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Preview: Avant-garde cellist Frances Marie-Uitti at St. James Episcopal

Recalculating: explorations in sound

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Call Frances-Marie Uitti a cellist if you want, but she’s really more of an explorer. In her quest to map new sonic territories, she has acquired unusual instruments, invented new ones, and devised a strikingly alternative technique for playing the ordinary cello.

Like any good explorer, Uitti is a collector of specimens. Her assemblage of instruments, which she calls a “beastearium,” includes a Stroh cello that has one string and a Victrola-style amplifier horn, “wonderful for lyrical melodies from Mars,” she says in an e-mail.

Less beastly is her 1920s-era aluminum cello, with a mid-range sound like a saxophone. She also has cello-like instruments from Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Bhutan, where she works to support traditional and contemporary Bhutanese music through the Bhutan Music Foundation.

Uitti is perhaps best known for her dramatic two-bow method, in which one bow plays on top of the strings as usual and the other mirrors it, playing the strings from below. She developed this technique because she wanted to create complex textures and harmonies from a single instrument.

Why not play a cello duet? Besides yielding a distinct sound, “the interlocking unity of thought from one performer is very different from two almost-linked players,” Uitti says. Her Richmond program will include some works that utilize this technique.

Uitti eagerly invites musicians working in electronic music on her expeditions. She is delighted by the possibilities inherent in mixing the rich wood-and-hair resonance of a cello with the precise sounds of electronics. Electroacoustic music is “a fascinating world to explore, and I feel privileged to work with composers who are writing for the medium,” she says.

In her view, machine-made sounds open new worlds for musicians’ ears, challenging them to recreate what they hear. After player pianos were made to produce music once thought unplayable by humans, she says, pianists learned to replicate what they heard.

In Richmond, she’ll play three works for cello and electronics: “The Song of Songs” by Karen Tanaka, “San” by Du Yun and “Age of Aircraft” by Ken Ueno, which she describes as “a huge mass of sound with intricate colorings inside the monolith.” Uitti isn’t content to simply play what others have written for her instrument. She has been actively involved in designing and building equipment and instruments that utilize electronics to extend her performance capabilities. For example, she designed a resonator for the late Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, her friend and teacher of both music and yoga. “It vibrates in a particular way that reminded him of a Tibetan drone he once imagined,” she says.

She has also designed a six-string electric cello, but perhaps her most ambitious project is a stringless sensor instrument that’s designed to be held and bowed like a cello—with one or two bows—but which uses 12 sensor “strings” that control sound, video and light commands. Developers at the University of California Berkeley worked with Uitti on the instrument, which is in its final stages.

Also on the program is “Hommage à John Cage” by György Kurtág and Scelsi’s “Ygghur,” a contemplative work that calls for the cello to be retuned so all the strings play the same note. Listeners are led on an exploratory journey around this center, with the four voices of the strings “shifting and shading the path,” Uitti says.

Uitti will give a pre-concert talk about working with composers, including Cage and Jonathan Harvey. The concert will also feature guitarist Ayman Fanous playing improvisations with Uitti. Fanous, who lives in Washington, D.C., frequently brings musicians to town for programs that are off the map of the standard Richmond concert experience.

Frances-Marie Uitti performs with Ayman Fanous on Saturday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at St. James’s Episcopal Church, 1205 W. Franklin St. Lecture at 5:30 p.m. 355-1779. Tickets are $10-15.

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