‘Music from Before the Beginning’ Celebrates Primitive Life with Many Voices

The tracks are entirely improvised, though most of them are layered with multiple voices, so of course the lines between improvisation, composition, and editing are blurred.

By Stephen Nachmanovitch | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

In the past couple of years, I had done a series of duo improv collaborations with partners, so it felt like time for a solo album again. For an improviser, creating a sequence of music like Music from Before the Beginning provides an opportunity not available in the heat of live performance: being able to edit, overdub, and reshape the sounds. The trick is to make the editing as real and present a process as the act of playing. I see the 11 movements on this album as a single piece, a continuous narrative from beginning to end. The tracks are entirely improvised, though most of them are layered with multiple voices, so of course the lines between improvisation, composition, and editing are blurred. The movements came together in a sequence from the lowest register (“Hydrothermal Vent”) to the highest (“Clouds Unfold”). 

music from before the beginning album cover

Player: Stephen Nachmanovitch performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist at the intersections of music, dance, theater, and multimedia arts. He is the author of two books on the creative process, The Art of Is and Free Play. In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in free improvisation on violin, viola, and electric violin. His most recent album, Music from Before the Beginning, was released by Blue Cliff Records.
Title of Work: Music from Before the Beginning
Improvised/Composed by: Stephen Nachmanovitch
Date Composed: 2023

It’s meant to reflect the evolution of life on earth—an improvisational activity that seems in retrospect as though it were composed—and my lifelong fascination with so-called primitive life forms, protozoa and such. It also reflects my fascination with organic evolution, its continuous unfolding of communication, its layers and levels that interweave and intertwine in shapes we cannot describe but still experience. In “Hydrothermal Vent,” the six-string Violectra plays in a fluid world of interchanging layers, and it unfolds from there. Viola d’amore solos reveal it to be an old instrument of many layers and voices. Do you hear the music of primitive life forms or old life forms far more advanced than we are?

My primitive singing appears in two of the tracks—“Archaea” and “Nay Yama Dodo Tulu.” “Nay Yama” was done in one shot, with me singing into a digital delay in ping-pong mode. It was inspired by one of John Cage’s verbal pieces, though you’d never know—it sounds like the polar opposite of John’s music. “Archaea” is layered like geological strata: I was playing bass, voice, acoustic violin, and a Chinese lithophone. 


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Playing with timbre is the element that most gives an individual liveliness to our beautiful stringed instruments, whether in new music or the classics. In “Anemones Waving Goodbye,” I use an envelope filter to give the violin a brassy tone on the left and a phaser to take the same violin underwater on the right. And for the subtleties of right-hand touch, electric violin and baroque bow is a marriage made in heaven. 

Our local Virginia birds appear in “To Be in the World” and “Perch on Pine.” I’d spent a lot of time during the pandemic with these birds and strings in my earlier album, Hermitage of Thrushes. The higher reaches of the violin and the lower reaches of the thrush meet and twine around each other in “Perch on Pine.” 

“Tentacle Time”

Two movements that were straight solos with no extra layers were the ones for viola d’amore: “Tentacle Time” and “I Am Leafy Speafing.” “I am leafy speafing” is an evocative sentence from Finnegans Wake, spoken by the river Liffey flowing and burbling before swishing into the sea at dawn. The viola d’amore is a magical improv vehicle, with its multiple sympathetic strings giving off a wonderful (and tunable) natural reverb, with phasing effects that can only be heard close up. Like the Indian sarangi, it was a technology for making electronic music before there were electronics. For this reason, viola d’amore always enjoys being played with lots of rests and silences to give time for the resonance to ring out. 


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Fifty years before making this spur-of-the-moment music, I was dreaming about it already when I wrote:

Go back
Go back
To the beginnings
To the tide pools
To the lips of the sea
To the fringe of first life
Where the little ones wash up from time’s Deep womb

Album Gear

Stringed Instruments:


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  • Six-string Violectra by David Bruce Johnson 2015, Birmingham, England
  • 7+7-string viola d’amore by Abbondio Marchetti, 1830
  • 4+5-string viola d’amore by Thomas Hulinsky, 1781
  • Viola by Carleen Hutchins, 1984
  • Violin by Annibale Fagnola, 1929 
  • Mezzo violin by Carleen Hutchins, 1984

Bows: Vuillaume; Panhaleux; Hill; Dodd; Gaulard; James Tubbs; Arcus unstamped English Baroque viola and violin bows formerly owned by Isaac Stern 

Cases: Musafia; BAM 

Other Gear:

  • 2013 garbage-can style Mac Pro
  • Ableton Live and Adobe Audition
  • Effects by FabFilter, PSPaudioware, Kuassa, Imdsp, Valhalla, and QuikQuak
  • Equator softsynth played with Roli Seaboard Blocks