David Bowlin: Bird as Prophet


Violinist David Bowlin releases a program of works for solo violin, with and without electronics, alongside select chamber works. Featuring works by close colleagues Du Yun, Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin as well as music by luminaries Mario Davidovsky, George Walker, and Martin Bresnick, Bird as Prophet is a poignant snapshot of a performer who at once embodies the virtuoso tradition and brings those prodigious talents to the music of our time.


Violinist David Bowlin has assembled a collection of new works for solo violin and with electronics that carry the virtuoso tradition forward, exploiting the instrument’s rich history while contextualizing it within a broad palette of contemporary aesthetics, some grounded in compositional craft and some responsive to other music cultures.

“Bird as Prophet” opens with Mario Davidovsky’s seminal Synchronisms #9 for violin and electronics. Davidovsky’s Synchronisms series for live instrument and pre-recorded sounds is a landmark in the electro-acoustic literature. Very cognizant of the potential negative implications of technology driven innovations in music, Davidovsky made it his priority to humanize his electro-acoustic pieces, constructing a chamber like relationship with the electronics, and using them to create a hybrid acoustic-electronic instrument. Davidovsky was a violinist himself, and in this work, one hears fragments of the virtuoso violin tradition he studied, but through a distorting lens.

Bowlin has had a long standing collaborative relationship with Russian/Bulgarian composer Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, facilitated by his longtime tenure in the International Contemporary Ensemble. On Kastena, he is joined by ICE cellist Katinka Kleijn. Opening with a plaintive cadenza for the violin over a sustained cello drone, Kastena explodes into a vigorous dialogue between the two instruments. The piece returns to the opening drone texture and ends with a haunting sotto voce soliloquy in the violin. Mari Mamo for violin, flute, and percussion (Bowlin is joined by flutist Conor Nelson and percussionist Ayano Kataoka) is inspired by Bulgarian folk music. A main melody is passed between the three instruments, with short punctuations that propel the music forward. The composer joins the performance at the end of the work, with an affecting improvised vocal performance in the Bulgarian tradition.

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The title work for violin and piano (Tony Cho, piano) by Martin Bresnick takes its inspiration from Robert Schumann and Charlie Parker alike. Sequential development of motivic and harmonic information drive the rhapsodic piece forward, as the violin leads with angular lines and drastic character shifts and the piano often supports with imitative material. If Schumann provides the inspiration for these expressive contrasts (with the impetuous “Florestan” side of his character dominant here over the more introverted “Eusebius”), then perhaps Parker is the model for the clever negotiation through patterned phrases.

George Walker’s episodic Bleu for solo violin was written for his son Gregory, and was initially intended as an encore for recital programs, though Walker the elder acknowledges that it may not be light enough to fill that function. It is an episodic piece, with material that alternates between virtuosic passagework and poignant melodic material played in double steps. The composer indicates that the title obliquely references the blues, both through an underlying melancholy and a very brief quote of a jazz tune towards the end of the work.

Du Yun’s Under a Tree, an Udātta has as its backing track a recording of Vedic Sanskrit chanting. Bowlin’s violin then performs an extended cadenza over the incantation, covering a wide swath of expressive territory, from wild glissandi and feverish scalar passages to rich melodic lines over a drone string. “Udātta” is a term for an inflected raised tone in Vedic chant, and one can hear similar microtonal shadings in the violin part, evoking the violin’s bowed cousins in Southern Asia.

Bowlin’s “The Bird as Prophet” is a rich collection of contemporary approaches to violin writing. With an emphasis on the lyrical strengths of the instrument as well as a contextualization with the virtuoso violin tradition, the works on this recording cover territory from modernism to extended minimalism as well as drawing on music from traditions outside the Western art music canon. Bowlin’s extraordinary command over his instrument, and his characteristic expressive power, are the main voice throughout, a clarion call for narrative driven, intricately interpreted performance.

– D. Lippel

  • Produced & Engineered by Adam Abeshouse
  • Design: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)
  • Photography: Tanya Rosen-Jones

David Bowlin

David Bowlin has won critical acclaim for his performances of a wide range of repertoire from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and many others. First prize winner of the 2003 Washington International Competition, Bowlin has performed with such artists as Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode, and with members of the Juilliard, Emerson, and Brentano string quartets.

Bowlin is a founding member of the highly acclaimed International Contemporary Ensemble, Musical America’s 2014 Ensemble of the Year, a former member of the Naumburg award-winning Da Capo Chamber Players, and a member of the Oberlin Trio. He has made several tours with Musicians from Marlboro and has been a guest artist with many organizations, including the Boston Chamber Music Society, ChamberFest Cleveland, the Banff Centre, the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, Ojai, SongFest, the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival, and the Four Seasons festival.

