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.



I Care If You Listen

In his own musical pursuits, violinist David Bowlin continues to reflect the spirit of diversity championed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which he is a founding member. Bird as Prophet (New Focus Recordings) is a rigorous and thoughtful addition to Bowlin’s extensive discography. Casting a wide net over its six tracks, the album is resolutely eclectic: pieces responding to the Western classical violin tradition interspersed with works referencing Bulgarian folkloric singing and Vedic chant. Yet Bird as Prophet is united by a permeating restlessness, a sense of grappling with the musical past and endeavoring to rearrange familiar elements into new, transfigured contexts.

Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) opens the album with a sweet, lyrical violin line that quickly accumulates tones beyond the solo violin’s sustaining capabilities. Davidovsky’s Synchronisms are experiments with electronic fixed media, and in Synchronisms No. 9, the electronics act as a subtle shadow of the violin itself: enhancing and manipulating the attack and decay of certain pitches, adding hidden overtones, and playing with the listener’s ability to identify timbre. As the piece progresses, however, the electronics’ role increasingly shifts to that of imitative accompanist, mirroring Bowlin’s fractured and frenetic arpeggiations, trills, and glissandi. Synchronisms No. 9 reads like a Cubist rendering of a Romantic violin concerto: full of familiar-sounding gestures—from soaring melodies to showy technical figuration—yet spliced and forged into a surprising, much more oblique kind of cohesion.

Also in conversation with aspects of the Western musical tradition, Martin Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet (1999) directly references Robert Schumann’s “Vogel als Prophet” from Waldszenen, Op. 82. This mysterious miniature’s main motive is marked by an emphasized C-sharp resolving to D in the home key of G minor. Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet, featuring Tony Cho on piano, also begins with C-sharp, in the form of a sustained violin note. But instead of resolving up a half-step to D, the note diverges into two: C-sharp and D, co-existing uncomfortably together. Like much of the music in Schumann’s time, Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet carries forth a sense of dialectic conflict between competing tonal centers. The conflict here, however, is harder to identify and ultimately remains unsolved, in keeping with Postmodernist sensibilities.

George Walker’s pithy violin solo Bleu (2011) may seem anomalous within Bird as Prophet’s lineup, but a similar spirit of idiosyncratic recombination is at play in this short but dense work. Originally meant as an encore piece, Bleu has since been deemed “too challenging,” probably due to its frequent switches from lush double stops to undulating arabesques of triplets (something Bowlin navigates with aplomb). Agitated Romantic lines eventually merge with languid, almost coy lyrical moments, in turn colliding with a whimsical quotation of a jazz tune—giving a new shade of meaning to the “blue” of Bleu.

The refined and enigmatic music of Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin figures heavily in Bird as Prophet, comprising almost half of the record’s entire length and adding an important dimension to Bowlin’s explorations of tradition versus the new and uncharted. Kastena (2003) features a drone in the cello part, played by Katinka Kleijn, but this is an activated drone. Bending slightly in pitch, sliding into sul ponticello, and even coming to a temporary halt with pizzicati, the cello does not simply resound underneath the violin’s decorative melody, but instead echoes its expressive contour, not unlike the fixed electronics in Davidovsky’s Synchronisms. The cello drone finally breaks under the building pressure and rises to interact with the violin in a breathless, virtuosic, and highly syncopated duet, contrasting greatly with the piece’s mysterious sotto voce ending.

Karastoyanova-Hermentin’s Mari Mamo (2009) roughly translates to “Hey, Mother” in Bulgarian, and is “used as a heightened way to greet a woman, or a mother in particular,” in the composer’s words. Joined by flutist Conor Nelson and percussionist Ayano Kataoka, the nearly 17-minute work reads like a through-composed epic, its main melody passing between instruments in a variety of contexts and sound environments. The piece’s first half propels itself forward, rising steadily towards a plateau of highly charged marimba outbursts; a sudden caesura then initiates a long, balancing release of energy across the piece’s second half, beginning with a quiet ethereal section of breathless flute whistling, glockenspiel tinkling, and high violin pizzicati. As Bird as Prophet’s possibly most ambitious statement, Mari Mamo carries a poignant reverence for the Bulgarian singing tradition, yet squarely within Karastoyanova-Hermentin’s unique musical world.

The album closes with Du Yun’s Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016). Against the gently rolling rhythm of Vedic chanting, Bowlin employs a vocabulary of harsh low tremolos, flitting arpeggiations, wide vibrato, and crunchy microtonal double stops. The most pervasive element of Under a Tree is the drone: supplied not only by the monks’ chanting, but also the violin’s open D string. Yet this drone differs from all previous examples within Bird as Prophet—not as a tonal anchor for shifting, searching harmonies, not as an expressive reflection of the melodic material above it, but as a true constant. While there is a sense of progression in the violin part, it is always in relation to a cyclic, timeless backdrop, a paradox of stillness within movement.

Under a Tree, an Udātta finally grants the listener rest and release from the turbulence of Bird as Prophet’s previous tracks. Striving for new perspectives and reconciliations with the musical past, the album acknowledges the violin’s place within the Western classical tradition, yet also revels in its versatility and ability to engage in dialogue with the globalized future. David Bowlin should be applauded not only for his artistry and command of his instrument, but also for his timely efforts to represent multiplicity and diversity in music, erasing boundaries instead of erecting them.

