Music for cello and electronics

Overview of the music

There are three works, each of substantial dimensions, on this double CD (Aeon 1648). The first CD features life-form (2011-2012), an almost hour-long work in which six sections for both electronic music and cello alternate with four sections for cello alone. The expansive duration of the work is the result of in-depth exploration of a wide diversity of cello playing, as well as of electronic sounds and textures. There are also great variations in musical tempo, from almost stasis to frantic speed with many steps in between. In some sections featuring electronics, the cello is fully immersed in an overpowering electronic texture; in solo sections the cello often plays at soft volume. Therefore, the dynamic differences between the sections with and without electronic music tend to be dramatic. ‘Life-forms’ can refer to the cellular level, such as in the section anaphase (a phase in cell division) or in apoptosis (the process of a cell dying) up to individual multi-cellular organisms as in the section anthesis (the flowering period of a plant) or wider living environments, such as in the sonic ‘jungle’ in arboreal (relating to trees).

The other two works are found on the second CD. nacht und träume (‘night and dreams’, 2004-2008) is for cello, piano and electronic sounds, with the electronic music functioning both as bridge and antagonist. After hearing this music I was not as surprised as I would have been otherwise to read, in an exchange between cellist Arne Deforce and Richard Barrett, that Mahler is an important composer for Barrett. In some late Mahler, romanticism becomes distorted and questions itself as it were, as the music intentionally falls into the trivial, over-sweet, or grotesque, or even at times makes a mockery of itself. Here romantic episodes and references are often responded to in a distorting, rejecting or mocking way as well, yet the responses, as well as the majority of musical proceedings in general, are rooted in modern language.

In Blattwerk (‘leaf work’, 1998-2002) there is an expansive and gripping cello solo towards the beginning, yet the greater duration of the work extensively employs electronics next to the solo cello. They filter recorded cello sounds (either pre-recorded or live recorded during performance) that interact with the live cello, or they contribute their own sound world.

There is a multitude of expression, as well as substantial innovation, in the cello playing. The music puts known techniques, including avantgarde ones, for cello into new textures, even single-minded extremes of texture that are fascinating in their own way, and also explores new techniques. The music arose in a long-term collaboration between the composer and the cellist Arne Deforce.

Barrett’s mastery of computer generation of electronic sounds, as well as electronic manipulation of sounds, is on full display in these works. The electronic sounds range from dense showers of small sound particles to intricate long-stretched sound textures, from gentle sounds to ‘industrial’ ones. In realizing the electronic music, the composer obtained support from the Centre Henri Pousseur (Patrick Delges).

Arne Deforce plays with a technical virtuosity that allows him to navigate the most challenging passages and playing techniques with apparent ease and to concentrate on fluid expression and elucidation of the music’s structure through his playing. The evenness of playing, as well as subtle control of touch, in some difficult passages is astonishing, yet at the same time Arne Deforce presents the music with vigorous passion wherever needed.

On nacht und träume the piano playing of Yutaka Oya, who has engaged in a long-standing musical partnership with Arne Deforce, is splendid.

Guides through the music


The first section is called anaphase, the stage of cell division in which the replicated chromosomes move away from one another to opposite poles of the spindle. The music opens with an electronic drone in two layers, a bass layer and a treble layer. It flickers in tone like the images of an old movie. As the electronic music builds in volume, the cello sets in, playing in the middle register, straight between the two electronic layers. Its intricate phrases employ different kinds of bowing and provide forceful forward propulsion. The diverse lines of phrases are separated by brief pauses, and each line seems to be literally pushing the musical narrative forward.

The two electronic layers are at frequency extremes, symbolizing the pulling apart of the two parts of the duplicated chromosome in preparation of cell division. After some time, the cello moves away from its positioning in middle register and alternates in its alignment with either the bass or the treble register of the electronic music. In a sophisticated manner the electronic timbres are chosen such that the timbre of the cello effortlessly merges with them. At this stage, the forward pushing phrases of the cello seem to help forcing the two sets of chromosomes apart from one another.

The presence of the electronic music becomes ever more commanding as it gradually increases in volume. Eventually more than half way through the section, more or less an equilibrium is reached with the cello sound, which becomes embedded in an encompassing envelope of electronic sound layers.

The second part, axon (the thread linking the two ends of a nerve cell), is a brief interlude as an intriguing rhythmic and harmonic play centered on the pitch A.

