Cellist Joanna Gutowska was born in Poland and is currently based in London. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music there, and in 2020, she published her Ph.D thesis, Kaija Saariaho’s cello works as an example of new qualities of sound and expression, at the Krzysztof Penderecki Academy of Music in Kraków.

This has led to the release of her first solo album, Saariaho: Works for Cello. It’s a real labor of love; she even painted the cover. It includes versions of five of the composer’s pieces: Petals, Spins and Spells, Près, 7 Papillons for Cello, and Neiges for 8 Cellos, on which Gutowska overdubs all the lines herself.

It’s a head-spinningly beautiful album. Petals, which opens the disc, creeps in at the mere threshold of audibility, taking nearly a minute to fully arrive, and when it does it sounds like the world’s largest hornet is whirring at you with implacable fury. After a moment, a melody begins to cohere, but as Gutowska is expressing one thing on one string, a second string is humming ominously, almost an errant frequency. Even when the music comes together, it’s full of sudden lurches and yelps, and quiet passages filled with a thrilling tension as you wait for the next eruption.

The three-part Près, which runs just over 19 minutes in total, is equally startling. It’s scored for solo cello and electronics, and manifests as if she’s playing while someone performs dub trickery on her instrument, swathing it in deep reverb or pulling a frequency off and letting it float away. At the same time, a second voice appears, neither harmonizing with her nor contesting the sonic space but simply existing in a kind of haunted simultaneity. It requires striking an incredibly subtle balance, and must be heard on headphones to be truly appreciated, unless you’ve got speakers bigger than yourself and very indulgent neighbors.

The five-part, roughly 15-minute Neiges for 8 Cellos (there’s also a version written for 12 cellos) closes the album. I’ll admit to losing count when trying to separate the various instrumental voices as I listened. There are definitely a few points where all eight cellos are playing, but just as often it feels like only three or four. They are doing different things, though. Some are plucked, pinging and booming; some are almost violin-like; others sound like giant zippers going up and down; and every once in a while they all come together in a giant cloud of celestial harmonies. But that doesn’t last, it’s like when you’re walking through the snow and suddenly it all whirls around you like one of those glass booths where you try to catch flying dollar bills, and then it’s over before you’ve even gathered lunch money. My favorite part of all, though, comes about two and a half minutes into the fourth movement — three or four cellos begin playing a descending plucked figure, and another one snaps one of its strings with incredible force, just a single thwap! against the neck. Then the tremor passes, as quickly as it arrived.

I don’t know anything about Kaija Saariaho’s music — I’m pretty sure this is my first encounter with it. But this album is fantastic. The digital version is already available from various places, but the CD doesn’t come out until August 19; you can pre-order it from Presto Music.

I sent Ms. Gutowska five questions via email, which she was kind enough to answer. The Q&A is below.

Phil Freeman

How did you first encounter Kaija Saariaho’s music, and what about her work made you want to study her and it in such depth?

A very good friend of mine who is a composer sent me Saariaho’s music as an example of something interesting, almost extravagant! I was at the beginning of my studies at the Academy of Music in Krakow, and I was just entering a world of contemporary classical music. It seemed to be from a different dimension and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to think about it. I was definitely curious! I remember asking myself: is it still a single cello? Or is she mixing it with other instruments or computer samples? I couldn’t wait to check the score!

Have you had much interaction with her? Did she have any input into this album? (I don’t know how classical music works — when recording music by a living composer, is it customary to invite them to be part of the process?)

It’s definitely not customary although it’s always good to get as familiar with a composer and their ideas as possible. I had some but very little interaction with Kaija Saariaho — she, especially in the recent couple of years, became a very busy composer. I worked with a friend of hers, her “main cellist-consultant,” Anssi Karttunen. Saariaho worked with him on all her works for cello. He helped me to understand more of her musical world, how she’s imagining the sound and the composition process.

The piece Spins and Spells is described as for cello with scordatura. Can you explain what this means for someone with no technical musical knowledge? I understand that it’s an alternate tuning method, so what did it entail? How was the cello retuned, and what effect did it have on the sound?

Cello is tuned in the interval of perfect fifths, with the strings being called C, G, D, A (you can observe notes in between: C – d- e- f- G – a- b- c- D – e- f- g- A). Notes had to be changed for Bb – G – C# – A. Now imagine that you copy a text to your computer and your keyboard suddenly switches to a different language. Now the letters that are usually in a certain place have moved to different corners, but you still write your text as if you were using your previous setting of the language. This is what happens when you change intervals between the strings — you still play notes as if they were written for “normal” tuning, but they sound different because in fact, you are playing different notes. An additional thing is a change of colour — if you “loosen” the string, making it sound lower, the colour will change to slightly “darker.”

The piece Neiges is for eight cellos, all of which you recorded. How did that work? Did you record the primary melody line first and then fill in the background and harmony parts after, or construct a foundation and then lay the melody on top?

That one was a challenge! One of the biggest difficulties of this piece is rhythm/playing together at the same time. There were many trials and errors for this before the actual recording day to check which method would work best. With technical help from my partner, who is also a composer and is far more efficient with computer programmes for music, I ended up designing a click track to which I played all eight voices. Each click track was designed in a way that included all the musical ideas — slowing down, getting faster and following my idea of phrasing. The sound engineer suggested that I record each voice from a different chair position in the room, so the listener gets also the acoustic impression.

How did Près, which is written for cello and live electronics, work? Were you adding the electronics live while you played, or after, and were they controlled via laptop, a system of foot pedals, or in some other way?

The electronic part for this piece is designed by the composer and a performer is expected to “realise” the sound sample with a pedal in an adequate moment. At least that’s the idea when the piece is performed live. For the recording I had to actually learn [the] electronic samples well enough to be able to “hear” them in my head while recording only my part in order to include and adjust all the musical details. The electronic samples had to be added later.

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