Portland Cello Project
To boldly go
What: Portland Cello Project
When: 3 pm Sun., Jan. 13
Where: Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
I remember the exact moment I discovered that I have a thing for the cello.
It didn’t happen at a classical music concert the way a proper romance with a dignified stringed instrument should. Nor did was I seduced by Yo-Yo Ma, whose cello mastery has launched more than a few love affairs of its own.
No, I came to the cello by way of an ex-boyfriend. One day, as I walked into his house, he greeted me with, “Hey, have you heard this?” before cranking up his stereo. The music that spilled forth was confounding—it was obviously classical music instruments, but they weren’t playing Bach or Beethoven. However, the song was definitely familiar. I cocked an ear, listened for a minute and then a wide grin split my face as I identified it as Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” He jumped forward a couple of songs to “The Unforgiven” and then to “Nothing Else Matters.” By the time we hit “Battery,” I was sold.
The band was Finnish metal group Apocalyptica and the album was Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. I had never heard anything like it. Something about the droning quality that is particular to the cello combined with the nimbleness of it being a stringed instrument matched Metallica’s thundering low end and thrashy guitars.
If Apocalyptica’s unorthodox approach to cello arrangements sparked in me a love for the cello, it was the Portland Cello Project that taught me that the instrument has applications that go far beyond songs from Metallica’s back catalogue.
Any song can be a cello song if you try hard enough.
When the Portland Cello Project began, it was a fluke, a one-off show of nine cellists playing a set of western classical music at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge. However, the fluke quickly became, to borrow a term from the fine-art world, a “happy accident,” that became a bona fide band.
Well, sort of.
As the name implies, it’s not exactly a band in the traditional sense. It has a leader—Douglas Jenkins, who played that first show in 2006 and has kept the cello-infused good times going ever since—and enough structure so that the involved parties are able to arrange songs and tour together. But it’s probably more accurate to describe the Portland Cello Project as a collective rather than a band.
Jenkins draws from a list of somewhere between 25 and 30 Portland-area cellists for whatever phase the project happens to be in, whether it be going on tour, recording, collaborating with other artists or some combination thereof. When they play live, the number of cellos onstage varies from tour to tour and sometimes from show to show. Despite the number of cellists the Portland Cello Project theoretically has at its disposal, this isn’t some kind of musical free-for-all—Jenkins says he’s fully aware it’s possible to have too many cellos onstage at one time. And because a band can’t live by cellos alone, Portland Cello Project performances typically involve other instrumentation as well.
For instance, the band’s upcoming show at the Mount Baker Theatre—which takes place at 3pm Sun., Jan. 13—will feature the talents of six cellists, with support from drums and bass, along with vocals from Patti King of the Shins.
But it’s not the configuration of the Portland Cello Project that makes them so compelling. It’s the music they choose to play.
During their dozen or so years of existence, the ensemble has invited audiences to “Shake It Off” with Taylor Swift and “shake it like a Polaroid picture” with OutKast. They’ve meandered down John Denver’s “Country Roads,” and gone “Between the Bars” with Elliott Smith. They’ve even tackled Pantera’s “Mouth For War.”
Much like their ever-evolving lineup, the Portland Cello Project tries to change up their programming for every project and tour. For this run of shows they’ll cover Radiohead’s OK Computer in its entirety—and if ever an album lends itself to the multi-cello treatment, it’s Radiohead’s iconic opus—and they’ll throw in some Coltrane to keep things interesting and a little Bach to show off their classical music bona fides.
To be sure, it’s a bit of an eclectic set list, but there’s method to this musical madness. Everything the Portland Cello Project does hews to its stated mission to boldly go where no cello has gone before, whether that be through reinterpreting the music of Prince, Duran Duran or Kanye West, or playing venues typically frequented by rock bands, or collaborating with just about anyone regardless of genre or discipline.
The more the Portland Cello Project changes, the more one thing remains the same: No matter what songs they play or where they play them, people show up to see what they’ll do next. Turns out I’m far from the only one with a thing for the cello.
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