AMN Reviews: Ashley Walters – Sweet Anxiety [populist records PR014]

Much of the most interesting new music is not only composed with specific performers in mind, but is written in collaboration with them. This isn’t a process unique to contemporary music; historically, composers have written works for the noted performers of their time, and in more recent years, composers interested in expanding the range of new music’s sound palette have worked with technically adventurous virtuosi to create distinctly challenging pieces—challenging not only to play, but for listeners used to the more conventional range of instrumental sounds, challenging to assimilate as well. The practice of composer-performer collaboration seems to be particularly flourishing right now, often with excellent results. An example of this is Ashley Walters’ Sweet Anxiety, a collection mostly made up of new collaborative works for solo cello.

Two of the collaborative works on the disc are by composer Nicholas Deyoe. For Stephanie (2009), a wedding gift to the composer’s wife, is a piece whose volatile dynamics and unusual detuning scheme seem to capture the anxiety and aspiration that surround such an emotionally complex rite of passage. Deyoe’s another anxiety (2013) worries its sound material with compulsively repeated figures, frantic bowing, and jaw-clenchingly close microtonal dyads.

For Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters (2012-2013), collaboration came in when Walters began the process of interpreting the completed score. Smith’s semi-improvisational piece left Walters much latitude in terms of phrasing, durations, and dynamics, and as a consequence her performance is richly expressive and at times uninhibited.

The highlight of the recording is Walters’ interpretation of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV for cello. Berio composed the piece for the Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram but it was left unfinished at the composer’s death; Walters worked with de Saram to realize her own version of the score. Sequenza XIV contains a number of technical challenges, including extended pizzicato and arco gestures meant to evoke Sri Lankan drumming rhythms. Walters’ performance conveys the power of the piece in a way that feels entirely natural.

Daniel Barbiero