Reimagining the instrument
through the eyes of the musician
introduction by trevor elkin
This, the second of our mini-series which began with Organ Reframed, is a love letter to the most affecting of musical instruments, the Cello. For years it has moved audiences through its remarkable ability to engage a wide spectrum of human emotions. It has an instantly recognisable tone and timbre, and yet it never tires the ear. The mischievous disco mysticism of Arthur Russell, which layers lush textures and vibrations, completely embodies the resonant nature of the cello. Then there’s the urgency and despair which bursts through the chest on hearing Paul Tortelier or Jacqueline Du Pre’s definitive performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor. All of these feelings made possible, material and tangible through the power of the cellist’s connection to us through these machines. Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk) said “the cello was there 400 years ago and will still be here in 400 years.” Its ability to still hold its own and be sought out among modern, electronic musicians and producers is tribute to its immortal sound and spirit.
We invited four contemporary cellists, Oliver Coates, Gyða Valtýsdóttir (Múm), Karolina Rec (Resina) and Alison Chesley (Helen Money) to relate their own personal experience and relationships with the cello. While each artists’ musical styles and how they incorporate the cello into their work differs, their stories nevertheless agree that the cello has a unique and unifying impact on both the performer and the audience.
Every love affair begins somewhere. It’s said that Jacqueline Du Pre, aged four, heard the cello playing on the radio and asked her mother for “one of those”. What’s your earliest memory of the cello?
Gyða Valtýsdóttir: “I was seven when I chose the cello. I knew nothing about it but my older sister told me it was “dark & mysterious” and those two words really resonated with me. I still remember the night before my first lesson, I had tweaks in my body from excitement and sleep did not want to come over me. My first cello was of very dark wood – I was so happy about that. Sadly during that first rendez-vous with my cello, a book with notes was placed in front of us and most of my attention went into figuring out the dots. I feel that children should be given space and freedom to explore the instruments and figure things out by themselves through play.”
Oliver Coates: “It was in 1988 and the books Spycatcher and The Satanic Verses were on the shelves in my family home. I remember getting to know the cello at the time, knowing somehow that these were controversial copies, that booksellers were pressured to censor them. My father was working on freedom of literature around the time – I didn’t know what was in them I was too young but I was staring at their covers and finding my way around the cello.”
Alison Chesley: “I remember when I brought it home when I was 8 years old. That’s when my relationship with it started. It was something that was mine alone. It was and still is an anchor for me in my life.”
Karolina Rec: “Of course it was my first cello lesson, but even more interesting was my first ever “meeting” with a cello (when I was 8). When I had to choose an instrument at music school I had a number of options like: flute, guitar and cello (it was a small school, so only a limited range of instruments was available). As I passed the entry tests quiet well, the teachers told me I should try the cello. The problem was I had completely no idea what this instrument looked like (my parents have no musical background), and especially how it sounds. But as flute and guitar seemed boring (I don’t know why!) to me, I decided to take a risk and go for my first cello lesson. When I touched it for the first time and felt the intensive sound of the strings and vibration of the wooden body I had no doubts that it was my instrument.“
What about the cello inspires you? Where does its power to reach inside, to connect performers to an audience come from?
AC: “It’s a unique and amazing instrument. It’s very compelling to watch… the form of it is compelling, but it would mean nothing if it didn’t sound like it does. It has the largest range of any stringed instrument. And that range is the closest to the human voice. It speaks to us all almost as another human voice….and then I think just the size of it and the way a player has to embrace and surround it to play it. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said that the cello is their favourite instrument.”
OC: “It collects skin cells and a lot of blood over the years from bursting various things. I play on the same instrument I’ve had since I was 10, and my tears from puberty are in the varnish. I can’t describe any innate power it has to connect with an audience but I know people feel something when they see it. “
KR: “I feel that generally many different things inspire me. But from my point of view, all… sounds can be somehow transposed onto the cello. I’ve been learning this for many years – looking for some alternative methods of creating interesting but atypical sounds. Playing a classical instrument in a non-classical way, trying to find my own technique, searching for non-obvious (but still very natural) sounds coming from it is very inspiring itself. It’s impossible to play one sound in a 100% same way again – that is the difficulty and at the same time a source of power for me. When I play solo I don’t use pickup microphones, the sound is not massive. It’s not (only) about the volume, the simple huge power of the sound or the deep bass. I think the audience perfectly recognise that the performance is something open or even a little bit risky for the performer – I think that can engage people on a very different level. It is easily achievable with instrument like cello which has it’s own nature, soul, which sounds every day a little bit different (because of the rainy or sunny weather etc.) I really like playing in the places where people can sit very close to me, so close they can nearly feel that organic vibrations coming directly from the instrument.“
GV: “The cello is my voice – it reaches the depth I’d have inside but my voice can not reach. I can be a heavy-metal singer on my cello, I can scream and go wild, but also reach the highest angelic realms. Somehow – my own voice just sounds so god damn pretty all the time. Sometimes I feel like its servant, in a positive way. Then my ego relaxes on its demands and I let the cello play me.”
