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July 9, 2008

Note Books - The Portland Cello Project

The Note Books series features musicians discussing their literary side. Past contributors have included John Darnielle, John Vanderslice, and others.

The Portland Cello Project is a unique indie music ensemble. Anywhere from 8 to 16 cellists take part in the band's performances, and the ensemble often lends their strings to collaborations with other local musicians. Known for their lush, immaculately-arranged covers (Britney Spears' "Toxic," Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," and many more), the band is equally adept at bringing classical compositions to life.

On July 12th, the band is releasing a limited edition EP featuring collaborations with Horse Feathers and The Builders and The Butchers, not to mention an instrumental cover of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Thanks to the band for sharing their collaboration with Horse Feathers from the EP, "Mother's Sick," with largehearted Boy readers.

Portland Cello Project: "Mother's Sick (with Horse Feathers)" [mp3]

Willamette Week wrote of the EP (and the band):

"is PCP doing “Wanted Dead or Alive” any different from those cheapo String Tribute to Led Zepplin discs? Well, yeah. It’s a lot different. Aside from the musical subtleties of this arrangement far outstripping the whorish tendnecies of those “tribute” discs, the Cello Project has its own role within the local music community. Two of the four songs on the group’s upcoming limited-release EP (dropping July 12 at PCP’s Doug Fir show, all 300 copies of it!) are all collaborations with local artists—Horse Feathers on “Mother’s Sick” and the Builders and the Butchers on “Down to the River.” And that’s what the group is doing a great job with—PCP gives local groups a lush string arrangement, and it also brings the kind of orchestration that usually only winds up at old people venues into Portland’s young and virile clubs. That’s just neat."

The band releases its self-titled debut album August twelfth, and also has a track on the PDX Pop Now! 2008 compilation (a fantastic buy at $8 for two CDs).

In their own words, here is the Note Books entry from the members of the Portland Cello Project:

The Literary Habits of The Portland Cello Project
By Douglas Edward Ku’ulei Jenkins

I’ve learned in the last month that wrangling a literal horde of cellists into discussing literary topics is not the easiest thing to do. In order to get everyone to write something, I did what we do to organize rehearsals and recording sessions and concerts: I sent out a mass email, in which I explained that everyone needed to write to me about their favorite book – just a paragraph or two.

Admittedly we were exhausted from having played with Pink Martini the night before I sent the email, but still, the entire Portland Cello Project (or, PCP as we call ourselves) didn’t respond to my first email after a full week.

So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and I invited everyone out to dinner – separately – since getting 15 of us together at the same time for something other than a show or rehearsal would have ended up a debaucherous and drunken evening of non-literary chaos.

I started most of my conversations by asking people about moments or experiences of reading in their lives that strike them as special for some reason or another – be it good or bad; be it an entire book or just a pleasant afternoon; be it an eye-opening experience or a moment of revulsion.

In the spirit of chivalry I’ll start with the experiences of a few of the PCP women – who, in honor (or something) of the great cellist who passed last year, Mstislav Rostropovich, have decided to start calling themselves “The Rostropobitches.”

Catherine Odell
Cat Odell is one of our cellists who doesn’t get to play every PCP show because she is spending a lot of time on the road playing with LA’s Sea Wolf. She was probably the most excited to talk about the topic. She and I both read pretty voraciously on tour and talk about books on the occasions we’re in Portland at the same time. (I’m writing this while in the back of a Dodge Sprinter driving through a hailstorm in Colorado on tour with Weinland – she was in LA and we spoke over the phone.)

She was wondering what the point of this article is. I said, “I don’t know… sociology or something,” and she said: “We are all very different people and our taste in books varies as wildly as our fashion or eating habits. We love the cello, and from there I doubt there's any more correlation than people than people that wear size 8 shoes.”

When I told her the correlative-analytical expectations weren’t so intense she chose to write me a quick email about a recent experience: “Bumping along in the back of a van somewhere between Minneapolis and LA, I got completely lost in the fantastic dream-world crafted by Salman Rushdie in his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I was hooked from the first mention of the Sad City and the mournful sea full of Glumfish. His words were so simple and powerful and full of imagery that I felt an instant musical connection to the story. It was dark but in this beautifully playful way. Similar to how happy I feel playing the cello, when I'm always being told it's the saddest instrument in the world.”

