Music News & Reviews

Mellow cellos: Portland group gives indie voice to orchestral instrument

If the idea of an ensemble composed completely of cellos sounds cool to you, of course it is. There's one in Portland.

"There's so much clout around Portland with Portlandia (a satirical TV series) and the music scene and what it was five years ago, it's definitely the place to play music, for the moment, until the next place creeps up," says Douglas Jenkins, artistic director of that ensemble, the Portland Cello Project.

The Project, which comes to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts on Monday, brings an indie music sensibility to the instrument that is most commonly associated with strait-laced orchestral music. The group's repertoire spans classical masters such as Beethoven, modern composer Arvo Pärt and "music you wouldn't normally hear coming out of a cello," says the group's Web site, Those include cello-centric interpretations of music by Jay-Z and Britney Spears. The group's new album, Homage, is a collection of reinterpretations of hip-hop songs by artists including Kanye West and Lil' Wayne.

Name an artist, and the Project might be able to play one of his or her songs. The group boasts that it has more than 900 pieces to choose from, and no two shows are the same.

Added to the mix at the Norton Center will be Kentucky's own cello pioneer, folk cellist Ben Sollee.

"We have played with him here in Portland, but it'll be our first time playing with him east of the Mississippi," Jenkins says of Sollee. "The collaboration generally comes about like: One of us is coming to the other's town, and we send a text message, and then the other says, 'Sure!,' and then we don't communicate a lot because we're so busy, but then we show up and play together, and it's magical."

The Portland Cello Project started with similar magic six years ago, Jenkins says. A group of classically trained cellists who had additional interests started getting together.

"We all played other kinds of music, like bluegrass to folk music, and there was even, like, a punk rock girl," he says. (Zoe Keating of cello rockers Rasputina had moved to Portland about that time and was part of some early incarnations of the Project.) "We were getting together in friends' living rooms, just to play classical music, and then we said, 'Why don't we play classical music in bars?,' because people were doing that, like Matt Haimovitz playing at CBGB's and stuff. We said, 'Why don't we do that in Portland? Maybe it would work.' So we did. ... And it kind of became what it was."

The first few shows were classically geared, but then they started inviting friends, including folk singer Laura Gibson and indie folk band Horse Feathers.

"We kept branching out, and now it's much less classical and much more everything," Jenkins says.

As the group has branched into reinterpretations of pop music, Jenkins says, the musicians have worked to make those pieces sound substantive, not cheesy.

"There are a lot of string quartets that do covers, and they aren't very interesting arrangements and they just sound like Muzak or a joke," Jenkins says. "That's why we called this record Homage, to emphasize that we're not appropriating this music. We're not trying to make it accessible. We're just trying to make good music and celebrate it for what it is.

"We will never be able to make hip-hop music, and I will never rap. That's just never going to happen. But I can play the cello, and I think the goal of writing all these arrangements has been pulling that universal beauty out of something, the universal element that everyone can hear and say, 'That is good music.'"

The beauty of heavy metal and hip-hop can be hidden to listeners who don't appreciate the sonic signatures of the music, Jenkins says. So he strives to build bridges to those genres through a different instrumental platform.

The group also aims to give entree to the often-shunned world of contemporary classical composition, working with composers to premiere new works.

"The prerequisite is people have to like it," Jenkins says of new works. "I know that sounds like a given, but I get these emails of stuff that's really challenging, not to play but to listen to. I mean, I'll get, like, 27 minutes of atonal stuff and be, like, 'Why did you even take harmony class in college?'"

Jenkins, who says he wrote his thesis on 12-tone composer Alban Berg, can appreciate modern classical music, but he says that the Cello Project's music has to fit in a pop culture sensibility.

After all, they are living in an early 21st-century pinnacle of pop culture. Jenkins says that since arriving in the Oregon metropolis last decade, the Portland brand has grown beyond indie rock to a broader spectrum of music. He in part credits Portlandia, the Web and Independent Film Channel series starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, that lampoons Portland as a place where the 1990s are still alive and "young people go to retire."

"It is shockingly accurate," Jenkins says of the show, which has declared the Cello Project "the best thing going in Portland" on its blog. "Portland's quirky on many levels now."