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Highway 89: Portland Cello Project

Douglas Jenkins, Artistic Director. Group members: Skip Vonkuske and Kevin Jackson, Diane Chaplin, Sage Coy and Julian Kosanovick.

(Speaking with Douglas Jenkins)

SKP: Thank you so much for coming today.

DJ: Thanks so much for having us. It’s a pleasure to be here.

SKP: You know, you play such a diverse repertoire but you’re not throwing in pop songs as a gimmick or a shtick. It’s for real.

DJ: Well, it’s kind of both

SKP: (laughs)

DJ: (laughing) No pretense here.

SKP: But you bring all the technique of a cello.

DJ: Yeah, definitely. And we try to choose pieces of music, pop pieces of music, that will translate well, that we can bring something new to [and] make something new with.

SKP: Well we read an interview with a Chicago Tribune with one of the group members, Diane, and the quote is, “We found that everything sounds good on a cello”.

DJ: (laughing) Indeed

SKP: And really it does, with over a thousand pieces of music. Do you have some kind of music library or is it all on a thumb drive somewhere?

DJ: Well at this point they’re all on iPads. We read all of our music on iPads, which will allow us to play a completely different show every night. So one night we might be in a symphony hall, the other night we might be in a rock club and so we want to have all of our music with us. We used to carry around big binders full of music but that was not super practical so thank goodness for technology.

SKP: So do you e-mail, “Here’s tomorrows show”? And just send it to everybody?

DJ: Yeah pretty much.

SKP: So you’re not scrolling [through] a thousand pages 

DJ: No, no, nothing that bad.

SKP: Now, Bluegrass New Orleans. We read that one time you were thinking, “Hmm we haven’t approached that style yet.” Is that something that’s still waiting to happen or have you taken a stab?

DJ: We haven’t. You know, time moves so quickly. I’ve totally forgotten about that. But yeah, every time that we play in New Orleans, it’s a place we want to be, and the music – the culture there is so rich that yeah, maybe that’s still in the future.

SKP: Well let me ask about this – you played a piece by Elliott Smith. Singer, songwriter, lived ‘til 2003. I think six different songs on here are songs he wrote, but also you have taken some from song fragments. So how do you even have access to those and what have you done with them?

DJ: Well the idea with that was to kind of do an homage to Elliott – to his song writing, his composition style and you think, his lyrics are so wonderful and his voice is so wonderful but he was such a composer as well so we decided to try and take the music and really celebrate that compositional aspect of it. At the same time, we thought maybe a good thing to do with this record is to create something new as well. So to take little seeds from Elliott’s music and sew them elsewhere and see how they grow. So those song fragments are – you would never recognize them to go with the original piece. We look for the strangest part of the piece. Elliott always has these moments in these songs that just kind of make your hair stand on end and they’re usually very fleeting [and] very brief. But we tried to figure out what it is with that moment and we take it and make it as abstract as possible and then we give it to a composer. Most of them are northwest composers and say, “Hey, do something with this. We’re not telling you what it’s from but make a piece out of this.” Then we commission the pieces to be composed and record them.

SKP: So I am wondering just about adapting music in general for cello. I have to say, the violin is so often the star.

DJ: Yeah

SKP: But no one says, “I’d sure love to hear twenty violins.”

DJ: I wonder why that is

SKP: So why does that work with cello? Why does it work?

DJ: Well I think that we have such a large range, I mean we can get up into the violin’s range. We can also go very low. I mean the same range as the human voice is usually the cliché you’ll usually hear referring to the cello. So it allows us to get all the different parts of the orchestra in one instrument.

SKP: So what’s the biggest challenge when you take a piece and you know it’s going to be all cello?

DJ: Oh, what is the biggest challenge? There are many technical challenges with it. I mean sometimes with those really high notes - technically playing them really fast is usually difficult for us and it’s easier for a violinist. Luckily we have players like Diane and Skip who can just nail those high notes and they’re practically playing the violin on the cello for us.

