So, how to keep your mind from taking on the shape of those dark, carpeted corridors on the fourth floor, and from shutting out all of those resources and opportunities on the other side of the heavy practice room door?
The door to the composition department was generously cracked. My cello teacher’s uncle happened to be Sam Adler. I got in touch with him and followed his generous invitation to attend one of the weekly composition seminars – one for grads, one for undergrads – and gave a five-minute pitch/presentation: who wants to write a piece for baroque cello?
I had done something similar in 2009 at the University of Michigan – on ‘modern’ cello. Unlike then, when I had heard at least one work by each of the composers before asking them to work on a cello piece with/for me, I took more of a risk this time, not knowing anyone in the room. One thing both situations ended up having in common: an enthusiastic response! Almost too enthusiastic… but by the time one person had backed out in favor of a commission by the JACK Quartet, and another to start a full-time teaching job in California, I had just the right amount of music for one recital (Phew!).
In working with composers who had little to no exposure to historical performance, the fun challenge was to meet with them and help them discover the differences – both physical and stylistic – between the ‘baroque’ and ‘modern’ cello. The manifold directions in which this took off was as rewarding as it was fascinating. One piece sounds almost as though it could have been written in the 17th century, while others take advantage of the sounds and articulations unique to gut strings and the baroque bow, all within the composers’ own idiom. Molly even had me record five different tracks on top of each other in the studio before putting it together with the life part in performance. Not to forget Doug’s contribution, the fourth of by now 18 rap cantatas based on Ovid, composed with 5-string cello in mind.
What makes this a baroque cello piece?
Here's a question I get a lot: so what about these pieces makes them specifically for baroque cello (as opposed to normal or modern cello)? It’s clear to me that it matters much more what you do with the cello than with what cello you do it. It might therefore seem contradictory when I anachronistically specify baroque cello to composers. It's not: there are distinct differences in the hardware, and these result in a different way of playing, no matter what your training (or conviction, as the case may be). I like to think that these differences encouraged these composers to think about their work differently, too.
Could any of these pieces be played on modern cello, too? Yes, of course. Some passages might even work better on the modern cello. (The reverse, by the way, is true for many modern cello pieces, but nobody ever asks, ‘what makes this a modern cello piece?’) Each piece as a whole was conceived of in this context for what we now know as a baroque cello – and in each case, very successfully and compellingly. This is what makes these baroque cello pieces.
In the discussion about classical music, you always hear the cynics talk about concerts as a “museum,” something old, unchangeably displayed behind a plexiglas wall with motion-sensors. What, if not ‘early music’, ‘historical performance’ would naturally be the most dusty collection within this boring archival display? I believe that several generations of performers have now shown that this is far from the truth. Beyond that, it also can’t hurt to move those olde treatises out of their own wing of the museum and get them all snarled up with the newest of the new, entangled in the future of classical music!
Come hear these pieces on Sunday, June 8, 7 PM @ Spectrum (121 Ludlow Street, NYC)
Thanks to Seth Gilman and the Early/Late Series for presenting this recital!
Gity Razaz | Aleph
Elizabeth Lim | Monologues for Baroque Cello
Molly Joyce | Sit and Dance for Baroque Cello and Pre-Recorded Electronics
Doug Balliett | Peleus at Trachin, rap cantata for narrator, 5-string cello and bass
Steven Long | Piece of Mind WORLD PREMIERE!
Also stay tuned for further updates on the Suite Ride NYC, presented by Five Boroughs Music Festival as part of the inaugural Early Music Festival: NYC!