A Steady Diet of Curveballs: Portland Cello Project, June 27 at the Redstone Room Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 20 June 2013 07:13

The Portland Cello Project. Photo by Tarina Westlund.

For its June 27 performance at the Redstone Room, the Portland Cello Project will be featuring the music of Beck (Hanson), (Dave) Brubeck, and (Johann Sebastian) Bach. Alliteration aside, the grouping of a contemporary rock artist, a jazz icon, and a Baroque composer is relatively natural for an ensemble known for aggressively omnivorous appetites.

“It really started with the Beck,” said Doug Jenkins, the Portland Cello Project’s artistic director, in a recent phone interview. “When we heard last August that he was going to put out an album of sheet music rather than actually recording an album, we got really excited, because it just seemed like it was right up our alley – to grab that and play with it and adapt it to our larger orchestral ensemble. And so we booked the show immediately. ... It was coming out December 7, so we booked the shows on December 13 [and] 14 – even having no idea what we were going to get. ... We got the music, and we basically camped out 24/7 to learn all 20 songs and get them all ready to go for the performances. ... They’re wonderful songs. ... We recorded them right away, too, a week later, and then put out that CD.

“That was a month or two after Dave Brubeck passed away. [He actually died December 5.] We did kind of a tribute to Dave Brubeck at the same time. And Brubeck and Beck, they actually went together really well. The kind of old-timey feel of the Beck songs from the Song Reader, and of course Brubeck is just wonderful, timeless stuff. ... And then the Bach just seemed like, as a cellist, a logical thing to throw onto it.”

Brubeck channeled Bach in his “Brandenburg Gate,” and one instrumental piece from Song Reader has a classical vibe, Jenkins said. So “there’s already this reaching among the composers who obviously had no idea what we were ever going to do with it. We can find a lot of middle ground, a lot of places to connect things together.”

At the Redstone Room, five cellists from the Portland Cello Project (out of the 20 or so who are presently active in the collective) will be augmented by piano and percussion, with vocalist Laura Gibson singing the Beck songs.

Jenkins also promised other composers beyond Beck, Brubeck, and Bach: “We throw as many curveballs in as possible,” he said.

The Portland Cello Project started seven years ago, and although other musicians before them – Kronos Quartet and violinist Nigel Kennedy with Jimi Hendrix, Apocalyptica with Metallica and other metal – had adapted popular music to classical instruments, nobody has been quite so eclectic. The ensemble’s repertoire includes everything from video-game themes (“Halo”) to Britney Spears (“Toxic”) to Elliott Smith (“Taking a Fall”) to Kanye West, Jay-Z, Outkast, and Lil’ Wayne (on the album Homage).

“We just grab pieces and give them a shot,” Jenkins explained. “Some of them stick, and some of them don’t. ... It’s an experimental process.”

The group’s first performances were all classical music, he said. The first non-classical piece was “Toxic,” which “by the audience reaction was immediately the best idea we had had to that point,” he said.

Not all the ideas were good, although Jenkins said he struggles to recall the stinkers: “I think I block out so many of them.”

One does stick out, however, from the group’s early days: “We tried doing 50 Cent’s ‘In the Club,’ and there was a comedian on-stage with us who re-did the lyrics to make it about being in the bathtub, so it’s called ‘In the Tub.’ That was a horrible idea – maybe the worst idea we’ve ever had.”

Other pieces simply take time to develop. “I think hip hop was really the most difficult thing for us to grapple with,” Jenkins said. Homage “was a really, really difficult album to make. Writing the initial scores was really easy. The music’s not horribly complicated. No pop music is. Most classical music isn’t, either.” The challenge came in “actually internalizing the rhythms and making them feel right.”

The Portland Cello Project recorded them a few years ago, he said, but “the record just didn’t feel good; it didn’t feel like hip hop. It felt like we were pretending to play hip hop. ... The rhythms just didn’t line up right, and in such subtle ways that built up as you were listening to the songs ... . It felt either too square, too angular, or ... it just didn’t feel like we knew what we were doing. It felt like a joke almost. ...

“One of the most vibrant art forms in American art today is hip-hop music. And the idea was to do an homage – not to make fun of it or do a diminutive version of it, but to actually do something that has the feel of the original.”

So the group shelved the recordings, toured for a year, and re-recorded it – with much better results.

Jenkins said playing Kanye West-produced songs, in particular, brings out different aspects of the music. In “the act of performing something, ... new things are always revealed,” he said. With West’s music, “the harmonies will play with the rhythm. ... It’s almost meditative, night after night, to be going through that process, of moving your body and making those sounds in a way that resonates just right with the rhythm.”

Something similar happens, he added, when Bach solo-cello pieces are played in an ensemble. “As something that you’ve been playing forever by yourself, and all of a sudden you’re playing it with five or six other people, you start to hear completely different things. You start to feel how everybody else around you is breathing, rather than just thinking about yourself and how you breathe through it.”

The Portland Cello Project will perform on Thursday, June 27, at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street, Davenport; RiverMusicExperience.org). Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $12 in advance and $15 the day of the show.

For more information on the Portland Cello Project, visit PortlandCelloProject.com.

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