Guided by Voices: New Music for Baroque Cello
Scott Edward GODIN (b.1970)
Guided by Voices (2014) [11:39]
Lisa STREICH (b.1985)
Minerva (2018) [9:17]
Maxime McKINLEY (b.1979)
Cortile di Pilato (2017) [9:55]
Isaiah CECCARELLI (b.1978)
With concord of sweet sounds (2015) [11:30]
Linda Catlin SMITH (b.1956)
Ricercar (2015) [12:02]
Ken UENO (b.1970)
Chimera: (2017) [22:46]
Elinor Frey (cello)
Mélisande McNabney (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, Domaine Forget de Charlevoix, Québec
ANALEKTA AN29162 [77:40]
When I initially expressed an interest in reviewing this CD, I had no notion that it would turn out to have close connections with a place of which I have especially happy memories. When I unwrapped the disc, I saw on the covers of its case and booklet images which began to stir memories, though I couldn’t immediately work out why. Both images, in fact, are of ancient mosaics on the so-called ‘Cortile di Pilato’ in the complex of buildings in Bologna known as the ‘Basilica di Santo Stefano’ – though most locals seem to refer to it simply as Santa Gerusalemme (Holy Jerusalem). It consists of a very compact complex of sacred buildings, from the 4/5th century onwards. Wikipedia has a decently informative entry on the Basilica, and an image search for ‘Basilica di Santo Stefano, Bologna’ will provide some interesting photographs. Although there is indeed much of aesthetic interest on the site, my abiding experience when I first visited it some ten years ago, was more of an essentially unphotographable kind – an extraordinary sense of the numinous, a serene awareness of some presence beyond the physical and temporal world. It is a sense I have only experienced on a few other occasions – notably in some Islamic sites at Mahan and Isfahan in Iran, in one of the surviving medieval synagogues of Toledo – now usually known as the Synagogue Church of Santa Maria La Blanca, along with the wonderful Hellenic Temple at Segesta in Sicily. I am clearly not alone in finding something extraordinary in the atmosphere of Santo Stefano in Bologna. The young man who served me in the complex’s small bookshop told me he had become a Catholic convert thanks to his first visit to Santa Stefano; more immediately relevant, the composer of one of the pieces on this fine CD, Maxime McKinley writes in the notes to Guided by Voices: …“in August 2017, during a stay in Bologna, I discovered a monument of great beauty that has fascinated me ever since – the Basilica of Santo Stefano […] in a courtyard called ‘Cortile di Pilato’ one can contemplate a magnificent wall of captivating mosaics”. He goes on to say “I was interested in the ‘co-presence’ of different epochs in the same place”.
A place such as the Basilica di Santo Stefano, so full of the “‘co-presence’ of different epochs” and of the sense of the timeless has an obvious relevance to the concept underlying this CD made up, as it is, of new pieces written for ‘old’ instruments. All the works played here by Elinor Frey and all, I am sure, being recorded for the first time, are written for baroque cello, either the four-string instrument (the works by Streich, McKinley and Smith) or the five-string instrument (Godin, Ceccarelli and Ueno). McKinley’s ‘Cortile di Pilato’ is for cello and harpsichord; all the other pieces are for solo cello. Frey plays a five-string cello by Francis Beaulieu of Montreal, made in 2012 and a four-string instrument made by Karl Dennis, of Warren, Rhode Ireland, in 2018. With both instruments she uses a bow made in 2016 by Pieter Affourtit, a Dutch specialist in historical bows, in 2016. An interesting article by Elinor Frey, ‘On Commissioning New Music for Baroque Cello’ was published in issue 28 (September 2018) of the journal Circuit-musiques contemporaines. It is available
online. In this article, the cellist discusses the relationship between commissioning artist and composer, as well as the technical challenges involved in the preparation and playing of these particular pieces. She shares emails and other messages between herself and the composers, as well as observations on the individual pieces. The article should enhance any listener’s understanding of, and pleasure in, the works heard on this disc.
Perhaps not surprisingly, of the works on this disc, the first I sought to get to know was McKinley’s Cortile di Pilato. The ‘abstract’ mosaics on the wall of the Cortile di Pilato have clearly influenced McKinley, his music has something of that hieratic patterned quality one associates with both Islamic and Byzantine art – it was the Byzantine re-modelling of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that those who restored Santo Stefano in the 12th century had at the forefront of their minds (as discussed in Robert G. Ousterhout’s scholarly article, ‘The Church of Santo Stefano: A "Jerusalem" in Bologna’, Gesta, 20: 2 (1981), pp. 311-321). In Frey’s article, (as linked above) she quotes part of an email McKinley sent to her in connection with his piece: “The architecture of Cortile di Pilato is marked by a Byzantine influence (which, to me, did evoke certain quasi -“oriental” passages in the music of Tartini), especially through the many mosaics, inviting an inward-looking sense of expression, but also a certain playfulness”. But … such ludic elements as there are in the music are formal, not emotional, qualities. In the symbolic scheme of the Basilico di Santo Stefano, the Cortile di Pilato (The Courtyard of Pilate) represents the lithostrotos, the paved area near the praetorium of Jerusalem where, traditionally, Pilate condemned Christ. As such, it is entirely appropriate that this ‘Cortile di Pilato’ should contain, on one of its window columns, a sculpture of a rooster, known as the Gallo di S. Pietro (the Cock of St. Peter) in allusion to Peter’s threefold denial of Christ. The dominant emotions felt in the Courtyard and in McKinley’s music are, therefore, of melancholic grief. In terms both of form and emotion Maxime McKinley’s handling of the interplay between cello and harpsichord (which is far from being a merely subordinate partner) is strikingly effective. A fine piece, with rich and complex resonances.
