By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Difficult Grace, the new album from acclaimed cellist Seth Parker Woods, got its title long before the iconoclastic musician committed to recording it as an audio release. Woods, currently on the faculty of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, originally commissioned the title piece from Fredrick Gifford for a planned live touring show. The program would blend musical performance with lush electronic soundscapes, vivid video projections, vibrant spoken word, and dance—and a vocal performance by Woods himself. An early version of the show—with the same title but in a very different form—was debuted in Seattle in February 2020, less than a month before the Covid-19 pandemic parked Woods at home for the duration of the ensuing shutdowns.
As it so happens, those words—difficult, meaning “tricky, hard, and complicated,” plus grace, meaning “finesse, charm, elegance, and beauty”—would come to describe Woods’ own personal process during the long months that followed. The words have also become an increasingly apt characterization of the genre-sculpting, ever-evolving project that goes by that name.
Difficult Grace, described as “a concert-length tour de force,” is scheduled, at press time, to be unveiled on April 15, both in a digital format and an elaborately packaged CD release. Woods will perform the piece several times throughout 2023. But first, he’s got the world premiere of Freida Abtan’s My Heart Is a River—a piece for cello, electronics, and film—taking place (at press time) in a few days at Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9 performance venue.
Contacted on a busy rehearsal day, Woods takes a break to talk about Difficult Grace, and the sometimes-surprising path the impending album release has taken. As is the case with many musicians who were sidelined during the pandemic, what would have been a busy year came to a crashing halt. Looking back now, Woods sees that while many elements of the lockdown were painful, others carried a peculiar blessing.
“The lockdown,” Woods now reflects, “actually gave me a chance to breathe for a while, to recalibrate and refocus my trajectory, to reprioritize where I was artistically, creatively, and personally. It allowed me to ask what I was trying to do, and if those projects ahead of me were still the things I wanted to be working on.”
Among those projects was the suddenly sidelined Difficult Grace, and, as it turned out, the whole pandemic experience would ultimately provide the perfect cocoon in which the complex venture would transform into something that never would have happened otherwise. “Difficult Grace, as it is now, is completely different from how I was originally thinking about it, back then,” he says. “It’s a stretch and a departure for me. The lockdown gave me a chance to reimagine what music and art could be, through mediated platforms, in a way I hadn’t really explored too much before that.”
It was something of a positive time, it seems.
“Well, yes, once I got over the existential crisis of it all,” Woods confirms with a laugh, explaining that what the isolation of Covid did provide for him—and countless other creatives desperate to be sharing their work with the world—was a rapidly expanding landscape in which virtual streaming platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live were more than just acceptable and necessary. They had become the only available space in which to play.
“Once I started to move beyond the awfulness of the pandemic, I began to think, ‘Maybe there is something I can do here,’” he says. “‘Maybe I can bring together the creative teams I’ve worked with in the past and find ways to use this new space, this virtual space, to really be able to say something in a way I probably couldn’t have done in the traditional concert-hall setting.’”
Those possibilities applied equally to the bold, experimental new compositions that Woods is always exploring and the classical repertoire he continues to love and still sometimes performs. “This new world offered opportunities to rethink everything,” he says, “from how we present Bach or Schumann or Rachmaninoff, along with all of this new work that’s existing now, made by people who are creating amazing music in this specific moment in time.” In the early stages of the pandemic, Woods began to produce a number of short films, which led to an explosion of creative energy. “Out of that,” he continues, “came a revamping of the entire Difficult Grace show, with lighting and costuming and stage settings and platforms, plus the whole dance component.”
With the exceptions of Alvin Singleton’s Argoru II (written in the ’70s for the cellist academic Ronald Crutcher), Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Calvary Ostinato (composed in 1973 as part of his Lamentations: Black/Folk Song Suite), and Nathalie Joachim’s Dam Mwen Yo, every composition on the project was commissioned or co-created by Woods. Joachim’s The Race is among those commissioned pieces, and she appears as a vocalist on Dam Mwen Yo.
