Atlanta: Breaking Out New Cello Music

Mark Gresham
Mark Gresham
Photo by Angela Lee

Cellist and new music activist Craig Hultgren brought his “2005 Hultgren Solo Cello Works Biennial” program to Atlanta on September 13th. It was presented at Georgia State University’s Kopleff Recital Hall, hosted by GSU’s neoPhonia. This fourth installment of Hultgren’s recital-cum-competition of new works for solo cello, unaccompanied or with electronics, was on its second leg of a three city mini-tour; the first installment held on August 28th in Birmingham, Alabama, the final one to take place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on September 20th.

The program featured works by seven composers chosen as finalists in the composition contest, winnowed down from a total of 115 submissions from 27 countries. Hultgren, who is a member of the Alabama Symphony and active participant in BAMA (Birmingham Art Music Association), said from the stage that the competition panel, which consisted of himself and senior members of BAMA, chose the finalists based on three simple criteria: that the music be “idiomatic,” “forward-looking,” and “good composition.”

But the next step, awarding cash prizes at each of the concerts, was up to the audiences, which votes by ballot at the end of the program for the winning work of the night—$1000 prizes awarded at each show in Birmingham and Atlanta, and a $500 prize to be awarded at Tuscaloosa.

The composers’ ages ranged between 30 and 44, with the exception of Stephen Gard of Australia, by default the elder statesman of the group at a mature 54. Besides Gard, the other composers who made it to the finals were Vincent Chee-Yung Ho, Nickitas Demos, Michael Angell, Robert Percy, Katy Abbott, and Carlo Forlevisi.

Hultgren read all of the evening’s music not from paper scores, but from the digital screen of a Music Pad, from which a number of the scores were also projected on a screen for the audience to see and follow. Hultgren played a total of four cellos during the evening: three standard acoustic instruments, two set up with alternative tunings, plus a solid-body electric cello.

Ho’s Stigmata opened the program with a sighing, wailing reflectiveness expressed in pitch bends integrated into the thematic material.

Hultgren then switched to the electric cello for Atlanta-based Demo’s Tonoi IV with its driving, aggressive machine-gun rhythms and arching, ascending arpeggios, making use of digital echo in the middle section then a brief spate of fuzz-box filtering in a later portion.

Demos was one of only two American composers represented on the program, the other being Birmingham’s Michael Angell, whose Sonata for Cello and Tape (with a brief video montage) concluded the first half of the concert. Hultgren was back on the acoustic cello with which he began the concert. The five movements incorporated a busy, “old school” electronic character accompanying a cello part replete with long slides on the strings and taps on the instrument’s body.

After a brief intermission, Hultgren picked up one of the cellos with altered tuning to play Percy’s Everything is Permitted. Opening with eerie harmonics, the piece then took up a mostly pizzicato texture, evolving to a mostly bowed texture as it progressed, including some fretboard slaps along the way. It was followed by the shortest piece on the program, Abbott’s Break Out (on the cello with standard tuning), a one-and-a-half minute miniature unaccompanied tour-de-force.

The most “traditionally melodic” music of the evening was Gard’s Voices from the Gorge, with an artful video collage by the composer. The rather polyphonic score included not only electronic and sampled sounds, but also multiple recorded cello tracks that were in lyrical ensemble with the live cello. All elements were rhythmically interactive in one section—a jazzy pizzicato with clever highlighting of linear objects in the video.

The program concluded with Forlivesi’s Più mesto—the title underscoring the work’s overall feeling of desolation. Utilizing his remaining cello with altered tuning, Hultgren played with two cello bows at once, one in each hand. The score is written on a grand staff, one staff typically for the right hand, the other for the left. The slow tempo and some of the manner of performance was inspired by the biwa, a traditional Japanese instrument.

At the end of the show, audience members checked off their choice for the evening’s prize-winning composer, who was announced at the post-concert reception after a quick count of ballots: hometown Atlanta composer Nickitas Demos.

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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.