The use of a Shakespearean title by Isaiah Ceccarelli in his piece, With concord of sweet sounds was also quick to stir my interest; the words come from a famous passage in the first scene of Act V of The Merchant of Venice, when Lorenzo, in dialogue with Jessica, celebrates the power of music:
… the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Ceccarelli’s piece consists, in words by Elinor Frey in the article linked above, “almost entirely of dyads with at least one open string”. She also says of it that it is a piece which “challenges the five-string cello to find fullness in its resonance, creating an almost buzzing sound as the harmonies transfer seamlessly between consonant and dissonant dyads”. Ceccarelli himself, in the CD booklet, writes of With concord of sweet sounds that “it is essentially a continuo for some absent, slow melody. If you listen closely, bits of that melody pop up here and there”. Perhaps influenced both by the words of Isaiah Ceccarelli just quoted and by the fact that earlier in the same scene of The Merchant of Venice from which the composer has taken his title, Lorenzo speaks (very beautifully) of the music of the spheres, I hear in With concord of sweet sounds a kind of cosmic background music, its slow deep sounds giving it a certain dark grandeur and a sense of cosmic spaces.
Scott Godin’s Guided by Voices takes its inspiration from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). The composer’s booklet note speaks of Hildegard as a mystic and a ‘scientific’ thinker, a poet and a theologian, as well as a composer. He tells the reader that his piece “exploits the obsessiveness found within recurring melodic units of Hildegard’s music, deconstructing these units before reconstructing them in a new musical framework”. He also declares that this work “pays homage to Ensemble Sequentia’s performance of [Hildegard’s] ‘O Vis Aeternitas’, attempting to create resonances between musical entities past and present”. Such ‘resonances’ are certainly audible and part of the ‘meaning’ of Godin’s Guided by Voices and listening to the recording by Ensemble Sequentia (it can be found on Spotify – and probably other streaming services – as well as on YouTube) is valuable preparation for listening attentively to Godin’s composition. Another ‘resonance’, not mentioned in Scott Godin’s booklet note but alluded to in Elinor Frey’s article in Circuit, relates to the fact that the singer heard on that recording of ‘O Vis Aeternitas’ (and co-founder of Ensemble Sequentia) was the late Barbara Thornton, aunt of Elinor Frey! Godin’s composition requires that the five-string cello be tuned D-G-d-g-d and, in the clarity of its structure, its inter-relationship with Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘O Vis Aeternitas’ and the sheer beauty of several passages in the work it triumphantly brings to fruition the possibilities that Godin saw in the instrument, as described in an email he sent to Frey and quoted by her on page 20 of her article in Circuit): “The unique timbre of the gut strings, the unique sound of the outer strings (the “earthiness” of the lowest string, the “ecstatic” nature of the top string, and the inner strings that take on the sound of otherworldly whispering), the chordal possibilities, and of course the amazing resonance of the instrument in D-G tuning”. The result is a fascinating and richly rewarding composition.
Linda Catlin Smith is the only one of the six composers on this disc whose piece carries a title specifying a genre which would have been familiar to a cellist of the baroque era. It is thus particularly interesting to learn, from the booklet note by Smith, that it was actually Elinor Frey who suggested the title (after, presumably, receiving the score). Certainly Smith’s piece is fittingly called a ‘ricercar’, since the Italian verb from which the term is derived means ‘to search for’. Smith’s booklet note provides a brief and lucid description of the ‘search’ involved in her composition: “The first part of the work explores a dance-like line; later the melody is lost into a place of utter sparseness and stillness – almost like coming to terms with one’s innermost qualities – and later again there is the appearance of a melodic chain of rich chords”. As happens in any successful ricercar, the music involves the listener in a related ‘quest’ – the musical equivalent of one of the major forms of literary narrative. Smith’s Ricercar relies on fewer extra-musical significances or references than some of the other pieces on this disc and is relatively undemonstrative; however, the clarity of its structural outline and the ‘purity’ of its language well rewards attentive listening.
