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Cello Visions: New Work by Jean Jeanrenaud, Matt Haimovitz, and Wendy Sutter

Prominent cello recitals and releases late last year and in early 2008 include installations, concerto commissions by virtuoso Matt Haimovitz, and the first recording of solo cello works by Phllip Glass. Already this month, Fred Sherry has played John Zorn’s music in the Guggenheim auditorium, while at the Austrian Cultural Forum on January 7 and 8, Susan Salm of the Raphael Trio matched Brahms’s cello sonatas with two pieces written for her by Wolfgang Florey. At the Joyce Theater in late January, Armitage Gone! danced to Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field (a piece recorded by Charles Curtis, whose vast La Monte Young solo was featured in the February 2006 Rail). This cello-and-dance pairing recalls former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud’s Joyce performances in 2002 with Butoh mavens Eiko and Koma, and Wendy Sutter playing Bach suites in the mid-1990s as Mikhail Baryshnikov danced at Lincoln Center. (In her interview for this piece, Sutter acknowledged Jeanrenaud as “the queen of all us cellists.”)
Also in late January, Dan Barrett led the kaleidoscopically eclectic International Street Cannibals in a Mozart birthday tribute, and early in the month, composer Miya Masaoka presented For Birds, Planes, and Cello (Solitary B) at the White Box gallery in Chelsea, with Alex Waterman playing the solo that Masaoka developed with Joan Jeanrenaud. Waterman’s intensified double-stops and extended passages busted the recorded version’s subtle boundaries, and he dropped below the bridge to eke the score’s interplay with a field recording’s jets and traffic. A speaker array might’ve integrated that tape more sensually with Waterman’s cello, considering the intensity of spatial exploration Masaoka achieves on the vivid choral work While I Was Walking, I Heard a Sound…, and on her coolly probing disc with Jeanrenaud.

On the phone, Jeanrenaud said that after twenty years with Kronos, “I did a lot of improvisation, working with Miya [on kito] and Larry Ochs [of Rova Saxophone Quartet] and other Bay Area people—certainly Terry Riley and Hamza El Din.” El Din, the late Nubian oud player, played with Kronos, and Jeanrenaud has just arranged his “Escalay” for Maya Beiser (whose latest show, Provenance, arrives at Zankel Hall in October). Jeanrenaud’s improv skills gleam on the trio release with Ochs and Masaoka, Fly Fly Fly (Intakt, 2004), with her cello strutting a lithe, noir thread midway through “Mystery Street,” and arcing severely to bridge “Heart of the Matter.” “Musician friends said, ‘Once you start improvising, you’ll start composing,’” Jeanrenaud told me. On a forthcoming disc of originals, Strange Toys (Talking House), processed cello pieces set off a track for two cellos and two violas da gamba, another with William Winant’s marimba, and one with the amped, hyperextended strings of Paul Drescher’s quadrachord. Her installation Aria, with projections and looping score, runs in July during the Bay Area Now festival. “I’ll play for the opening and the closing [on a rotating stage], and for the days between there’s a cello sculpture—people will blow into circuits to create the sound, amplified and manipulated.”
Jeanrenaud met Matt Haimovitz while touring with Kronos (“he was about seventeen”), and recommended him for Rob Wasserman’s Trios CD when the bassist was looking for another low-register player. Haimovitz’s Deutsche Grammophon titles span Haydn and three twentieth-century volumes; he inaugurated the Oxingale label with Bach’s cello suites, and offers wily, austere pleasures such as the Divertimento in E-flat on Mozart the Mason (2006), as well as sessions with violist Kim Kashkashian playing computer-extended instruments for Tod Machover’s Hyperstring Trilogy. On the road to Miami to support After Reading Shakespeare, Haimovitz recalled tours for Goulash! “with a starting point of folk music as a compositional tool—Bartok and Ligeti, for example,” and for Anthem, his solo disc released after the Iraq invasion that opens with Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.” “People got into the visceral, raw nature of [Anthem’s shorter works] and enjoyed the different sounds and styles—even more ethereal, intellectual works like Steve Mackey. This tour goes back to longer compositions with movements based on a literary work [the title comes from Ned Rorem’s suite]. Paul Moravec composed from Mark Twain quotes, and Lewis Spratlin’s Shadow includes ‘Rambo/Rimbaud,’ using the same musical devices and pitches to transform machine-gun sounds into poetry.”

