Form and content in Ava Mendoza’s music: New Spells (Relative Pitch Records / Astral Spirits) on #neuguitars #blog #avamendoza
For some time I thought, perhaps it is better to say that I hoped, that Walter Pater had never existed, that his was just another of the characters invented by Jorge Luis Borges. But this is not the case, Walter Pater really existed and is the author of one of the most singular aphorisms about music: “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”1, perhaps because in it the content is the form, since we cannot tell a melody as we can with the general lines of a story, Borges adds in the prologue of “The other, the same”. This aesthetic statement has commonly been read as the expression of a general aspiration to formal autonomy, common to all modern aesthetics. As a process, common to all artistic media, which strive to become musical, freeing themselves from the slavery of matter and reaching the status of “end in itself”. I still don’t understand why this aphorism came back from the archives of my memory while listening to Ava Mendoza’s latest, excellent work, “New Spells”, released at the end of 2021.
Restless guitarist, rightly reported by Guitar World as one of the “10 Female Guitarists You Should Know”, Ava Menzosa has a very respectable curriculum behind her: Nels Cline, Fred Frith William Parker, Matana Roberts, Jon Irabagon, the Violent Femmes, Weasel Walter, tUnE-yArDs, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Rova Saxophone Quartet, Moppa Elliott, Negativland, Malcolm Mooney, Hamid Drake, Erik Friedlander are only part of his artistic acquaintances. Bolivian origins, raised in California, then moved to Michigan and then to Brooklyn, Ava Mendoza is one who likes to mix genres, go back to punk, blues, more avant-garde sounds, only to then blend everything in an absolutely style personal and cutting edge. Her music contains within itself a plurality of cultural references that translate into a continuous hybridization, deliberately open to a surly fragmentation of genres, which continues in a sound narrative that never ceases to evolve. I had already met her energy and the combative rock that formed her in the Unnatural Ways group, a powerful power trio, an ideal breeding broth to bring out her compositional skills and her obsession with the concepts of border, margin, barrier, both socio-political and aesthetic. I had been waiting for a long time for a solo proof of her, which would validate and confirm the ideas I had made about her, and I was not disappointed. To get to this album it took the lockdown caused by Covid-19, so Mendoza herself talks about it:“New Spells has been in the works for a few years, but all of the music was recorded from home during lockdown 2021 by yours truly. It represents the end of an era and the start of a new one. Many pandemics have been a catalyst for change; they’ve made people move on from the past and imagine things differently. These are spells, hopes and prayers delivered at a gateway between worlds, to say goodbye to one and welcome the next. Their intent is to help set down some of our prejudice and greed as we move into a new world. As someone who plays often as a sidewoman, I love interpreting other people’s music. Playing solo is one of my chances to play my own writing, which I also love of course. But sometimes I miss interaction, I miss arranging and interpreting other folks’ writing. I decided to involve other folks in my solo work, to do a record that was partly my own music, and part music by friends whose work I love. I wanted to interpret the other composers’ work in as personal a way as I could, so that the idea of “whose” it was became a question as much as possible. I guess I thought of it as a way of making community music, even though it’s a solo record.”2
La Mendoza was missing from this important test, so far I had always listened to it playing with others, in duo, in trio, in group, when I listened to her alone it was always through some videos posted on youtube. I almost got the idea of a follower of improvisation, of a sidewoman of the highest quality, still unexpressed. I was wrong. Ava Menoza preferred to wait for the right moment to better express needs and techniques. She did it looking for new inspiration also in the compositions of three colleagues: Trevor Dunn, Devin Hoff and John Dikeman.
Trevor Dunn on ‘Ampulex Compressa’: “Writing for a solo instrument opens the thought process up to limitless possibilities and I find myself, in some programmatic way, thinking about the lone wolf; the unique individual acting on and for its own agenda. About halfway through writing this piece for Ava, a recent interest in behavior-altering parasites started to suggest the jewel wasp. I wouldn’t say there is any direct musical correlation to this ruthless, calculating insect other than a sense of drive and focus. Perhaps the small intervals represent stealth in a diminutive world. The form of the piece could certainly be retro-analyzed to coordinate with the stages of the wasps multi-tiered game of zombifying it’s host leading to the latter being eaten alive by freshly hatched larvae. These things did not directly inform the abstract music but were probably injected in some way (sorry for the pun). The low E string is tuned down to Eb yielding some dissonant harmonics combinations. I also tried to convey a sense of melody, however buried, that could represent the colorful, brutal habits of this creature.”
Devin Hoff on ‘Apart From’: “This piece was born from an ongoing series of compositions exploring the intersections of pedagogical composed music and modern folk traditions; specifically in this case Bartok’s Mikrokosmos and bands from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that emerged in the late 1970’s and early ’80’s. Mikrokosmos is a collection of short pieces for piano students which highlight independence of left and right hand mechanically and independence of two “voices” musically. NWOBHM bands, in contrast, tended to feature dual lead guitars that often worked together os one polyphonic voice, harmonizing guitar melodies and performing riffs nearly identically, but often slightly (and I would argue intentionally) askew from each other in tone and phrasing. I appreciated the challenge of tailoring the piece to one single guitar voice, which can only approximate either a piano played with two hands or two electric guitars. And of course since Ava has studied both classical and metal guitar, the contrasting dual-voice aspects of the piece can be realized on one solo guitar, and taken further than what I could hope to put on paper.”
John Dikeman on ‘Don’t Look’: “Please sight read this piece. Do not look at the following pages. Print on double sided paper. Ideally, you probably want to start playing before turning this page.”
Here I have the feeling of finding myself in front of an album characterized by a higher rate of information, where Ava Mendoza has concentrated needs, techniques, energies, lyricism and hybridizations, effectively demonstrating how they are all the expression of different sides of the same conceptual approach. They cannot exist alone without reciprocal connections, and their balance is the final result, something necessarily ephemeral and unstable, which exists only in the space of these recordings and which tomorrow will see the emergence of new forms, of new solutions.
“New Spells” is necessarily a ‘solo’ record: here the individual, the artist, is divided from the totality and in this gap the details of the cultural maps appear much more nuanced and uncertain. It is a record that defines an identity, with a high information density and a high rate of versatility. One of the best things to emerge in a year, 2021, which now seems a century away.