SKP: So we heard that one time you started on some hip-hop arrangements and ended up actually just sort of throwing that out and starting again.

DJ: We did, we actually recorded a whole record of hip-hop arrangements and it just didn’t feel right. I mean, hip hop is the most vibrant musical culture in the country, if not the world, today. I think we just had to go through the process of thinking we could do it and then admitting we couldn’t do it and then going back and humbly re-figuring it out.

SKP: (laughing) what a great challenge though. So, we hear there’s no formal audition process.

DJ: Nope

SKP: Do you have to be a Portland resident, or what gets you in the group?

DJ: You know, send an e-mail and then say, “Hey I’m available.” Then maybe a couple years later we’ll say, “Hey are you still available?” (Laughs)

SKP: (laughing) “Yes, I’ve had no work and here I am still”

DJ: That’s about what it is. I mean you have to be able to read music, you have to have an open mind, you have to be able to be willing to sit in a tour van for long periods of time so it kind of self-selects at a certain point.

SKP: Well thank you.

---Song break

(Speaking with Diane Chaplin)

SKP: Diane, thank you for being here. Now, you moved from New York. You changed coasts, you changed the whole side of the country and you start playing with the Portland Cello Project and very soon you find yourself performing with the Penteras, this metal group.

DC: Yeah, you know my whole aesthetic of moving to Portland was to not continue what I had been doing. I was in the classical quartet world for so long and I really wanted to break out of that [and] do other things so I think I’ve accomplished that really well.

SKP: So you’re in this concert. It’s the 20th anniversary tribute concert, Vulgar Display of Power, and the crowd was very different than most classical-

DC: It was very different and you know it was one of the most wonderful and fun things I’ve ever done in my life. So it’s a very heavy metal, screaming kind of thing. I mean, we didn’t understand any of the lyrics. The crowd of four of five-hundred people screamed every lyric the whole time…

SKP: (laughing) while you’re playing

DC: …While we were playing, but one of the things about the whole cello sounding great on everything is all of that music, once you get out of whatever those lyrics are, sounds great and the energy and the drive of the music itself is what is fantastic on cellos.

SKP: I am just trying to imagine that much energy in the room. That’s exciting. Really that leads to another question. One thing that you do is you reach a whole other demographic than you would if you were the Portland Cello Quartet.

DC: Yeah, and I think that’s part of the appeal certainly for us as players as well as for the audience. There is certainly that idea that we’re going to play things that you don’t expect to hear on the cello. We really, really try to push that far and to surprise you with the variety. We’re playing a bunch of things today. They’re a little bit similar because we’re focusing on Elliott Smith but in a normal show by us, you’ll hear a change in music every time we do a new tune. It will be classical, it’ll be jazz, it’ll be hip-hop, heavy metal, all that.

SKP: Well you’re also the director of the Rose City Youth Orchestras where you conduct youth ensembles and you also do – with the Portland Cello Project you do some cool concerts.

DC: Right, I teach at a couple of colleges in Portland, but I am the Director of Educational Outreach actually for the Cello Project. I help organize and coordinate things that we do that are outreach concerts to school children. For instance yesterday in – where were we yesterday? Idaho Falls. It’s hard to keep track. We played for 700 school kids. We did a concert that morning for them. It’s just great because we’re building audiences of the future.

SKP: Really, you are. I am thinking that those people, for instance in Portland, the Rose City Youth Orchestras, that they’re also going to come out to your concerts.

DC: Well, hopefully. We hope they do. I think it’s really important – I think the enrichment to people’s lives, to expose them to music. You know, music is one of those basic human expressions. All cultures in the world do music in some way, shape or form. Whether they’re banging on sticks or singing songs, everyone has musical expression but not everyone can do it. They don’t feel like they have a musical soul in them. I think, for us to perform, we’re bringing that to people who maybe can’t do it themselves, but training children or even just playing concerts for school kids, helps them fulfill that desire for human beings to have music around them.

