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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Solo Cello

By Stef Gijssels

In our series of solo string instrument recordings, today brings an update on recent solo cello albums, an overview as a heads-up to readers rather than an analysis. 

Judith Hamann - Days Collapse (Another Timbre, 2020)

"Days Collapse" is a suite of four pieces for cello and electronics. The music was recorded in spring 2020 on the island of Suomenlinna in Finland during lockdown. 

Last year, Fotis Nikolakopoulos interviewed the cellist about her approach to music. I repeat this significant response, and I can recommend readers to read the whole interview for further insights: "I think that the mythology of the solo artist, the independent creator, the self made genius has not been a very helpful idea, and is very much a European settler-colonial kind of thinking about the making of creative work. We love the myth of our lack of dependence on things, but we’re much more interwoven than most people might like to believe. I think this is also part of why I call so much of my work ‘studies,’ that was kind of a way to try to resist that sense of composer as author. I don’t think any of the work I’ve made comes from a place of having some kind of singular idea or vision and working to realise that, it’s much more about working with the material from the inside out, and being porous, receptive to the kinds of trajectories and gestures and shapes and shadows which appear when you are open to them."

We add another of her quotes specifically about this album: "Since I started the project I have been thinking a lot about collapse as an idea, and it’s become a really important means of thinking with and through certain ideas and experiences. Collapse in the sense of this album refers to a buckling of structure, of multiple layers suddenly without division, and points to the overall experience of redrawing of inside/outside public/private/social spaces and perception of time in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Perhaps I’m being overly utopian here, but I now think collapse is not synonymous with disaster, it can instead be generative, creative, a way of making a new story or experience, a way of revealing, or retelling our perception of the world."

Her music has a very deep sense of gravitas. It is slow, well-paced and mixes ambient bird song with primarily bowed cello, electronics and humming. In reference to her quote, her music truly merges with its environment, reflects it, adds to it. There are no story-lines or narratives, just in the moment emotional and aesthetic creation. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Valentin Ceccaldi - Ossos (Cipsela, 2020)

Readers will know French cellist Valentin Ceccaldi from his collaborations with Chamber 4, with his brother Théo on violin, and with the Portuguese Luis Vicente and Marcelo Dos Reis. He is one of France's most prolific and versatile cellists, performing in a few dozen ensembles.

On "Ossos" (bones), his first solo album, he not only shows his instrumental skills, but also how to delve deep into emotional territory. ‘Enclume’ (anvil) is characterised by offering extremes from subdued to violent, with moments of drone-like intensity. ‘Marteau’(hammer) starts by touching raw nerves, with at times piercing sounds and repetitive single bowed notes, then moves into a quieter pizzi middle part, and ends in high tone bowed whispers, which sets the tone for the last track - ‘Étrier’(stirrup) - which is entirely built around these bowed whispers, played directly or through overtones, flutelike, with little development in the piece itself.  The entire album offers a fascinating listen, presenting a suite-like sequence that moves from dark and heavy sounds to featherlike lightness. 

The album was recorded in May 2017.

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Paul de Jong - Spiral (Self, 2020)

Dutch cellist Paul de Jong is a sonic explorer, with great attention to the quality of his instruments and recording equipment, if we rely on his detailed description of it all. His cello was builte by Joannes Gagliano in Naples in 1800 and his bow by Eugène Nicolas Sartory in Paris in 1910. I think neither his cello nor his bow could have imagined the sounds they could produce in the hands of De Jong. There are barely any sounds on this album that could come from the cello as expected, but what does that even mean? Is there an expected sound from any instrument? 

De Jong is relentless in his search for sounds that hit hard and go deep. His song titles reflect his anger and frustration ("Rotzooi", "Troep", "Prul", "Geknoei", "Geklooi" ... could all be translated by "rubbish") with himself or the world or whatever. De Jong's musical universe will not be to everyone's taste, but it is coherent in its relentlessness. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Hannah Marshall - Clouds (Takuroku, 2020)

This Hannah Marshall's second solo album, after "Tulse Hill" from 2012.  The cellist is best known from her work with the London free improv scene, including collaborations with Veryan Weston, Trevor Watts, Alexander Hawkins, Alison Blunt, Dominic Lash, ... She is also a member of the Shoreditch Trio with Gianni Mimmo and Nicola Guazzaloca who were once so sweet to give me a private performance when it turned out I was the only member of the audience. 

On "Clouds", she offers us a very intimate expression of a lockdown situation, watching the world go by through the window, watching the clouds, or rather the clearings in the sky. As she mentions in the liner notes: "In some of the gaps you will hear the chair creak, the rain fall, the children at near by child-minders house. The slap and fall of strings, on fingers on wood".

Her playing is gentle, always pizzi and with a strong dynamic pulse, moving the music forward while still giving a sense of contemplative calm. 

The album is short, warm, relatively accessible and . 

Listen and purchase from the label

Lucy Railton - Lament In Three Parts (Takuroku, 2020) 

Lucy Railton is a classically trained cellist, educated at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She resides in Berlin for the moment. She is active in both the contemporary and experimental music scenes. In 2018 she released her first album, also for solo cello and electronics. Last year she released a composition by Olivier Messiaen for cello and organ. She also performs as a guest musician in Christian Lillinger's Open For For SocietyThomas Strønen's "Lucus" and on Kit Downes' ‎"Dreamlife Of Debris", the last two both on ECM. She also performed at the A L'Arme Festival in Berlin last week. 

