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.

http://populistrecords.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Hannah Addario-Berry – Scordatura [Aerocade]

hab_scordatura_digitalTwenty-fifteen marked the centennial of the composition of the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. To commemorate the anniversary, cellist Hannah Addario-Berry conceived the Scordatura Project, a program of music featuring the Kodály sonata along with commissioned works for cello by contemporary composers which use the same systematic detuning—the scordatura of the title–as the sonata.

A technically challenging composition, the Kodály sonata was one of the first pieces written for unaccompanied cello since the Bach suites. What distinguishes it is its grounding in a distinctive modality and tuning; Kodály based much of the musical material on Hungarian folk sources, and called for detuning the cello’s two lowest strings down a half step. Doing so produces a B minor seventh chord on the instrument’s open strings, which adds resonance to the work’s predominant modes. Addario-Berry’s interpretation is robust and liquid, keeping in the foreground the sonata’s origins in song.

The release’s other highlights include Eric Kenneth Malcom Clark’s Ekpyrotic: Layerings IV, which appears in a shorter and a longer version. Drawing on contemporary electronic technologies and acoustic techniques, the piece exploits micro-irregularities in the pitch, phrasing and intonation of both voice and cello by taking repeated material and looping and superimposing it into a thickening mass of close-but-not-identical figures. The longer and more dramatic of the two versions builds to a high density, microtonally discordant drone.

Addario-Berry includes several less abstract, more songlike compositions in the collection, the most intriguing of which is Calor, by composer Jerry Liu. Liu’s score specifies pitches but not their rhythmic values; likewise, measures are unmetered. This allows the performer broad discretion in phrasing and forming an overall narrative arc. Addario-Berry’s interpretation brings out the natural lyricism in her playing, which indeed is evident throughout the entire set of music.

http://aerocademusic.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Franklin Cox – The New Cello Volume 2 [Centaur Records CRC3390]

MI0003868339One of the more important legacies of the musical avant-garde of the last century is the extension of the technical means available to instrumentalists of all kinds. With this has come a corresponding broadening of the range of sounds ready to hand for performers and composers alike. With his series of recordings of new and recent music for the solo cello, Franklin Cox offers a cross-section of some of the more demanding and expansive compositions for the instrument.

An American originally from Illinois, Cox (b. 1961) is not only a cellist but a composer and musicologist as well. He was a student of composer Brian Ferneyhough and retains an allegiance to the New Complexity, of which Ferneyhough is perhaps the best known exemplar. All of the composers represented on The New Cello Volume 2, in fact, are either associated with or have been influenced by the New Complexity. Microtonality is a significant element of New Complexity composition and of particular importance to Cox, whose New Cello Volume 1, a collection of works by Americans Ben Johnston, Elliott Carter, Stuart Saunders Smith and Cox himself, demonstrated his fluency not only with microtonality but with intonation that falls outside of or beyond equal temperament. His favoring work of this sort pushes him into sonic territory that he describes as challenging Western art music’s traditional “requirement of constant tonal beauty.” The New Cello Volume 2, which features nine demanding compositions by contemporary European composers, finds him very much at home in that territory.

Although all of the works delve deeply into the cello’s full complement of technical resources, they aren’t simply about what can be done with and to the instrument. Each has an irreducible expressivity that the techniques, remarkable as they are, ultimately serve. This is apparent from the first track, Cox’s realization of British composer Roger Redgate’s Feu la cendre (1992). It is an aggressively percussive work that, with its rising and falling glissandi, has the cello at times take on the plaintive inflections of the human voice. Michael Finnissy’s Dove’s Figary (1976-77; 1981), a microtonal recasting of a 17th century English country dance tune, maintains its underlying songful nature underneath the artful warpages and distortions of Finnissy’s reimagining. Einspielung II (1980) by the late Portuguese composer Emmanel Nunes has a kind of knotty lyricism transmitted through rapidly falling figures, false leading tones and dramatic changes of register and dynamics.

Three of the works are linked to literary sources. James Erber’s Le colonne d’Ercole (1996) is based on Canto 26 of the Inferno; its flowing line possesses a lyricism that nonetheless is subject to dislocating shifts in mood. La vision d’ange nouveau (1997-98) by German composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf has its basis in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History;” its slow, microtonal glissandi against a drone are broken by pizzicato notes and an increasingly fragmented texture–possibly an allusion to the shattered future that Benjamin’s angel sees spread out before him. A poem by Paul Celan provides the context for Welsh composer Richard Barrett’s Dark Ages (1987-90), a fittingly dark, thick-textured work for cello played with two bows on detuned strings.

Interspersed throughout the program are three versions of Klaus K. Hübler’s concise Opus breve, a predominantly timbral work of multilayered rhythms.

http://www.centaurrecords.com/store/crc-3390-the-new-cello-vol-2.html

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Matt Turner – Virion Impasto [Icker Records IR004]

With this set of eight highly unorthodox improvisations for cello played with hairless bow, Matt Turner offers his own perspective on a kind of acoustic concrete music. On all eight tracks, Turner concocts sounds that one would be hard put to assign to a cello. In this general atmosphere of wood on wood frottage some gestures do seem to reveal themselves as having been played on a string instrument: On the final track at least, the sound of plucked or struck strings above and/or below the bridge emerge. Elsewhere rising and falling frequencies seem to signal the circular motion of the bow on an unidentifiable surface, while other sounds—of scratching, gnawing and assorted varieties of friction–approach the purely acousmatic.