Cello Solo Take Two

Funny how it works. Sometimes the most tiny or trivial encounter can propel you somewhere you had no intention of going: A short, off-the-cuff conversation with a colleague recently prompted me to reexamine an older piece and try to bring it back to life.

He’d asked me about cello music, and at the end of my list of favorites I mentioned that I’d written a cello solo a few years back that’s all but unplayable. Like several pieces I wrote around this time, it required the performer to listen to a click track while playing the piece; this click track changes constantly, accelerating and decelerating from 49 beats per minute to 166 (with several gradations in between) and changes meter almost every bar. Moreover, the piece is written in a thoroughgoing 24-tone equal temperament, includes two parametric staves (bow speed and contact location), and is full of huge leaps and string crossings. It’s not the kind of piece that legions of cellists are clamoring to play.

However, it’s one of the few pieces of mine that got a really strong positive reaction from a listener after its premiere, and for that reason I feel like it deserves a second chance. So over the past few days I’ve been mercilessly stripping out tempo changes and rebarring like nobody’s business. I also rewrote the phrasing, articulations, and dynamics from the ground up and made a number of substantive pitch/rhythm edits. Now that I’m wrapping up version two, I’m convinced that it’s a much stronger, livelier, more idiomatic piece than it was back in ’06 when I first committed it to paper.

Perversely, though, it looks much harder to play now than it used to! The tuplets that emulate the tempo changes I removed have added a lot of black to the page. In a way, though, this doesn’t bother me: The share of performers who are comfortable dealing with nested tuplets, quarter-tones, and parametric staves is growing every day, whereas the share of performers who are willing to practice with a demonic click track chirping away in their ears is probably holding more or less steady. Although it feels a bit funny to finish a piece I started three years ago (and believed, for most of that time, to already be done!), it’ll be much healthier for me, psychologically speaking, to close that book again with the knowledge that it’ll stay closed this time.

One thought on “Cello Solo Take Two

  1. rskendrick

    Hey Colin, enjoyed your post. Have you heard the line, ‘a good play is never finished, only abandoned’? The line probably rings true for a lot of creative artists. I, too, have pieces I’d like to revise. I’m much more apt to revise pieces, when it can be done in one setting. Some pieces, you’d have to destroy the innards to get the ship righted… I think I’d need some more free time to open up that pandora’s box.

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

    Reply

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