Lisa Streich’s Minerva, on the other hand, by its very title invokes an abundance of extra-musical materials. In her brief booklet note on the piece Streich hints at some of these. She writes “Minerva imagines a goddess who […] helps with or stands for many things at once – a goddess of everything”. That understanding of Minerva is not a new one. So, for example, the Victorian William Smith, in his Smaller Classical Dictionary (first published in 1852) says of Minerva that “her name probably contains the same root as mens; and she is accordingly the thinking power personified […] She was worshipped as the goddess of wisdom and the patroness of all the arts and trades. […] She was further believed to be the inventor of musical instruments”. What is new is the additional significance Streich finds in the Roman goddess, which is made clear in the sentence which completes the paragraph of which I quoted the opening sentence above: “Minerva imagines a goddess who, almost like an octopus, helps with or stands for many things at once – a goddess of everything. She reminds me of the human being of the future, a human fully endowed with equal rights, who, according to Gender Gap Reports, should exist in 217 years”. For Streich, Minerva embodies the desired end of a huge socio-political change. The statement is a serious and powerful one, for all the wry humour with which it is expressed. In what one might, without such a statement, have thought of as purely ‘musical’ terms, Streich’s Minerva is built in two layers, as it were. Harmonically, the structure of the work is clear and calm: in front of it, or upon it, there is much very hectic bowing for the performer, conveying a sense of pressure and of a desire for change The overriding sense is of an insistent assertiveness, a demand for full inclusion rather than even partial exclusion. Though not an especially ‘noisy’ piece, Minerva is full of anger (or perhaps one should say frustration). Elinor Frey communicates the piece’s contrasting moods, calm and anger, sardonic humour and dignified assertiveness, very effectively.
Like Lisa Streich, Ken Ueno gives his commissioned piece a mythological title – Chimera. Like Scott Godin his score stipulates that the 5-string cello should be retuned – as Frey explains “Chimera […] demands a special tuning where the top two strings are tuned to the 7th and 11th partials of the C-string, creating unusual sixth-tone intervals that, when combined with the unique timbre of the five-string cello’s gut strings, make for surprising harmonic mixtures” (article in Circuit – musiques contemporaines, 28:2, p.12).The Chimera was a creature of Greek and Roman mythology, “a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, body of a she-goat, and tail of a snake” (Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. M.C. Howatson, 1989). The most powerful and striking visual image of the chimera with which I am familiar is an Etruscan bronze sculpture of the beast (now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence) and usually referred to as the ‘Chimera of Arezzo’ (since it was found in that city in 1553) and dating from around 400 BCE.
An excellent website curated by Professor Ugo Bardi offers a wealth of resources regarding the Chimera, images, texts and more.
Even after studying Bardi’s work, I am somewhat puzzled as to why Ueno chose this title for his mini-suite. Perhaps it was because he felt that the joining of very modern music with an historical instrument was akin to the kind of hybridisation involved in the mythological imagination’s creation of the monster eventually killed by Bellerophon, but perhaps we should look at Ueno’s title in a different way: not as referring specifically to the mythical monster, but as used in the figurative sense of the English noun which that name has become? If one looks up the word ‘chimera’ in the Oxford English dictionary one finds that one of the definitions given there (and said to be “the ordinary modern use”) reads thus: “An unreal creature of the imagination, a mere wild fancy, an unfounded conception”. With that definition in mind, it is easier to give the proper weight and sense to Ueno’s description of his work (in his note in the CD booklet) as the result of having “the chance to imagine a counter-factual history of the five-string Baroque cello”. Certainly, the writing in Ueno’s Chimera vividly prompts the listener’s imagination, something aided by the consciously ‘poetic’ titles carried by the five movements of what the composer calls “a kind of meta-suite” (Booklet notes). In many respects I find Ueno’s Chimera one of the most fascinating and individual works on this CD – a richly imaginative and enigmatic piece; not least when Uono alludes to the Allemande from Bach’s Cello Suite No.6 in “we are resurrected”. The sound-world of Chimera really is a hybrid of old and new.
Ever since the revival of early instruments, primarily in the years either side of 1900, ‘modern’ composers’ have often been keen to write new music for them. Lots of such works have, of course, been written for the harpsichord, by composers such as Martinů, Ligeti, Xenakis, Poulenc, Delius, Herbert Howells, Louis Durey, Henry Cowell, Lennox Berkeley and Lou Harrison. Composers who have written for viols include George Benjamin, Michael Nyman, Poul Ruders, Thea Musgrave and John Woolrich. Of those who have added to the repertoire for lute/theorbo names which come fairly readily to mind include Judith Bingham, James MacMillan, Nico Muhly, Toru Takemitsu, Kent Oloffson, Benjamin Oliver, Eric Peters and Bruno Helstroffer. When it comes to the baroque cello, I, at least, am unable to summon up such a list of names. Certainly, I cannot name another player of the baroque cello who has done what Elinor Frey has done, i.e. commissioned a series of works for the instrument, played them all in concert and then recorded them all. I am grateful to her, and all ‘her’ composers – and, indeed, to Analekta – for giving us such an intriguing CD, which breaks genuinely new ground.