The Ebb and Flow of Innovation and Virtuosi: A Conversation with the Portland Cello Project

I first came to Portland as a fresh-eyed eighteen year-old cellist whose interest in the formal world of classical music had all but disappeared. I began playing the cello at the age of six and remained immersed in music throughout my teens, but by the time I was a Junior I no longer harbored an intrinsic motivation for etudes. My desire to improve my classical chops had steadily waned. I stopped taking lessons–they had become something I had to do as opposed to something for which I yearned.

Still, my cello made the journey west with me when it came time. Despite my rogue attitude it was a part of me, and leaving this particular part of me behind was not an option. I was unsure of what role music would play in my future, but knew that I needed it in some capacity.

I fully credit my return to formal musical study to the friends I made upon arriving in Portland. I met a plethora of inspiring musical people during my first few weeks of college, and jamming in the sunshine with this surrogate family quickly reminded me of my passion for playing.

I never previously had the opportunity to create music in such an open, collaborative space, to make spontaneous musical choices because the moment moved me to do so, to improvise and take part in a wordless conversation.  Music became fun again. Being newly invigorated rekindled my interest in pursuing classical cello training so as to endow my fingers with the technical ability to bring my musical whims to fruition.

I took cello lessons all through college, and it was my cello teacher then, Dorien DeLeon, who first put the bug in my ear about playing with the Portland Cello Project. Dorien knew, and I came to learn that the way in which the Portland Cello Project (fondly the PCP) bridges the gap between classical and experimental cello realms was exactly what I sought. I have now been a member of the Portland Cello Project for about two years and the breadth of creativity exuded by this group and its musicians has not ceased to amaze me. Every player brings something unique to the table: skilled musicianship and an innovative spirit are made manifest through thoughtful composition that showcases each cellist while creating a unified whole.

This eclectic combination of classical and improvisational music embodied by the PCP will take center stage at the Old Church this April 29th and 30th , and the seasoned Cello Project audience member is in for a surprise. Each show will not only feature different set lists of largely new original compositions by Gideon Freudmann and Diane Chaplin respectively, but will be played by entirely different casts of cellists. For those who do not know, the project has been graced by a multitude of musicians over its 10-year life span, and all have added their color to the group. What began as a rag-tag crew of p-town cellists looking to jam slowly morphed, but remained fluid.

I feel that the contrasting nature of these upcoming performances speaks to that fluidity, and will give listeners insight into the spectrum of personalities that rally behind the PCP flag. Gideon and Diane, both cello project members and the composers/arrangers for the Old Church repertoire, have kindly allowed me to probe their minds. The two are immensely talented, but seem to approach their music from divergent avenues. I was curious to learn how their creative processes compare, particularly how they reconcile a desire for authentic sound that both respects and veers away from the classical cello arena.

Gideon, could you tell me a bit about your musical background, both in and outside of the PCP?

Gideon: I began studying the cello when I was 8 years old. My interest in playing non-classical music started a few years later. I played in a band in high school, formed a guitar cello duo in college in which we wrote all our own tunes. We played for a few years and recorded a couple of cassette albums and an LP before venturing off in different directions. After getting a degree in cello performance I started doing more solo performing and gradually incorporated some delays and other effects in my shows. I’ve performed mostly as a soloist for the past couple of decades but I’ve also done a good deal of collaboration (mostly duo and trio) with musicians from widely varied backgrounds – working with African balafon, shakuhachi, steel drums, sitar, banjo, mandolin, accordion and a variety of amplified jazz and rock groups. I never imagined being in a large cello collective until I moved to Portland where the PCP came together very shortly after my arrival.

When most people think of cello, they do so within the realm of classical music, but I find the cello to be an extremely versatile instrument. How does that versatility influence your playing and composing style?

