An Interview with Mariel Roberts

By · Title Image © Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media · Date 05/25/2017

Cellist Mariel Roberts has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, most notably as a member of the Mivos String Quartet, as well as with the Wet Ink Ensemble and Ensemble Signal. Her premiere solo album, “Nonextraneous Sounds,” was released to critical acclaim in September 2012, and she has premiered hundreds of new works by both emerging and established artists. Her latest album, “Cartography,” was released on May 19. We recently discussed the evolving meaning of virtuosity, the necessity of artistic collaboration, and her relentless pursuit of immersive performance experiences.

VAN: Along with your solo career, you work with various new music ensembles. Do you work exclusively in new music? What draws you to the conceptual, amelodic works that make up the genre?

Mariel Roberts: My career right now is focused on contemporary music. I love playing older music, I play Bach almost every day. But it doesn’t come up often anymore, as I’m focusing mostly on contemporary music by living composers. That’s my job as an artist.

With that in mind, would you be able to share a bit about how other musical influences manifest in your work?

I don’t really listen to much classical music honestly. I have very eclectic, broad tastes in music. I love anything experimental, but I listen to anything. I’ve always been like that, and that influenced me to always try something different, to try things that weren’t strictly within the classical world. And now I listen to so much different stuff when I go out. Hard metal, electronic music, improvisation, anything.

Could you talk a bit about your first album from 2012, “Nonextraneous Sounds”? You created it to reflect the sounds of your life in New York at the time.

I was interested in ways that a cello could be transformed in that album. For example, in the Andy Akiho piece, we used clothespins as preparations on the cello along with some pre-recorded electronics. A lot of that album came from hanging out with composers, playing a lot between each other and sending recordings back and forth. The Daniel Wohl piece was an improvisation we had done together—Daniel chopped it up, notated some of it, made some of it into an electronic track. And Alex Mincek, who was one of my compositional heroes, worked on a piece with me, and we’re very close friends now.

Andy Akiho, “Three Shades, Foreshadows”; Mariel Roberts (Cello)

When you’re working on these commissions, are the composers generally open to giving you improvisational and interpretive license in performance and recording of their works? Or does it become something that you create at the same time, as in the process you just discussed?

The second idea is the most accurate. Something I look for in the composers or collaborators I work with is someone who has really strong ideas to begin with, because that gives me a lot of artistic fuel to work with. It’s important that we come to a mutual understanding of what the piece is together. I don’t want someone to hand me a score and have me play the “Mariel Show.” That’s not the best way to make an interesting piece.

In these situations, is it possible to have a repeat performance, or do pieces change every time?

It depends on the piece. One of the pieces on the album, by Cenk Ergün, is very different every time it’s played. It’s based around an electronic instrument that Cenk created, and he’s performing it live with me, so we’re playing off each other. That always makes it extremely interesting—there are endless avenues for growth and development within a piece. It could end up being an hour long. Daniel Wohl’s piece is the same every time, now. It’s fully notated and the electronic tracks are fixed.

With the fluidity of the Cenk Ergün piece, is there a concept that remains constant? Is there anything about it that would be recognizable from one take to the next?

I think so, there are two specific areas of activity in which this electronic instrument responds really well. It’s an area of stasis where he’s capturing really high sustains, harmonics for me, and pitch-shifting them down to build these hyper-dense chords. There is also an area of hyper-percussive activity, where I’m not playing pitches, but instead we’re creating natural and electronic loops out of percussive cello sounds.

In reference to “Cartography,” you’ve said that what the works have in common is an exceptionally focused approach to their material, a clear and acute method of expressing musical ideas, and that such focus can create experiences that have the power to transfix and transform the listener. Are those elements you always look for in commissions, or have those criteria developed over time? Are they unique to this project?

It’s something that has become important to me over the last few years. It’s sort of apparent in “Nonextraneous Sounds” but a lot clearer in these last few pieces: they are more intense, longer in form. The very distinct sound worlds between pieces is something I’ve always been drawn to, something I’ve been excited to work on with composers where you hear the piece and instantly know that it’s theirs.

Photo © Daniel Pufe
Photo © Daniel Pufe

Thematically, all of the pieces on the album seem to focus on unsettling cycles and the darker elements of the human condition. What attracts you to the distinctly ominous atmosphere of these pieces?

That’s just a condition of the time we’re living in. I’m definitely not a dark person at all! I think these collaborations arose at a time when everyone, especially those in the artistic community, was feeling incredibly uncomfortable with their place in the world, and people in general were feeling very uncertain about what the world is bringing right now. I think that can’t really be helped, in a way.

How do you feel about being labeled “virtuosic”? Has the term evolved with contemporary music, or has it remained constant?

It kind of makes me laugh, and I think it has evolved. Someone who could be described as a contemporary music virtuoso has to wear a lot more hats than what you might consider a classical music virtuoso. To me, the most important thing for a contemporary music virtuoso is letting go of ego, because pieces demand such different things and it’s very often not about you or showing all the fancy things you can do. For example, Davi∂ Franzson’s piece on “Cartography,” “The Cartography of Time,” only has seven notes for the entire 20 minutes of the piece. It moves glacially and is incredibly powerful, but it’s definitely not about, “How many notes can Mariel play?”

Could you describe a time when you had an idea and it just crashed and burned?

In Cenk’s piece again, I remember the first few times we went through it I was improvising like crazy, going totally wild, making a lot of bombastic, intense gestures. While the piece does sound like that at some point, if I do that into the electronic patch it sounds horrible. It makes no sense. And it took a long time to realize that if I wanted it to sound bombastic and crazy, I had to play very little and be careful to not show my entire palette of colors or range of playing techniques.

Did you ever come up with something better than what you’d planned?

Yeah, that happened in the piece by George [Lewis]. I was trying my best to play what he wrote, and he thought it sounded pretty good. Then I started fiddling around on something totally different and we realized that was the exact texture that needed to happen at the end of the piece. It wasn’t even written at the end of the piece, we’d never talked about it, I was just noodling and we ended up making it the whole last section.

Alex Mincek, “Flutter”; Mariel Roberts (Cello)

As a proponent of collaborative projects, what is it you particularly enjoy about them as opposed to working solo?

That connection to other human beings is what makes music so exciting to me—it makes contemporary music particularly, endlessly enjoyable. I can’t imagine my life without that aspect. That’s why I knew I would never be a classical musician in an orchestra playing Mozart over and over.

In the piece “Spinner,” George Lewis evokes the Greek myth of The Three Fates. Is that idea at the front of your mind as you play?

The stories behind the music aren’t at the front of my mind when I play. The pieces all evoke intense emotional responses. In particular, when a piece is very physically demanding like Eric Wubbels’, it forces you to feel the feeling the piece evokes. Performing a piece like that puts you in an incredibly specific mental state.

That’s also true of the Davi∂ Franzson piece—it transforms my perception as I play it because it’s so immersive. That is another one of my draws to that type of music, I like to be immersed when I play. Those experiences for me are quite transcendent. I get beyond myself, my body, any ties to what’s going on outside that performance. It’s incredibly important to me to have that experience. So the specifics of why a piece was written or the way it was written maybe aren’t on the forefront of my mind, but the atmosphere of the piece is extremely pervasive as I’m playing it.

Before your last album, you mentioned that you feel people don’t listen to entire albums anymore. Do you still feel that’s true, has that changed at all with this CD?

I still feel that’s generally true, but I still tried to balance it like it’s a concert that I would want to sit through. I feel like people generally don’t sit down and listen to albums, rather they pick and choose which song they want to hear. ¶