A dense cloud of electronic sound particles opens the third section, arboreal (‘relating to trees’). The masterful texture mixes sounds, some of them vaguely similar to animal calls, spread though several timbral layers covering the frequency spectrum. Gradually the texture changes, until later in the section the sounds are more akin to the chirping of birds, yet the sonic fabric will keep fluctuating. The interaction of the cello with the jungle of electronic sounds can be evocative; at other times the cello seems to be steeped in a monologue alongside the electronic music, lost in its own thoughts. Overall, the manner in which the cello navigates or even fights its way through the jungle of sounds is always intriguing. The attention of the listener is challenged to follow both the gradual shifting of the electronic soundscape and the rapid changes in the cello music at the same time. The somewhat longer pauses that separate the diverse groups of phrases played by the cello highlight the dominance of the jungle of sounds.

The music’s dynamics suddenly recede as the electronic music stops for the next part, aciculae (‘needlelike part or structure, such as a spine or bristle of certain plants or animals’), and the solo cello mostly plays soft plucking sounds. It is arresting how from the rather hesitant beginning of this part the music gradually ‘falls into’ busier patterns. The patterns are complex and irregular. The music is divided into several sections of varying activity, some featuring rapid succession of notes, yet the playing remains mostly at softer volume. The instrument is prepared with different devices that one by one are removed from the instrument as the music progresses. Initially the prepared instrument’s timbre has a somewhat ‘rubbery’ tonal quality that is intriguing. The last section finally features forceful pizzicato playing on a cello apparently ‘freed’ from modifying devices, leading into the fifth section.

This section, afar, begins with electronic music at an explosive level of activity that is still heard as an intrusion even though its entrance was prepared. The initial answer of solo cello is a robust counter-statement to the intrusion of the electronic music, featuring energetic, even emphatic activity. The electronic music returns with softer layers of sound, and in the subsequent second section for solo cello the busy activity is a ghostly shadow of the former affirmative effort, with a more fleeting accentuation. This fifth part continues to feature alternations of electronic music and cello, in varying expressions. In the last segment we hear the only sounds in the electronic part of the entire work that are not synthesized, cowbells, yet they are filtered. Barrett suggests a perhaps Mahlerian affinity (think of the cowbells in that composer’s sixth symphony).

The sixth section, aerial, features the most experimental sounds from the cello, which again plays solo throughout. It starts with toneless ‘whispering’ of the instrument that gradually transitions to more tone and volume. This process is repeated, with variations. It is followed by a swelling timbre that sounds almost electronic, as harmonically complex ‘standing waves’, yet eventually crumbles and dissipates. Also here repetition of the process takes place, now on a higher pitch, which adds intensity to the sound. The sound processes seem to evoke a ‘swarm of bees’. The section continues with yet other sounds, among these scratching glissandi with an emphatic, sharp timbre that is somewhat analogous to what you get on a trumpet with certain mutes (yet less akin to a typical result with string mutes). These glissandi alternate with scratching by the bow on the strings that exposes particle irregularities in the rosin of the bow. These presumably amplified sounds evoke the crackling of wood in a fireplace.

The seventh section, anthesis (‘the flowering period of a plant, from the opening of the flower bud’), begins with electronic downward glissandi softly reminiscent in tone of the sharp glissandi by the cello in the previous section. The slow downward glissandi at first do not seem to result in an overall slide of pitch as they are continually ‘replenished’ by overlapping new glissandi starting at high pitch. This effect recalls a famous passage in the Fourth Region of Stockhausen’s Hymnen. The ‘planes of sound’ eventually give way to a swarm of dense sound particles that gradually mutate throughout the section, at one time into a concert of chirping birds. The cello plays, in high register, glissandi in varying speeds and deviations from a central pitch. These waves of glissandi act as ‘melody’ in an arresting manner.

The eight section, apoptosis (the process of a cell dying), features frantically fast activity, buzzing between pitches in a continuous stream of legato playing. Over time the playing on average shifts to somewhat higher register, yet eventually touches the lower register again more often. At the same time, from a rather soft beginning, the playing becomes louder and adds pronounced dynamic emphasis on certain notes along the way. At its most intense, the playing gives way to the ninth section.

