Cartography, the second solo album from cellist Mariel Roberts, follows up and extends the work she did on her debut solo recording, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds. There, she presented five pieces for solo cello or cello in tandem with electronics, all of which she had commissioned from composers under the age of 40. Her new CD also presents new work, all of them composed last year. Two are for solo cello and one each are for cello accompanied by piano and live electronics. And in contrast to the earlier CD, the work of at least one veteran composer, George Lewis, is represented.
Roberts is known as a cellist working with the sometimes radical techniques and forms of contemporary composed music. Although all four of the works on Cartography are technically challenging, the technical resources they demand are simply a means toward expressive ends; the inspirations behind the compositions, far from consisting in the investigation of technique for its own sake, all derive from extra-musical ideas. Interestingly, these ideas largely have to do with time: Time as manifested in historical cycles, time as the measure of the finite lifespans of individuals and groups, and time as a perpetually unfinished sequence of moments and events.
Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade, for cello and piano, turns on repetition. The composer, who also performs on piano, describes it as a “manic, hounded piece”—an accurate summary of its more or less relentless hammering away at repeated notes, phrases and rhythms. There are occasional, short-lived interludes of calm, but the piece is notably harrowing experience—an effect not only of the constantly tolling piano but of the dazzlingly virtuosic unison passages of rapidly changing time signatures and displaced accents.
Lewis’s Spinner was inspired by the Greek myth of the Fates, the three goddesses presiding over the finitude and fortunes of human life. The work calls for a wide variety of contemporary performance techniques—broad glissandi, discordant double stops, abrupt punctuation with plucked notes and harmonics, unusual bow articulations. Rather than sounding abstract, this mixture of techniques lends the piece a very human quality—much of it conveyed by the cello’s capacity for capturing vocal inflections, which Roberts’s performance brings out.
The Cartography of Time, by composer Davið Brynjar Franzson is, like Spinner, a work for unaccompanied cello. Franzson’s map is drawn with long, sustained tones gradually multiplied through layering. There is no real melodic movement, just a slow thickening of texture into standing, nearly immobile harmonies. The image of time that emerges is as a kind of dessicated, immaterial plain stretching ahead to an endpoint always receding beyond the horizon.
Cenk Ergün’s Aman, a word that in Arabic means “security” but in Turkish is a warning, is the one piece that doesn’t engage time directly. A work for cello and live electronics, Aman unfolds through discontinuities of texture and register, initially treating the cello almost as a percussion instrument. The electronics, supplied by the composer, take the piece farther away from a “natural” acoustic sound by introducing an element of distortion and colored noise, and eventually transforming the cello into a dispenser of backward-surging tones.
The four pieces differ significantly from each other and place different sets of demands on the performer; Roberts’s performances are consistently exciting and never allow technique to overshadow expression.