SKP: You know, one of our student producers for one of the radio shows for BYU Radio is from Portland and as soon as she heard, she said, “I heard them! I heard them, they came to my school when I was just a kid and I loved them.”

DC: Yay!

SKP: So, you’ve stayed in top of mind with her all this time. I want to ask - you said once that you had, “the good fortune to grow up surrounded by generous teachers and conductors.” Not every student and teacher are still on speaking terms by the end of the career.

DC: I had an amazing cello teacher, more than one actually, who gave me lessons either for free or a ridiculously amount of lessons when you’re supposed to be getting your one hour a week. In college [they would] give me three hours a week of lessons with no compensation, that’s what I mean by generous.

SKP: They believed in you or saw that you were serious about it?

DC: All of the above and that they were understanding that an hour a week of mentoring for a very talented student isn’t enough. I try myself to extend that same courtesy because it’s the only way that I can pay them back – these teachers that were so generous to me, who are all gone now. I do a certain amount of lessons either scholarships or totally free and let people come play in my youth orchestra. If they don’t have the money, that’s okay they can come play anyway because that’s how I give back.

SKP: That’s great. I think it’s pretty clear that you also have a lot of fun playing and I bet that gets passed on as well.

DC: Yeah, I love to play and I love to play in this group. It is so fun and it is fun in a different way. Classical music is fun also, in playing in a serious quartet or playing a recital or something. That’s fun but its serious fun. You have to practice really hard for months before and you feel like there’s an aesthetic of the way it’s done. The great cellists of the past have laid down this great legacy and we don’t have that here. We just – we’re the legacy. We’re setting the bar, we’re setting the legacy. So that gives us a freedom to just play our best and make it ours.

SKP: That’s actually a great introduction to this next song.

---Song break

(Speaking with Skip Vonkuske)

SKP: I wanted to ask about this whole opening your mind to new possibilities of what you could do with the cello. Obviously you had great technical training. Then, you found out what a loop-pedal was.

SV: Yeah, well it began even before loop pedals existed. When I was a teenager, I just wanted to take the cello where it hadn’t been before. The first thing I learned about were delay pedals, and I could get a two-second delay and play harmony above what I just played and that was such a revelation. I just wanted to do it all the time. Then one day I did discover the loop pedal. Another cellist was using one and that was our colleague, Gideon Freudman. I said, “What is that and when can I get one?” and apparently it was the next day.

SKP: (laughing) We read that you once said you were jealous of guitarists having this big, tunnel pallet and you were more inspired by Pink Floyd and Robert Fripp than Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich. Here we’re quoting you from years ago and you could be in a whole different place, but it seems like you really are – do you feel like you are still exploring what a cello can do?

SV: Absolutely, absolutely. Although I would say that Mischa and Yo-Yo Ma are equally influential on me. Yo-Yo has done so many things since those early years when I was looking for something more and when I was drawn in to the tonal pallets of electric guitar players. There’s so much that you can do with the cello without effect and I do believe that the best effects on the cello come from your right hand and your left hand and what you have inside.

SKP: Well you’ve performed for a while - Celltronic, was the name.

SV: Absolutely. It’s my actual website name too but I still perform under the name Celltronic. That’s kind of a blanket term used to describe the music I make when I use the loop pedal and pick-up’s and [it’s] a different approach to solo work that makes it feel like ensemble work but is not quite the same as playing with other live people.

SKP: I think we’re used to seeing guitarists have five or six pedals but this is a new thing to see a cellist with an array like that.

SV: Well there are quite a few of us out there but everybody does it a little different and looks for a different set up and a different sound. You’re always attempting to unlock that thing that will inspire you to play something new that you haven’t played before.

SKP: Let me talk about collaboration. Obviously you collaborate within a group and influence each other and make suggestions but you work with a lot of outside musicians and I don’t know if you have a few favorites. One that really struck us was working with Buckethead.

