Ashley Walters: Sweet Anxiety

Cellist Ashley Walters released her first solo album, Sweet Anxiety, on Populist Records last month. The music is complex and difficult—sometimes on its surface, sometimes in the hidden technical requirements—but Walters breathes life into each work with her astounding virtuosity. Beyond physical skill, however, Sweet Anxiety showcases her ability to find musical consequence across a range of compositional styles. The result is a stunning album, strengthened by its aesthetic diversity and yet unimaginable without Walters’s distinct talents.

The journey of this album is in the gamut of musical intent: some pieces clutch the wheel with caffeine-trembling hands while others gaze contemplatively out the passenger-seat window. To this end, Nicholas Deyoe’s For Stephanie (on our wedding day) works as an effective exposition for the record, a short juxtaposition of dramatic, lush chords against melodic fragments and sparkling timbral echoes. Walters’ impeccable balance guides the listener’s ears, pulling you in to reveal subtle verticalities before thrusting you back in your seat to bathe you in guttural drones. Deyoe’s writing here reveals a keen sense of energy and diffusion, which Walters embodies with astounding sensitivity. This understanding between Deyoe and Walters is particularly highlighted as the splashing, melodic climax dissolves into a passage of gorgeous tranquility, calmly rippling outwards until subsiding into the stillness.

And then, emerging from quiet tappings, comes the funk. Right as you are wondering if Walters had herself become ocean, the unmistakable percussive episodes, insect-like buzzing, and haunting melodies of Berio’s late Sequenza XIV zap the air with electricity. Along with Deyoe’s works, Sequenza XIV employs a more traditional musical rhetoric, building forward momentum in which listener expectations are resolved, subverted, or re-directed. In both Sequenza XIV and Another Anxiety, Walters sets these moments ablaze with acrobatic changes of technique, tone and dynamic. Furious passages are handled with intimidating virtuosity, but it is Walters’ right hand technique that stands out here. The control of bow pressure and position transforms even the most extended of techniques into musical devices rather than musical effects. This in particular makes the dramatic contrasts inherent to the language of these pieces especially effective and expressive.

On the other hand, quite literally, are Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany. Both works are patient, disciplined explorations of microtonal material—horizontal in Creed and vertical in Plainsound. The Schweinitz presents intervals of varied intonation and timbre, emerging and receding in succession. A meditative atmosphere is sustained through the gentle ease of Walters’s playing (a true feat given the technical difficulty of the piece), unfolding the material like an exposé of unhurried snapshots with shifting perspectives. Creed instead explores microtonal relationships melodically in the form of a 31-note scale. Ascending and descending, the lines slowly fragment into opposing forms before recombining into a final, climbing iteration. Missing from the sound recording is the theatre of contradiction embedded in McIntosh’s piece: Radically disjunct physicality is required to produce the smooth, conjunct musical material. Still, the inclusion of these two pieces offers a contemplative and unforced contrast to the more propulsive works on the album.

Perhaps most curious is the inclusion of Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters. The piece inherits the uninhibited, reckless abandon of an improvisation—one which emphasizes performer intuition and awareness over formal archetypes. The task of communicating a work that is less about the plot than the language itself is a difficult one, but Walters succeeds brilliantly. Under her hands, piece oozes with personality, spinning out a trajectory of ideas and development with convincing and relatable motivation. Surrounded by works that treat time as a means of either thematic propulsion or suspension, Sweet Bay Magnolia stands instead with the Berio in its improvisatory bend, creating the impression that the listener is witnessing the piece’s conception in real time. And so, beyond the merits of the piece itself, Sweet Bay Magnolia helps rounds out the album in way that highlights the variety of stylistic intent included.

Sweet Anxiety is a showcase of musical aptitude, not only for Walters’ skilled performances, but for the interpretations and larger flow of the album. Its incorporation of distinct and diverse compositional approaches is bold and effective, and the commitment to conveying the sound world and personality of each piece makes for exceptionally moving moments. This album is, no doubt, both “sweet” and “anxious”—so much so that you may have to remind yourself there is just a single instrument. But that would be somewhat deceiving, because in truth this is music for much more than solo cello; it is music for Ashley Walters.

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