Interview in "The Wire"

 

Interview in "The Wire"
by Ben Watson
London, England

Frances-Marie Uitti is a rare breed among classical musicians; her double-bowed textural improvisations place her far outside the usual orbits. Interview by Ben Watson.

Frances-Marie Uitti plays cello. Classically trained, she has played every important modern work for her instrument (over 300 of them) and each year premieres "anything from 25 to 50" new pieces. And unusually for a classical player, she improvises--brilliantly.

The daughter of Finnish parents, Uitti grew up in Chicago. Her father was an inventor and engineer (he designed oil rigs) and encouraged his children to explore the physical world. Uitti remembers lying on the lawn, aged five, looking at Gemini through an enormous telescope. Her father was also a music enthusiast.

"When I was four I wanted a violin. My sister played the violin and my father played and he thought a third violinist might be too much. It really didn't matter so long as it was with the bow. The bow on the string...I was fascinated with that. The cello was a bit too big for me at first, the strings were hard to press down."

Uitti has made a thirst for new sounds central to her career. I wondered where this impulse came from.

"My father would turn on the radio and make my little sister and myself guess -- early Beethoven or late Beethoven, or harder yet, late Haydn. So in a sense that was ear training without knowing it, and also history. We didn't have religion in our house and music was almost a religious language. It fed a source in me, that wordless realm. It was and is the most poignant."

Uitti studied music at school, although she hated their "stupid little tunes" and "very American-style, fourth-rate music". Her fascination with the sound of the bow on string resulted in hours of solitary playing.

"I think that's where things grow best, in a situation which is not exposed to too much light and clamour--i.e., private. Also, playing doesn't have the pressure of logic that composing does. On the page you have to be in your intelligent mind, whereas with improvising your hands don't exist, your body is not there any more, you just do it, it's done somehow--it does you a very immediate kind of imprint in real time."

This focus on bowed sound--an essential building block of Uitti's style--means that she plays with two bows, simultaneously, one on top of the strings, the other underneath; thus splitting the musical atom. The idea came to her in a dream.

"You can make a music that has never been made previously. It opens a world of sound. The under-bow acts in a three dimensional way, as a shadow, on the same string at the same time, a shadow tone. The cello is an instrument with long strings, it's the richest in harmonics, in the sound structure. So when you add another bow you're creating an orchestral situation, depth in sound, as if you enter it--very different from listening to two cellos at once."

Uitti went public with her improvisations in mid-70's Rome, where the avant garde was concentrating on timbre, sheer sound, rather than composition with ready-made quantities. The composer Giancinto Scelsi was central to the quest.

"I've worked on all of Scelsi's pieces. At that time I was developing the two bows and he was the first to hear it. He was extremely encouraging. We became fast friends until his death in 88. He was keen that I explore in depth the more meditative side of myself and to find a music that is really mine. I did follow that advice: many, many hours going deeper and deeper into the complexity of the cello resonances."

In the early 80s, after having helped put Scelsi's papers in order, and with the departure of scene-makers like Frederic Rzewski, Uitti relocated Amsterdam. She has recently released Uitti 2 Bows on Willem Breuker's Dutch BvHaast label. It's a collection of her improvisations recorded over the last ten years, and the complex and brilliant music evidently arrives Uitti's concern with acoustic sound production might appear reactionary and elitist, but it stems less from an ideological commitment to the supposed 'humanity' of non-electric instruments than from sober assessment of physical sonics.

"I think there's a problem with synthesis and the rest of it. The sound source is so innately boring, it is a signal, pure, whereas you get an instrument like a cello with harmonics...and imperfections, because in an infinite number of times you bow the string, he bow hair's never going to have the same imprint, that's what's interesting, all the variants of colour, all that complexity of the imprint. And we're just talking about the sound strata, not even the musical thought that goes in, the musical thought which could be a Richard Barrett or Gyorgy Kurtag piece. At the moment I'm working on this concert with the two bows which becomes an orchestrated cello, or a cello squared, whatever you want to say."

And does that preclude becoming a composer in her own right? "I'm very much interested in writing for other players, and that will happen--it's in the works."

2Bows is out now on BvHaast (through Impetus).