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Tuesday, 15th of December, 2020

Five Cellists for 2020 (This year was so long that Five now equals Thirteen...) (8:38 pm)

This year, as ever, I was asked to contribute to Cyclic Defrost's Best of 2020.
For 2020, it was a toss-up between resurgent jungle & drum'n'bass or... cellists! I'm a junglist4lyfe, but I'm also a cellist (4lyfe) and this, it seems, was the year of the cello. Read on & click through if you didn't realise why the cello is the fucking best.
(Actually, if you look carefully, there are 16 cellists mentioned... but who's counting, at this point?)

Most of the texts were ripped from Utility Fog playlists, so I'mma repost it right here.

Louise Bock - Sketch for Winter VII - Abyss: For Cello [Geographic North/Bandcamp]
US multi-instrumentalist Taralie Peterson has been making experimental music for a couple of decades, notably with her duo Spires that in the Sunset Rise with Ka Baird (check their marvellous album from 2020 while you're at it). She plays saxophone, clarinet and contributes voice (often processed), but she's also an accomplished cellist, and that's highlighted on her latest album (part of Geographic North's Sketches for Winter series) called Abyss: For Cello. Discordant multi-tracked cello is by turns rhythmic and mournfully slow. Lines overlap and intertwine, and occasionally other instruments appear, including some very abstracted guitar from Kendra Amalie on "Oolite". It's unsettling and gorgeous.

Lucy Railton - Forma [Portraits GRM/Bandcamp]
This year, Editions Mego teamed up with Ina-GRM for a series of works commissioned by and recorded at the legendary musique concrète studios of Ina-GRM. On a split 12" with Max Eilbacher, you can find this astonishing work by 23-minute work by English cellist Lucy Railton. It starts off more sound design than cello-focused (unsurprisingly), but there are extended techniques and also gorgeous recitativo on cello, Serge synthesiser, and some beautiful organ performed by Kit Downes as well. And then there are buzzing, growling motors, followed by an utterly gripping passage of squeaking cello tones and see-sawing, fluttering processed sounds that could be a voice or a dog barking, or something entirely artificial. Just absolutely not to be missed.

Mabe Fratti - Pies Sobre la Tierra [Tin Angel Records/Bandcamp] / Planos para Construir [Hole Records]
It's always wonderful to discover new cellists. Guatemalan musician Mabe Fratti, now based in Mexico City, uses her cello along with synths, effects, and her voice to create experimental music of a truly compelling nature. Her cello will produce scratchy rhythmic bowed patterns, murky drones, jazzy basslines, or bright melodies. She's clearly interested in experimenting with sound, and one of the things I love about listening to these works is how she's quite capable of creating gorgeous, pure song (see the first track tonight), but she's happy peppering these around collections of pure weirdness - tape manipulation, field recordings, strangely processed vocals etc.
She's also keen on collaboration, and just as I was catching up with the stunning Pies Sobre la Tierra ("Feet on the ground", originally released in 2019), she's released Planos para Construir ("Plans to build"), which saw her handing pieces of music over to various musicians and writers, and after some back and forth this album arose.

Marianne Baudouin Lie - Atlantis, Utopia & Ulvedrømmer [Particular Recordings]
The new album from Norwegian cellist Marianne Baudouin Lie is unusual in that all the compositions (commissioned by Lie) use the musician's voice as well as cello. An educator and researcher as well as a cellist working across classical, improv and contemporary music, Lie covers a lot of ground in the commissions for this album. The "Ulvedrømmer" of the title are "Wolf dreams", depicted in a "one-woman musical" written with fellow cellist Lene Grenager; in saxophonist Eirik Hegdal's Concertino per violoncello et voce, each "Take" calls for the cellist to use her voice in a different way, such as double-stopped cello chords moving exquisitely between dissonance and assonance with her vocal drone.

Bridget Chappell - Undertow [Heavy Machinery Records/Bandcamp]
Naarm/Melbourne artist Bridget Chappell would have fitted into my "jungle" theme for 2020 too, with the ute-sampling deconstructed jungle breaks of the single "Toyota", under their Hextape alias (highly recommended, along with the re-released 2 Fast 2 Furious album, originally released late last year). But they also released this fascinating album under their own name on adventurous Melbourne label Heavy Machinery Records. This work was commissioned by the City of Melbourne and uses their Open Data Platform to sonify contemporary & historical data about water management, along with manipulated samples of the Federation Bells in Birrarung Marr Park. The location of the Federation Bells was once underwater, and the colonial aspects of water management can't be ignored, as well as the environmental aspects. Colonialism and climate change are central to Chappell's practice, and it's great hearing these come out alongside Chappell's cello playing and love of rave & industrial beats.

Joana Guerra - Chão Vermelho [Miasmah/Bandcamp]
This is the debut of Portuguese cellist Joana Guerra on Miasmah, the label run by another cellist of the "acoustic doom" persuasion, Erik K Skodvin. Other than a certain queasiness, there's no great similarity with Skodvin's work here though - Guerra works her cello into arrangements with violin, vocals and percussion, where peaceful pizzicato gives way to sawing sul pont bowing, see-sawing glissandi, dramatic vocals and more. It's an idiosyncratic blend of contemporary techniques with traditional & non-traditional song. Another great unusual cellist to add to the list!

Clarice Jensen - The Experience of Repetition as Death [130701/Bandcamp]
Contemporary classical & avant-garde cellist Clarice Jensen's debut album also came out from Miasmah (in 2018). Her droney, minimalist, deeply evocative works perfectly suited that label, but it's lovely to see her second album picked up by Fat Cat's post/neo-classical subsiduary 130701. Jensen is both an accomplished interpreter of contemporary classical composition - including with her American Contemporary Music Ensemble (sporting the great acronym ACME) - and also a performer outside the classical world with artists such as Björk, Dirty Projectors, Blonde Redhead etc. Her solo work is mostly centred around cello layered and looped and effected, and I never tire of the different ways that cellists around the world make use of these techniques. Jensen can build massive tectonic drones, but also might construct shimmering waves of broken bowed chords and emphatic pizzicato notesor embed the cello in chorusing effects that make it sound like an organ. At other times, the pure acoustic cello sound is layered through reverb for a kind of smeared-out, slowed down baroque music.

Helen Money - Atomic [Thrill Jockey/Bandcamp]
Alison Chesley, as Helen Money, is a pioneering, genre-smashing doom cellist, who I've been a fan of for many years. Despite her great history of punishing riffage and layered cello distortion, and some great collaborations including one with Jarboe, this album floored me. The riffs are there, but there are also beautiful passages of gentler stuff, multiple cellos with piano and ambient synthesisers & crackling electronics (provided by producer Will Thomas aka Plumbline and also heavy music legend Sanford Parker). There's maximalism and minimalism here, from a true master.

Okkyung Lee - Yeo-neun [Shelter Press/Bandcamp]
New York cellist Okkyung Lee is perhaps best known for her involvement in the Downtown jazz scene and the noise scene (for the latter, particularly a stunning album with Burning Star Core's C Spencer Yeh and Lasse Marhaug). Marhaug as producer also helped realise the incredibly intense sound on solo albums such as Ghil. But earlier work like Nihm and Noisy Love Songs (For George Dyer) released by Tzadik demonstrated her skills at melody and arrangement, and those come to the fore on Yeo-Neun, her latest album. It's the most melodic and accessible since those early Tzadik albums (without the obvious jazz inclinations), and very explicitly references her Korean background, both in titles (Kang Kyung-ok is a Korean comics (Manhwa) artist) and in the music itself. So classical composition, Korean traditional music, and certain elements of noise & improv all get combined into something shiningly gorgeous. Shelter Press seems like an ideal home for these sounds.

Nick Storring - My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell [Orange Milk Records/Nick Storring Bandcamp]
I've admired Toronto cellist Nick Storring for some years, and not just because he's a cellist; he's one of those versatile musicians who's made everything from extreme glitchy electronics, unfettered folk, dark indie with Picastro, and sumptuously orchestrated contemporary classical & sound-art, such as his last few works. His new album My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell is released through the great Orange Milk Records (check that Seth Graham artwork!) and it's exquisite. He presents it as an homage to Roberta Flack, although the music is all original, but you'll find the connection in the emotiveness, the lush jazz voicings, and some lyrical references in track titles. Like last year's Qualms and 2014's Gardens, Storring plays all the bewildering array of instruments, building up an orchestra, a house band, and whatever else he needs for these pieces. These magic dreams are still utterly spellbinding, and well worth your time.

Oliver Coates - skins n slime [RVNG Intl/Bandcamp]
The previous solo albums from English cellist Oliver Coates have either been performances of contemporary composers, or, generally, have mixed layers of his pristine & processed cello with beats & electronics. For his new album, again on RVNG Intl., Coates drops the beats, instead delivering a selection of tonal drones, repeating ostinato phrases, and interpolated elements of processed sounds, the cello at times sounding like a synthesiser or a distorted guitar or even voice. Right at the end, frequent collaborator Malibu, the French ambient artist and singer, contributes evocative spoken word to the final track.

Luigi Archetti & Bo Wiget - Weltformat [Die Schachtel]
This snuck in from last year, as it was not the easiest to get hold of! As is clear, I love finding experimental cellists of all sorts, so I have no idea how Bo Wiget remained in the periphery of my awareness until now. His duo with fellow Swiss experimenter Luigi Archetti, with Wiget on cello and Archetti on guitar and both on electronics, is right up my alley, with extended instrumental techniques rubbing up against glitchy production, minimalist electronic tones, and disembodied passages of neoclassical harmony. Die Schachtel, the in-house label of Italian online experimental record store SoundOhm, released this new album 10 years after the last of their trio of low tide digitals albums for the legendary Norwegian label Rune Grammofon. As it happens, I had heard cellist Bo Wiget before: in 2007 he released a duo album with Belgian cellist Simon Lenski, best known as a member of the genre-destroying band DAAU (Die Anarchistische Abendunterhaltung) – avant-garde cello & electronics also, but with very different results from the Archetti / Wiget pairing. And in 2017, a solo album from Wiget featured alarming avant-garde vocals along with his acoustic cello: another idiosyncratic take on playing this great instrument.

Charles Curtis - Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 [Saltern/Bandcamp]
And a bonus: although he's also worked with avant-garde rock musicians like King Missile and Kramer, renowned cellist Charles Curtis is best known as an associate of the minimalist icon La Monte Young, and with this connection comes his remarkable tuning. For me, tuning is the most difficult aspect of the cello as an instrument, and Curtis is astonishing at not just wondrous intonation, but also various unconventional (to boring Western ears) tunings. The 3CD set which came out early this year from Saltern is a bonus because it's not really new music for this year, and there's a considerable amount of ancient music there, and mostly it's composed, scored compotisions; but there are also interpretations of 20th & 21st century compositions, more relaxed partially-improvised works, and notably a few of Curtis' own compositions as well.


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