-Daniel Schreiner, 11.27.19, I Care If You Listen


Cleveland Classical

On his latest CD, violinist David Bowlin presents an astonishing array of works that showcase his extraordinary ability as an interpreter of diverse styles of contemporary music. Released on New Focus Recordings, Bird as Prophet is a fantastical listening journey for all — not just new music aficionados. Throughout the recording, Bowlin proves himself to be a player of abundant technique, however it is his innate expressive abilities that make this album so attractive.

Bowlin’s musical prowess reveals itself on the album’s opening track — Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 for violin and electronics (1988). Here the violinist doesn’t just skirt around the pre-recorded sounds, he finds his way inside them, bringing out the inner beauty of the composer’s abrupt mood changes and musical body slams.

A founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Bowlin is joined by ICE cellist Katinka Kleijn in Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin’s Kastena for violin and cello (2003). The haunting work begins with a cello drone over which Bowlin plays a dramatic cadenza that is full of heart-wrenching imagery. The ensemble between players is astonishing, especially in the extended unison passages that move apart ever so slightly and then reunite.

Pianist Tony Cho joins Bowlin in Martin Bresnick’s alluring Bird as Prophet (1999), a work inspired by the music of Robert Schumann and Charlie Parker. Full of Romantic glory which is totally embraced by the performers, this fascinating piece doesn’t reveal its full self on a first listen. Sudden emotional changes and harmonic structures that initially sound odd, sound perfectly natural the second time around.

Following a magical performance of George Walker’s brief Bleu for solo violin (2011), the album returns to the music of Russian/Bulgarian composer Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, this time for Mari Mamo for violin, flute, and percussion (2009). For nearly 17 minutes, Bowlin, flutist Conor Nelson, and percussionist Ayano Kataoka weave together colorful lines of this Bulgarian folk music-inspired piece. Near the end the players remain silent while the composer sings an improvised melody in the Bulgarian tradition.

Bird as Prophet concludes with Du Yun’s stunning Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016). “Udātta” refers to an inflected raised tone in Vedic chant, and you can hear the microtonal shadings in the violin part. With a recording of Vedic Sanskrit chanting as his partner, Bowlin finds his way inside the composer’s exotic sound world that draws you in and holds your attention. His commanding playing turns this spellbinding piece into a work of symphonic scale.

-Mike Telin, 12.13.19, Cleveland Classical



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


Adverse Effect

Six compositions by the likes of Mario Davidovsky, Martin Bresnick, Du Yun and others that witness violinist Bowlin sometimes accompanied by a flute, piano, cello and percussion. Each piece falls into a modernist setting simultaneously dynamic and demonstrating Bowlin’s fluid command of the violin, whilst brimming with crisp drama. Grainy and taut swirls engage with melodic picking and jarred undercurrents of rasping bridges, conjuring images perfect for a creepy and sinister thriller. I’m not sure whether that was the intention or says more about how my own ravaged mind works, though.

— Richo Johnson, Adverse Effect, 1.31.2020



Today’s virtuoso soloist has the myriad challenges of history and culture weighing heavily on every gesture. Even the title of this disc, 'Bird as Prophet," in referring to the genius 1940s saxophonist, speaks to the complex relationship of performer to a complex of cultures, histories and their attendant musical styles. David Bowlin rises to the challenge with grace, agility and, most important, with soulfulness, now a rarer quality than should be the case.

The present collection highlights the violin in various solo and chamber contexts, sometimes with electronics or other backing materials, such as the Sanskrit chanting on Du Yun’s Under a Tree, an Udãtta. The piece burns with a subtle but raw intensity fostered by the guttural droning chant, but it is Bowlin whose masterful sense of inflection and myriad articulation bring the piece to life as he leaps octaves and scales dynamic heights. As the backing track ebbs and flows, he rides the waves with veteran ease, bringing an improvisational quality to the starkly beautiful piece. The same characteristics emerge on the titular piece, but in a strange kind of inverse relationship. Just after Tony Cho’s decisive piano opening, a single tone, composer Martin Bresnick obviously demands microtones, which Bowlin delivers in grand style. His stunning pianissimo grows out of Cho’s D♭, expanding into and beyond quarter tones beyond leaping into something like a cadenza, where the piano ultimately replaces an orchestra. Bresnick’s tonal language is as fascinating as his writing is virtuosic, and the dual influences of Schumann and Parker on the work’s syntax leads to some energetically ambiguous flirtations with the blues. That vernacular idiom is not only incorporated but sublimated, no mean feat in an age where mere imitation is often the order of the day. Especially intriguing is the cross-pollination of blues and Romanticism, which sounds terrible on paper but works seamlessly here.

There isn’t a bad piece in the bunch, but special mention must be made of the ninth installment in Mario Davidovsky’s influential Synchronisms series. This may be one of the most completely integrated examples of soloist and tape collaboration I’ve ever heard, and the realization is superb. Bowlin seems to employ every technique in the book, jumping register and changing attack with consummate skill, matching the tape’s cinematic construction step for step. There are the microtonal inflections shared with Du Yun’s piece, but Davidovsky’s writing is more inclusive, both tonal and its antipode. Fortunately, the recording matches the music in detail and intensity, and this is a disc of top-drawer material with performances in a similar league.

— Marc Medwin, 3.09.2020

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