Another Vietnam-era protest track by Hendrix opens Haimovitz’s new VinylCello, with his McGill University cello ensemble working “Machine Gun” for a dozen minutes. Salvos follow from Haimovitz’s Buck the Concerto commissioning project: Luna Pearl Woolf’s choral threnody pits the cellist’s razor passion with a post–Hurricane Katrina gospel libretto by Eleanor Wilner, followed by David Sanford’s romp for cello with big band, which pinioned Miller Theater’s composer portrait of Sanford in October. Yet another realm unfolds in the title track, where Machover disjoints the cello into DJ effects in a piece that conductor Kent Nagano will be presenting with the Montreal Philharmonic—and that an LP version makes fair game for performers in its component parts. “I always thought the cello-and-piano combination that Beethoven put on the map never made much sense,” Haimovitz said. “To me, DJ Olive is a great chamber musician, sensitive and attentive, and I can imagine cellists hooking up with their DJ friends and jamming, using these musical blocks.” Subsequent commissions may jump off from “something like the Brahms double concerto: electric guitar and cello, klezmer clarinet and cello, countertenor and cello.”

Wendy Sutter calls herself “a very traditional classical player,” versed in Bach, Britten, and Kodaly. “I play new music almost by default,” Sutter said. “I’d been offered Joan’s position when she resigned from Kronos but I wanted to have a child at that time.” She later joined Bang on a Can, and met Glass when he toured with the ensemble. The composer told her he wanted to write something for her, “which seemed [at first] too good to be true. I’d go to his house, with him on the piano—it was an old-fashioned collaboration. We talked about the piece’s fifth movement being a chaconne or a fugue, something massive to serve kind of as its heart. Hours later I got an email scan, two pages of music.” She saw immediately that Songs and Poems for Cello had coalesced. Sutter said rousing responses have followed the dozen performances since its February 2007 premiere. Recorded in a Chelsea church—“like it was live, in about two hours”—it comes out this month on Orange Mountain Music, with the thirty-five-minute, seven-movement suite paired with sketches or “tissues” left unused when Yo-Yo Ma played Glass’s Naqoyqatsi film score. Sutter and percussionist David Cossin took up these pieces, which the cellist called “gorgeous, crystalline—sort of like Schubert.”
Sutter is also collaborating with another Bang on a Can acquaintance, the composer Michael Harrison, whose ’07 piano disc, Revelations (Cantaloupe), reverberates with harmonic splendors he learned as the first pianist other than the composer to play just-intonation master La Monte Young’s multi-hour epic, The Well-Tuned Piano. “The initial discussions with Michael were for a piece for an early instrument,” Sutter said, “and I began learning the viola da gamba—it’s possible to play more strings at a time and achieve more overtones.” Plans changed when Sutter’s cello was damaged in Scotland, days before premiering Glass’s piece here at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Her replacement instrument, arranged by the midtown restoration firm Morel and Gradoux-Matt, “was built in 1620 by Amati, the teacher of Stradivari—this cello was created before Bach was around, and was used for about 200 years for Vatican services. Its resonance is stunning: Early Italian instruments have like a Ferrari engine inside. The cello became attached to Philip’s piece.” Arrangements are being completed for its long-term use by Sutter, and Harrison heard it at the world premier of Songs and Poems. “It is a deep, dark, low piece,” Sutter said, “and Michael said ‘Forget [the gamba studies]; I’m composing for that instrument!’” Commissioned by La Monte Young’s MELA Foundation, Harrison’s Cellorchestra will be “a whole fantasy of overtones,” Sutter said, with her solo line backed with two dozen varied, prerecorded cello parts. The world premiere is slated for May in Italy.


Alan Lockwood


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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