As both a member of the highly regarding Mivos Quartet and as a solo artist in her own right, cellist Mariel Roberts has demonstrated an affinity for uncompromising music and a capacity for making even the most challenging works sing. Composer Eric Wubbels is among the numerous beneficiaries of Roberts’s advocacy – his gretchen Am Spinnrade, a duo for cello and piano, is featured on Roberts’s new CD, Cartography, with Wubbels himself at the piano. In advance of an album-release concert at National Sawdust on May 19, as well as a New York Philharmonic Contact! program that includes Wubbels’s katachi coming up at National Sawdust on May 22, the two sat down recently at a neighborhood café to compare experiences and agendas.
ERIC WUBBELS: So, Mariel, I thought maybe we could start by just talking about the disc a little bit. It seems like collaboration is a big part of what you’re interested in as a performer. All these pieces were written specifically for you. So maybe you could talk just a little bit about what are some of the challenges that these pieces present to you as a performer, and a bit about what you look for in collaborators?
MARIEL ROBERTS: Collaboration is always super important for me, even if it’s a solo piece – for example, George [Lewis]’s piece is a totally solo piece without anything else. For me, music is about connection with other people. It is almost never something that I feel I’m doing by myself. It’s always something that enables me to communicate with other human beings, and to be with other human beings. So even if I’m putting out a solo record, to me it’s really important that other people are very much involved. That is what makes music fun, and that’s what gives it meaning.
EW: What was the process, and what kind of range of processes do you have, in collaborating, both on this disc and maybe on your previous disc, too? I imagine in some cases you’re really working with the composer in the development of the material, and maybe in other cases it’s given to you and it’s a little bit less hands-on. So what’s been your range of experience with that?
MR: It kind of ran the gamut with this project. For example, with you I think we worked pretty hardcore on the material, and then you assembled it and kind of wrote it out after we had worked on ideas that you’d had. With Cenk [Ergun]’s piece, we kind of wrote that piece together, in a way, because it’s super-structured cells that we kind of pieced together in real time. So he wrote a patch that I’m playing with, and also little cells that are optional textures that can happen in that piece, and we just did a bunch of versions of that in recording and chose the parts that we liked. So every performance of that piece will be totally different.
With George’s piece, he brought me a ton of material, a ton of different types of material, and I just played through a lot of things and he changed things as we went, depending on my playing and stuff that felt good for me to play. He mostly had written it out, but he changed it after we worked on it a little bit together. And then David [Brynjar Franzson]’s piece, we worked on very specific sounds, so his piece only has a few notes, actually, seven or so notes that happen over the course of that piece. So we would just get together for a couple of hours and play a note or a multiphonic for a really long time and just feel what that felt like. And he rearranged the structure of the piece a lot, so it ended up being quite a bit longer than I think he originally intended. It’s about 20 minutes now, so over the course of working together it just felt like that was the length it needed to be based on how it felt to play.
EW: After having gone through a process like that, to what extent can you see yourself in the piece – your imprint on it, or the sense that it’s really been tailored to your personality? Is that something that you want?
MR: I think so. I imagine that any piece is going to sound like the person that’s playing it, so somebody else playing these pieces, it’s going to sound like them, in a way. But I can’t imagine that they don’t also sound a lot like my playing. I would think that as composers are writing for me, they are thinking of the specifics of my playing, and of things that I really enjoy or excel at or can do in a way that other people can’t do.
EW: All that stuff comes across, but I feel like this disc has a really wide range of types of playing on it, so it’s interesting to see that people approaching you as a collaborator would see all these different things in you as a musician. What are you looking for in a collaborator? Why have you chosen these types of people to work with, aside from presumably just being interested in their sorts of musical worlds? What makes a good collaborator, to you?
MR: To me, a good collaborator is somebody who has super strong ideas to begin with. They come to the table with a lot of ideas about what type of structure or sound world they want to make, but are also very open to input from someone else. To me that means that collaborators should have a lot of respect for each other, and be different in a lot of ways, but similar in a mindset of keeping a super open mind about what’s happening, and being willing to change, or having the strength to know that something’s not going to work, I’m not going to change it.
For this disc, the people I wanted to work with were people whose music I thought was incredibly rich in ideas, and to me is music that is really doing something interesting and different right now. I have to play a lot of music; in general I have a lot of music to play. And honestly, I feel like there’s not that much music that I get extremely excited about, so this is an opportunity for me to work with people that I feel are doing really exciting things.
EW: Aside from that issue of personality and style, are there particular types of challenges, when you’re curating a program for yourself, that you seek out, and say, I want to work with this person because I think that maybe this is what they’re going to send back to me as a particular kind of performance challenge?
