If artificial intelligence must necessarily lead to a robot revolt, it’s safe to assume that we’ll be taking cover from a swarm of sex-bots, not T-1000s, statistically-speaking. Whether its streaking automatons or homicidal cyborgs, we can rely on cellist Michael Nicolas to be our Schwarzenegger. His peacemaker is "Transitions," a stylistically manifold collection of works at the intersection of cello and electronics, and one that makes a strong case for their interdependence — and nonviolent collaboration.
Appointed the new cellist for string quartet Brooklyn Rider at the top of 2016, and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, the New Yorker brings an omnivorous musical appetite to the track list of his dud-free “solo” recording debut, reaching as far back as Mario Davidovsky’s frenzied Synchronisms No. 3 (1964). A superb technician and sensual phrase sculptor, Nicolas emits a reassuring I-got-this vibe in live settings — apparent here as he traverses erratic timbral and character left-turns in conversation with the sine tones and percussive spatter of Davidovsky’s tape.
Leaping ahead to 2015 for a David Fulmer commission, Speak of the Spring, the soloist settles at the upper register of his instrument with a most gossamer touch before cloning (i.e. multi-tracking) himself up to 13 times as the piece careens into a digital glitch-sounding spasm of snap-pizzicati.
Annie Gosfield’s overtone playground, Four Roses, is captivating in its cavorting, vision-warping groove between de-tuned piano (via sampler and keyboard) and scordatura cello. Nicolas’s microtonal chops are on display as well for Gosfield’s …and a Five-Spot, a similarly groove-oriented nugget living in more sinister landscape, where whirly tubes dare to tread.
The steampunk vision of the future arrives with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Transitions, in which the technological divide is between a centuries old stringed instrument and, say, a typewriter. The cellist here conjures the mechanical without the aid of electronics, tapping the fingerboard in steady rhythms or swiping white noise from the strings before diving back into the expressive, “human” interludes, with man and machine progressively infiltrating each other’s material across the piece.
Nicolas burns brightest on the "Transitions" closer, Jaime E. Oliver De Rosa’s flexura, which hurtles the cellist through power-drill-on-strings-like, pummeling glissandi, and running for his life from a close-canon harpsichordist. The sound spatialization on the part of label Sono Luminus, and its riveting delivery by the human in this final track are perhaps our best chance at placating our eventual AI overlords.
- Doyle Armbrust