Like Hannah Marshall's release, this one is short two, clocking around twenty minutes, but in contrast to Marshall, Railton's music is all bowed, with overdubs and electronic changes, slowly building the three laments that the title refers to. The laments are completely improvised pieces, with the processing done afterwards. No need to mention that the tone is inherently sad, drenched in grief. This album is fairly accessible, and departs from the more violent noise of her previous albums. The quality of the playing and the sound is excellent, and the music captivating and moving throughout. 

Listen and purchase from the label.  

Ulrich Mitzlaff - Transparent – Fluorescent Sound Fibres (Creative Sources, 2020) & Soliloque Sonore (Self, 2021)

Ulrich Mitzlaff is a German cellist who also resides in Portugal, and has been part of several Portuguese ensembles, such as the "Lisbon Improvisation Players", "Nuovo Camerata", and mostly "String Theory". 

The cellist performs on the crossroads of compositional concepts and improvisation, using a whole array of objects next to his cello. On "Transparent" he tries to perform the same piece twice, once on cello, once with a piano, and both with objects. The linear structure and the ominous atmosphere are perfectly captured in both pieces, although my preference would go to the more solemn and touching cello performance. 

The "Soliloque Sonore" also brings two improvisations, performed and inspired by the corona lockdown, in an effort to re-create ensemble interaction on his own: "all the sound sources that are used such as the violoncello, the voice, the sounds of shoes and the china type cymbal, substitute other absent but imaginary players". A lot is happening on these two pieces. They are more nervous and agitated, with a higher sense of urgency and immediacy, as if he lacks the time to say it all. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Fred Lonberg-Holm - Lisbon Solo (Notice Recordings, 2020)

It is still an honour that Fred Lonberg-Holm is the petrified subject of the last review of the Dutch version of this blog which I abandoned in 2007, and he will probably stay there until internet itself disappears (to be rediscovered by digital archaeologists centuries from now). 

We find the fierce Chicagoan on his fourth solo album in decades. His first solo album, "Personal Scratch" already dates from 1996. His second solo album, "Anagram Solos" was released in 2007 but with recordings from 1999. "Variance" dates from 2015. He is a small ensemble man in nature, preferring duets and trios with like-minded musicians. 

His style of playing is raw, direct and physical, and often, because the instrument is plugged in, also with feedback and pedals, adding unusual sonic possibilities to his playing. "Visceral" is possibly the word that best describes his approach. It touches you like a hard punch or striking a deep nerve. Lonberg-Holm describes the music on this album as "I like to think that my solo cello improvisations are a kind of non-denominational devotional music", and even if his solo performance is somewhat more gentle than other of his recordings, the sound is be far from what most people would consider 'devotional'. 

Next to his cello, he also performs on "unprepared" piano, to know the broken pianos that happened to be in the recording studio in Lisbon where the performance was made. It also leads to variety and surprises in the music. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Jakub Gucik - Vastitas Borealis (IPT, 2020)

Jakub Gucik is a young Polish cellist, member of the IPT Trio who released several interesting albums over the past years. This is Gucik's second solo cello album, and even better than "In Silva", his debut album. On "Vastitas Borealis", he brings us ten composed/improvised pieces inspired by the "northern waste" region on Mars, which is at the same time the deepest depression in our solar system housing the highest mountain too. 

Gucik's cello sounds distant, resonating in a larger space. His technical skills on the instrument are spectacularly good, briding all genres from classical to jazz and modern music, styles which he cleverly integrates almost seamlessly in his music, often used with different loops, creating multi-layered ensemble improvisations. Despite the uniqueness of his sound and approach, his music is still accessible and authentic. To his credit, he does not use his skills for showmanship but to deliver fascinating music, often organised around repetitive patterns that gradually shift and change in a Bach-like fashion. At times, as in the title track, this repetition of the core phrase may become a little too repetitive, but that's only a minor comment on an otherwise highly recommended album. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Helena Espvall & Fred Lonberg-Holm - FA #11 Borboletas Andarilhas (Flying Aspidistra, 2021)

"Borboletas Andarilhas" may mean wandering butterflies in Portuguese. Swedish cellist Helena Espvall now resides in Lisbon. Chicagoan cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm now lives in New York. Both cellists met 20 years ago in Stockholm before Espvall moved to Philadelphia. They have met each other across continents, at festivals. This is their first collaboration on record. 

"Bematistes Aganice" is an African butterfly, and a 20-minute long improvisation on this album. "Danaus Plexippus" is the scientific name of the monarch butterfly, and a 35-minute long improvisation on this album. Despite their different backgrounds, both musicians find each other on these two long exploratory improvisations, primarily because they give themselves fully, without restraint, but respectfully to each other. Espvall's solo music can be very 'noisy' and Lonberg-Holm can be raw and violent at times, but here their music is relatively accessible (even if this 'relatively' is still very relative) and relentlessly dynamic. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Guilherme Rodrigues – Cascata (Creative Sources, 2020)

Despite his appearance on 204 albums, this is only the first solo album by Guilherme Rodrigues, 

Surprisingly accessible at times, both when performed in pizzi or bowed; Rodrigues himself describes in the liner notes: "The album "Cascata" came from the need to share the total freedom of my person as a cellist. With nothing programmed, I arrived at the studio and played for almost two hours. It was fluid as a waterfall." The 23 improvisations range from 45 seconds to 4 minutes, each with a unique voice and technique, expressive and exploratory at the same time. 

The music was recorded in 2019, so not related to confinement. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Tony Simon said...

Love the cello -- thanks for shining a light on artists new to me! And Hamann's point-of-view, "We love the myth of our lack of dependence on things..." Deep insights I'll be carrying with me.

Richard said...

Coincidentally, I went to my first concert in a year and a half last night, and it was a solo cello performance by Raphael Weinroth-Browne. I highly recommend his album: