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Katherine Rhoda Katherine Rhoda
Album: Joyful Confluence
Label: Hiram Hill
Tracks: 19
Website: http://www.katherinerhoda.com/

Now here's something very different, and no mistake. Katherine is of Lithuanian descent but hails from Maine, and has a deep and insatiable fascination for a particular kind of musical instrument - the vintage fretless zither - of which there was a veritable plethora in the early 1900s. The best-known of this family of instruments, of course, is the autoharp (chorded zither), which has since secured a place in folk and old-time country/bluegrass music from the Carter Family to the Fariñas, and has a deservedly enthusiastic advocacy among cognoscenti and devotees of the roots session scene.

Katherine, however, chooses to showcase the delights of the more obscure members of that family of instruments. She rejoices in exploring the unique sound-world of these esoteric creations to provide creative settings for her own (vocal and instrumental) original compositions, and on this disc she introduces us to four different members of the fretless zither family: the Marxophone, violin-guitar, Phonoharp No. 1 and harpeleik. All of these were originally developed as more accessible (and marketable) alternatives to the technically demanding Alpine zither; many were advertised as "the ultimate in DIY music-making", and some were of the play-by-numbers variety, sold with numbered music sheets. The curiously-named Marxophone possesses a sound that's something between the autoharp (or indeed the more well-known Appalachian dulcimer for that matter) and the hammered dulcimer, quite delicate yet strangely insistent: Katherine plays the Marxophone on just under half of the album's 19 tracks, which range from appealingly descriptive pieces like Snowbound, Lighthouse Hill and Deepdale Beck to a florid arrangement of the traditional Cruel Sister melody and the passionately optimistic song Through The Fire.

The first-time listener is in no danger of growing weary of the special (and distinctive) timbre of the Marxophone, for Katherine intersperses between its featured tracks excursions onto the other instruments mentioned above. The even more obscure Phonoharp is a simpler variation on the autoharp, and features on just one track, the charming Since First I Gave My Heart To You/Sass medley, while in bold contrast Katherine turns in a sparkling account of the traditional Boys Of Blue Hill hornpipe on the hammered dulcimer. She picks up the rich-toned Swedish harpeleik (one was played by Shirley Abicair in the 60s!) to accompany herself on the album's big narrative number The Ballad Of Judith Folger, and the Lithuanian instrument kankl?s features on Vidury Lauke (a song from that country). Perhaps the most haunting sounds on the album come from the blatantly misleadingly-named violin-guitar, which looks nothing like either violin or guitar but instead is a kind of bowed psaltery similar to the ukelin - it features on two songs and one instrumental. And yet, maybe almost as haunting are the tracks showcasing the humble pump organ (Reeds In The Wind) or accordion (the songs Haul And Stack and Gone Beyond Gone, the latter also including a plaintive pennywhistle part).

I think it will be clear by now that I was absolutely fascinated by this album. Katherine is totally committed to the advocacy of these weird and wonderful, almost totally neglected instruments, and she has just the right qualities for this task. Technique-wise, she has an assured sense of rhythm which she brings to counterpoint an acute feel for melody, while the excellent recording brilliantly captures the sonorous resonances of the instruments and on the songs gives Katharine's expressive, well controlled singing the ideal degree of bloom to set against her own instrumental accompaniment.

If you've lately developed a taste for what I might call the tang of exoticism in more unusual instrumental timbres e.g. the nyckelharpa (as played by the likes of Vicki Swan or Griselda Sanderson), then you'll likely also respond to the intriguing and stimulating sound world of the fretless zither and its family members, and not least also to Katherine's thoroughly engaging performance style. She can naturally and unashamedly move between stately and puckishly playful, but there's always a simply feelgood vibe to Katharine's musicianship, and the listener can't help but be drawn into her artistic vision by dint of her joyous gentle virtuosity. Check out her website too, for lots more authoritative information regarding the multifarious instruments Katherine plays on this enchanting recording.

David Kidman