This section, abyss, is the longest and most static one of the work, thus forming a maximal contrast to the frenetic activity of the previous section. A dark, multi-layered electronic drone at rather loud volume, enveloping the entire soundstage, commences the section and is heard on its own for a while. Eventually the cello enters, playing in low register, centered around a single fundamental pitch. Its timbre merges with that of the electronic sound and is fully immersed in it. In fact, the combined sound can be perceived as a single unit. The sound unit oscillates with irregular rhythm; these oscillations arise from forceful strokes on the cello. The instrument is played with two bows, held in the right hand, and retuned several times during this section with the left hand, leading to shifts in pitch and timbre. Over time, almost imperceptibly because of the extremely slow rate at which it happens, also the timbre of the electronic drone changes.

Already in previous sections the cello playing had influenced the electronic music by activating filters, yet in this and the following last section of the work this influence is most evident. As the music progresses, the cello strokes affect the dynamics of the electronic drone until eventually, towards the end, the drone surges and fades with each stroke of the cello. The first major incision into the dynamics of the electronic sound by the cello is heard briefly before the four-minute mark, and later on the influence will intensify, but in a discontinuous manner.

A profound transformation takes place within the music. While at the beginning, and through most of the duration of the music, the cello had seemed embedded in an overpowering electronic envelope, towards the end the electronic music appears to have become an enormously expansive sound extension to the cello. This transformation of the role of the two sound sources seems mainly due to the cello more and more steering the dynamics of the electronic music, but in part perhaps also due to changes in timbral relationship between the sounds of cello and electronics.

The tenth and last section is called anapanasati, apparently because its proceedings are somewhat analogous to the breathing exercises in Buddhist meditation. The cello plays simple rising and falling scales, yet their pitch trajectory and dynamics steer a filter gate controlling the electronic music. As pitch and volume of the cello playing rise and fall, electronic sounds enter and leave the music. It is captivating to listen to all the variations in ‘broken’ excursions and timbral composition of the electronic snippets.

nacht und träume (‘night and dreams’)

This work is the first one on CD 2, the other one being Blattwerk. The music begins with magical sounds. A soft piano chord is heard, the ‘decay’ of which is formed by a long-stretched electronic sound in seamless timbral continuation, a sound that subsequently evolves in slow glissando waves. Soon the cello overlays on it its own glissandi in high register. The electronic music has made an effortless connection between disparate sounds from piano and cello. The music by cello and electronic sounds, sporadically punctuated by single piano chords, continues for a while as it draws the listener into its delicate proceedings.

Another long-stretched electronic sound, in low register and of more ‘industrial’ character, provides a change of mood. With staccato repetitions of sounds, either alternating or overlapping, cello and piano now attune their sound worlds to one another, foregoing the ‘bridging’ by electronic music needed in the beginning. The sounds do not all involve a regular manner of playing, but include other sounds, such as knocking on the wood body of the instruments and directly striking the strings of the piano. The mysterious atmosphere from the beginning continues in a transformed manner.

Yet another kind of ‘industrial’ electronic sound enters, and the cello plays, often glissandoing in high register, more or less fluid legato lines that are either tentatively nurtured or countered by the piano. There are hints of a romantic tinge to some of the piano playing.

The transition to track 2 is marked by a new stretched-out electronic sound, and now the music somewhat more firmly touches on a romantic atmosphere, with the piano playing sumptuous, arpeggio-laden lines while the cello embraces the mood in a more abstract, fragile manner that is fascinating and provides some distance from the traditional. A fluid zig-zag motif, briefly exchanging between piano and cello, provides a distinct marker.

The fragile atmosphere is soon dismantled. At 1’17" there is an electronic sound, which is responded to by the piano in a manner that is ambiguous in an affirmation of defending the status quo. Finally the tentative equilibrium is destroyed by the cello with a forceful, scratchy stroke in low register. Following electronic sounds that emphatically voice displeasure, cello and piano try somewhat to piece things together again. At around 2’10" the zig-zag motif recurs in a whimsical, teasing manner. The track ends with two overtly romantic chords by the piano.

Track 3 presents a fascinating, fluctuating and ambivalent mixture of resolute affirmation, controlled chaos and disorientation. At about 20 seconds in, there is another sequence of a few overtly romantic, longing chords by the piano, only to be squashed by a cello stroke. A rain shower of electronic sounds modulates the atmosphere towards the end.

