Cellist Mariel Roberts and trumpeter Nate Wooley are leaders in what is called the contemporary music scene. Both will perform on Wednesday at EMPAC on the RPI campus.
Contemporary music is not generally the type of music orchestras or most ensembles play. In fact, some might not even call what Roberts and Wooley play music, at least in the conventional sense.
Rather, it is about sound, its timbre, how it’s produced, how it’s used. Where before tapping on one’s instrument was an effect within the context of scales and intervals, now those effects have expanded to become what Roberts said are “the meats and bones” of a piece.
“The exploration of sound is the language. The movement is away from novelty,” Wooley said. “It all came out of the electronic, noise world. It’s a cross pollination.”
“It’s what makes a sound interesting and compelling,” she said. “The sounds are not traditionally pretty and may even be called ugly. But to us they’re beautiful.”
Not on the page
Creating these sounds takes training. Wooley grew up in jazz with 50 percent of his career still in playing jazz gigs and even the occasional orchestra job. Roberts has degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. But early on, both were curious about what wasn’t on a page of music.
Cellist Mariel Roberts and trumpeter Nate Wooley
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12
WHERE: EMPAC, 110 8th St., Troy
HOW MUCH: $18
MORE INFO: 276-3921, www.empac.rpi/edu/events
“I was always interested in experimental art and experimenting with sound,” Roberts said. “I didn’t think I could do this until I went to Eastman and began playing in the Contemporary Music Ensemble. I loved working with the composers.”
But the school frowned on her desire to indulge in finding a larger sound palette through what is called extended techniques rather than to perfect traditional methods.
“I came to the world by myself,” she said.
For a cellist, these techniques include bowing with pressure to make crunchy sounds, bowing on the cello’s body, tapping, odd harmonics, bent pitches and plucking. Rhythm and silence are often focal elements in the pieces.
Wooley got into sounding untrumpet-like while playing jazz.
“I used to use vocalizations [singing into the trumpet while playing] and some extended techniques that, when I moved to New York City, were seen as circus tricks,” he said. “I spent a lot of time alone and taught myself how to control the sounds.”
He soon discovered that a lot of other people were also interested in extending the instrument’s range through harmonics, multiphonics, which are made by buzzing into the mouthpiece in such a way that two tones are created, the use of amplification, electronic feedback and drones.
“As the movement progressed, people started coming out of the woodwork who’d been doing these things for years,” he said.
Festivals are now more common in North America and throughout Europe, Japan and China, and Roberts and Wooley have participated at many of them.
“The European aesthetic is cleaner and evolved more from the concert hall tradition,” Wooley said. “In the United States, it comes from jazz, rock and noise and is dirtier and has an edge.”
Wooley composes a lot of his own material but Roberts has learned to read different types of notation, each sometimes a creation of a composer.
“Sometimes it’s made-up notation almost like a new language, other times the technique must be explained,” she said. “Looking at a score is very graphic.”
On Wednesday, each musician will play a solo set and then perform an improvisation together. Roberts’ program includes works by Alex Mincek, a cello/whammy pedals piece by Simon Steen-Andersen, and works by Iannis Xenakis, whose pieces are “extremely challenging, almost physically impossible, very noisy but architecturally structured.”
Wooley will play a Ken Gaburo work, an improvisation and one of his own works that uses a synthesizer to set up a pre-recorded drone over which he’ll play sounds that best equate with vowels and consonants from a set of spoken words.
“I’ll use the trumpet as a trumpet with overtones, microtones, and timbres changed through various mutes,” he said. “I’ll lay these down one note pitted against changes in overtones with sounds that will be slow to evolve.”
Roberts released her first disc, “Nonextraneous Sounds” (Innova), in 2012 to high praise and since 2008 has been a member of the Mivos Quartet, an avant-garde group that occasionally plays Beethoven.
Wooley and Roberts said there are not a lot of instrumentalists taking the contemporary road, but audiences are out there because the scale of style and sound is so vast that it’s impossible to not find something to like.
Still classical music is not far away.
“I start every day playing something by Bach,” Roberts said. “It’s so beautiful.”