Monday, January 1, 2018

Ashley Walters’ Debut on Populist Records

Album cover designed by Claudia Doderer (from

This past October, populist records, a new music label based in Los Angeles, released the debut album of cellist Ashley Walters, which is entitled Sweet Anxiety. In her prefatory remarks for the accompanying booklet, Walters writes about being inspired by the “Sequenza” composition that Luciano Berio wrote for solo cello. This was the fourteenth (and last) of a series of pieces, each of which involved the exploration of nonstandard techniques for playing a different instrument.

Berio’s piece, composed is 2002, is the oldest of the six selections that Walters performs on Sweet Anxiety. Indeed, the album could just as easily have been called “Beyond ‘Sequenza,’” since it showcases the efforts of four other composers, all of whom shared Berio’s interest in departing from conventional cello sounds. In “order of appearance” those composers are Nicholas Deyoe, one of Walters’ close colleagues, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, Wadada Leo Smith, with whom Walters plays as a member of the Golden Quintet, which recently visited San Francisco, and Andrew McIntosh, leader of the Formalist Quartet in which Walters also plays. (Readers may recall that, during her visit here with Smith, she also gave a solo recital at San Francisco State University featuring selections from Sweet Anxiety.)

By way of disclaimer, I should confess that I have had a long-standing interest in Berio’s “Sequenza” compositions, which goes all the way back to my encounter with a recording of the very first of them, written in 1958 for solo flute. However, since I have made my writing my primary occupation, that interest has focused more on performance experiences than on recordings. Not only is observing the exploration of alternative techniques as interesting as listening, but also I have developed an ongoing interest in how different performers deal with those marks that Berio ultimately committed to paper. I have been particularly engaged when the performer has some degree of mobility and can spread all of the score out across a series of music stands, thus make a “journey” through the composition at least slightly more than merely metaphorical.

Most interesting, however, is that each of these pieces amounts to an étude with a double objective. On the one hand there is the expected objective of endowing the performer with new proficiencies, the same objective that Frédéric Chopin had in mind when he composed his two collections of études, Opus 10 and Opus 25. At the same time, however, I have always felt that Berio also wished to acclimatize his listeners to the landscape of sonorities that he was exploring through those alternative techniques. Borrowing a timely phrase that John Cage would use for amusement, Berio used the “Sequenza” pieces to endow his listeners with “happy new ears.”

My thesis that Berio was as interested in his listeners as he was in the proficiency of his players tended to spill over to the other selections on Sweet Anxiety. I have to confess that this approach left me disappointed more often than not. Berio is a tough act to follow, meaning that it is hard to get beyond a been-there-done-that reaction to much of what the album has to offer. Indeed, this reaction applies not only to works that continue to exploit the sorts of techniques that Berio cultivated but also those seeking to explore the possibilities of remote overtones in the natural harmonic series. A piece like McIntosh’s “Another Secular Calvinist Creed” seems willing to let the composer’s gamut of overtones speak for itself, contrasting sharply with Lou Harrison, who knew what he wanted to do with melody, counterpoint, and harmony and then worked out the necessary mathematics to get the relationships of intonation that he needed.

I also have to confess to having experienced a “REALLY!?!” reaction after reading Smith’s booklet notes for his contribution, “Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters.” Much as I enjoy my recordings of Smith’s music (which I think I have sensibly sorted across the classical and jazz shelves holding my collection), I found myself raising a Spock-like eyebrow upon reading the following sentence:
The whole piece should be thought of as the emergence of a flower, in this case, a magnolia flower.
Perhaps my skepticism was cultivated by the fact that the booklet page with Smith’s words faces one with one of the score pages. (I am assuming it was not the entire composition.) Trying to reconcile what I was reading (both words and notation) with what I was hearing made me feel as if I had fallen into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot territory!

Nevertheless, I am definitely glad to have a good recorded performance of “Sequenza XIV” at my disposal. I shall also be curious as to how I react to the other tracks on this album, since I rarely listen to a single track in isolation. Perhaps, with further exposure, my ears will be more receptive (if not “happier”) in their encounters with the new generation of composers showcased on this album.

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