Elinor Frey is a leading Canadian-American cellist, gambist, and researcher. Her albums on the Belgian label Passacaille and Canadian label Analekta – many of which are world premiere recordings – are [...]
Guided by Voices: New Music for Baroque Cello
They spoke about it
This project of commissioning new music for Baroque cello began with the birth of a new instrument. I had commissioned a five-string cello – made in Montréal in 2012 by Francis Beaulieu – and wanted to expand my use of the five- string instrument beyond its few famous pieces (J.S. Bach’s sixth suite, for example). This led to a new work by Scott Godin and then to pieces from Isaiah Ceccarelli and Ken Ueno. In a sense, I had the same desire to expand my use of the (now more standard) four-string Baroque cello, an instrument that I was using to perform mostly Early Music until this commissioning project took flight. When modern composers write a new piece for “Baroque” cello (whether four- or five-string) it becomes an instrument of today, helping to expand the sound worlds of both the cello and new music audiences. For the works written for four-string Baroque cello by Linda Smith, Maxime McKinley, and Lisa Streich, I also used a new instrument, made by Karl Dennis in 2018, and on both cellos a bow by Pieter Affourtit made in 2016. The project showcases the cello’s non-standard sizes and non-standard tuning of the strings, as well as the instruments themselves, made by living artists. Indeed, playing new music on new instruments were the norms for 17th- and 18th- century performers. Each work reveals the cello’s incredible versatility and remarkable colours, capable of inspiring some of today’s outstanding composers. An article about this six-work commissioning project can be found in the journal Circuit – musiques contemporaines, published September, 2018 (vol. 28, no. 2).
Dedicated to Maxime McKinley with gratitude for your humour and kindness.
— Elinor Frey
guided by voices (2014) by Scott Edward Godin
commissioned by Elinor Frey
|et ipsum verbum tuum induit carnem
in formatione illa que educta est de Adam.
|and your very Word calls forth flesh
in the shape which was drawn from Adam.
Power of Eternity
“O Vis Aeternitatis”
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)
This new work for five-string cello draws inspiration from the life and œuvre of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a unique and perhaps unsettled individual who found solace within her art. At the age of three, Hildegard saw her first vision, an experience she referred to as “The Shade of the Living Light.” She continued to have these visions throughout her life, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received what she believed to be an instruction from God, to “write down that which you see and hear,” prompting an outpouring of theological and scientific texts, poems, and songs in the remaining years of her life.
guided by voices exploits the obsessiveness found within recurring melodic units of Hildegard’s music, deconstructing these units before reconstructing them in a new musical framework. This work pays homage to Ensemble Sequentia’s performance of “O Vis Aeternitatis,” attempting to create resonances between musical entities past and present. These resonances are made possible through this wonderful instrument, which allows a vibrant interplay between the outer registers (the relationship between heaven and earth, or the conversation between Hildegard and God, interrupted by the “in-between”). In guided by voices I hope to reveal the wonderful colours of the instrument, whether they be obsessive declarations and responsorials of the lowest register, whispers and echoes in the middle, or joyful canticles of ecstasy in the piccolo register. This piece is dedicated in friendship and admiration to Elinor Frey, whose energy and musicality gave me the strength to write this work, and pays homage to the wonderful Barbara Thornton, founder of Sequentia.
— Scott Godin
Minerva (2018) by Lisa Streich
Commissioned by Harbour Front Centre for Elinor Frey for performance on the 2018 edition of Summer Music in the Garden (Toronto Music Garden)
Minerva for baroque cello was written for Elinor Frey. The piece explores the contradiction between a calm rhythmic grid in the harmonic structure and very fast and energetic bowing, which is incongruous with the musical content.
The picture on stage is an energetic one, but if one closes one’s eyes, one hears a fi ne line suggested by col legno, col legno crini, ordinario playing, and singing.
Minerva imagines a goddess who, almost like an octopus, helps with or stands for many things at once – a goddess of everything. She reminds me of the human being of the future, a human fully endowed with equal rights, who, according to Gender Gap Reports, should exist in 217 years.
