NPR – All Things Considered: Ljova – Giving the Viola a Chance
(David Schulman / Musicians in Their Own Words)
Strings Magazine: Violist Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin Pours on the Old-World Charm
(Rory R. Williams)
Composition Today: Ljova
REVIEWS OF MNEMOSYNE
Describing themselves as “Chamber-Jam Music for the Remix Generation,” Ljova and the Kontraband is a New York City-based ensemble that plays a genre-defying blend of chamber music, gypsy melodies, and tango rhythms. Led by rising Juilliard-trained composer and instrumentalist Lev Zhurbin (Ljova), this rag-tag ensemble scours a panoply of sounds from ethnic music traditions the world over–pouncing staid genre conventions by combining them all with joyful post-modern irreverence. The Kontraband’s debut, MNEMOSYNE, though steeped in the time-honored traditions of klezmer and gypsy jazz, attempts to push tradition forward with a lively blend of folksy melodicism and rollicking dissonance.
Ljova and the Kontraband are based in New York City, but Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), who plays the viola and a unique six-string variant he dubs the famiola, apparently comes from Russia. The composed element is what distinguishes the music from the various gypsy punk, klezmer punk, and high-octane worldbeat ensembles making zippy accordion-based music on New York nightclub stages. The music is hard to categorize; you wouldn’t call it classical, but it has classical elements (or soundtrack-like elements, for several pieces here are drawn from film soundtracks). It seems mostly preplanned rather than improvised; the harmony goes beyond what would easily be controlled by improvisers in this context; several pieces have sectional constructions reminiscent of traditional classical forms. Perhaps the best way to imagine the music is to think about what Astor Piazzolla would have done if he had come from Eastern Europe. Piazzolla is especially relevant because of the presence of tango rhythms that bounce off the plainer duple beats, in Untango (track 9), and add a melancholy strain that provides an appealing contrast with upbeat, quirky tracks like Walking on Willoughby. The title Mnemosyne refers to the feminine embodiment of memory in Greek mythology, and the album seems to set itself the task of weaving slender threads of musical memory — tango, klezmer, polka, salon music, film music, chamber music, gypsy music, and jazz — into a structure rigorous enough to hold them all. It succeeds, and it’s lovely. Three tracks are vocal, sung by Lithuanian-born vocalist Inna Barmash; in real life she is Ljova’s wife. The texts (given in English or, in the case of Koyl, track 5, Yiddish and English) are delightfully diverse and include a poem by the unjustly forgotten Trumbull Stickney. Highly recommended for anyone who likes Piazzolla, contemporary klezmer music, Slavic Soul Party!, or even the older gypsy-salon music of Hungary. –James Manheim
Reviews of VJOLA: World on Four Strings:
An album of solo viola music doesn’t usually grab the spotlight. However, this self-released debut recording from 27-year-old Russian-born Lev Zhurbin (aka Ljova), one of New York’s fastest-rising composers and instrumentalists, is something special. Using his rich-voiced viola as his multitracked and quick-witted medium, Ljova weaves together diverse elements from around the world to create surprising, yet organic textures in mostly original material (save Bjork’s “Army of Me” and a traditional Romanian tune). From the honky-tonk drawl of “Coffee & Rum” to the Cuban son of “Bagel on the Malecon” to the Balkan slides of “Middle Village,” Ljova continually delights. — Anastasia Tsioulcas
LEV ZHURBIN, a Russian-born violist who works under the name Ljova, seems to be everywhere lately. He has arranged music for the Kronos Quartet and for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, composed soundtracks for a handful of films and turned up regularly in New York freelance ensembles. For this debut CD Mr. Zhurbin, who is 27 and lives in New York, has taken a route increasingly favored by both pop and classical musicians: he recorded the music mostly in his home studio and released it on his own label.
Except for an eerily atmospheric cover of Bjork’s “Army of Me” and an arrangement of a Romanian folk song, the works here are originals. And except for an accordion line in one piece, Mr. Zhurbin does all the playing, multitracking his viola so that throaty melodies are supported by pizzicato rhythms, lush chordal figures and counterpoint.