Gideon: It is the biggest influence and most central aspect to my playing! Since the first time I picked up a cello and bow and discovered, quite by accident, that the cello can make unusual sounds I was hooked. I’ve never lost my fascination with what an amazing sound machine the cello is and how readily it lends itself to different styles of music. The fact that it can be used for bass lines, melodies and chords, as well as possessing a seemingly endless source of sound effects makes it a uniquely wonderful instrument. Then the increased palette available from adding multiple cellos and/or some digital effects – the possibilities are endless!

What inspired you to begin songwriting? Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Gideon: I don’t know what inspired me to write, but I started doing it almost immediately. I was always more intent on making up songs than practicing the ones my teacher suggested. I recently found a piece of sheet music that I must’ve written when I had been playing less than a year. It was cello and piano piece, very complicated and only about 3 measures long. I guess I realized I was in over my head. In middle school I was listening to a lot of pop radio and around that time I started writing songs and learning to sing while playing.

I know you do a good deal of your composing for a single cello using loops. How do you go about arranging those compositions for an ensemble, and how do you think the pieces change when played by a group?

Gideon: Some of my loop tunes stay pretty close the original form when I write out for an ensemble, but most of them change. I re-work some arrangements because I want all the players to be engaged and not get stuck playing parts that are too repetitive and also because the multiple players create musical opportunities that can’t be achieved with a looper – both in terms of the notes they play and in how dynamics and tempo are treated. But a majority of my ensemble pieces are not based on loop tunes but rather are conceived as music to be performed by multiple players.

How did you decide which of your compositions to include in this show of “Innovation” (April 29th)? What do you hope to convey?

Gideon: It’s been fun and challenging trying to decide what to include. Mostly I want to convey the sense of fun, adventure and possibility. I want to present a stylistic variety and to showcase the talents of the musicians who are generously sharing their talents in this show. I love music that is tuneful and accessible, but I also want to include many surprises. Smiling faces and tapping toes is what I’m after.

What are your thoughts on having two different PCP ensembles performing entirely different repertoires in back to back concerts? How do you think the two shows contrast with and enhance one another?

Gideon: I think it’s wonderful that PCP is doing this. This group has been growing and evolving since it’s inception. The repertoire of the two shows will contrast considerably and these two concerts will showcase the variety we can offer. Fans of the group know that there’s so much more still that PCP can play – from metal to jazz to dance party music. There are members of PCP with unique talents to offer and it’s nice to have a chance to shine a spotlight on that.

Finally, what inspires you to be creative now, and how has it changed, if at all? How does your relationship with music, particularly with the cello, reflect this?

Gideon: I am inspired by music I hear, travel, people, books, even a seemingly mundane walk in the neighborhood. Inspiration has and continues to be a mysterious thing that comes unexpectedly. I think that has always been the case. In that sense it hasn’t changed over the years. But, bit by bit, I get better at capturing my ideas on paper or in a recording and I get better a finding ways to make my ideas understandable to other musicians whether they prefer to read notation, chord charts and learn by ear.

I have also been doing more work with film and dance and I find that working within specific parameters is a challenge but also an inspiring constraint. It sounds like an oxymoron, but having a defined mood and timeframe proves a structure that forces me to create music that might not happen otherwise. For PCP’s Elliott Smith tribute album I was given a short 5-note melody from which to create a cello ensemble. That turned into a quartet filled with time changes, unusual chords and transitions which I had not explored previously.

I never get bored of finding new interesting chords, melodies of sounds from the cello. We still get along very well!

Any additional comments/ other anecdotes you’d like me to include?

Gideon: I am frequently amazed by the connections that are made in the arts community. A Portland Cello Project performance of my tune Denmark caught the ear of “vertical dance company”, Project Bandaloop. As a result we have been collaborating and I even went on tour with them to Taiwan last year. Taiwan is far away but it’s a small world!

Diane, I know from working and playing with you that you have a very formal musical education and classical background (including earning your masters in music from the Julliard School, performing as a soloist in Carnegie Hall and touring with the Colorado Quartet for over 20 years), but part of your goal in moving to Portland was to explore more eclectic avenues with the cello. I have several questions to that end:

First, how does the Portland Cello Project fit into that exploration?