MR: Definitely. I have a habit of wanting to push myself past where I think that I can play. I have a deep joy in doing things that I find impossible at one point, and then find a way to make it happen. For example, I knew that George would give me a piece that was just all of the notes in all possible permutations [laughs]. I knew that was going to happen, and it would be extremely challenging, but I really wanted that challenge for myself. I think I always try to choose my programming in a way that it is as intense for me to perform, and to achieve a good performance, as it is for the listener to hear a great performance of those pieces. That’s really important to me, to have that period of intense work and struggle on a piece, I think.
EW: I’m sure that kind of energy communicates to the audience pretty directly.
EW: I wanted to ask you, since we actually never talked about it in the context of the piece that I wrote for you and we worked on together, what is it like to play that piece? [laughs] What do you find particularly challenging about it? We went through the process together, but we never really had a post mortem about how it turned out, here’s what it’s like to do that for 17 minutes.
MR: It’s hard. [laughs] It’s really hard. For me, I think the hardest part of your piece is focus, because there’s tons of really difficult material arranged in non-intuitive ways – which I think is a great part of the piece, but also makes it really difficult to perform. The physicality of that is also very, very demanding. That’s why your piece, for example, always needs to go at the end of a program, because I cannot physically play after playing that piece.
EW: I feel like there are definitely pieces like that that I have in my performance repertoire, and I wonder if we’re starting to get enough of those pieces that it’s going to make it impossible to program – “well, this has to be last, and so does this” – or if we’ll just figure out a way to overcome that eventually.
MR: I think that does happen, though. For example, on my last record there’s a piece I did by Tristan Perich [Formations], and every time I played that piece, the first maybe 10 to 15 times I played it, I would get really sick afterward – physically sick, a cold, throwing up, whatever – for like three days afterward, every single time I played that, because it took so much out of me.
So I didn’t play it for a little while. And then I came back to it recently, actually, and it was okay. I was able to push past, or maybe had just grown strong enough to be able to play it without completely wearing myself down. But those pieces definitely exist.
EW: Wow, this is like a new bar for what it means to play new music.
MR: If you’re not throwing up, you’re not trying. [laughs]
EW: Speaking for myself, but I’m sure the same is true for a lot of your other collaborators, that kind of attitude, and that willingness to really stretch yourself, is definitely one of the things that is appealing about working with someone like you. It’s an invitation to just imagine something really exciting, and just know that the other person is going to be willing to go out of their comfort zone, beyond the kind of normal place, and go to a special place.
MR: I think that’s really important to me, just in art in general: to go beyond what you think you’re capable of. That makes the most interesting thing, whether it’s in music or art or film or whatever. To me, that is the achievement of being human: to be able to push past the limits that you think that you have. So I think that also means a lot of feelings of failure, sometimes, in a way. But to me, the only way I feel truly satisfied is if I’ve pushed past something that was really challenging to me.
EW: I think there’s also people who would maybe not feel that way, and maybe that’s fine, too. Do you ever get people reacting to these pieces with a sense of, “What is all the hysteria about? Why do we have to go to this place? Can’t we just listen to some music and have a good chill?
MR: I have never, in a performance, had that reaction. I feel like if you perform something with total commitment and intensity, people get it. They completely get it. I have had that response many times when people listen to you, ironically, on recordings. Or just talking hypothetically, I feel like that issue comes up all the time. People tend to feel like they need to have that talk with you, if you are a person who likes to program or advocate for intense, challenging programs. But I feel like it completely speaks for itself in a performance, and I’ve definitely never felt that in that context. Have you had that experience, as a composer?
EW: Very similar to what you just described, yeah, I think there is something really convincing about seeing it embodied in the moment, and just attaching the whole visual spectacle of seeing the person, what it means to do that. Because some of the music, again, to talk about the piece I wrote for us, in the absence of being able to see the facial expressions, it’s kind of crazy. It flirts with very manic territory, for sure.
MR: That’s one thing that makes me a bit sad, because obviously performance is an important part of what we do, but recording and just music being out there is equally important, in a way, for people to hear what we’re doing, or to see what the scene is actually like. And I think people have a really hard time with music that sounds slightly unfamiliar to them, approaching it in an open way. In a performance that’s easy, because you see the human in front of you. You feel that human connection. But I think people often feel alienated when they don’t have that immediate human connection, in a way.
EW: It definitely helps to make it intelligible, I think, if it’s unfamiliar stuff. I guess I’ve started to feel, too, that maybe even more important than genre allegiances for some people, there is this sense that there are people who really are drawn to aesthetic experiences in any medium that are on that kind of intense place, and there are people who aren’t; they want the comfortable, more quotidian sort of thing. But people who are really into going to a concert where the music is really loud, or a certain kind of movie that is a more demanding experience in terms of viscerality or content or level of tension, might be more ready to hear music that also goes to that place – less about the musical language, and more about parameters like that.
