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.
On October 20th Populist Records—a Los Angeles label dedicated to local experimental music—released two new albums: Nicholas Deyoe’s “for Duane” and Ashley Walters’ Sweet Anxiety (review of Walters’s album is forthcoming). The day after moving to Los Angeles, I abandoned the assembly of Ikea furniture for the double-release show at Thymele Arts, complete with vegan cupcakes and custom beers from Solarc Brewing. But if the familiar faces, cozy venue and homegrown accoutrements rang more of a trendy Thanksgiving dinner than a classical concert, it certainly wasn’t for lack of musical substance: Selections from the albums were performed with a virtuosity and commitment that commandeered my sugar-high into a full case of gotta-get-home-and-listen-to-this. And so, surrounded by mockingly-tiny allen wrenches and indecipherable assembly instructions, I enter the violent and delicate sound world of Deyoe’s “for Duane”.
In talking about his music, Deyoe emphasizes how building friendship, collaboration and trust with his performers has informed his work since arriving in California a decade ago. “for Duane” is an album born of these relationships, marked by detailed instrumental writing and performances saturated with musical intention. Deyoe’s sound world is one of seeming contradictions; bold yet nuanced, violent but fragile. Throughout the album there is a dialectic between body and mind, pitting raw physicality against moments of distilled clarity and introspection. But behind these dramatic shifts in affect is always music that shimmers with complexity, keeping the listener suspended in the neurotic, intricate atmosphere that pervades this album. If one thing in particular stands out on first listen, it is that this atmosphere is inhabited by the performers with such conviction and vulnerability that many moments feel intimate—even voyeuristic—to listen to. But with each subsequent listen the uncompromising degree of creativity and care afforded every moment becomes clear.
The album opens with Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, commissioned by the LA Phil and premiered by wasteLAnd at the 2016 Noon to Midnight festival. Six songs and an interlude for soprano, flute, trombone, cello and double bass, set to a text by Allison Carter, comprise the piece. A work of outrageous expressive agility, it functions well as an introduction to Deyoe’s musical language: the composer weaves Carter’s text into an ensemble impassioned with frenetic, nervous energy and punctuated by inescapable, foreboding stasis. A formidable palette of noises are summoned from the trombone, combining with the low strings to create heavy, thick textures whose surface twinkle with flute, sometimes appearing suddenly, other times emerging from the background. Soprano Stephanie Aston masterfully navigates these transformations of character, and the pacing of each textural change feels natural and carries a sense of inevitability before yielding finally to the work’s sinking, moaning conclusion.
1560 is a relentlessly energetic three-movement work for violin and viola. Written for and performed by Adrianne Pope and Linnea Powell of Aperture Duo, the resulting sound is much bigger than its parts. The crispness of their unison playing gives the moments of departure the impression of an object coming apart at the seams as it spirals wildly (which is likely heightened in a live performance by Deyoe’s instructions for the changing physical positions of the players). Here, too, the timing proves fundamental to the work’s success, building to one final, screaming, bow-heavy stand before dying away to the whispering harmonics that end the piece.
The next two pieces on the album are both solo works. Lied/Lied was written for speaking/singing violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer using fragments of her own text. It is a modular work of twelve parts, which can be combined and varied in a number of ways, and on the album MacAdam-Somer brings great wit to her performance of this conversational, sometimes light-hearted collection. But where the playful moments of Lied/Lied bounce around the room like banter among friends, Immer wieder offers a sobering, reflective alternative to solo work. Stephanie Aston performs this second solo piece with a patience that aptly highlights Rilke’s superimposition of love and fate. Deyoe inflects the vocal writing with microtonal shadings that amplify his use of extreme registers, adding a haunting ethereal quality to the soaring high notes and an emotive, human quality to the lows. Taken together, the solos are a brief respite from the dense, imagined soundscapes of the earlier works, instead offering protagonist-driven performances of more personal and relatable impetus.
The album closes with a considerable, two-movement work, Lullaby 6 – “for Duane”, dedicated to Deyoe’s father who passed away last year. The first movement functions mostly like a chamber concerto for cello, and Ashley Walters’s playing embodies the love, tension and conflict of the piece with astounding musicianship and sensitivity. The gestural cello writing awakens lush backgrounds—sometimes aggressive timbral blocks, other times intricate, animated whisperings—carefully balanced in their counterpoint of fore-and background in a way reminiscent of Berio’s writing. The ensemble’s playing is chaotic and precise, creating a sense of urgency as it evolves into raucous, tutti, walls of sound. Suddenly, though, the intensity recedes into a quiet choir of voices, a distant resonance of the preceding brutality. Given this space, the cello comes to the lead once more, only in this second movement it finds itself fruitless in arousing the once anxious ensemble. Instead, the cello is itself absorbed into the quiet murmurs of the background, slowly and gradually. As the other instruments disappear completely and the cello begins to dissipate into the atmosphere, Deyoe offers one final, grounding gesture—a quiet, open strike of the lowest cello string, which vibrates freely for just a moment before it, too, is silenced for good.
Overall, the album “for Duane” is a testament to the creative potential born out of serious collaboration between composer and performer. Deyoe’s fiercely intelligent writing articulates a musical voice both bold and sensitive. Brought to life by the excellent performances of the musicians, this album truly hits you in the chest with its raw physicality before re-crossing its legs and asking you sweetly over rimmed glasses, “… and how does that make you feel?”
Well make of it what you will, but it makes me feel good, Populist Records. It makes me feel really, really good.