Mariel Roberts: Cartography
New Focus Recordings

There's no shortage of exciting young cellists performing today, among them Ashley Bathgate, Maya Beiser, and Mariel Roberts. In collaborating with four composers who share her determinedly forward-thinking sensibility, Roberts advances the cello repertoire on this hour-long release into adventurous and audacious realms. Make no mistake: in mapping out such provocative terrain, Cartography is as bold a collection of new cello works as might be imagined, while also being a thoroughly engrossing set that amply rewards the listener's time and attention.

The follow-up to her well-received debut album, 2012's Nonextraneous Sounds, Cartography features premiere performances of pieces written for her by George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, and David Brynjar Franzson, plus a collaborative work written with Cenk Ergün. Without question, the Mivos String Quartet member is capable of meeting any conceivable technical challenge: she's performed throughout the world, premiered hundreds of works by new and established composers, and appeared as a chamber musician on recordings for labels such as Innova, Albany Records, New World Records, and New Amsterdam.

As might be expected, contrasts of dynamics and form are pronounced on Cartography, evidenced noticeably in the marked difference between the frenzy of Wubbels' opening setting, gretchen am spinnrade (‘Gretchen at the spinning wheel'), and the subdued whisper of Franzson's set-closing The Cartography of Time. With Wubbels accompanying Roberts every step of the way, gretchen am spinnrade roars manically, the piano's hammered chords and acrobatic patterns fitting counterparts to the cello's aggressive double stops, slashes, and spirals. Raw, relentless, and even sometimes verging on violent, the material exudes a demonic air as it advances through its sixteen hellacious minutes.

With the composer credited with applying live signal processing to Roberts' playing, Ergün's Aman is the most conspicuously electronic of the four settings. Throughout this ten-minute micro-sound exercise, his treatments speed up, slow down, extend, contract, and transpose four layers of amplified cello in real time, resulting in a setting rich in fluttering alien noises, spidery skeins, plucks, and bowings.

Lewis, revered as an innovator, trombonist, educator, and long-time AACM member, is represented by Spinner, its title inspired by the ancient Greek belief in the three sister goddesses known as the Fates and Clotho, the one who spins the thread of an individual life, in particular. Interestingly, though the composer is known for pioneering work in the computer music field, Spinner is an unadorned solo cello composition largely rooted in the strength of the musician's performance. Predictably, Roberts dazzles, her rendering of the material gripping from start to finish, especially when the piece affords her all manner of opportunity to explore multiple techniques. It's easy to visualize Roberts giving a master class to cello students who sit mesmerized as she performs the Lewis piece.

As compelling as the first three settings are, it's Franzson's The Cartography of Time that speaks most powerfully on the recording's behalf. The Icelandic-born, NYC-based composer has fashioned for Roberts an incredible vehicle whose limbs stretch across twenty meditative minutes. Often pitched at the level of a hush, the quietly haunting setting sees her methodically layering long static pitches, some tremulously high and others softly rumbling undercurrents. As minimal and ‘simple' as it might be in compositional design, its effect is spellbinding, especially when she executes the material with such sensitivity and control. Of course, much the same might be said about Cartography in toto.

June 2017