A Sweet Anxiety: Ashley Walters, Cello

Ashley Walters presents a solo cello recital of works that explore the full sonic range of the instrument: 4 works, 3 tunings, 2 bows.


Nicholas Deyoe: another anxiety (2013)

Jason Eckardt: A way [tracing] (2006)

Wadada Leo Smith: Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters (2013)

Luciano Berio: Sequenza XIV (2002)

Liza Lim: Invisibility (2009)

Cellist Ashley Walters has been described as performing "...with the kind of brilliance that beckons a major new performer on the new music scene" (Mark Swed, LA Times).

T@MS interviews Ashley Walters

The program contains a challenging list of works that explore the sonic possibilities of the cello. From your perspective, does the combination of these particular pieces affect their meanings as a whole? The works on this program represent what I believe to be milestones of the recent cello repertoire. While there are parallels in this collection of pieces — four use microtonality, all use extended techniques, and all bear the imprint for the performer for whom it was written — the pieces, nevertheless, arrive at dramatically different expressive destinations as a result of their explorations in technique and timbre.

You’ve been praised for your performances of Liza Lim’s Invisibility, a dazzling, unpredictable work that is part of Lim’s ongoing investigation of Australian Aboriginal’s ‘aesthetics of presence.’ The piece has an overall shimmering quality, and uses two kinds of bows to offer different possibilities of friction that explore harmonic complexities within the instrument. What aesthetic qualities have you found most enrapturing about this piece, and how does the work speak to you? Liza Lim has reimagined the personality and voice of the cello in an absolutely unique way. Although the modified “guiro” bow provides visual and timbral drama, it is the retuned strings that truly define the essence of this piece to me. Three of the four strings are tuned lower, darkening and obscuring the cello’s familiar, swan-like voice. The open and ringing perfect fifths of standard tuning are replaced with tense and unruly dissonances.

Also on the program is Berio’s Sequenza XIV, a work inspired by the Kandyan drum rhythms of Sri Lanka. As such, the piece utilizes the cello as a percussion instrument in addition to its traditional role as a string instrument. Given the diverse range of techniques required in this piece, what did you find most challenging or interesting? As a kid, I grew up playing both cello and percussion and I think part of why I love this piece so much is because it allows me to play both! In many ways, Berio set the precedent for composer/performer collaboration making the unique characteristics and capabilities of each dedicatee a central theme in many of his Sequenzas. In the case of this final Sequenza, Berio incorporates these Kandayan drumming cycles, which were shown to him by the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram.

You’ve worked closely with multiple composers, including Nicholas Deyoe whose piece Another Anxiety will be opening the concert at Monk Space.  What do you enjoy most about collaborating with composers? What was the process like for Another Anxiety? Nicholas Deyoe has been a friend and collaborator for the past nine years, during which time I have premiered twelve of his works. Our first collaboration, developed in secret, was a piece performed as a surprise dedication to the great soprano, Stephanie Aston on her and Nicholas’ wedding day. The process of our collaboration continues to evolve, but risk-taking and honesty have been our anchors throughout. The inspiration for the opening of another anxiety, with its tiny microtonal intervals, came from Nicholas’ observation that I could easily divide a whole step into four notes in the lowest positions of the cello. To me, such collaboration, is the epitome of being a new music performer. I am so proud to be presenting the results of my collaboration with Nicholas Deyoe and Wadada Leo Smith as part of my program at Tuesdays@Monk Space.

Program Notes

Dear friends, 

Thank you for joining me! Tonight, I present works for solo cello that I believe to be significant milestones in the cello repertoire of the last fifteen years. Each piece explores and exploits the cello’s timbrel possibilities, altering our perception of this ordinarily gentle and melancholy instrument.