SV: Well working with Buckethead was an ensemble experience and one that was very – there was a separate-ness to it. We were still Cello Project and he was Bucket and our paths crossed while we were on stage. His people talked to us for him.

SKP: It’s hard to talk through the mask? Or he just likes to remain separate?

SV: I don’t think he said a word to us or anybody as far as I know.

SKP: (laughing) A purely musical collaboration.

SV: A purely musical collaboration.

SKP: Well are there any other favorite collaborations? Maybe that have been a little more collaborative?

SV: We really enjoyed all of our work over the years with Laura Gibson. I’ve enjoyed our work with Patti King who ends up touring with us a good portion of the time when we need a singer that our audience will love. But I’ve loved – Blind Pilot, there’s more people that I could mention. I’m sure that as I drive away today I’ll remember – I should have mentioned all these other people.

SKP: That’s a good starter list, maybe we could find the rest online [or] other places. Well we want to hear another piece…

---Song break

(Speaking with Douglas Jenkins)

SKP: I wanted to ask you – you have such an amazing beginning to start. You didn’t even pick up a cello until you were a teenager.

DJ: You guys do all your research. You have quite a producer I think.

SKP: It’s her superpower.

DJ: (laughing) Yeah that story hasn’t gotten out very much but its true. I started later [when] I was about seventeen or eighteen.

SKP: Would some people say that’s too late to really get good at it?

DJ: Yes

SKP: So that’s amazing that you – you found a great teacher.

DJ: I was lucky to have really good teachers. Also, to be – I don’t know how much of the story to tell. I was in college and I couldn’t really afford college and I needed free rent or cheap rent. So this woman was very kind to me and basically gave me really inexpensive rent in her house and she happened to be the principal cellist in the symphony in the town I was living in. So I basically got free lessons for years, daily. She cracked the whip. She was a mean teacher and –

SKP: (laughing) So there’s a place for the task-masters of the world.

DJ: There can be. I think her theory of it was, “he shouldn’t be playing this late anyway, [and] he’s too old. So if he’s going to do it, he better do it right from the beginning.” So I lucked out.

SKP: Well we love the story of you taking an old vintage fender amp into Eugenes Buy and Sell Music Center-

DJ: (laughing)

SKP: So you [were] going to pawn this or just sell it. Then you end up with a cello.

DJ: Yep, that was it. I mean, like I said, it was hard to afford college so I had this – I was trying to pay rent. And then I was like, “maybe I shouldn’t pay rent this month, maybe I should get a job.”

SKP: But you had never played it before, you just saw one.

DJ: When I grew up, I grew up in Honolulu and the rehearsals of the symphony were free every Sunday. So the public would come in and just go sit-in on the rehearsals. For me it was, “I need a place to escape to,” and it ended up being my place to escape to. So I had, growing up, only listened to classical music and seeing the symphony every weekend that way. I loved the cello the whole time. It was always the one I wanted to play but you know, when you’re fifteen wanting to be a punk rocker usually takes precedence to that so-

SKP: (laughing) First things first

DJ: (laughing) Yeah

SKP: So do you ever do that? Do you ever have an open rehearsal?

DJ: I don’t think we have, that’s actually a pretty good idea.

SKP: That’s kind of a cool idea. Well you found a way to fit in with the cello it sounds like.

DJ: Yeah, I mean life takes all its strange twists and turns and ended up where it was.

SKP: Well I want to ask also about, – we also read about – you’re going to be like, “what? Did they examine my life with a microscope?” You’re an interesting fellow, let me just say that. So, we were fascinated that you were in grad school and then thinking, “do I even want to do this?”

DJ: Yeah, that’s right.

SKP: You’re not the first grad student to think that. It seems like what you did is you invented a job that didn’t exist, that was the job you wanted.

DJ: I don’t think it was, I think I just lucked into it. I think it was just something that was happening. There was a lot of people, I mean it wasn’t – playing the cello this way, playing in rock clubs is not a unique thing. I mean Matt Haimovitz was doing it before we were. I think a lot of it – there was a lot of people involved when Cello project got started and I think everybody was just on the same wavelength.