What unique or individual character does a cello bring to your music?
GV: “I consider myself a musician more than a cellist – i make music, I happened to play the cello. I write songs on guitar and voice but I have a harder time writing music on the cello. However, that is where I feel at home when it comes to improvising. Sometimes my music has no cello in it at all or I might use it as a sound-source without it sounding anything like a cello. But I do feel most myself when I improvise and then the cello is really like an extension of my being.”
OC: “Elysia Crampton and I have been talking a bit about the cello – its ‘irreducibility’ and acknowledging its relationship to colonialism. And, by not denying its oblique connection to violence or suppression, how it can then become a pop instrument with the soul or weight of its history. Sometimes it feels like a blues instrument, only it could never be.”
AC: “I like that it has a darkness to its voice and is very expressive. And it’s very malleable. When I send the sound through guitar pedals it can become a million different things.”
KR: “My debut release was totally based on nothing more than a pure cello with some little electronic help (without interfering with the natural sound). We can say the album is just simply made from the individual character of this instrument, or even more – on individual possibilities of this particular cello which belongs to me. All the melodies, harmonies, noise you can hear on this album – everything has its source in searching for my personal, I suppose, very sonoristic, musical language. And these strong sonoristic inclinations probably have their natural origin in the type of instrument I play.”
How does the cello endure in a modern, more electronic era of composition and performance?
AC: “It’s an enduring instrument. It’s like a Shakespeare play, which is so well constructed and beautiful it can stand up to and thrive in a million different interpretations. And at the end it’s really the same instrument that someone was playing in 1790.”
OC: “It would be sad if we confidently told the story that we are in a more electronic era of music – as if that was the prevalent truth. There’s many people playing and singing without electronics involved. If you read Aphex’s Syrobonkers interview, you find he’s talking about the wind hitting his ears at different speeds creating the Doppler effect – about the acoustic phenomena of sound and how that transforms our lives.”
KR: “I’m not afraid of using electronic tools which can help to more easily create a full, more incisive composition. Mixing two different worlds, crossing borders is something especially exciting for me. I believe it can bring something interesting and new and that it’s still a free-to-explore territory. People spend a lot of money on beautiful but rare synthesisers or other electronic instruments to build their individual musical character – just look at the cello in this way: it’s just an instrument with amazing sound, a natural synthesiser with never-ending possibilities…”
GV: “I think there is space for all things. I personally learned so much from electronic music and it has effected my playing a lot especially my love for texture and timber and the possibilities you can find in one single pitch. In the end it is all a manipulation of vibrations and frequencies and how we go about playing with those vibration is secondary to me. But there is nothing that changes the physicality of having a hundred year old tree vibrating between your legs, inspirited by horsetail-hairs stretched onto a stick made of the very core of a tree. I love it!”
Oliver Coates a globally lauded soloist, juggles appearances in Europe’s grandest concert halls with long-running, wide-ranging collaborations with like-minded artists, from the experimental composers Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi to the electronic musician and producer Actress.
The ‘pumped-up body music’ of his last album ‘Upstepping’ is a perfect entry point to his work and continues Coates’ deep exploration of the synthesis between the sounds he can tease from his cello and the sonic and rhythmic palette of electronic music. His latest co-creation with Mica Levi, ‘Stay Calm’ is released on 25th November.
Gyða Valtýsdóttir was, alongside twin sister Kristin, a founder member of Icelandic experimental band Múm. She is a multi-instrumentalist and composer and studied at Iceland Academy of the Arts and Basel Music Academy.
Gyða continued to perform with her sister and has also collaborated on a number of world music and dance projects, including avant garde Turkish musician Görkem Şen.
Gyða has recently composed music for Neon Dance’s ‘Empathy’, a powerful portrayal of what it means to be human. ‘Empathy’ is currently on a European tour.
Alison Chesley, perhaps better known by her stage name Helen Money, is a classically trained cellist who draws her inspiration not only from Pablo Casals and Shostakovich but Jimi Hendrix and The Minutemen. Chesley has toured extensively with an incredible array of musicians, including Shellac, Neurosis, Sleep, Russian Circles, Magma, Earth, and Nina Nastasia. Both Portishead and Shellac selected her for their respective All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals. She toured with Bob Mould in 2015, including a performance on the Late Show with David Letterman. Alison wrote the first Helen Money album in 2007 and has recorded three more, the latest of which, ‘Become Zero’, is available now on Thrill Jockey Records.
Resina is the alias of Karolina Rec, a cellist and composer based in Warsaw, Poland. Karolina graduated from the Music Academy in Gdansk and the University of Gdansk. Active in Poland’s independent music scene since the late ’00s, she was co-founder / collaborator of some of Poland’s most influential alternative bands. Her style is primarily characterized by personal language of improvisation and alternative approach to melody.
Resina’s self-titled debut album is a result of experiments with cello and simple electronic tools – sometimes close to the form of song; sometimes based more on powerful, intuitive impressions but always marked by the desire to use non-obvious characteristics of the instrument.