He is an eclectic, with an ear for texture. In the opening “Central Park in the Dark” (no relation to the Ives work), the viola tone is deep and recorded with enough closely focused grittiness to put its songlike melody line in perspective. Modal blues melodies are heard in several works, both directly (in “Crosstown” and “Breadbasket Blues”) and in odd mixtures (with African folk music in “Plume”). “Bagel on the Malecon” borrows Latin rhythms, and Mr. Zhurbin also touches on country music (in “Coffee & Rum”) and Middle Eastern dance figures (in “Ori’s Fearful Symmetry”). Still, his best works are more fully in classical styles. “Collage,” for one, uses electronic loops to create a Minimalist texture. And if “Spring Valley Sunset,” an unadorned solo rhapsody recorded in a field, with bird song and other attendant noises, is sonically the least polished track, it is nevertheless the most strikingly original and soulful. — Allan Kozinn
Best of June 2006 New Releases
—John Schaefer, host of WNYC’s New Sounds and Soundcheck
The borders separating classical music, folk, jazz and pop grow blurrier every day, rubbed out by intrepid explorers from all points along the musical spectrum. Russian-born violist-composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin stakes an especially choice claim on uncharted territory with his solo debut. Employing skills honed alongside Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet and Osvaldo Golijov, Ljova mixes rustic dances and evocative soundscapes, all crafted from little more than the gorgeously grainy purr of his fiddle. — Steve Smith
Any classical musician will tell you the viola is the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments. It never gets any respect because it always plays second fiddle to the violin. World Music critic Anastasia Tsioulcas says that’s about to change. — Anastasia Tsioulcas
Unlike the piano or saxophone, there is little precedent for solo viola albums in jazz or creative music. For his ambitious debut, Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin confronts that challenge with a compelling set of tunes reflecting a voracious range of stylistic influences, performed almost exclusively on viola. Lacking the tendency for shrillness of its smaller cousin, the violin, or the cello’s propensity for melancholy, the viola offers a broad aural spectrum, which Zhurbin expertly weaves into rich soundscapes with multitracking and elegant solo statements.
“Central Park in the Dark” stirs a plangent tone with the lone voice slowly unfurling its tale. Zhurbin, a veteran film scorer, effectively creates narratives with a shifting dynamic flow. A bright pizzicato lays the rhythmic foundation of “Bagel on the Malecon,” supporting the long, yearning melodic line and a bouncy counterpart. The layers blend seamlessly, and despite the fact that they were played separately and overdubbed, there is a sense of interaction. Zhurbin attained this feel by recording the sections in close succession for an overall sound that is natural and not stilted by the multitracking . ”Coffee and Rum” boasts a vaguely old-timey feel that sways with charming ease. Zhurbin demonstrates the viola’s range with a bass line on “Crosstown” that propels the sly blues. The ever-inspirational Bjork’s “Army of Me” is radically deconstructed and reworked; Zhurbin teases the melody before abstrusely stating it amid swirling overtones. Michael Ward-Bergeman’s accordion on “Garmoshka” imbues a sense of Eastern European folk music, a flavor sprinkled throughout the Russia-born Zhurbin’s album. Like many younger musicians, this leader has absorbed a panoply of music and gleefully undermines rigid notions of genre. — Sean Patrick Fitzell
After hearing this extraordinary album, you’ll never tell another viola joke again. Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin, a Russian emigre now living in New York City, is a superb player and composer, and this set mostly of originals ranges in emotion and colors across the globe. Multi-tracked alongside accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, Ljova is a virtuosic violist who can make the instrument do just about anything, and the set runs gracefully from the poignant to the jolly. A Brilliant debut. Five Stars. -George Robinson
World influences are there but Ljova still loves NY… Tempting though it is to suggest of a solo viola recording that no one else wanted to be involved, the viola player Lev Zhurbin, a frequent sideman and arranger for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet, has already proven he can work and play well with others. For Zhurbin, who goes by the professional name of Ljova (the informal Russian for Lev), this multi-track debut album is clearly a case of lonership by choice. Although figures such as Edgar Meyer and Osvaldo Golijov have caused a stir in some circles for breaking down genre barriers, younger players and composers (often the same person) generally have a hard time figuring out what the fuss is about. Having no such barriers, their best work reflects a fluid stylistic grace.
