Nick Photinos: Petits Artéfacts
New Amsterdam Records

No one should come away from Nick Photinos's solo debut recording feeling shortchanged: Petits Artéfacts its pieces might be, but a substantial amount of music's presented on the Eighth Blackbird cellist's outing. It's also an extremely varied collection that sees eight new music composers contributing never-before-recorded works to the project. Most, if not all, of their names will be familiar to listeners who have New Amsterdam and Cantaloupe releases in their collections, with David Lang, Andrew Norman, Bryce Dessner, David T. Little, Angélica Negrón, Florent Ghys, Molly Joyce, and Pascal Le Boeuf all writing material for Photinos, who's also joined on a handful of tracks by pianist Vicki Ray and percussionist Doug Perkins.

The idea for the album originated when Photinos performed Ghys's title work at a Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival and got to thinking about all the other short pieces he'd performed over the years: what more logical complement to Ghys's piece could there be than other, equally varied “petits artéfacts”? Though they're a dramatically contrasting collection they're typically concise, rhythmically robust, and experimental pieces that developed out of concepts the composers wanted to explore. The six parts in Ghys's, for example, focus on interactions between the cello and computer, whereas Lang's “undanceable”—a kind of twisted tribute to Aaron Kernis's 100 Greatest Dance Hits—is purposely designed to lessen the frustrated dance-related urges of seat-bound concertgoers by presenting a weird tango whose rhythms are “intentionally hobbled.” One of the more striking works is Little's “and the sky was still there,” a provocative 2010 setting that augments dramatic instrumental writing with spoken text concerning a soldier's decision to accept a dishonourable discharge under the U.S. Army's “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy.

Not every piece, however, is as satisfying. The opening movement of Ghys's piece, “Game,” which pits the cello against the computer using the classic arcade video game “Pong” as a reference, comes across, as playful as it is, as a rather silly indulgence whose skittering electronic sounds compete with the cello playing rather than enhance it. But such missteps are rare: the subsequent movement, “Information,” on which Photinos's cello doubles the speaking voice of an Iranian weather forecaster, works better, as do “Factory,” where his untreated acoustic playing conveys a powerfully plaintive character, and “Flowers,” which weaves layers of Photinos into an entrancing whole.

Also memorable are Joyce's “Sit and Dance,” which darkens its classical baroque sonorities with the cellist's intense wail and the subterranean rumble of electronic pulsations, and Le Boeuf's “Alpha,” a so-called “battle piece for cello and drum set” whose muscularity and rhythmic drive is bolstered by the backing tracks of violinist Charles Yang, cellist Jefrey Zeigler, and the JACK Quartet. In addition, the opening movement in Norman's Sonnets, “with shifting change,” assumes a rather Messiaen-like quality when pianist Ray accompanies Photinos, and Negrón's “Panorama” effectively pairs cello and electronics to generate a stirring, nine-minute swirl of minimalism-related gestures.

When so many different supplemental elements are included on the recording, it's easy to lose sight of how special Photinos's cello playing is on its own terms. Enough moments featuring the instrument unaccompanied and presented naturally are included, however, to ensure that such an appreciation doesn't get lost along the way.

October 2017