Nicholas Deyoe: For Duane
Populist Records

Ashley Walters: Sweet Anxiety
Populist Records

Composer Nicholas Deyoe's second album for Populist Records reaffirms his status as a classical music renegade; like the proverbial bull in a china shop, he's genetically programmed, it would seem, to challenge convention (and listeners) at every turn. Which is not to say that he does so using violent means; instead, his pieces, while powerful exercises in uneasy listening, are often artful examples of indirection rather than in-your-face provocations. In his liner notes, Daniel Tacke aptly characterizes Deyoe's music as “demanding and complex and tremendously dynamic, oscillating between the clarity of familiar harmonic, linear, and syntactical contours and the greater resistances of material derived from more exploratory strains of imagination.”

Helping to realize his vision on the recording's five works are kindred spirits, specifically the new music collective wasteLAnd, Aperture Duo, cellist Ashley Walters, soprano Stephanie Aston, and violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer. Not only are the performers attuned to Deyoe's sensibility, so too are the texts included in three of the five compositions, the opening Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along a case in point. Here, Allison Carter's poetry (from her A Fixed Formal Arrangement) eschews a straightforward presentation for, in two of its seven parts, largely single-word streams strung together in a way that accommodates any number of readings; further to that, the performance by wasteLAnd and Aston feels like an indelible rendering into physical form of Deyoe's sensibility. The soprano alternates fluidly between sung and spoken passages, while the instrumental dimension provided by flute, trombone, violoncello, and double bass resources impresses as equally representative of the composer's vision. Striking sonorities abound, from the guttural growl of the muted trombone to the anemic groan of the bowed double bass.

Performed by Aperture Duo, 1560 has the two musicians adopt different positions as they execute the three-movement piece, from standing close together to being as far apart from one another as the performance space allows. High-pitched unison playing, raw sawing, and light-speed passages are presented in equal measure by violinist Adrianne Pope and violist Linnea Powell. As audacious are Lied/Lied, which sees MacAdam-Somer augmenting violin gestures with expressive spoken word recitations of her own texts, and Lullaby 6 “for duane, which closes the recording with a two-part concerto performed by Walters and wasteLAnd. The setting presents no better example of Deyoe's daring soundworld when every seemingly possible sound of which the cello's capable surfaces over the course of its twenty-six minutes, and the at times dissonant bluster with which wasteLAnd accompanies the cellist proves to be as adventurous.

For Duane certainly provides ample opportunity for Walters' artistry to be displayed, but it's even more comprehensively documented on her own Sweet Anxiety. It's a natural complement to the Deyoe release, especially when two pieces by him appear alongside others by Luciano Berio, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Andrew McIntosh, and Wadada Leo Smith (indicative of her versatility, Walters performs in the Formalist Quartet with McIntosh, Mark Menzies, and Andrew Tholl, and is also a member of trumpeter Leo Smith's Golden Quintet). If her range is revealed on Lullaby 6 “for duane,” her debut album accentuates it even more thoroughly in featuring the cellist alone. In Walters' own words, “I want to challenge your perception of what the cello, a stereotypically gentle instrument, is capable of. Scordatura [Italian for ‘mistuning,' the term refers to the tuning of a stringed instrument different from standard tuning], microtonality, improvisation, and extended techniques transform the serene ‘swan' into a snarling, roaring creature, as sinister as it is beautiful.”

Composed by Deyoe as a surprise for his wife to be played during their wedding ceremony, For Stephanie (on our wedding day) makes good on his claim that Walters can “shift on a dime from ferocious, biting intensity to finessed delicacy and subtlety.” An effective overture to the album as a whole, the piece wends through multiple contrasting episodes, some agitated and turbulent, others serene and, fittingly, romantic. Speaking of agitated, Deyoe's second setting, another anxiety, hurtles forward at a brisk tempo, with furious flurries and vicious shredding by the cellist making the ride all the more gripping.

Described by Walters as “a pillar of [her] repertoire,” Berio's Sequenza XIV was dedicated by the composer to Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram and its writing influenced by the musician's background: upon learning that de Saram played the Kandyan drum as a boy, Berio incorporated rhythmic cycles characteristic of the instrument into the work, lending it a pronounced percussive dimension. That is clearly a key part of the sound design, but the seventeen-minute setting is also abundant in lyrical passages and glissando playing. According to its author “an intonation study exploring non-vibrato tuning and playing techniques for optimizing the sonority of precisely tuned double stops,” von Schweinitz's Plainsound-Litany, the recording's longest piece at twenty minutes, proves entrancing when the execution of its slow-motion, double-stopped ebb-and-flow is sustained so flawlessly by Walters.

In keeping with its title, Leo Smith states that Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters should be thought of as the emergence of a flower, and certainly the material blossoms in Walters' hands. Though the trumpeter characterizes its as a meditative work, it's actually as active as a newly awakened volcano, especially when the improvisational sections the composer wove into its structure are accounted for; if anything, Walters never sounds more free than when rendering Leo Smith's material into physical form. At album's end, McIntosh's Another Secular Calvinist Creed immediately arrests the ear with its unusual scordatura and its step-wise ascents and descents, the ten-minute performance one final testament to Walters's artistry. Admittedly, seventy-eight minutes is a lot for a solo cello recording, but the wide-ranging set-list and the conviction she brings to it amply repay the time investment.

December 2017