If anything is clear in the first few moments of Mariel Roberts’s debut CD Nonextraneous Sounds, it’s that this will not be just a polite collection of unremarkable wallpaper works for solo cello. Actually, unless you are already prepared for what’s coming, it’s not even completely clear that a cello is what’s at the forefront of the mix.
Opening with a transfixing performance of Andy Akiho’s Three Shades, Foreshadows, Roberts touches bow to strings at various points to percussive effect (the thwack of col legno, scratching and creaking tightly across the strings, the whisper of bow drawn across bridge, etc.), but the body of the piece is filled with dense streams of pizzicato along with knocks and taps against the instrument’s body and strings. The live solo line is ensconced in three electronic parts built out of samples of acoustic cello. The resulting quartet—an effect further underlined by the way the electronic part moves around the sonic field—is as much a percussive exercise as anything. The deep, muted bell tones which open the work and obscure the source of the sound are revealed in the liner notes to be the sonic result of plucked strings with clothes pins attached to them near the base of the fingerboard. Still, for as much creativity as has been employed in conjuring the timbral world of the piece, Akiho never seems to get distracted by it or employ techniques as a mere gimmick. Only in the work’s final fading moments, with the last remaining line clicking away like a spun-out film projector, did I even remember that the palette he was drawing from was not the way one generally went about playing the cello in the first place.
Sean Friar’s Teaser plays with listener expectations along a different line. He spins the music’s emotional character on a dime, mixing charming scraps of delicate tune work with fiery bombardments of sliding double stops and lines scratched across the instrument’s strings that might send a chill through you. Daniel Wohl also makes generous use of some fairly abrasive timbres in his Saint Arc, but these sharp objects play out in the context of a great deal of “air” which he lets into the piece through the quiet brush of the moving bow and extensive harmonic usage. A pre-recorded electronic track further amplifies this scenario. Alex Mincek then keeps the brushing but drains the aggression for his Flutter. Beginning in a place that is restless rather than hostile, the work skitters lightly across quick snatches of bowed phrases and nervous col legno, slowly gaining confidence, weight, and a striking, deep-snoring calm by the piece’s final measures.
That nap is not to last, however. Particularly if the demanding techniques employed in the album’s middle works have begun to emotionally exhaust the listener, Tristan Perich’s Formulations represents as a welcome shift of gears (not that Roberts gets to take a break). That it is a Perich piece will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with his 1-bit work. In this case, his programmed microchips emit a rapid-fire sequence of flickering notes within which Roberts matches pace. After the first ten minutes, Roberts gets a breather and when her line returns to the mix after a two-minute recovery, she enters with firm, long strokes, as if steering the flickering swirl of pitch that surrounds her, slowing its frantic pace, and guiding everyone home.
- Hear Roberts speak about her album with Innova Records.