With a ghostly yellow object centered within a stark black background, the cover of Petits Artéfacts hints at the album’s overarching theme. The yellow image is a digitally manipulated flower: two contrasting perspectives are layered atop one another, a human-made distortion that presents a new view of this otherwise ordinary object. The concept of deconstructing material for artistic ends informs most of the of the repertoire on Nick Photinos’ debut solo recording. Photinos, cellist and co-Artistic Director of the Grammy-award winning Eighth Blackbird, expertly reflects this spirit of manipulation throughout Artéfacts’ collection of solo, chamber, and electroacoustic works.
The album opens with its namesake, Florent Ghys’ “Petits Artéfacts”. Inspired in part by the short songs of late ‘90s punk albums, it’s a multi-movement suite that examines the interactions and relationships between a live performer and digital constructs. In “Game” the cello pans from left to right within an electronic groove influenced by 8-bit video game music. Digital gurgles and glitches define “Cuisine” and “Family” while the haunting “Factory,” the only movement composed for solo cello, is a single-line melody informed by computational algorithms. “Information” turns an Iranian weather report into musical material with Photinos playing along to the reporter’s vocal inflections. “Flowers” layers multiple tracks of cello lines into a dense texture of voices. Each movement suggests a new musical idea but never exhausts it, culminating in a series of characteristic episodes that tastefully unite analog and digital elements.
While modern music can share chaotic ties with rhythm (the maddening syncopation of New Complexity, for example), selected works from Artéfacts explores this relationship with charm and quirk. David Lang’s “undanceable” is a minor key tango rearranged as lumbering choreography as the start and stop rhythms feel more akin to a limp than any dance. “Alpha”, a notably more abstract work by Pascal Le Boeuf, is a study on ego and dominance between Photinos and percussionist Doug Perkins. Primal drum set rhythms battle a driving cello melody in this frenetic composition brimming with drama. “stuttered chant”, another work from Lang delivers a rhapsodic melody segmented into disjunct rhythms, a beautiful effect reminiscent of a skipping cd. Each work explores a delightful sense of havoc regarding time—its disassembling, reorganization, and reconstruction—without ever feeling self-indulgent.
Considering how successful the album is with its focus on shorter works, it seems odd to say that Bryce Dessner’s “Lewisburg” ends all too quickly. “Lewisburg” is an extension of sorts to a larger composition Dessner wrote for Eighth Blackbird, and while it’s a fantastic technical tour-de-force inspired by murder ballads and Appalachian fiddle music, it feels a little too secluded on its own on the record. Similar to Ghys’ set, Andrew Norman’s “Sonnets” is a collection of short dialogues (“little songs,” to invoke the Italian root of the word sonnet) between cello and piano. Ranging from the breathless (“my tongue-tied muse”) to the bombastic (“so far from variation”), “Sonnets” stands as the most intimate listening experience on the album. Angélica Negrón’s evocative “Panorama” closes out the recording. Negrón is excellent when working within the scope of electroacoustic music, and her processed electronics blend eerily well with the cello’s mournful tone.
The standout works on Artéfacts contain ties to history and stories, compositions based upon retold accounts. Molly Joyce’s “Sit and Dance” builds layers of cello melodies atop of a ground bass (a perpetually repeating bass line) taken from the 17th century. The recontextualization of the ground bass amidst the modern lines make it all the more haunting, almost like a ghost murmuring from the Baroque era. David T. Little’s “and the sky was still there” was originally written for electronics and violin, here presented for the first time arranged for cello by Photinos. The music includes audio of a woman telling her story of being discharged from the army over their Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The fusion of her text with melancholy melodies and the electronic soundscape is chilling. “and the sky was still there” artfully evokes the sentiments of the text–from sorrow to catharsis–without ever feeling too obvious.
Photinos’ interpretations throughout Artéfacts communicate the gravity of the material. Every note from his cello, from rhapsodic melodies to violent pizzicatos, is conveyed with a sense of clarity and dedication to each composition. Photinos shines as a soloist and collaborator throughout the recording, yet his playing never descends to egotistical showboating or overly aggressive virtuosic pandering. As a new music curator and performer, Petits Artéfacts represents a bold solo debut from one of the most notable artists in contemporary music today.
The sensibility of this album—its packaging, aesthetic, and musical selection—reflect the emerging generation of new music composers and performers who believe in a “post-genre” philosophy of music. Effectively, punk, jazz, indie rock, electronic, and more are all fair game in modern composition. This view isn’t just necessary for the relevancy of the Western art tradition; it’s vital for pushing the music forward towards new and bold directions.
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