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Friday, January 10, 2020

Solo cello

By Stef

This review was long in the making, so I'll shorten it with some very high level appreciations about new solo cello albums.

Séverine Ballon - Inconnaissance (All That Dust, 2018) ****

We met French cellist Séverine Ballon already in 2011 for a review of her duo with Vincent Royer, performing music by Giacinto Scelsi. On this album, she presents her first solo work with own compositions. Despite her nationality, she studied cello with Joseph Schwab at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin and with Troels Svane at the Musikhochschule in Lübeck.

"Inconnaissance" is a real treat. Ballon dares go beyond tradition, and her courage takes her to areas of high musical risk, not by the complexity of the material, but by the explorations of sound, and their possible rejection by the audience. This makes her music not the most accessible, yet the active listening effort is really worth it. Her tone is raw at times, with double stops, high pitched flageolet sounds, multiphonics, scrapings and other inventive use of the complete instrument. Ballon has clearly left even contemporary classical music well behind her. Her CV mentions that she "is currently working on developing extended techniques for her instrument and finding appropriate notation". But it is more than just the instrument, as the liner notes write: "Everything is put under a microscope, allowing for sounds to be dissected and obsessed over. Variation comes through bowing techniques: Ballon is fascinated by the sounds that emerge before and after a 'normal' sound, as if defracting, refracting or diffusing light."

And it is even more than technique and sound resonance. It is also about the music, about the value of harmonies, about dissonance, about tension and playing with silence and volume.

Ballon's music has character, it has power, not because of its volume or physicality, but in its sensitive energy (the French would say "ça a de la gueule", but this sounds to irrespectful in this context), in its attitude of take-it-or-leave-it. It takes courage to go there.

Recorded 27-28 January 2018 at City, University of London

Lori Goldston - The Passion of Joan of Arc (Substrata, 2019) ***

American cellist Lori Goldston is comfortable to perform in any style, and she has done so, from classical to jazz, from performing with Chinese and Turkish orchestras to Nirvana, just to illustrate the breadth of her skills and also of the influences in her music.

On "The Passion of Joan of Arc" she gives an interpretation of possible film music of the silent movie by Carl Thedor Dreyer of the same name. For those who don't know, Joan of Arc is the real historical figure who fought for the French against the English in the Hundred Years War. She was eventually captured by a group of French nobles who fought with the English and burned at the stake.

Goldston's music is slow and reverent, and her cello played without extended techniques (she is not Okkyung Lee). She is accompanied by Aidan Baker on electric guitar and Andrea Belfi on drums and percussion. Both guest musicians offer sparse touches to her melancholy sound, adding dramatic effects and contrasts.

The album presents thirteen movements, for what could easily be described as one long suite, resulting in a very coherent whole, but with limited variation. It is only on a few of the pieces that she goes beyond her usual sound.

The performance was recorded in the Christuskirche in Bochum, Germany.

Lori Goldston - Things Opening (Second Editions, 2019) ***½

She shows a broader sense of variation on her recent "Things Opening". The album is less ambitious, more intimate and possibly better. Even if the playing is very contained - this is modern classical music after all - there are moments when she colors outside of the lines, both pizzi and arco, which is welcome to hear. On the A-side of the album she performs her own compositions/improvisations and on the B-side the music is composed by other artists: Jessika Kenney, Satchel Henneman and Julio Lopezhiler respectively. Kenney's piece is an interpretation of the muslim Call to Prayer, and interesting to hear the classical instrument absorb and work with Arabic sounds.

This album gives a better perspective on her skills as a cellist.

Lori Goldston & Judith Hamann - Alloys (Marginal Frequency, 2019) ***½

Goldston finds a like-minded cellist in Australian Judith Hamann, who perform two long improvisations on "Alloys". As its title suggest, they melt several metals together to form a new one.

This album is very slow, very dark and meditative. The two 26 -minute pieces evolve suite-like with changing names: "Silver, Amalgam, Mother Of Pearl, Felt, A Thin Piece Of Whale Bone" for the first track and "Carbon, Sitka, Rabbit Hide, Solder, Matter Attacking The Body". 

Both musicians dig deep into their instruments and souls to find a mesmerising and slowly shifting piece of art, exploring the full sound of their instruments. Even if its minimalistic approach lacks the energy and nervous agitation of free improvisation, I'm sure avant-garde lovers and cello lovers will find their interest here. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Maja Bugge - No Exit (Discus, 2018) ***

Maja Bugge is a Norwegian cellist, composer and teacher. "No Exit" presents a solo performance in the Standedge Canal Tunnel as part of Marsden Jazz Festival 2017. The tunnel is the longest of its kind in the UK, stretching for three and a half miles underneath the Pennines. 

Bugge is a fan of the dialogue between instrument and the surroundings. Even if this does sound like a John Butcher concept, the music is not so. Bugge's compositions and improvisations are calm, precise, carefully performed with the occasional hint at a theme and the occasional exploration outside the known boundaries. 

Obviously, this kind of music should also be experienced in the setting for which it was conceived to better understand the dynamics. The video below will give some idea about this. 

Francesco Guerri - Su Mimmi Non Si Spara! (Rare Noise, 2019)

Italian cellist Francesco Guerri's album is presented as "contemporary jazz", which it isn't. Guerri is a wonderful cellist, with a very pure tone and broad range of capabilities on his instrument, and I guess that's also the weakness of this album. Guerri has composed all the music on the album, and he is very keen to demonstrate his skills, resulting in too much variety to be coherent. The title track is almost a classical piece, followed by a tune which could be the soundtrack for a silent movie full of pathos and drama, with "Paper" adding a real avant-garde piece with extended techniques, an almost compulsory pizzicato piece, called "Mimmi Resisti" or a cello version of rock 'n' roll, and the album ends with the even more out of place "Lester Tango" which is ... a tango. Guerri has technique. He now needs a producer to work on material with more quality and coherence to make his technique shine.