A recording unorthodox even within the wide-ranging context of ECM New Series, “there is still time” is subtitled “Scenes for speaking voice and cello”, which may be as close as one can come to a succinct description of its contents. The disc is a premiere on several levels and provides the first public evidence of the artistic collaboration between American cellist Frances-Marie Uitti and British writer Paul Griffiths. “This is a cherished project that has been close to my heart for many years,” says Uitti, “and I celebrate that it has found its rightful home.”
Paul Griffiths is well-known as a writer on music, a novelist, and, latterly a librettist (see Elliott Carter’s “What Next?” and Tan Dunn’s “Marco Polo”). This is his first recording as a performer, reading his own texts, yet “there is still time” cannot be consigned merely to the “spoken word” category, nor does it fit into the current vogue for “audio books.” It is more than this. The original impulse for the project came from Frances-Marie Uitti, the extraordinary cellist whose musical sensitivity and innovations in extended technique have inspired composers from Kurtág to Cage, from Andriessen to Ferneyhough. “There is still time” is also Uitti’s New Series debut.
On this recording, music and speaking voice work in partnership. “It’s as if there are two people, “ says Griffiths, “and you’re listening to them both. And there’s no background and no foreground.” Uitti notes that “spoken text and music can clash. They are two different media going out at the same time. So: how do you make a musical statement that is not an accompaniment? That was the challenge.”
“There is still time” has a long history. In 1997, Uitti came to New York to lead a festival based around the music of Giacinto Scelsi, the reclusive Italian composer with whom she had worked closely, and in whose rediscovery she had played a significant role. Paul Griffiths, then a music critic for the New York Times, interviewed her in this context.
In further exchanges between musician and writer, Uitti said that she’d been reading and enjoying Griffiths’ novel, “The Lay of Sir Tristram”. Did he have any material she could use for a piece for voice and cello? Griffiths gave her part of a work-in-progress that had been preoccupying him for years, a work in which all the words are derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Ophelia’s speeches provide the entire word-stock for “there is still time”. Shakespeare only gives Ophelia a vocabulary of 482 words. Paul Griffiths uses these, in fresh permutations, and with very remarkable fluency, to create something new.
In an introductory note in the CD booklet Griffiths (and Ophelia) give a foretaste of the process in action:
“Words and music. Two in some chamber. Before and now. Speech and play. Composed and done as it comes. That time when you and I were we. The shaking, and then the memory. To speak of all that in no more than these words. And for music to tell what it will.”
The unidentified protagonist of “there is still time” is able to say a lot. Griffiths: “What was interesting to me was the idea of having somebody kind of imprisoned, unable to use any other words, and trying to express herself, but constantly knocking against the wall. Somebody who is trying to articulate her state of mind as clearly as she possibly can, but constantly being constrained. Obviously there’s an element of game involved, but there’s a psychological element as well…”
Uitti responds to the text, its repetitions (almost like ‘themes’), finding their counterpart in music that is structured, but includes elements of improvisation: “It’s like having a tree,” she says, “wherein the leaves blow.”
Working primarily within one “slightly melancholic” modal tuning to create a harmonic unity through the work, she realizes a quiet but concentrated chamber music of real emotional power. Frances Marie-Uitti plays three different instruments, including an electric cello, on the recording, “to add timbral contrast as well as pitch contrast” and also makes discrete use of her revolutionary two-bows technique. “But simplicity, a minimalistic quality and sometimes almost a whispering music were called for. Complexity was not an option, without waging war with the words.”
Born in Chicago to Finnish parents, Frances-Marie Uitti currently lives in Amsterdam. Her pioneering instrumental techniques have transformed the cello into a polyphonic instrument capable of sustained chordal (two, three and four part) and intricate multivoiced writing. Using two bows in one hand, Uitti can access simultaneous cross accents, multiple timbres, contrasting four-voiced dynamics and, as Liberation wrote, “convey the unbelievable sensation of an entire string quartet.”
György Kurtág dedicated his “Ligatura-Message to Frances-Marie” to Uitti (see “Musik für Streichinstrumente”) and other composers who have used her technique in works dedicated to her include Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi, Louis Andriessen, Jonathan Harvey, Richard Barrett, and Sylvano Busotti. She has also worked closely with John Cage, Elliott Carter, Iannis Xenakis, Brian Ferneyhough and many others. Uncommonly for an interpreter of “classical” music and modern reputation Uitti is also highly respected as an improviser. Improvising associates have included guitarist Elliott Sharp, bassist Mark Dresser and computer musician Joel Ryan.
The author of many texts on music and performance practice, Uitti recently put the finishing touches to “Contemporary Cello Techniques” due for publication from the University of California Press. The book charts all developments of the cello from 1915 to the present and also includes composer interviews, scores and more.
“The result [of her technique], with more layers and niches of sound than we expect from one string instrument is simultaneously earthly and unearthly. What seems a radical idea manifests itself as music of haunting beauty in Uitti’s hands” – Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times
Born in Bridgend, Wales, Paul Griffiths has been internationally recognised as one of the most astute writers on music for more than 30 years. His articles were first published in the Musical Times in 1971. After a period as editor of the 20th century articles in the New Grove, he has been chief critic of The Times of London (1982-92), and The New Yorker (1992-6), and wrote regularly for The New York Times (1996-2003). His first book, “A Concise History of Modern Music”, was published in 1978, and has been translated into many languages. Other books on music include studies of Boulez, Cage, Messiaen, Ligeti, Maxwell Davies, Bartók, Stravinsky, Barraqué, and the string quartet. Among his fictional writings are novels— “Myself and Marco Polo” ( winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize), and “The Lay of Sir Tristram”—and several librettos, including “Marco Polo” (Tan Dun, 1996) and “What Next?” (Elliott Carter, 1999). He has given lectures and courses on various musical topics and on libretto writing, invited by institutions ranging from the Munich Biennale to Harvard University. In 2002 he was made a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He lives in Manorbier (Wales) and New York.
Concurrently with the release of “there is still time”, Penguin Books issues Paul Griffiths’ newest book, the monumental Penguin Companion to Classical Music, an encyclopaedia that addresses more than 1000 years of western music. Simon Rattle describes it as “an instant classic”, Daniel Barenboim calls it as “a very necessary book…extremely accessible to all readers”, and Pierre Boulez writes that “Composers great and small stand revealed here in a gallery of portaits, each a stimulating introduction that also offers fresh insights and approaches.”
CD package includes 28 booklet with complete texts, notes and poetry by Paul Griffiths and photography by Roberto Masotti.