Haroun is indeed a fascinating book that can speak (or sing, as the words flow so well) to anyone who has ever felt their voice was silenced for whatever reason. From my perspective on the same book: as beautiful and humorous as it is (there are jokes about farts in it!), when I read it I felt an underlying mournfulness that I’m not sure if I projected onto it because it was written while he was in hiding from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa on Rushdie’s life.

Over Ethiopian food at Danny Glover’s favorite Portland restaurant, The Queen of Sheba, Allegra shares that her most prominent memories reading had everything to do with her escape from music school at The University of Utah. She remembers long afternoons procrastinating practicing and studying, sitting on a red bench outside the music school. “That was MY bench” she insists.

So, current University of Utah (UU?) music students, you should know there’s some history on that run-of-the-mill looking bench in front of your building.

Books that stand out to Allegra are: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a fun work of fiction filled with college-aged kids, white and entitled. She connected to this book not because it reminded her of the students around her, but because it didn’t. She didn’t relate to the characters in the book either, nor did she relate to the kids at her school. “It wasn’t a place I fit in all that well.” Perhaps it was this awkward feeling in music school that led her to many other biographies sitting on this bench, including the great biography of Zelda Fitzgerald by Nancy Milford.

Ah, the Fitzgeralds and their expatriate buddies… that was when “writing” and “drunken writing” were synonymous, and “life” meant “drunken life.”

Unlike now, while life is still drunken life, but writing is sober writing in the back of a van scanning the horizon for tornadoes trying to figure out how to spell “correlative” because, who trusts a Microsoft spell checker?

Sonja Myklebust
Sonja is not a woman of many words. She describes herself in her bio as simply: “22 years, a cellist for 13 years, currently living in Portland, playing with the mind-expanding Portland Cello Project and the Rostropo-bitches!” Which is all-around an understatement. She’s our youngest member, just finishing her bachelor’s in cello performance at Lewis and Clark College, and has performed with us since day one, including playing as the soloist in our all-cello arrangement of Elgar’s cello concerto, and being part of the debut of our improv version of Salt N Pepa’s “Push-It”.

Sonja’s response was so concise I’m just going to quote her verbatim, even in the third-person voice she decided to use when talking about Sonja Myklebust:

“Sonja's memorable moment reading took place in a canopy bed reading Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I believe it was the poetic and lovely language that he uses to describe the condition of being in love that resonated with me so strong that I had to let the book lie on my chest and soak it in. I can go back to that feeling of astonishment at the eloquence of Kundera's sentiment, but I dare not try and put it into words for you. Read the book and let your mind explore his words. I promise it will be great.”

Anna Fritz
Singer/songwriter/cellist and PCP core member Anna Fritz refused to talk about her love of reading neither on the phone nor over a free dinner at Danny Glover’s favorite Portland restaurant. She instead chose at the last-minute to email me about experiences she had reading Gertrude Stein and a separate (parallel) experience reading Derrick Jensen. I’ll quote her typed words, as a word is a word is a word for word:

“I was reading on a blanket, the impenetrable mystery of Gertrude Stein. Feeling that if I could unlock her words, find meaning in the seeming nonsense, that I would suddenly understand myself, that my own sexuality would suddenly make sense to me. I was reading in the tall grass and I fell asleep.

I was reading in a smoky dirty bar – flannel-shirted loggers and elderly women eating shrimp cocktails. Their smeary pink lipstick and plastic jewels. I was reading A Language Older Than Words, tears streaming down my face, sucking on a cigarette and clutching at my glass of sour PBR.”

Let’s move to the boys’ perspectives on reading. The tastes here vary wildly from the serious to the sci-fi to the conspiratorial.

Galen Cohen
Also a man of few words, Galen refused to talk about books with me other than to say that he likes Goodnight Moon “because I like looking for the mouse on every page.”

(I’m going to get him “Where’s Waldo?” for his birthday.)

Kevin Jackson
The PCP member who has arranged such hits as the Super Mario Brothers Theme Song and Star Wars talked to me about a very recent book by Patrick Rothfuss called Name of the Wind. It’s the first book in a sci-fi/fantasy triology, which Kevin summarizes as a story of a man’s journey through life first, traveling with his family in a circus which comes across a disaster of some sort, leaving the protagonist homeless and then in a school where he learns he has some special abilities (not of the short bus variety).

When I read Harry Potter and Harry was picking out a wand it made me think of the process of picking out a cello bow – a highly personal, soul-searching sort of thing. I asked Kevin if there was anything in Name of the Wind that reminded him of anything cello related and he responded that there isn’t. Not at all. In fact, the protagonist, unlike any cellist I’ve ever met, is kind of arrogant and headstrong.

