By Greg Cahil | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Inbal Segev is known as “a cellist with something to say,” as Gramophone recently opined. But beyond her tone and technical mastery, she also has plenty to say about the role a modern string artist can play in nurturing new music. Her commitment to that cause can be heard on her recent album, Dance (Avie), which pairs a passionate version of Elgar’s timeless Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, with Anna Clyne’s scintillating five-movement cello concerto Dance, a modern work that bristles with sweeping melodies and bold sonorities. Both were recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Marin Alsop.
Now, the Israeli-American Segev has launched 20 for 2020, an ambitious commissioning project that challenges 20 contemporary composers to create chamber works for a music-video project and Avie album that will form a musical diary of the pandemic era and the social unrest that swept the nation last year. The recordings will be released in four groups of five new works; the first was released in June. Among the featured composers are Christopher
Cerrone, Vijay Iyer, Angélica Negrón, and Segev herself.
You have shown your commitment to new music through such recordings as Dance, your association with other new-music advocates, and your collaboration with New Music Connect [a program that connects composers with new-music supporters]. Why is it important to promote new works for the cello?
Art needs to move forward, otherwise it will die. In fact, I believe that playing new music informs our interpretation of the canon. We have so many new ways to make music now, whether with electronics, or by synthesizing different cultures and musical styles in ways that haven’t yet been explored. Art imitates life, so new developments like globalization and technology are fascinating to us as musicians, as well as people. On a personal level, I love interacting with living composers and helping to “give birth,” so to speak, to new works.
What’s it like working with contemporary composers like Anna Clyne?
When I started commissioning new works after dedicating most of my life to interpreting the established masterworks, I realized that my role as a performer had not changed. It’s just that now I have an advantage, because I live at the same time—and sometimes in the same place—as the composers with whom I collaborate, so I have a better understanding of their music. I also realized that even the composers we idolize probably sometimes changed their minds, even in the music scores we regard as holy. They probably listened to the musicians who premiered their works and then changed some of the dynamics, phrase marks, tempi, and even notes on the fly, because they were practical. And I find that the best composers today are also very practical. They write what sounds good, and they work with musicians to make things sound even better. Nothing is purely theoretical.
How did the pandemic inform your decision to launch 20 for 2020?
After seeing all concerts being cancelled for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic, and working through the stages of denial, anger, and acceptance, my husband [Thomas Brener, a founding member of New Music USA’s New Music Connect] and I started thinking of ways to make something of all the empty months, so as to keep creating and not just be sitting at home. I also realized how many of my colleagues were without work and needing money, so this was also, and perhaps more importantly, a way to get our ecosystem going again.
Why did you select this diverse group of composers at this time?
I spent quite some time listening to living composers and selecting the ones that spoke to me—the ones I felt had unique voices. Initially, I reached out to composers I had worked with already and admired—friends of mine. Then came the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. After all the events of the summer, it was clear that the time had come for a reckoning with racism of all kinds, so I wanted to include composers whose voices are not heard enough, although they deserve to be heard. I also wanted to include composers from different backgrounds to see if they interpreted the year 2020 in different ways.
How much input will you typically have with the composers?
As much or as little as they decide. With some of the composers there is a lot of back and forth, whereas others just send me a completed work. I go with the flow—each composer has their own way of working. Chris Cerrone, for example, asked me to record an excerpt of the work he wrote. He then used this to build the rest of the piece, as a part of his process. Angélica Negrón recorded street sounds from Puerto Rico and incorporated them into her piece. As she was traveling, I didn’t get the work until she’d finished it, when it was a delight to receive. One aspect of this project is the exploration of different sonorities. Here the cello is joined by a variety of different instruments that are traditionally not paired with it. The instruments include, among others, the bandoneon, tabla, marimba, electronics, voice, and saxophone.
What message do you hope these pieces will impart to listeners in regard to furthering their understanding of the human condition?
It is for listeners to decide what messages they hear in the music, but for me it is fascinating to see how differently each of the 20 composers experienced this odd year. Some thrived, some felt anguish, and some felt confined and let creativity be their outlet. Others were lucky enough to travel, and their music felt free.
Where did you draw the energy for such an intensive project?
These personal and professional relationships are what kept me going this year (and a half, but who’s counting!). We have been very isolated all this time, so even though I met only a few of the composers in person, speaking to most of them over FaceTime, it meant a lot to me when I was able to meet and rehearse with a number of musicians in preparation for the recording. I was really able to feed on that energy that is so vital to us musicians. It is very difficult to create in a vacuum, and I am extremely fortunate to have had these collaborators and friendships in my life. I am very excited to share these recordings with you—and here’s to a better 2021!