Two of the pieces on the program were written for me in 2013: another anxiety by Nicholas Deyoe and Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters by Wadada Leo Smith. Nicholas Deyoe has been a close collaborator and friend for the past nine years. Since meeting him in 2007, I have premiered twelve of his works, including two solos and a cello concerto, which was premiered this past May. Deyoe’s another anxiety juxtaposes metal-inspired licks with expressive melodies that disintegrate into noise and re-emerge on a stream of microtonality. Wadada Leo Smith has been a mentor and inspiration since I first began playing with him in 2012. Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters, a rare solo work in Smith’s output, utilizes his innovative notation system, providing me the freedom to cultivate a personal interpretation that explores time and space, texture and timbre.

A close and personal composer/performer collaboration is also at the heart of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV. Written for the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram, Berio’s fourteenth Sequenza proved to be his last. As a personal dedication to Saram, this work incorporates Sri Lankan drumming cycles, which are heard in two sections of the piece, including the opening, and are executed in both hands. Berio passed away just a few months before he and Saram were to meet to review and revise the score. The score we are left with contains ambiguities, inconsistencies, and errors and offers no explanatory notes to clarify the non-traditional notational elements. As part of my doctoral studies at UCSD, I realized my own version of the score though research of Sri Lankan music, the Sequenzas as a body of work, and through conversations with Saram himself.

The score to Jason Eckardt’s A way [tracing] is ten pages of rhythmic and microtonal complexity, yet takes a mere six and a half minutes to perform. In contrast, Smith’s Magnolia lasts seventeen minutes and fills only four pages. A complexist showpiece, A way [tracing] demands power, dexterity, and expressivity in both hands to realize rapid and detailed changes in pitch, timbre, articulation, and dynamic.

Like the Sequenza, Liza Lim’s Invisibility is written in scordatura, in which the strings of the cello are tuned to different pitches than the standard A - D - G - C. While Berio’s tuning simply raises the G to G-sharp, Invisibility leaves only the D string untouched: D-sharp - D - F - B. These changes cause a surprisingly dramatic transformation of the cello’s personality. The Berio tuning creates tension and dissonance whereas the Lim tuning is somber, dark, and mysterious.

-Ashley Walters


Nicholas Deyoe is a Los Angeles based composer, conductor, and guitarist, and is the Co–Founder and Artistic Director of the wasteLAnd concert series. His music has been called “intriguingly complex and excitedly lush” by the LA Times. Drawn to sounds that are inherently physical, Nicholas strives to create music that engages listeners intellectually and emotionally by appealing to their inner physicality. His compositions combine uses of noise, delicacy, drama, fantasy, brutality, and lyricism to create a diverse sonic experience. He has received commissions from The Los Angles Philharmonic Association, Carnegie Hall, USINESONORE Festival, The La Jolla Symphony, Palimpsest, and several soloists. His music has been performed throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from UC San Diego where he studied with Roger Reynolds. Deyoe’s compositions and improvisations can be heard on Sono Luminus, Populist, Spektral, Khajila, and Eh? Records.  Nicholas is currently on faculty at California Institute of the Arts where he conducts The Ensemble and teaches composition.

Jason Eckardt (b. 1971) played guitar in jazz and metal bands until, upon first hearing the music of Webern, he immediately devoted himself to composition. Since then, his music has been influenced by his interests in perceptual complexity, the physical and psychological dimensions of performance, political activism, and self-organizing processes in the natural world. He has been recognized through commissions from Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood, the Koussevitzky Foundation (2000, 2011), the Guggenheim Museum, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University (1996, 2008), New Music USA, Chamber Music America, the New York State Music Fund, Meet the Composer, the Oberlin Conservatory, and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Eckardt received a doctorate in composition from Columbia University as a Presidential Fellow. In 1992, Eckardt graduated cum laude from Berklee College of Music where he was awarded the Richard Levy Scholarship. He has attended masterclasses with Milton Babbitt, James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has taught at Columbia, Illionis, New York, Northwestern, and Rutgers Universities, the Oberlin and Peabody Conservatories, and is currently on the faculties of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Born in Leland Mississippi in 1941, legendary trumpet player, composer, and improviser Wadada Leo Smith is the recent recipient of both the Hammer Museum’s Mohn Award, the Doris Duke Artist Award, and has received an Honorary Doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts. His monumental work, Ten Freedom Summers, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, the same year he was named DownBeat Magazine’s “Composer of the Year” and the Jazz Journalist Association’s “Musician of the Year” and “Trumpeter of the Year.” About his unique notation system, Smith says the following: “For fifty years my research and artistic development has been in creating a musical notational language designed with compatible systems to illustrate my artistic expression. In the performance context the ensemble provides the key evidence for the success of the musical works and determines the quality of the composition / improvisation experience. Since 1967, all of my compositions, improvisations and ankhrasmation music for creative musicians employs systems of rhythm-units, melodic / sonic-units, and symbolic-units which are realized in the context of the music score and performance.”

