by Brendan Howe
When I asked cellist Mariel Roberts what it means to be labeled as virtuosic (as numerous outlets have done with respect to her abilities) in the context of contemporary music, she replied that contemporary virtuosi wear more and different hats than those in strictly classical music. However, the primary requirement of all virtuosi is the release of ego.
We’ve all heard performers whose technical ability is so acute, and expressive capacity so vast, that we are spellbound by the music, forgetting both ourselves and that a performer is even playing. The music goes beyond subjective labels like good or bad and reaches its ostensible point: to create an entirely unique, transcendental experience. This is what Roberts has achieved with Cartography. The four pieces that comprise the album are beautifully curated for their exceptionally focused approach to expressing powerful musical ideas, executed with boldness and precision.
As the leading track on the album, Eric Wubbels’ “Gretchen am spinnrade” instantly shocks the conscious mind into submission. It creates an auditory deer-in-headlights effect for several moments before the mind recognizes sonic landscape as its own constant white noise in the form of music – loops of compulsive thought and action, repetitive behavior and cycles of history. Having based the piece on Goethe and Schubert’s Gretchen at the spinning wheel, illustrating a tortured relationship between fantasy and reality, Wubbels also sees the piece as representative of karma, the turning of cause and effect. He describes it as a “manic, hounded piece, alternating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of ‘idling motion.’”
The second track, “Aman,” sneaks in like the shadow of a rat, tinkling through industrial debris along a warehouse wall, bookended by moments of silence. Turkish composer Cenk Ergün wrote the piece for cello and live electronic signal processing using a software instrument of his own design. He uses various techniques to warp the ominous, textural, percussive sounds of Roberts’ cello in real time, creating a compelling and instantaneous distortion of meaning.
Ergün notes that, while the word “aman” in its original Arabic means “security,” in Turkish it is used to alert someone of imminent danger, as in “watch out!” This piece certainly fits that mood, the uneasy calm before – or perhaps during – the storm.
George Lewis’ “Spinner” resurrects the Greek myth of The Three Fates, in which Clotho spins the thread of an individual’s life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it off. Lewis recalls that Plato’s account of the Fates positions them indispensably at the moment of a soul’s transmigration, though the responsibility of choices throughout life remain with humans themselves. If the piece is heard as a life in final judgment, or as a life happening contemporaneously, it is worth noting that it does not romanticize or edit out the mundane. It is completely honest, and malleable societal preconceptions of what is valuable or not do not come into play.
“The Cartography of Time,” by one of Iceland’s most noted contemporary composers, Davi∂ Brynjar Franzson, closes the album. A 20-minute feat of immense concentration and willpower, this glacially moving piece meditates on a problem posed by Wittgenstein regarding the measurement of time: “The past cannot be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come. And the present can’t be measured for it has no extension.” Franzson has done away with the need to define what is past, present, or future in this piece. The overall effect is mesmerizing.