Essential New Music: Hala Strana’s “Fielding”

Hala Strana’s Fielding represents the acme of multi-instrumentalist Steve R. Smith’s dialogue with the history, music and culture of Eastern Europe. Originally released as a double CD-R in 2003, the immaculate pressing and handsome gatefold packaging of this long-overdue vinyl edition give this formally rigorous and emotionally compelling recording its due. 

Smith first came to light in Mirza and Thuja, a pair of combos that operated from the Bay Area starting in the 1990s. The former was a monstrously loud shoegazer outfit, while the latter situated quiet music within natural environments, but both were collective endeavors. Smith’s own work has usually been quite solitary; even when it sounds like a band is playing, it usually turns out to be just him. Even so, many of his albums are released under project names, of which Hala Strana was the first. The adopted monikers have usually signified either a sonic or aesthetic focus. The deep dive of Hala Strana started when Smith saw the Dog Faced Hermans break into a Romanian folk tune, sending him off to libraries and record stores to find out more about those sounds. Around the same time, Smith began making solo recordings that showcased his knack for composing melodies fit to soundtrack your best imaginary movies.

Fielding fits right into Smith’s long and still-growing catalog, but it also differs in two key ways. He didn’t just write tunes that evoked mental images of distant European villages from before the age of electricity, but he built some of them around samples of ethnographic instrumental and vocal recordings and invited a couple members of Thuja to play on and help him process these hybrid creations. Some of the contemporary contributions sound as old as the samples.

But other pieces exploit temporal tensions, such as when Smith and Glenn Donaldson’s disconsolate strumming on “Lasting” seems to be striving to match and complement the stark tragedy of a Hungarian fiddle recording. Smith also makes no effort to hide his own roots. “The Split Tree,” for example, juxtaposes his keening fiddle with a Thuja-like ambient drone and scraps of noise that sound like they could’ve been torn out of a Swell Maps jam. Such deliberate anachronisms result in a sequence of haunting performances that seem to inhabit different centuries in a way that’s different of anything else in Smith’s oeuvre.

—Bill Meyer