When a cellist wanted to present a solo program, there was a time when he had but two choices: either learn the fiendishly difficult J.S. Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello or hire an accompanist and give a recital of sonatas for cello and piano.
That was before the computer age, of course. On Friday (Sept. 13) at Bread & Salt in Barrio Logan, Eric Byers brought his gorgeous cello, his trusty computer, a portable sound system with the now requisite swarm of cables and simply accompanied himself. In a program that lasted just over an hour, Byers offered a sampling of his own compositions and those of two young American composers—Caroline Shaw and Christine Southworth—who have written for him.
Most of the evening’s music fit comfortably under that minimalist umbrella that comforts listenters with gentle undulations and recogniable harmonic progressions, while assiduously shielding the ear from abrasive complications. Byers’ typical musical construction started a piece or movement with a simple fragment that the computer then fed back as an accompaniment to further melodic and rhythmic excursions from the cello. All of this music-making happened in real time, so it was clearly not a sophisticated “music minus one” affair.
Byers’ pieces proved quite strong on cohesion and integration, and in his sonic world, the ostinato is king. But his restrictive structure prevented rapid changes of mood or rhapsodic explosions. Two pieces in canonic structure—computer feedback is tailor made for this technique, of course—struck me as particularly effective, especially a jaunty canon with just enough unpredictable rests to create clever hocket effects. A slower canon, which he described as a “sloth canon,” moved at a profound, deliberate pace with the computer slowing down the original theme by proportions that provided the piece a dense harmonic foundation.
Byers, who is well-known to local chamber music aficionados as the cellist of the acclaimed Calder String Quartet, brings his luxurious sonority to everything he plays, not to mention a stellar technique that articulates every musical idea with supreme confidence and pristine articulation. You may note an absence of titles in this review, and Byers gave none for his pieces in performance. Afterwards, when asked if his compositions had titles, he demurred saying, “They do, but I don’t like any of them.” Perhaps when his CD is made, he will have discovered titles that appeal to him.
Southworth’s “Scale,” a ruminative piece for cello and recorded track, alludes to Yosemite’s noted rock formation El Capitan and the Nose, a favored ascent of serious climbers. The track quietly insinuates misty clouds that surround the heights, and the cello’s mysterious cantilena suggests, perhaps, the climbers’ arduous but uplifting ascent.[php snippet=1]
2013 Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw’s short “In Manus Tuas,” based on a devotional motet by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, ranged from delicate pizzicato chords to robust roulades from the cello alone. At the end of this piece, some random freeway noise (Interstate 5 is only blocks away from Bread & Salt) filtered in through the open windows at a consonant pitch of the final chord of Shaw’s composition. It was a delectable John Cage moment.
This program was the season-opener for Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series and her first foray to Bread & Salt, an arts center in the making housed in a former Webber bakery that stopped producing some six years ago. As a performance venue, it is primitive, but such industrial sites are often favored by new music junkies over fancy recital halls.
If Bread & Salt catches on, it could be a boon to its neighborhood and perhaps convince San Diegans there is life south of the East Village.