Track 4 begins with tentative, pensive sounds from cello and electronics; at about 1 min. the piano plays the zig-zag motif loudly in a recalcitrant, edgy manner, making a mockery of the fluid romanticism of the first introduction of the motif towards the beginning of track 2. It is followed by a brief storm of playing by piano and cello together, which quickly runs into a void of electronic sounds that had made their presence felt already during this last event. Emphatic statements by the cello cannot wave away the resurgence of electronic sounds that eventually fragment the music into the absurd.

The beginning of track 5 sees an energetic cello trying to re-establish a musical narrative, against disruptive electronic sounds. Eventually these regain free reign in their fragmentation of the music. Yet at once, at around 2 minutes, the piano calmly and without further disturbance, but at the same time in an intriguingly fleeting manner, re-establishes a romantic atmosphere. The cello accompanies it with a succession of long strokes, each differing in pitch. Eventually the last part of a recording of the longing Schubert song Nacht und Träume is heard (as described in Headaches Among the Overtones: Music in Beckett / Beckett in Music by Catherine Laws, p. 395). It is transposed and projected as if coming from an old gramophone player, sounding in the distance. Yet there is ambivalence to the end – the ‘gramophone’ music is rebuked by a rough growl of the cello (at 4’11") in an upward swoop from low register. After this event, however, the longing ‘gramophone’ music is allowed to freely fade away.

Blattwerk (‘leaf work’)

Pre-recorded glissando sounds of cello in high register beautifully mesh with reverbed electronic glissandi into a fabric of mysterious atmosphere (CD 2, track 6).

This brief introduction, in which the live cello was silent, is followed by a gripping 12-minute solo for cello (track 7). Its main thread are wavy glissando sequences, at first starting rather softly in high register; there is a good amount of sul ponticello playing. Their expansive flow in groups, punctuated only by brief pauses, is challenged by disruptive elements, such as staccato notes that are struck by bow or plucked. The first major one of these, usually brief, disturbances occurs at around 1’20". As the music progresses, curves drawn by the wavy glissando sequences sometimes become sharper, pitch excursions faster. Volume and intensity of bowing increase, and the glissando sequences more frequently alternate between higher and lower register, with the latter being emphasized more and more. Also the groups of disruptive elements now often sound, in a muscular manner, in low register. In the last part of the solo, elements that might have served as disturbance before are now incorporated into a larger continuum of flow.

The often downward moving glissando sequences and elements of disturbance appear to express what the composer writes:

"I imagined the path taken by a leaf as it falls from a tree and is then moved in impenetrably complex trajectories by the action of the wind, or just as suddenly laid temporarily to rest by a moment of calm, or set quivering by the merest movement of air; and I imagined this path as taking place not outside the window but in the multidimensional ‘configuration space’ of the cello, leaving a sonorous trace as it goes."

In the next part (track 8) the music becomes fragmented, apparently in accordance with its title foliage, an aggregate of individual leaves. The cello fiercely competes, often in an improvised manner, with electronically distorted fragments of its own playing, either pre-recorded or live recorded. The cello and the distorted fragments of its sounds seem to react to one another – soon it becomes a fascinating game of "who chases whom?". Some of the elements played by the cello do not appear to be ‘thrown back at it’ – in that sense it stands its own ground. While the electronically distorted parts are always fragmented, the cello plays some longer lines as well.

The fourth part, foliation (track 9), continues the texture of foliage but adds purely electronic sounds to the musical texture, with the player of these sounds joining as a second improviser (in the recorded performance, Richard Barrett). After a particularly fierce exchange between cello and electronic music, at around 3’30" the music suddenly enters much calmer waters with electronically distorted snippets of recorded cello playing only quietly, buzzing around like little insects. The live cello eventually plays long-stretched lines of notes. These lines are then mimicked by electronic sounds. Electronic snippets return to more intensity, and the cello sets in again with fragmented playing. Around 7’30" there is a passage where the music briefly seems to gear up to a fervent, perhaps even grand ending. Yet as quickly as the effort arose, it fizzles out. Finally a heavy electronic drone initiates a weighty ending to the section, and after pre-recorded cello sounds in high register have joined in, the entire work ends in the impassioned finale that briefly seemed to have been promised.

This finale makes energetic long strokes on the live cello compete with equally energetic pre-recorded and filtered parts for synchronized four celli. The overlapping, glissandoing notes appear to be taking off like a dense display of fireworks.


Recommended reading are also the remarks by Arne Deforce and Richard Barrett, as well as the detailed notes by John Fallas on the structure of the work, in the CD booklet.

© Albrecht Moritz 2017