“They weren’t originally meant to be paired together in this way,” acknowledges Woods. “When I approached them from a curator’s point of view, I saw how they could fit together. They work, they really do, and it really is a journey, you know, all of the different stories that are being told here.”
The most recent work in the project is Ted Hearne’s multi-part cycle Freefucked, in collaboration with New York poet Kemi Alabi. One of those movements, titled A Wedding, or What We Unlearned from Descartes, would eventually become the first single from Difficult Grace, the album. Once performance spaces reopened again, Woods took the new version out on the road, a year or two delayed but all the more exciting for the new changes. And that is when he began to see how Difficult Grace could be transformed yet again—this time into a recorded audio project.
wanted to find a way to archive all of this, these four years of work, so it can exist beyond the stage,” he says, adding that for a project like this, one painstakingly designed to be seen and experienced, translating it to an audio experience was no small challenge.
“Some of these pieces have existed with film or dance for so long. Some have existed right beside the visual works of painters Jacob Lawrence and Barbara Earl Thomas, with a very intentional cinematic feel connecting it all together,” Woods says. “Figuring out how to create this very immersive sonic experience—not just settling for a stereo, right channel–left channel experience, but to create depth beyond that sphere—that was not terribly easy.”
The undertaking was, to put it mildly, a lot.
“Oh, it was huge!” Woods says, ticking off some of the things that needed to be done. “Remastering all the electronics, thinking about things like ‘spatialization’ and where we put the sound, asking myself, ‘How do I produce it and craft it for the best-case listening experience, as well as the worst-case,’ like if someone is listening to it on their iPhone. And then there was all of the packaging for the actual physical album, to be able to imbue that with a lot of the concert footage and the artwork inside of that booklet. I know we are in the stage where so many are just doing digital releases and streaming, but I wanted to make sure that people who do buy the physical version get this really beautiful object that captures a lot of the visuals around it.”
The primary intention of that “beautiful object,” he admits, is in part to give listeners a way to experience some of what happens in the concert hall with Difficult Grace, and also to encourage them to try and see the project live.
Working in the studio, Woods has come to see, was a bit like working in an audio laboratory. During that period of experimentation, his ideas began to shift yet again, slightly re-envisioning how Difficult Grace would function onstage in its post-recording existence.
“Working in the studio, it puts you on the clock,” he says, “forcing you to think about what you are doing, to zero-in and capture the whole piece in the studio, and then take it back to the stage with everything new you’ve discovered.” Among the discoveries Woods made was a new approach to his rarely heard singing voice. “Because in this case,” he explains, “since—with the Ted Hearne cycle—I’m both cellist and singer, being in the studio gave me a chance to work out all of the little vocal things I may have already been doing onstage, but that I want to perfect even further. It was actually quite nice, having that time.”
Singing, Woods admits, is not something he has done a lot of as a professional.
“This is very much my ‘vocal debut,’” he says, laughing again. “That’s why I say this album is a stretch and a departure. Most people, when they come see the show, don’t know that I’ll be singing. It’s something that I was truly, truly afraid of. I’m not trying to be a Leontyne Price or a Bob Dylan. I’m just trying to be myself, and capture as best I can the spirit and ethos of the words of Kemi Alabi, coupled with the sonic world that Ted Hearne has created.”
When Woods performs this portion of the show live, it’s just a stool and a microphone—and him. “My cello sits in the background as a silhouette,” he says. “There was a version where I did try to perform parts of it on cello while singing, but it was impossible. So in live performance, I just deliver the vocal parts, while you hear the recorded version of me playing the cello. There’s a bit of a shock factor to it, for the audience, that I kind of enjoy. It’s quite powerful to stand in a wide-open space, with no cello to prop me up or hide behind, and to be exposed in a very intimate way.”
Asked if he is having fun with this new evolution as a performer, Woods is silent for a few seconds, before laughing out loud. “I don’t know. Yes. No,” he says. “What I do know is, as an artist, I’m always looking for ways to express myself as organically as possible, to free myself, and in this case, I get to use the very first instrument I had, which is my voice. So, sure. Yes. It is fun, but it’s very scary. And I love that.”