MR: In general that’s my feeling of what music should be: It should be an experience. I would almost never just put music on in the background of what I’m doing. To me, that is a disservice to the music, in a way. And even if I did, I would end up getting distracted from what I was doing and just listen to the music – or vice versa and stop listening. I feel like I want it to be an experience; I want to feel something when I listen to music. And I do; I can feel some very strong things. But I don’t think it should be always something casual, like people consume music so casually now. You have your iPod on constantly. There’s music playing in this café that nobody is listening to. I would love to feel like music is an experience.
EW: Well, I think that continuing to put yourself onstage in the role of the performer and playing music like that is a way of advocating for that, for sure.
MR: How would you define your music? How would you describe your aesthetic?
EW: Well, I think one of the things that is central to what I try to do is what we’ve just been discussing. The experience that I as a listener am most drawn to is one of kind of immersion within the experience, and that can be as a result of just a very compelling kind of aesthetic argument that’s going on, or it can be sensory, or ideally it’s both at the same time. It’s some combination of the rhetoric of what you’re experiencing, plus how turned up all of the sensory material of the experience is, so that it’s completely enveloping. I really go for that feeling of saturation; I want to lose myself, as a listener, in the experience of listening to something, or being encountered with art. I don’t want to maintain my inner monologue the entire time, with the little critical voice that’s saying, “Why did that happen?” I really want it to be so strong that it erases that, relieves me of that for a minute.
MR: A transcendent moment.
EW: Yeah, sure, you could put it that way, too. I sort of want to find ways of getting to that place, and so there are various strategies for that that have to do with maximizing intensity through the way in which the material is chosen and shaped, the way in which formal things are deployed and structured. One thing that I think about a lot is just pacing, proportions – I want zero-fat music. I want everything to be functional. And that allows me, in an ideal scenario, to also be very minimal with what I do, I think. That’s my ideal: to be simple, to be direct, and to have an intense care for the material and its proportions lead under those conditions to something that can feel really compelling, really enveloping, internally coherent and consistent but also totally surprising in its momentary formal gambits.
And then also, I love sound [laughs], so that’s a big thing. I love very big, blocky forms, where things change abruptly. I think maybe that’s another big aesthetic dichotomy that’s out there at the moment, pieces that are just kind of monolithic and all one thing – but I love that, when it’s done well, where things really change in a piece. You’re really drawn out of it. It’s really arresting when big formal things happen. And then just really strong material, sounds that are… they can be very beautiful, very ugly, very raw, very strained, whatever it is. In most cases, things that are maybe not 100 percent familiar from other contexts, just because I feel like I want that sense of curiosity – it takes you a second to figure out what that is and what’s going on with it, which I think is another way of getting enveloped in the experience. If you’re asked to solve that little puzzle, it engages you, it hooks you and draws you in.
All of my secondary metaphors these days are food-based… [laughs] It’s like the type of food that I love to eat; I just want every bite to be taking advantage of everything that your sensory apparatus has to offer. I want it to be…
MR: 100 percent, every time.
EW: Why wouldn’t you?
MR: Why wouldn’t you want all the best things, all the time? I feel like people often talk about how complex your music is, and how dense it is. But my feeling is exactly as you said: it’s quite minimal. There’s nothing without purpose. There’s never anything that is just there. And I feel like I have a bit of a negative association with the term complex, or complexity. That just makes me think about people who use computers to make calculations to make as many notes as possible. And arbitrary – complex means arbitrary to me, and to me your music is the opposite of that. Everything is extremely purposeful, and also extremely emotional – I feel like your music is incredibly emotional, always. There’s many academic things about it, it’s very informed, and you obviously have done a ton of research that informs your music. But at the core of that, I feel like there’s always so much movement, and so much human empathy and thought, in your music. And that’s kind of a remarkable balance of things.
EW: That’s definitely what I strive for. I don’t shy away from the idea that an experience could be rich and complex; it’s just that that word has become kind of loaded in ways that we need to dance around a bit. But that’s definitely the ideal; that’s what makes a saturated, immersive experience, is layers. I love stuff that I can go back to and watch again and again, listen to again and again, and I think you only get that when it’s really been fussed over. It’s hyper-edited. The pacing, it’s not an accident. Think of your favorite comic, their timing – their routine has been honed so much.
