No Strings Attached: Star cellist virtuosa Frances-Marie Uitti returns to the University of Chicago

Frances-Marie Uitti, courtesy of the artist
In Frances-Marie Uitti’s hands, the cello is anything but staid. For starters, she plays with two bows. The Chicago-born, Amsterdam-residing cellist developed her radical extended technique while living in Rome in the ’70s. Frequently improvising alone, she grew obsessed with chordal playing. After experimenting unsuccessfully with a specially-commissioned curved bow that only allowed adjacent strings to be played simultaneously, she began developing her distinctive underbow-overbow technique. It’s no surprise, then, that Uitti has become known as an experimenter, as well as a masterful interpreter of 20th century art music. That combination has long been appreciated by the Univerity of Chicago-based Renaissance Society, which is now hosting her for a fourth performance, this time on November 16th in Bond Chapel in conjunction with Mexican conceptual artist Francis Alys’ exhibit “Bolero.”

If Uitti seems at home with the avant-garde, it’s because she is. Her legendary working relationship with the reclusive and enigmatic Italian composer Giancinto Scelsi is but one cause of her high profile. One night after a performance, Scelsi approached her and asked “Do you play well?” His oeuvre, focused on single pitches and their myriad microtonal permutations, demanded talent and intensity on the part of its performers; Uitti proved up to the task, inspiring several major works written with her performance in mind. Almost certainly, some of them will be on the bill for her upcoming Renaissance Society performance. In addition to being Scelsi’s foremost interpreter, exponent, and, after his 1988 death, archivist, Uitti has collaborated or performed most of the 20th century’s leading experimentalists, from John Cage to Iannis Xenakis.

However, Uitti stands on her own. She’s wowed nearly every major critic who’s tackled her, and one of them, Welsh poet and sometime reviewer Paul Griffith, collaborated with her for the piece “If there is still time,” a work best described by its subtitle, “Scenes for speaking voice and cello.” Uitti is also a fixture on the circuit of European music festivals and symphonic master classes. Notably, she bridges the division between composed and improvised music. If academic approval is your standard for competence, consider her massive new text on contemporary cello technique published by UC Berkeley, where she designed a new, stringless electronic cello for even greater control over her sound.

That sound lives up to its advertised diversity, alternately soaring and keening, often simultaneously. Some critics have compared her solo performances to those of a string quartet. However, in acknowledging her polyphonic mastery, this praise misses its deeply individual character. And that’s where her appeal lies, not in a blathering string of accomplishments.
Bond Chapel, 1050 E. 59th St. November 16. Sunday, 8pm. (773)702-8670. Free.