Mariel Roberts Maps Her Mind on “Cartography”

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CARTOGRAPHY / WUBBELS: gretchen am spinnrade.* ERGÜN-ROBERTS: Aman.+ LEWIS: Spinner. FRANZSON: The Cartography of Time / Mariel Roberts, cellist; *Eric Wubbels, pianist; +Cenk Ergün, live electronics / New Focus Recordings FCR185

Here’s an album of pretty edgy modern music by a cellist dedicated to the propagation of such sounds. Some of it is brilliant, and will capture your imagination immediately, while other parts are subtler, requiring that you come to them, but in the end the journey is satisfying and worthwhile.

Detailed explanations of each work are found in the brief liner notes. The opener, Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade, takes the story of Gretchen at her spinning wheel and projects her as also spinning “the wheel of karma, turning of cause and effect, compulsive loops of thought and action, repetitive behavior and cycles of history.” Wubbels, who plays piano on this track, aptly describes it as “A manic, hounded piece, atlernating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of regular, ‘idling’ motion.” Manic is the word for it! For the first minute or so, all you hear are tremolos on the piano and cello, followed by occasional crashing chords, before the music takes off in its edgy, motor-driven manner. It sounds like a combination of Frederick Rzewski’s Les Moutons des Panurge and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Roberts almost seems to be playing her cello on the edge of the strings, pulling some weird overtones and boiler-factory sounds out of it, but I LOVED it! You’d better put your big boy pants and big girl dresses on if you come to hear this piece, or it will eat you alive. Interestingly, as it progresses, Wubbels seems to be deconstructing his own work, breaking it into smaller pieces, but not for easier digestion. On the contrary, these smaller pieces make the music even weirder, at one point getting stuck on a D drone for several bars before suddenly latching onto a series of manic triplets that represented, to me, the turn of Gretchen’s spinning wheel. A strange but wonderful piece, it eventually winds down to a lento pace towards the end as, I suppose, Gretchen’s karma runs out of gas.

Cenk Ergün defines Aman as meaning security, although he explains that “in Turkish it is sometimes used to alert one of an imminent danger, as in, ‘Watch out!’” With conditions being what they currently are in the Middle East, imminent danger seems to be the order of the day. This one starts quietly, with occasional thumps and plops coming from the electronic instruments played by the composer, followed around the two-minute mark by high-pitched plucks from the cello. This leads to the cello plucking in its extreme low range, trying to match to some extent what the electronics are doing, later followed by string tremolos. Whereas the Wubbels piece relied primarily on ryhthm to make its effect, Ergün’s consists primarily of sound and texture. Much of its effect is subtle and understated, with some of its warnings whispered in one’s ear. Eventually the electronics create crunchy sounds, over which the cello plucks high-range notes that almost sound random in pitch and placement. Oddly enough, this portion of the work almost sounds like those old-fashioned jack-in-the-boxes when you cranked the handle. This one, too, winds down to a slow pace for the finale.

George Lewis’ Spinner is based on the legend of the ancient sister goddesses known as the Fates. Wagnerians know them from the opening of Götterdämmerung, where, under the name of Norns, they tell the story of the drama and predict a dreary end for the gods and their Valhalla. Yet whereas Wagner’s music for the Fates was slow and dreary, Lewis’ is bright-toned, quick-tempoed and edgy, relying on Roberts’ tremendous technical and interpretive skill to weave her own magic. Lewis admits that when writing this piece it did not have any title at all, but the idea of connecting it to the Fates came to him “in the course of my meditation on the materiality and poetics of her instrument.” To me, personally, the music represents more of a “serious playfulness” than the spinning of the Fates, one of whom is named Clotho (apparently the Marx Brothers’ wardrobe designer). There is a great deal of wry humor in this music as well, including some really bizarre-sounding portamento passages, all of it brought out beautifully by Roberts.

David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time is built around some truly strange sounds that even I couldn’t identify. They sound like rats scrambling and scratching in a maze. How did she produce those sounds on a cello? Indeed, so much of the playing on here sounds like the product of electronics that I’d probably have to see Roberts play it to figure out even remotely what on earth she is doing! The composer defines cartography as not just drawing maps, but also expressing relationships between a part and a whole and also between a scale or measure and a value. This is by far the most ambient and least purely “musical” piece on the album, sounding in places like the kind of things Milton Babbitt used to do.

All in all, a truly amazing, mind-stretching recording. If you just let your mind wander as you listen to it, you’ll be amazed by the forms and colors that emerge. I may not have been able to describe musically what Franzson does in the last piece, but taken on its own terms it’s sort of like an acid trip or the final scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Quite a buzz!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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