So, if you’re looking for a book that reminds you of some process in playing the cello, this book is not for you. But if you’re looking for a book that doesn’t have a lot to do with the cello, this one holds Kevin’s stamp of approval.

Gideon Freudmann, who writes probably the most fun pieces for cello ensemble anywhere in the world today, wrote of a book I love as well: To Kill a Mockingbird.

“It's a classic, and Mark Twain said, ‘a classic is something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read’. But everyone should read this because it's so good! The narrator's voice is so real you can hear it. The setting is vivid you can smell and taste of the hot southern summer. There is a timeless quality to Harper Lee's complex character relationships and we soon learn that this "simpler time" wasn't simple at all. The acts of heroism, small and large, are truly inspiring and ultimately To Kill a Mockingbird is a lesson in humanity.”

I’ve actually taught this book to high school kids, and I love it too, but I think if I were writing a review of To Kill a Mockingbird I’d write of it: “It might make you trust your creepy neighbors and be paranoid of rabid dogs!”

Their Eyes Were Watching God has the same effect. I’d put both books, as well as Old Yeller, and Where The Red Fern Grows, on a special “creepy people/rabid dog” shelf if I owned a bookstore.

Skip Von Kuske
One of our core cellists, best known for his work with Vagabond Opera and various other musical projects (and my next door neighbor, though I never see him because we’re also generally crisscrossing tour dates), talked to me about the Illuminatus! Triology, which is his favorite book of all time. He’s read its 1,300 some pages three times. In Skip’s words the book “centers around secret societies, specifically The Illuminati and takes place in the early 70s. Another reviewer once called [the book] "the longest Shaggy dog in literary history" and indeed it rambles on and on in endless misdirection.”

Skip points out that, “in the process, it exposes various ways in which propaganda is so effective. You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to enjoy this book.”

Justin Kagan
At Costello’s Travel Café, where we have been known to show up unannounced and play with Classical Revolution PDX, Justin Kagan stole Skip’s computer and wrote this reflection on Jose Saramogo’s Blindness.

“What is difficult? Why is process so sticky and uncomfortable at times? Fear and trembling, despair, relief, titillation, the horror, the horror, the release, the end. And then there's a follow-up. And so many more reasons to self-discover through the reading of Jose Saramago's Blindness. This is an especially germane read for musicians who seek to shed the shackles of convention and touch and massage their fears. I promise you will experience moments of extreme discomfort and distortion, and embrace them. Saramago's clarity of vision is astounding. Then move on to Seeing. It's believing.”

That’s a great description of this book. I remember reading it in 1998 after Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature. (I have no clue, for the record, why that date is engrained in my memory.) Saramago is one of the few writers I can read over and over again. There’s something about his humility and spiritual simplicity that I feel I can revisit again and again. Much like how I can always play Bach again and again.

If you’re looking for another Saramago book but accidentally bought Balthasar and Blimunda and got turned off, check out The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. It is INGENIOUS!

And that’s the literary word from the cellists I got to talk to. And what’s my experience?

I dunno.

Reading Jack Kerouac when I was 14 and deciding I want to go on a road trip and talk funny and listen to jazz and try to figure out what exactly he meant by “smoking tea”. I couldn’t, of course, take road trips or explore the Americas, as I grew up on a tropical island. But I tried. I went on two-hour road trips around the island, and then tried to write about them, even though they were quite uneventful.

If I read On The Road now I probably wouldn’t be all that into it the way I was when I was a freshman in high school. But the appeal of being on the road is definitely still there. Maybe that’s part of why I love playing non-classical music so much. It gets me on the road like I am now…

No tornadoes in sight as we’re pulling into Denver.

Come to think of it, Kerouac spent some time here, for sure. Maybe I’ll track down one of his old haunts…

Portland Cello Project links and mp3s:

The Portland Cello Project: "Toxic (Britney Spears cover)" [mp3] from The Portland Cello Project (out August 12th)
The Portland Cello Project: "Musée Mécanique-Under Glass" [mp3] from The Portland Cello Project (out August 12th)
The Portland Cello Project: "Danza Del Fuego" [mp3] from The Portland Cello Project (out August 12th)

the band's website
the band's MySpace page

Portland Cello project posts at Largehearted Boy

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Note Books submissions (musicians discuss literature)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Soundtracked (directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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