There is something hauntingly beautiful if not downright sexy about the cello: a musician straddling the feminine curves of a human-sized instrument, bow sliding slowly and elegantly over the trembling strings, fingers plucking and vibrating in alternately gentle and assertive motions, and tones emitting from the smooth wood that range everywhere from soft whispers to deep moans.
It’s no wonder the cello has been compared to both the human voice and, in the many portraits of women’s backs painted to look like string instruments, the human body.
So perhaps it should also be no wonder that lately, particularly in the Bay Area, the cello has gained new popularity one outside of the traditional concert hall. Cellists like Zoe Keating, formerly of Rasputina, and Sam Bass, of Loop!Station and Les Claypool, are gaining the kind of recognition formerly reserved for indie rockers. Cello Madness Congress, the monthly improv jam hosted by Joey Chang a.k.a. Cello Joe, regularly draws a crowd of musicians and enthusiasts alike. Cello Bazaar, a monthly cello concert held at Café Bazaar in the Richmond District, has become so popular it might have to expand. And Rushad Eggleston’s punk band Tornado Rider has rock ‘n’roll lovers moshing to cello music at venues like Red Devil Lounge. Not only does cello music seem to be a trend, as Cello Bazaar founder Hannah Addario-Berry says, "it’s a total scene."
Perhaps one reason for the increased visibility of cello in the Bay Area is due to recent developments in classical music. As symphonies get less funding and young musicians become more adventurous, classical musicians are finding new ways to play and new venues to play in. The most visible of these is Classical Revolution, which has taken instruments like violin, piano, and, yes, cello, out of the stuffy concert hall and into Revolution Cafe and SoCha Café for casual weekly concerts.
These gatherings are particularly advantageous for cellists. In an orchestra setting, cello tends to play a supportive roll. But there is a fabulous repertoire of music meant to be played by several cellos together, thanks mostly to the cello’s remarkable range. In a non-symphony setting, the cello can more easily take center stage.
Plus, cellists seem to like to socialize and harmonize together. Perhaps because of their role in larger symphonies, cellists tend not to be particularly competitive (unlike violinists, for example, who often compete for solos). Some musicians say people drawn to cello are naturally more easy-going than those drawn to other instruments. Others say that there is more a group of cellos can do together sonically than, say, a group of flutes. "Brass sections are incredibly social too," says Addario-Berry. "But of the string family, I’ve found cellists to be the ones who most want to hang out together."
But perhaps the largest reason for the cello’s new visibility and popularity is its versatility. The artist most famous for exploring the possibilities for cello is Yo-Yo Ma, but these days all kinds of artists are finding ways to use cello in other in the music of various cultures, in rock, and in electronic music. Indeed, it was the infinite possibilities for layering different cello sounds over each other and over the human voice that inspired the cycle of songs that composer/singer Amy X Neuburg began writing for the three-piece Cello Chixtet in 2005 the same qualities that make Loop!Station’s sound so rich and varied, even though they’re only two people (and only one instrument).
One of the most exciting new developments, though, is not just using the cello with rock but to rock. According to Eggleston, who straps on his sticker-covered cello and plays it like an electric guitar, the progression is a natural one. With a cello you can play power chords with one finger instead of two, he says. There’s infinite sustain because there’s a bow. You don’t need a wah-wah pedal because you can get different harmonics from one string. Because there are no frets, you can bend notes various ways and get subtle details you can’t get from a guitar. Plus you have the option of sliding and jumping around on the frets. "It’s kind of like a vicious harmonica/slide guitar/ metal guitar/wild cat," he says.
But whatever direction cellists are taking, the Bay Area music community seems supportive. "So many people are intimidated by the concert hall protocol … not knowing when to clap and not to cough," says Addario-Berry. "The idea of taking cello music to people in a comfortable environment is really important."
Or as Eggleston puts it, "Yay! Cello power!"
UPCOMING CELLO EVENTS
Tues/17, 7 p.m.
5927 California, SF
JOEY CHANG AND THE SHOW
Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m.; $5
2565 Mission, SF
Nov. 20, 9 p.m.; $10
1928 Telegraph, Oakl.
CELLO MADNESS CONGRESS
Nov. 25, 8 p.m.; free
2565 Mission, SF