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.
The final wasteLAnd concert of 2015, Nocturnes and Lullabies, featured Richard Valitutto at the piano and was presented on Friday evening, December 11, 2015 at Los Angeles City College’s Clausen Hall in Hollywood. An enthusiastic crowd turned out on a chilly night to hear piano music by Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Bunita Marcus, Nicholas Deyoe, Timo Andres, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Linda Caitlin Smith.
NCTRN (2014) by Nicholas Deyoe started things off, opening with a sharp rap followed by a sudden, crashing chord. The piece immediately turned quiet and a series of dense, atmospheric chords drifted up, creating a shimmering undercurrent of anxiety. This continued and soon a quiet rapping was heard, as realized by several prepared keys in the uppermost notes of the keyboard. The rapping became more insistent as the piece progressed, adding another level of tension that contrasted nicely with the dark chords coming from the lower registers. The persistent knocking became louder – like a ghost trapped in a closet – ceasing suddenly at the finish.
Notturno crudelo no. 1 (2000), by Salvatore Sciarrino was next with a march-like rhythm dominating, almost mechanical in its repetition and regularity. Complex passages consisting of rapid runs and skips intervened – less strident and at times even tentative – but the forceful marcato texture invariably returned. Valitutto managed all of this with high efficiency, effectively portraying the vivid contrast between the sections.
Three pieces were then played continuously: Wiegenmusik (1963) by Helmut Lachenmann, Lullaby (2000) by Bunita Marcus and Plainsound Lullaby (2014) by Wolfgang von Schweinitz. The Lachenmann piece felt restrained, full of quiet notes and short stretches of silence. Some sharp, rapid figures were heard in the upper registers at times, but the overall feel was remote, tentative and mysterious. Lullaby by Bunita Marcus had an altogether more settled sound and featured repeating phrases combined with conventional chords, producing a more introspective feel.
The von Schweinitz piece called for Valitutto to play from the keyboard while depressing the sustain pedal and reaching inside the piano to pluck several of the strings in the lower registers. This required an awkward posture, but the results were amazing. A series of bell-like tones – almost electronic in timbre – issued out from the piano in a pleasant sonority, complimenting a quiet melody of conventional notes. This combination was both unusual and engaging and Plainsound Lullaby received sustained applause from the audience at the conclusion.
After intermission Heavy Sleep (2013) by Timo Andres began with a singular series of deep, questioning chords that were answered similarly in the higher registers. As the piece continued it became, by turns, warm, reaffirming, settled and connected until it arrived at an expansively grand sound. At times, Heavy Sleep exhibited great power, like a piano concerto without an orchestra. The playing here was accurate and the changing dynamics were negotiated effectively.
The final two pieces of the concert, A Nocturne (1995) by Linda Caitlin Smith and Lullaby 2 by Nicholas Deyoe were performed continuously. A Nocturne started quietly and there were long stretches of silence between the phrases that let the notes ring out and slowly die away. Familiar chords followed, producing a questioning, introspective feel. The stillness and quiet of this work made for a good segue to the Deyoe piece, and this began with deep, solemn chords in the lowest registers of the keyboard. Answering chords followed with higher pitches and the low chord returned again with added mystery and power. The fine touch by Valitutto brought out the delicate contrast here.
The prepared keys again made an appearance in the form of a rhythmic knocking that held the attention of the listener. This knocking dominated as the piece progressed and the supporting chords built up a dreamy atmosphere that terminated in a series of roiling runs up and down the keyboard and a sharp thunder clap. At one point the keyboard cover was closed and a soft rapping sound was made upon it. A dreamy fragment of a romantic melody appeared, conjured up so quietly and mysteriously that it seemed to be coming out of the mist in the far distance. A sudden closing of the keyboard cover brought Lullaby 2 to a final, satisfactory finish.
Richard Valitutto brought his many talents to bear on the wide variety of contemporary pieces in Nocturnes and Lullabies, consistently delivering just the right blend of passion and artful technique.