc. For Stevens, the pieces on the album collectively represent a single entity, though each is varied in its symbolism and character, as is brought out through Gearman’s commanding performance.
“Watching her play is like a display of power,” Stevens said. “She is a tremendous player. In order for solo instrument pieces to be communicated, having somebody of her caliber is really important to bring the music to life.”
The opening title track, “Feral Icons,” begins with broad, full-bodied bow strokes that highlight the viola’s rich, raw tone. The expressive melodies are perfectly balanced against double-stop harmonies and unrelenting rhythms, creating a gorgeous contrast of musical textures.
It is followed by the melancholy reveries of “Sovereign, I,” a pensive and heartfelt musical meditation. The musing melodic lines ring across the viola’s entire pitch range above rich harmonies. In fact, Stevens considers the spacing of harmonies to be one of the most important aspects of his harmonic thinking.
“The benefit of working with a string instrument is that you can play the same note sometimes on three or four different strings, and it allows you to create different tonal effects and different timbral effects,” he said. “And it’s nice that it’s not a piano, because you have all these different strings available to think about the color of the sound you want and where it is on the fingerboard.”
The third work on the album, “Sanctuary,” is an opulent exploration of color, with textural interest created through dreamy, sweetly ringing melodies contrasted with lush chords, percussive flourishes, and the occasional, deliberate silence.
The next piece, “Ex Nihilo,” takes its title from the Latin phrase meaning “creation out of nothing.” Expressive melodies, aggressive rhythms, forceful double-stops, and shifting tempos create a richly varied tapestry of musical textures.
“Bloodlines” follows with its haunting, romantic melodies dancing above a low drone, and the album comes to a close with the breathtaking lyricism and visceral energy of “Black and Gold.”
And balanced against the power and intensity of 45 minutes of solo viola, Stevens manages to maintain the sincerity, the vulnerability, and above all, the beauty of a single, unaccompanied instrument.
“It’s a wonderful challenge to write for a single instrument,” he said. “That a single instrument can carry the entire musical vehicle that is needed for a good piece of music to be realized. And that challenge is so exposed. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the individual, for a single person just trying to process the world around them. The solo instrument is a wonderful means of expressing that individuality and that complexity within each of us.”
A “Feral Icons” CD release party and performance featuring Gearman will take place at Seattle’s Steve Jensen Gallery on Capitol Hill this Saturday, Sept. 12. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the performance begins at 8 p.m.