Diane: I like being “out of the box” with PCP. There is a lot of repertoire that I would likely never play at all (some of the hip-hop & heavy metal tunes) and some things that I would have previously only done as part of a back-up string section (like pop songs). Everything we play, though, is rewarding and interesting. There’s something very fun and freeing about playing our music, even when it is classical, that feels different than, for instance, playing with a string quartet. It may partly be that our audience is very high energy, and that because of the short length of most of our music, we are getting an energy jolt from the audience every few minutes (as contrasted with a classical symphony where the audience doesn’t get to clap for 30-40 minutes).

Does your approach to arranging/composing reflect your desire for artistic discretion?

Diane: I have arranged things for PCP that it never occurred to me to arrange before (I have done a lot of arranging in my life!). Because one of the important elements in our shows is “fun,” a lot of classical music wouldn’t work, but I love to think of music up will fit our style. And I’ve had a wonderful time arranging non-classical music this year as well, and look forward to doing more of that.

Do you compose differently for the PCP than you might for other, more conventional ensembles?

Diane: I compose and arrange for specific groups most of the time. A lot of my other arranging is for student ensembles, and so there is a limitation on how hard the music can be to play. With PCP the cellists all play well, but arranging for 5 or 6 cellos is difficult – it can sound muddy or too dark. There is definitely some trial and error, and things do get changed in rehearsal when they don’t work. I like to think of different people’s strengths when I arrange, and I do often put certain people on specific parts: someone who plays soulfully will get lots of gorgeous melodies; someone who can play fast high things or improvise will get parts that reflect that.

This April 30th show is quite different from what one might expect to hear at a standard PCP show. Could you tell me a bit about why that is? How do you feel this show will complement the show featuring original music by Gideon Freudmann the day prior (April 29th)?

Diane: I have been wondering how much the audience will know in advance about these shows. I know some of the advertising talked about content, but a lot of it was also just a poster that said “Virtuosi” or “Innovation.” In our case (the Virtuosi concert), we are concentrating mostly on music from the more serious side of music (i.e. classical), but of course some of it will be really fun and not serious. The two shows back-to-back give a full spectrum look at PCP: our innovative, improvised, new music side coupled with our own special twist on the heritage of music from the past.  

What was your primary objective in creating this showcase? What was your thought process behind putting the repertoire together?

Diane: I wanted to demonstrate that a PCP show can contain a large dose of more serious music, and still be varied, fun and eclectic. We are definitely highlighting the virtuoso side of the players – there are some really hard technical tricks, and everyone gets to play lead at some point. I also went into areas of repertoire that PCP hasn’t explored much: music by Stravinsky and Bartok (early 20th century with strong rhythmic contours), some Vivaldi that’s almost like call-and-response, and some lush romantics. The cello has such a huge personality, both beautiful and electrifying, and I hope to bring out as large a range as possible.

Finally, everyone has their reason own personal reason for finding a creative outlet. Why do you play music?

Diane: I was listening to someone perform something recently, and I felt like they were just phoning it in. Like they were playing all the right notes the right way at the right time, but there was no soul in it. And I thought, “Why is this person performing?” Music is so much more than that – playing music is about baring your soul, your human emotion. You don’t really have to go on stage to do that – you can do it in the privacy of your home, but for me, there is some magical current that gets connected when I am performing. It’s almost like the audience is a giant receptacle and I can pour music/soul/emotion into it with my cello. I know that when I’m really in that zone of inspired performance, I cease to be a person sitting in a chair holding a cello, but instead somehow become the music. There is also a huge satisfaction in working hard at something and feeling like you’ve successfully reached a goal, and that definitely keeps me in the cycle of practicing and performing.

Sage Coy is a cellist and cheese monger living on the Olympic Penninsula in Port Townsend, WA. Originally from Minneapolis, she headed west to attend college in Portland where she learned of and eventually joined the Portland Cello Project. Sage is currently a touring member of the band.

The two Old Church shows are already sold out, but check out the PCP website for info about upcoming performances and releases.