SKP: Okay, you’ve totally convinced me [that] you’re completely uninteresting.

DJ: (laughing) mission successful

SKP: (laughing) Thank you so much. The music is so beautiful and I’m wondering – you do combinations. We’ve heard a quartet [and] the last piece was five players. How do you decide that?

DJ: Usually it works itself out in rehearsal. If [someone’s] feeling there’s just too much in one place or it feels like it needs to have more of an intimate feel – and we really like that on stage, to have that variety of the bigger vs. smaller ensemble just to give a different change in texture and that kind of thing.

SKP: Good. Well we’re going to hear – we’re going to try some classical chops now here to prove these guys really did practice and go to lessons…

---Song break

(Speaking with Julian Kosanovic)

SKP: Julian, no time to give you the full FBI workup here but-

JK: Oh, darn.

SKP: But is it true? Are you the newest member of the group?

JK: That’s true. Just a little over a year now, yes.

SKP: And so, was it what you expected? Were you – maybe you listened to them enough that you knew exactly what to expect – but were you surprised by anything when you joined the group?

JK: Well before I joined I was very impressed with what they were doing. I was awe-struck every time I went to a performance and [was] just so into it. It was so fun to be in the audience. I feel so fortunate to now be part of it and there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that I never knew went on. Now I know a lot of the workings of how a tour is put together and how much managerial work goes into it.

SKP: Yeah, it’s not just playing beautiful music. Beautifully done, thank you.

(Speaking with Sage Coy)

SKP: Sage, I understand it was not too long ago that you graduated from college.

SC: Correct.

SKP: And where did you study music?

SC: I went to school at Louis and Clark college and I actually was a psychology major and was a music minor.

SKP: So you just flipped over. And what made the change for you?

SC: Well, you know, when I started school I had recently felt a little burnt out on classical music. I started playing when I was six. When I got to school I just started jamming and playing with friends and it became fun again. I started taking lessons again but decided to do the minor because it made it something that I had to practice and had to be really involved but it wasn’t my primary academic focus so it didn’t become something that I had to do.

SKP: So it sounds like you’re still jamming and still having fun.

SC: I am, yeah. I would say so. This is a great group to do it with.

SKP: Thank you for coming in and playing today. It’s been beautiful to hear you play.

SC: Thanks for having us.

(Speaking with Kevin Jackson)

SKP: Kevin, thank you too for coming in and playing today. Now I understand that you also write music for video games.

KJ: For the group, yeah, I arrange a lot of video game music, anime music, movie music.

SKP: Any favorite games that have the themes that you love the best, growing up and getting exposed to?

KJ: I mean they are definitely two different things. When you grew up there was like 8-bit music so these composers were working with a really limited scope.

SKP: Yes, yes.

KJ: Mario and Zelda, those were amazing games to grow up with and that just ring in your head. Then as you get older they get into orchestra, like Final Fantasy and all [that] sort of music has really [been] with me my entire life.

SKP: It’s really great that better music is getting put into games. There’s some real skill going into it now, not the, who could play something? Or, who could make an endless loop?

KJ: No, they hire full orchestras now. They spend as much as movies do.

SKP: Well I have to confess, me and my two youngest boys went to a recent Zelda orchestra concert and we were cheering there, we were loving it.

KJ: Right? They’re good!

SKP: Did you start off on the cello?

KJ: I did.

SKP: Just right from the beginning, you thought, “that’s for me.”

KJ: In fourth grade I was the only kid large enough to start on the full-sized cello.

SKP: (laughing) “Here dude, play this”

KJ: Exactly.

SKP: Kevin, thank you so much for coming in. The ensemble we heard today from the Portland Cello Project. Douglas Jenkins, the artistic director. We also heard Skip Vonkuske, Diane Chaplin, Kevin Jackson, Sage Coy and Julian Kosanovick. 


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