Enter 28-year-old Zhurbin, a Moscow-born, New York-based composer/performer who mirrors the best traits of his adopted city, where a wealth of cultures enjoy most of the benefits and none of the baggage they face in their native land. More than a decade ago, the Argentine-Israeli Golijov found a decidedly American voice in linking tango and klezmer in ways found in neither Tel Aviv nor Buenos Aires. Much the same can be said of Zhurbin, though his stylistic palette is considerably broader.
Russian and French street waltzes come together in Garmoshka. Various dance forms from Cuba, Mali and Romania (to cite a few) co-exist harmonically and rhythmically as if sharing the same tribal roots. And from the urban noise aesthetic of O’er and Collage, the latter sounding like a Philip Glass riff as mixed by Brian Eno, Zhurbin basks in the outdoors of Spring Valley Sunset, an 11-minute raga-inspired viola line amid a nature soundscape. Zhurbin admits that he recorded each track with only a melodic sketch, which probably accounts for the freedom not only in each musical line but in the way those lines interact. My only complaint, as a longtime New Yorker, is the cloying local references in titles like Bagel on the Malecon or Seltzer, do I drink too much?, which make me think that Zhurbin needs to get out of city once in a while. It’s clear from the music itself, though, that he gets everything he needs there already.
–Ken Smith, Grammophone
Lev Zhurbin (aka Ljova) is a rising star at the forefront of diverse musical cultures. Working at the crossroads between chamber music, jazz, and gypsy folk, the Russian-born violist’s willingness to cross musical aisles has seen him collaborating with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet to rapper Jay-Z. WORLD ON FOUR STRINGS–aside from a pop cover and an adaptation of a Romanian folk song–consists of Zhurbin’s own original compositions for solo viola. Using studio multitracking to layer contrasting melodic lines and lush chordal figures with zippy pizzicato rhythms, Zhurbin displays a knack for combining traditional folk and blues modes of an ear-perking timbral variety. Opening with the plaintive tones of “Central Park in the Dark,” a lone, mournful string rings achingly into the void, slowly and meticulously wresting lyrical filigree through sheer force of will. A more avant-chamber-music tack is taken on Ljova’s interpretation of Bjork’s “Army of Me.” Combining haunting, glass-like glissandi against Zhurbin’s robust solos, its radical deconstruction of both instrument and song beautifully illuminates a heretofore unexplored use of the viola.
I am simply in awe of Lev’s talents. He is one of the outstanding exponents of a new generation of musicians that I consider, in a good sense, mutants. Equally at home in a chamber group or symphony orchestra playing the canon of the literature or the most complex modernistic settings, or imaginatively improvising on folk melodies with musicians from around the world, Lev proves that an integration between seemingly different cultures is possible, inevitable, and fruitful. He and the other leaders of his generation are, in my view, the people that will ensure that music remains vital to the minds and hearts of a wide spectrum of people. As a composer, arranger and violist, Lev reconnects with the tradition of composer-performer-improviser that was the norm in the past and is fortunately coming back. He does all his work at an extraordinary level.
—Osvaldo Golijov, composer
Sneaky music … sly and free of cliche
—Drew Daniel, of the group Matmos
—Kevin Berger, Salon.com
“Your playing is deft and accomplished and pungent but mostly I like the range of the music, and the rich moods that goes with the songs. The dances, the brooding and then lovely melodies, the Bartok tension and angst, oh, don’t think you can sneak that tune “O’er” by us. “Garmoshka” with the accordion evokes a vibrant East European bazaar and yet it’s somehow the essence of New York just the same. I’m amazed that you can get a viola to sound like a bass in so many places. In fact, it’s the bass lines that you go soaring from that surprised and delighted me throughout. The Bjork cover is inspired.”
—Edward Reichel, Deseret News (Utah)
Ljova, whose real name is Lev Zhurbin, is a young Russian composer and violist living in New York City. With “Vjola,” a collection of mostly original pieces, Ljova takes the listener on a musical tour through the sprawling metropolis’ many ethnic and cultural neighborhoods.
And the music is as eclectic as the city itself. Ljova has managed to create a dazzlingly vivid and dynamically vibrant portrait that sparkles with energy and sways to its own rhythms.