— Lisa Streich
Cortile di Pilato (2017) by Maxime McKinley
Commissioned by Elinor Frey / The composition of this piece was supported by Elinor Frey and Daniel Cooper / for Cello and Harpsichord
In August 2017, during a stay in Bologna, I discovered a monument of great beauty that has fascinated me ever since – the Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of four churches built on a foundation begun in the fifth century that was itself built on a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. In a courtyard between the four buildings, called “Cortile di Pilato,” one can contemplate a magnificent wall of captivating mosaics. As I was preparing to compose this piece for Elinor Frey, I decided to build upon this experience. My approach in some ways echoes a relatively similar experience I had some years ago when I first observed the pavement of San Marco in Venice, which also inspired me to write a piece. Concerning this “Cortile di Pilato,” I became interested in various games of repetition, differences, juxtapositions, overlapping, and nesting. Historically, I was interested in the “co- presence” of different epochs in the same place that create a thread among many centuries. This pleased me, particularly when writing a piece for Baroque cello and harpsichord. Finally, from more subjective perspective, I was inspired by the atmosphere and certain emotions I felt in the space. The piece is for cello and harpsichord, but the harpsichord’s role is not merely accompaniment. On the contrary, the nature of the relationship between the two instruments changes in each section.
— Maxime McKinley
With concord of sweet sounds (2015) by Isaiah Ceccarelli
Commissioned by Elinor Frey
My goal when I sit down to compose is to move around my music’s clear components – melody, harmony, and rhythm – in carefully timed, creative, and pleasing ways. I trust my own ear and try to let the music say what needs to be said in a given amount of time.
With concord of sweet sounds is written for Elinor Frey, one of the finest and most hard-working musicians I know, and was premiered in the exceptionally resonant nave of the Église du Gesù in Montréal in April 2015. It highlights the relationships between several sweet intervals that I find particularly gratifying and employs four of the five open strings of Elinor’s cello. It is essentially a continuo for some absent, slow melody. If you listen closely, bits of that melody pop up here and there. There is no artifice: tuning, timing, and listening are the essential elements.
— Isaiah Ceccarelli
Ricercar (2015) by Linda Catlin Smith
Commissioned by Daniel Cooper for Elinor Frey
I have always been drawn to music of the Baroque period. I grew up playing Bach, first on piano, later on the harpsichord. I love the sound of the Baroque cello, so I was very excited to write a piece for Elinor Frey (commissioned by Daniel Cooper). I think of this piece as a melody in search of its harmony. The first part of the work explores a dance-like line; later the melody is lost into a place of utter spareness and stillness – almost like coming to terms with one’s innermost qualities – and later again there is the appearance of a melodic chain of rich chords. My thanks go to Elinor Frey for suggesting the title (the word “Ricercar” means “to search out”), and for her beautiful interpretation of my music.
— Linda Catlin Smith
Chimera (2017) by Ken Ueno
Commissioned by Elinor Frey
The composition of this piece was supported by a New Music USA Project Grant 2016
I. “Night opening its black flower”
II. “in the shadow of my sorrow”
III. “we are resurrected”
IV. “the sky will be lavender”
V. “an ocean bell sounding”
(Movement titles from Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow, published by Octopus Books in 2014.)
Instruments are not instruments. Instruments are people. My compositional praxis is based on this fundamental principle that the musical potential of any instrument depends on who is playing it. As a composer, I depend upon fully engaged performers who enable me to take risks. New music requires trust and commitment. Elinor Frey is just that kind of player, one who inspires me and whom I trust. The opportunity to write for her and her five-string Baroque cello was a chance to imagine a counter-factual history of the five-string Baroque cello. My piece is a kind of meta-suite in five movements, one that traverses time. Starting with a contemporary recasting of a prelude (“Night opening its black flower”), the following movements gradually approach a ghost of the Baroque. The ghost appears clearest in the middle movement (“we are resurrected”) distorted by microtones, then fades away. In the last movement (“an ocean bell sounding”), bell-like incantations of chords of the open strings, harmonies based on just intonation, linger insistently in a gesture-less field, until they begin to exert their own validity, or perhaps we begin to accept them for what they are, an assessment no longer appurtenant to standards of the past.
— Ken Ueno