Luciano Berio was born in 1925 in Oneglia, Italy. He was conscripted into the army during WWII and was injured on his first day when he severely injured his hand with a gun. This affected his life dramatically, ultimately ending his piano studies and providing the impetus for him to pursue composition. Berio studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in the United States in 1952 and in 1960, he assumed the role of Composer in Residence at Tanglewood, where he had first met Dallapiccola. He later taught at Mills College and Juilliard. In addition, his interest in electronic music led him to co-found an electronic music studio with Bruno Maderna in 1955. His exploration into a series of works written for solo instruments, called Sequenzas, began in 1958 with his Sequenza I for flute and continued until his death in 2003 when he was working on his Sequenza XIV for cello

Liza Lim (b.1966, Perth) is one of Australia’s leading composers. She has received commissions and performances from some of the world’s pre-eminent orchestras (Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Orchestra, BBC, WDR, SWR), festivals (Festival d’Automne Paris, Salzburg, Lucerne, Holland, Venice Biennale and all the major Australian festivals) and ensembles (Musikfabrik, Ensemble Intercontemporain, ELISION, Ensemble Modern, Arditti String Quartet etc). Since 2008, she has been Professor of Composition and Director of the Centre for Research in New Music, CeReNeM, at the University of Huddersfield. Recent works include her fourth opera commissioned by Ensemble Musikfabrik and the Opera House in Cologne based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s exquisite ‘cut-out’ book, Tree of Codes; a violin concerto, Speak, Be Silent for the 40th anniversary season opening of the Geneva-based Ensemble Contrechamps, and solo pieces that explore new areas of technique for instruments such as the bassoon (Axis Mundi) and double-bell euphonium (The Green Lion eats the Sun). She connects her compositional practice to areas of thought and knowledge such as Australian Indigenous aesthetics (eg:Invisibility for solo ‘cello); Asian ritual forms & performance practices (Moon Spirit Feasting, a Chinese ritual street opera); a Sufi poetics of bewilderment, loss, communion and ecstasy (Tongue of the Invisible); the textilic arts of weaving and knot-making as a cross-modal ‘technology for thinking’ (Winding Bodies: 3 knots), as well as empathy and intuition in an ecology of collaboration.

Cellist Ashley Walters has been described as performing "...with the kind of brilliance that beckons a major new performer on the new music scene” (Mark Swed, LA Times). Walters has appeared as a soloist on concert series such as Green Umbrella, wasteLAnd music, San Diego New Music, nief-norf Summer Festival, and Santa Fe Creative Dialogue. Her forthcoming CD will feature works written for her by Nicholas Deyoe, Andrew McIntosh, and Wadada Leo Smith alongside works by Luciano Berio and Wolfgang von Schweinitz. As a member of legendary composer/improviser/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s recently expanded Golden Quintet, Walters appears on his latest album, America’s National Parks. Walters is a founding member of the Formalist Quartet, now in its tenth season, which has premiered a vast repertoire of works and is known for its audacious programming. For more information, please visit ashleywalterscello.com