As an ensemble leader he has performed in guest concertmaster and principal roles with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the IRIS Orchestra, the Juilliard Or-chestra, and the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. As a soloist he has premiered violin concerti written for him at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. In recent seasons he has appeared as soloist with the La Jolla Symphony, the Arktisk Sinfonietta, and at the Aspen Music Festival. On air he has performed in live broadcasts for WQXR New York, WFMT Chicago, WCLV Cleveland, Vermont Public Radio, and nationwide on NPR’s Performance Today. His recordings can be found on the Bridge, Naxos, New Focus, Mode, Arsis, and Oberlin Music labels.

Bowlin currently serves as Professor of Violin and Director of String Studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and in the summer serves on the faculties of the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival and the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Prior to coming to Oberlin in 2007, he taught at the Juilliard School as assistant to Ronald Copes of the Juilliard Quartet.

Bowlin is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Juilliard School, and Stony Brook University, where his major teachers included Roland and Almita Vamos, Ronald Copes, Pamela Frank, Ani Kavafian, Philip Setzer, and Stephen and Kimberly Sims. He performs on a violin by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, c. 1620.



While Bowlin’s name was not immediately familiar, I’ve seen him perform as a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble many times. Here he has assembled a mostly spectacular selection displaying his dazzling gifts as a soloist, starting with Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 for violin and electronics - still bending minds over 30 years after it was premiered. Kastena, a duo for violin and cello (Katinka Kleijn) by Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin is a rich reminder of the Russian heritage from which she takes inspiration. The title piece by Martin Bresnick, which adds Tony Cho on piano, seems a bit prosaic in this company and doesn’t quite add up over its ten-minute span. George Walker’s Bleu for solo violin is a brief burst of near-romanticism, nicely cuing up another piece by Karastoyanova-Hermentin. Mari Mamo features Conor Nelson on flute and Ayano Kataoka on percussion alongside Bowlin for an even deeper transmutation of Eastern European folk traditions. Du Yun seems to create her own traditions and Under a tree, an Udātta is one of her most ritualistic works, with its dense violin writing accompanied by recorded Sanskrit chants. Having a version of it recorded by a consummate musician like Bowlin is a real treat, a word that applies to this fine collection as a whole.

-Jeremy Shatan, 10.19.19, AnEarful

Avant Music News

The violin virtuoso has been an important figure in Western art music for centuries. Over these centuries the nature of virtuosity has evolved, along with the techniques needed to achieve it. What a 21st century violin virtuoso sounds like is on display on David Bowlin’s Bird as Prophet.

Bowlin, Director of String Studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is an adept interpreter of new music and a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, one of the most esteemed new music groups in the world. The works on Bird as Prophet bring out both his versatility and lyricism in equal measure.

Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms no. 9 (1988) for violin and tape uses discreet electronic sounds to supplement a central focus on the violin. While the latter is indeed synched with the tape it could stand on its own as an example of late Modernist virtuosity: a technical challenge played out in a slightly fragmented arc of double stops, rapid runs into the extreme upper register, and mood-changing, introspective interludes.

Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016) by Du Yun, like Bowlin a founder of ICE, is another piece for fixed media and violin. Under a Tree is anchored on a recording of Vedic chanting, which sets up an insistently rhythmic drone for the violin to play over. Bowlin’s line, which has some of the looseness of an improvisation, is an eclectic mélange of raga-like microtonal swoops, percussive strikes and long-held, widely-vibratoed tones. What the piece seems to say in part is that contemporary virtuosity isn’t solely a matter of technical mastery, but of being conversant with multiple musical traditions as well.

Bleu (2011), a composition for solo violin, is a mature work written by the late George Walker for his violinist son Gregory when the composer was nearly 90. It’s a beautiful, expressive piece that combines a warm romanticism with chromatic, Modernist lines; Bowlin plays it with great depth of feeling, as he does Martin Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet (1999), a piece for violin and piano (Tony Cho).

Bowlin has previously interpreted the music of Alexandra Karasyoanova-Hermentin, a Moscow-born composer/pianist of Russo-Bulgarian background currently living in Austria; he premiered her violin concerto Mahagoni, which she had written for him, in 2007. Here she contributes two pieces for small chamber ensembles. Kastena (2003) for violin and cello, the latter played by ICE’s Katinka Kleijn, is a tension-filled work that floats an energetic violin part over a cello performance that alternates between drones and abrupt, percussive interventions. Mari Mamo (2009), a trio work for violin, flute (Conor Nelson) and percussion (Ayano Kataoka), constructs melodies out of discontinuous tone colors and plays fruitfully on the contrast between staccato flute and tuned percussion on the one side, and long, floating violin tones on the other.

-Daniel Barbiero, 10.10.19, Avant Music News

Midwest Record

For anyone that was sad the proposed album, “Jethro Meets the Machine”, in which Jethro Burns was going to face off against a synth player never got off the drawing board, this set of a classical violinist going solo against electronics can fill that loss. A set that can be counted on to chart new paths in contemporary classical, well, the times they are a-changing’. Nu ears may have already beat this to the finish line as it’s as much about sound as it is about music, but fire in the right hands can cook a yummy steak instead of burn a building down. Ya get me? This is way more than creativity just for the sake of creativity. Check it out.​

-Chris Spector, 8.27.19, Midwest Record

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