The TV shows that I love… have we ever talked about The Eric André Show? I’m completely obsessed with that show, and one of the things that makes it so good is the editing – and it’s tenths of a second. Why is that cut there, and not 20 milliseconds later? That really matters. It’s the difference between something that I will watch six times in a row, and something that I’ll watch once, laugh at, and then forget about. So, ways of fighting against disposable content, ways of really standing up for… what do we want? At the end of the day, I want art. I want the thing that art has always been, which is a meaningful experience that is layered and rich, that’s on some level a dialogue, even if it’s an out-of-time dialogue, between two different minds that light each other up in various ways.
MR: That’s like the quote of the evening: “fighting against disposable content.”
EW: Yeah, but that is what I see as one of the big battles. In art, in life, it’s just a huge thing that we’re up against. And you really have to fight for it, because it is not easy to do. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of work, and you could get away with less.
MR: You can always get away with less. I think it takes a huge personal investment to choose to live that way, as well.
EW: But people respond to it, in my experience, and that’s what makes it worthwhile. Even just going on SoundCloud and watching some undergrad in wherever listening to your track 17 times a day…all right, I know I’ve got this very obsessive music, but if someone else is getting obsessed with it, too, then that validates it, too, on some level.
MR: I also wanted to ask, what is the appeal of duos for you? You just released a duos album, and there’s going to be another one.
EW: I’ve thought about that a fair amount – I don’t know that I’ve got a ready-to-go answer. It just seems to be my medium, on some level, something that is close to my heart. Obviously every medium like that is a kind of symbol for some kind of social structure, too, so there’s something about the directness – it’s sort of the most essentialized, reduced version of human interaction. Solo pieces feel solipsistic to me, and I’m almost completely disinterested in them. Orchestra is something that’s just problematic to me, politically. The duo is this crystalized version of self-and-other that, in almost every case in this series, the starting point is, how do I take these two things and make something unified out of them, that partakes of both of their natures, but also finds a way of synthesizing those in some way?
The piano is both my instrument and what I see as a symbol of clunky, rational thought, its inability to play in a non-equal tempered way, which I find ways of subverting with preparations and all that. It’s definitely this thing that needs to be kind of melted down from its rigidness by the influence of the other instrumental personality in some way, in most of these pieces. It’s become totally integral to that series to go through these long processes of months of material, hunting, refining, writing the piece, performing it, revising it, touring with it, recording it, all that stuff. That’s way easier to do with two people than with seven, so that dimension has been important to it, too.
MR: I also want to ask you about the quartet [being-time, composed by Wubbels for the Mivos Quartet], which is coming out maybe soon?
EW: Yeah, the recording is done, so we’re putting it in the pipeline to be released.
MR: To me, that piece is a bit different than some of your other pieces. It’s maybe… I’m trying to think of the right word to describe it. It’s incredibly internal, in a way. It’s very… I don’t want to say dark. It’s not dark. Maybe you can describe better what that piece is? It’s very special.
EW: When you set out to write an hour-long piece, the thing sitting on your shoulder is “the great piece,” the idea of that. And the string quartet genre, too. So it’s hard to kind of keep knocking that thing down, and just try to write music. But definitely there’s a huge amount of conceptual underpinning for that piece. It was a huge project having to do with the psychological experience of time, and how that kind of feels in an aesthetic domain. Which, again, as soon as you start talking about it just seems ludicrously pretentious. It’s a function of scale. It’s weighty on some level, but also the first movement has some huge silences in it, so there’s this sense that you’re in these voids for a while before things start to get filled in. That might account for some of that feeling that you were describing. On the whole, when I look back at that piece I feel like it was an attempt to just kind of create an alternate reality that you could live in for a while, that you could visit.
It’s also very experimental; there’s even a form of the piece that I feel like we haven’t even done yet, which is, the fifth part of it is kind of all of the previous four parts at once, and I feel like there is a version of the piece that is just a recorded installation, in which you could combine everything in the first four parts in an infinite number of ways, and it’s almost a Stockhausen thing where one second could give you a picture of the whole, and there could be thousands of different versions of that single second. So it’s a piece that functions as an hour-long concert piece; listen to the fifth part and you get a very strong sense of all the material in the piece in 10 minutes, without having to sit through the extended version of it.
MR: But I think the scale is something that’s very important to the piece, and I think that’s something people often shy away from, being able to play with that type of scale. Especially in contemporary music, people don’t understand how difficult that is for people who are not inside the contemporary-music world to deal with.
EW: Syntax is really tricky. Just sustaining functional meaning in a post-tonal vocabulary over huge spans is always the challenge, especially with material that’s not totally monolithic. That’s where all the wacky tuning stuff helps, to build structures that you can hang things on. I’m looking forward to that project – the format of the recording just putting enough of a structure, too, that we can finally wrap it up, send it out into the world, and get some feedback.