Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ashley Walters Presents a Challenging Evening of Solo Cello Music

Last night the Center for New Music presented the first sfSoundSalonSeries concert of the year. The program was a solo recital by cellist Ashley Walters that included one piece that was a product of her doctoral research and two other works recently written for her. A program sheet was provided that offered some background text for each of the pieces, Walters having written the one involving her research.

That latter offering was the fourteenth and last of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza compositions, each of which involved the exploration of non-standard approaches to playing an instrument or combination of instruments. Berio wrote this for Rohan de Saram, the British cellist of Ceylonese ancestry, who served as the cellist in the Arditti Quartet between 1979 and 2005. Berio chose to honor de Saram by incorporating Sri Lankan drumming cycles in his piece that required both hands for performance. The result was that, in these sections, any of the pitched tones were basically byproducts of the hand activities.

Berio died before being able to review his score with de Saram, meaning that the piece had not yet been completed to his satisfaction. Walters’ doctoral research at the University of California at San Diego involved creating a performing version of the piece based on the existing materials and any other available resources. Those resources included interviewing de Saram, but her research also led to a deeper study of Sri Lankan music.

I have not had many opportunities to listen to Berio’s Sequenza pieces. As a result I try to take advantage of every such opportunity that arises. Listening to any one of them often feels like observing ongoing research from a non-interfering distance. Presumably, each of the pieces was the result of Berio learning about a particular instrument by interacting with a specific instrumentalist. (The third Sequenza piece was for female voice. This probably arose through Berio’s work with his first wife, Cathy Berberian, although the piece was not completed until after their divorce in 1964.)

Most of the performances I have experienced have involved a row of music stands, allowing the score pages to be spread out in their entirety. This relieves the performer from having to worry about turning pages when worrying about all those non-standard techniques is far more important. However, the listener benefits from being about the see that the performer’s “journey” has a beginning, middle, and end. Since the cellist must be seated (fond memories of Woody Allen playing cello in his high school marching band in the film Take the Money and Run), that sense of journey is lost. This can be problematic for the listener, who is faced with encountering “a new form of novelty” at every step through the performance.

Last night it was unclear whether or not Walters appreciated the extent to which this piece poses a significant challenge to the listener. (After all, it is already a significant challenge to the performer.) This raises the question of whether or not Berio ever cared that much about the listener. After all, his priority may have simply been one of exploring new dimensions of technique, meaning that the “creation of the signal” was all that mattered to him, regardless of what happened on the reception end.

To some extent this was a problem that permeated the other four compositions on Walters’ program. The composers were, in order of appearance, Nicholas Deyoe, Jason Eckardt, Wadada Leo Smith, and Liza Lim. Of these four Smith was the only one I had previously encountered, and those experiences were only through recordings. Each of the four composers provided the text material for the program sheet; but reading these texts began to remind me of Arlo Guthrie’s bit about the crime-scene photographs in “Alice’s Restaurant.”

The problem was that, while these texts were thoughtfully descriptive, the act of description tended to focus on the disposition of the composer and the act of creation. The idea that some third-party listener would be trying to make sense of it all did not seem to be part of the equation. (For that matter, an unknown third-party potential performer might experience a similar feeling of detachment.) As a result the recital experience felt more like eavesdropping on “creative minds at work” than like a listening opportunity.

Fortunately, as even Igor Stravinsky knew after the opening night reception of the ballet “The Rite of Spring,” the human mind can make sense of anything, given enough time for “acclimatization” to new sensory experiences. Thanks to YouTube, Walters has provided the opportunities for the inquiring mind to become more familiar with two of the pieces on last night’s program. These are Jason Eckardt’s “A way [tracing]”

and Liza Lim’s “Invisibility.”

Unfortunately, the explanatory texts provided by these composers are not included on the respective YouTube pages; but this probably will not pose a problem. Listeners need to form their own perspectives of their own listening experiences, independent on any perspectives relevant to the acts of creation. Ultimately, all that matters is that the mind behind the ear can begin to work up an acquaintance with new stimuli; and a few rounds through each of Walters’ two videos is likely to provide the eager listener with considerable valuable progress.

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