What is particularly stunning with “Vjola” is that everything you hear on this album is played by Ljova, who recorded each instrumental track separately. And much of this music has been improvised.
The result is an ingenious collection of pieces from someone who obviously has something to say, and who makes a concerted effort to present his musical thoughts with originality. Ljova certainly has created an entertaining and captivating CD.
Except for Bjork’s “Army of Me” and the Romanian folk song “Seltzer, Do I Drink Too Much,” all of the pieces are Ljova’s own.
He frequently draws his inspiration for these pieces from jazz and Astor Piazzolla, but they all have a distinctive sound that you quickly come to discover is Ljova’s own voice.
“Vjola” is appealing and thoroughly enjoyable.
—Scott Gianelli, Greenman Review
Vjola succeeds not simply because of Ljova’s technical mastery of his instrument, but also because he can compose and arrange in styles from very different parts of the globe and make the tunes sound like they belong together. His segue way from the sprightly tango “Ori’s Fearful Symmetry” to the deliciously bluesy “Coffee+Rum” is especially effective. Other highlights include the cleverly titled “Bagel on the Malecon” and the waltz “Garmoshka,” which features guest accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman… I was enchanted by the high, dissonant harmonics that accompany “O’er” and the radically re-interpreted cover of Bjork’s “Army of Me”.
Maya Pritsker, Novoe Russkoe Slovo
—Misha V. Stefanuk, pianist/composer/organist
We both said after listening to your CD that we want to play viola…. The universal instrument. There are a number of pieces, where the illusion of another life is so strong, I just wanted to go there and stay and never come back!
Other Press Quotes
“Ljova, viola protege of Samuel Rhodes, and a rising star in the music world, crossing all genres – classical, gypsy, jazz, world etc. self-taught as a composer (although son of Alexander Zhurbin) and a Juilliard-polished violist, Ljova is a natural writer. Three pieces of his: Barcarolle(2007), Love Potion Expired (2005, rev. 2007) and Budget Bulgar (2005), formed a crowd-pleasing, yet sophisticated end to this night’s program. The first piece, songful and danceable, is for clarinet and marimba. The flute, drum, viola and marimba with a virtuosic klezmer-like viola part that’s danceable by a hummingbird on speed; the flute then takes up the hyper-virtuosity. It’s spectacular fun. The last, klezmer-humor, is a country-and-Balkans charmer: better than anything I’ve ever heard at a Jewish wedding. Wow!”
—Mark Greenfest, reviewing Percussia: Chamber Music for a New World (3/19/07, NY)
“…there’s no denying the ingenuity and skill of the arrangements, the native vitality of the music and the brilliance of the playing.”
—Richard Dyer, Boston Globe
“… a gripping performance …”
—Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
“… wonderful playing and composing!”
—David Balakrishnan, founder + violinist, Turtle Island String Quartet
“… feature uses effective creepy violin music by Lev Zhurbin”
—Psychotronic Video Magazine, reviewing the film “Daddy”
“… At all times, I found him to be conscientious, professional and most importantly for my films success; talented. More than a few people have singled out the score as one of DADDY’s major assets and it is wholly to Lev’s credit both as a composer and as a musician.”
-Michael DiPaolo, writer and director of Daddy
“Ears of Doom!”
—Eric Nicolas, songwriter + guitarist (visit his website)
“Ljova, your viola sings! It has a soul of a gypsy, of a vagabond, of a poet, of an old dear friend â€“ all the colors of the musical spectrum are present in your instrument’s voice!”
—Inga, songwriter (via MySpace)
“Ljova’s viola makes me melt inside….” ”
“Musically uninhibited. [Lev Zhurbin] enlightens, exhilarates, and entertains. His trademarks [are] wit, humor, clarity, drive, and passion. Very fresh. Superb.
In his music, his polyglot ability to paint the humorous and the tragic, the coarse and the refined, and to move his audiences, remind me of the broad range and intensity – the facile depths – of another young player/composer, Salzburgâ€™s favorite son, despite the centuries and stylistic differences. Enough already â€“ I like itâ€¦”
—Mark Greenfest, of the New Music Connoisseur
—Kalvos and Damian [K&D New Music Radio]
—Derek Bailey, guitarist + (pretty much) the father of modern free-improvisation