On grace and entanglement

01.24.14
Joshua Roman
Santa Fe New Mexican (Sound Waves)

By Loren Bienvenu

It would be an oversimplification to call Joshua Roman a leading young classical cellist — because of the word classical. Just a year after receiving his master’s degree in performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Roman landed a professional symphony chair that many serious young cellists would consider the apogee of a career: principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony. He capitalized on the opportunity, taking advantage of the city’s greater musical community (his collaboration with rock band We Are Golden being just one example), before announcing in 2008 that he was embarking on a solo career.

Growing up in Oklahoma, in a household full of music and musicians, Roman was exposed to a wide variety of genres. “I’ve always listened to a lot of stuff. I played in the high school band and had bands with my friends and played in the youth church bands and for a while was in a jazz band.” Now 31, Roman said, “I’m trying as hard as possible to get in touch with that diversity and embrace it to find my own voice.” He spoke with Pasatiempo from Chicago in advance of his Friday, Jan. 24, recital at Duane W. Smith Auditorium in Los Alamos. At the time, Roman was in the midst of an immersive three-week residency at the University of Chicago with actor Anna Deavere Smith (whose accolades include a MacArthur Fellowship and the 2012 National Humanities Medal), during which they hosted discussions and workshops for university faculty and students. For the last two years, the two have been performing and reworking a stage piece called On Grace, in which Smith acts out interviews she conducted with various academics and theologians on the meaning of grace. These segments are interspersed with Roman’s sometimes improvised and sometimes fully composed works on cello.

“The thing about this project that’s so interesting to me is that it’s about creating the right feeling. That’s so different from how I was trained as a classical musician, where you’re more worried about being correct — the right intonation, the right rhythm. Here, the priorities are reversed.” Roman connected with Smith through a shared musician friend. When they first started working together there was no need for him to even bring his cello to rehearsals. “At the beginning it was just me and Anna sitting in a room and talking about what grace meant to us. I was first thinking: Bach.”

The German Baroque composer has always been of particular importance to Roman. “I feel incredibly moved by his sensibility. It’s the kind of music that can change and grow with you and be very different from day to day. People I’m playing something for twice might even say, Wow, is that a different piece?” He added that Bach was finely attuned to “the nature of the cello, its various voices and capabilities, so his compositions are expressive and not just pedantic or technical.”

The cello is particularly expressive by nature — its range has long been noted as similar to that of the human voice (which is partly why Smith looked for a cellist collaborator for On Grace). Furthermore, it’s physical form has corporeal parallels. As Roman put it, “It’s about the same size as a human, so when playing it, you’re not really wrestling, but you’re definitely entangled in the cello itself. It takes a lot of momentum, not necessarily strength, but a certain kind of power to get a big sound. There is something incredibly satisfying about being able to feel that emotion physically.”

When his schedule permits, Roman practices around five hours a day, in addition to attending rehearsals. Asked if such extended stretches of entanglement with his instrument are physically trying, he said, “It absolutely can be. A lot of people who practice long hours without breaks find themselves injured. It sounds silly, that you could get injured playing the cello, but you’re using big muscles, and using a lot of small muscles repeatedly.”

The cellist said the best safeguards against injury are frequent exercise, breaks during practice, “and knowing how to listen to your body.” Maintaining these habits is especially important (and difficult) given the frenetic nature of Roman’s schedule. Take the month of January — within days of completing his University of Chicago residency, Roman arrives in Los Alamos to perform with pianist and friend Andrius Zlabys. Their collaboration is much more traditional than On Grace, and includes works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Schumann, and Beethoven. Roman said he feels completely prepared for the shift because these compositions are “kind of in my DNA. The music will never be different. We may be different, but the notes will be the same. We won’t be showing up and saying we have to create something from scratch. There’s opportunity for growth, but the pieces are like old friends that we’re coming back to.”

Despite zigzagging across the country while concurrently navigating a breadth of musical genres, Roman finds time to contextualize music along with some of the other interests that make up his life: “I’ve studied a lot of languages and not mastered any of them. I’m really into food; when I have time, I love to cook. I spend a lot of time doing yoga, and I love hanging out with people. You can’t just do the cello, because you need to have something to say. You need a life to share.”