Cellist Mariel Roberts performing Tristan Perich's "formations" for cello and one-bit sound.
Record releases fill me with trepidation. These events have the potential to reach a lofty tenor, with the parties involved hell-bent on staking a claim in the annals of music history. However, Wednesday night's release concert in Brooklyn Heights for Nonextraneous Sounds, the new record on Innova by trailblazing cellist Mariel Roberts, bore no resemblance to such stodgy affairs. Instead, the evening was an honest gathering of some of the city's most energetic young composers and musicians. With one glance at the gathered audience, I quickly realized why this performer is making such a splash in the New York scene.
The environment that night was fitting, as the emphasis on approachability and community are at the heart of Nonextraneous Sounds. The album explores the outer bounds of solo-cello repertoire, but does so in a way that is palatable to new-music newbies. The compositions, all written specifically for Mariel, are from a generation of composers that are embracing eclecticism instead of a single compositional paradigm. The album celebrates the lively milieux that makes up the scene today, with Mariels explaining that she "wanted to make an album that sounds like the city [she] live[s] in.”
The concert opened with Andy Akiho's "three shades, foreshadows." The piece, written for prepared cello and a trio of backing tracks, extracts from the cello a sonic palette ranging from bell-like pangs to prickly pizzicatos. Inspired by a Rodin sculpture, Akiho described his work as evoking "multiple perspectives simultaneously." While inspiration may have come from la Belle Époque, the piece's spirit is firmly rooted in the present: the stereo panning in the playback stands out as the invention of a composer for whom listening to music through headphones is as natural as a night out at the concert hall.
Another gem of the evening was Tristan Perich's "formations," a twenty-minute septet for cello and six speakers, each emitting a series of one-bit tones. Perich is well known for his work with one-bit sound, and has carved out a musical aesthetic that subdues the raw square waves into something novel and refined. In a compositional language reminiscent of the early minimalists, Perich composed the piece with each speaker in mind as a separate entity ("a septet for cello and six digital parts"). However, to my ear, the frenetic mix of tones emitted were spatially ambiguous—an aural monolith, with complex and constantly shifting inner workings, barely visible beneath a uniform veneer.
Composer Tristan Perich joins Mariel Roberts on stage after "formations."
Leaving the concert, I was impressed by the breadth of the program I had just taken in, as well as the convivial atmosphere. Yet, beyond the sense of having experienced a first-rate evening of music, I also felt grateful of this young cellist's decision to commit her ample skill to the performance of new music. The world could use a few more musicians like Mariel Roberts.