Interview re: "creating a contemporary cello career"

I was recently asked a few interview questions for a paper being written by a student, Colin Ramsey, on creating a contemporary cello career.  I’ve been given permission to post the interview as I gave it to my blog.   I thought some of you folks might be interested in it.  Tonight I will be finishing up the interview questions for a book about innovative Indiana artists in which, if i understand it correctly there might also be included an interview of David Letterman amongst many other Hoosier artists and entertainers.

CR: What is the contemporary cello sound and is it evolving?

JS: I think that goes without saying nowadays.  It’s far too easy for us to access different ways of making music so we’re no longer confined by our geographic location or the geographic location of major traditional media sources such as television and radio.  In some ways it seems as if any idea of what it means to be a cellist (or any other type of musician) has accelerated.

As far as what the sound it, maybe it would be more useful to talk about what the sounds are.  Sure, there’s still this dominant and orthodox idea of what it means to play the cello or be a cellist but given the media outlets I mentioned it’s getting easier to come up with an idiosyncratic style or to adopt a style from something else.  Things have become more ‘fragmented’ and with that backdrop it has become easier for cellists (and other musicians) to follow their own musical and stylistic paths.

For example, in the Mediterranean there’s this nearly 200 year tradition of cello playing intimately tied to the Ottoman Empire and its former territories that has little to do with Western Classical music.  With a growing immigrant population from the Middle East and the ease of access to experiencing this music there’s a corresponding rise of cellists in the US who are being trained or are finding training to play Ottoman Classical or Middle Eastern music.

Certainly the decline in work for cellists in the Classical Music field is helping to contribute to this as well as the increasing number of cellists actually getting formal training at the Conservatory level.  It’s becoming as easy to find cellists forming “bands” (Apocalyptica, Cellofourte, Break of Reality); adopting a singer-songwriter approach–event to the extent of adopting extended techniques mimicking the guitar or other strummed and plucked instruments (Lindsay Mac, Ben Sollee, Aaron Minsky); playing classical Indian music (Saskia Rao-de Haas, Nancy Kulkarni); playing Jazz or doing improv (David Darling, Eugene Friesen, Erik Friedlander, Mark Summer); and the more orthodox route of playing contemporary “alt-classical” music with tons of extended techniques (Joan Jeanrenaud, Maya Beiser, Francis-Marie Uitti).

CR: What does it take to make a career in cello these days?

JS: I would rush to say adaptability, but that’s only partially true.  It really depends on what you want.  obviously hard work goes without saying, but in countries like Venezuela, China, Thailand there’s a growing number of more traditional Classical music ensembles (and audiences for them) this is all while it’s on a steady decline in the US and barely holding its own in Europe.  So part of the story of what might make success is willingness to re-locate where the Classical Music field is growing ratehr than staying where it’s declining.

But as for those who do chose to stay where the market for orthodox Classical music is shrinking, then adaptability is probably a given.  It has, in some ways, become more of a freelance market.  Many major symphony orchestras seem to be unwilling to fill vacancies to just hire subs because of the cost.  And while tehre may still be any number of smaller regional and local ensembles it takes a ton of gigging to make a living doing those–and it’s a competitive market given that there are just far too many formally trained cellists.

But for the cellists that are willing to take some different training there can be other opportunities for the enterprising freelancer or even semi-permanent gigging situations.  For example, I play regularly in a World Music ensemble that I co-founded.  For a while we performing close to 200 shows a year–and we needed to do that because the monetary take from the kinds of events we played were more along the lines of what any typical local rock band would take home.  In the past few years I’ve since started gigging regularly with a local Arabic ensemble in Louisville and occasionally tour around the US in the string section of a Country Western band.  I don’t have to perform nearly as much now since I can be a bit more selective about the events I want to play.

I think the point I’m emphasizing is that there are several models for cellistic playing that we are now exposed to and that many of those have little to do with what we consider orthodox cello careers.  In some cases cellists have carved out a career doing something unrelated to classical cello playing and in other cases cellists are now exposed to other types of cello playing traditions like the ones that have exist in countries from the Middle East where string playing traditions for a completely different kind of music tradition has existed for centuries and have been adapted to Western string instruments over the past couple of centuries.

CR: What is the role of classical tradition in the upbringing of young cellists in a modern world?

JS: The Western Classical tradition still maintains a generally high level of instrumental training for young cellists and is often the model for art music tradition education in the reforms for those other non-Western Art music traditions.  It’s become an institution and the primary model through which people can view themselves as having any sort of legitimacy through the instrument though as I noted above that model is now becoming only one of many competing models.

Still, many cellists who do end up doing music outside the Western Art tradition of ten get their training in (or alongside) the traditional training that cellists have had in Western countries.  The general efficiency of the system and the high level of training these instrumentalists get becomes a solid foundation for approaching many of the alternatives I’ve mentioned so for the most part the Classical tradition still has a big role to play in even many paths that cellists can take in Western countries especially.

Whether or not the oversaturation of Classically trained cellists will start to shape the number of people who attempt to get that training or not is really unclear.  It seems like, in general, higher education tends to train many more people could ever be needed for a number of fields and though there surely must be a point where supply/demand will level out that’s not necessarily going to be a determining factor on individuals’ desires to enter a field even if those individuals may never actually enter the field after gradutation.

CR: What is the role of technology in performances?

JS: Two main roles I see now, and at least one important one I can see for the future.

The primary role technology has for performance has opened up a whole world of soundmaking in general.  Cellists using effects and electronics to extend the role of traditional cello playing is the primary example here.  Cellists are no longer limited to the sounds that the instrument can make (though I sometimes feel that few cellists have really fully explored eve the bare instrument itself).  Adding effects and electronics; computer softward and hardware; it’s relatively simple to extend the capabilities of sound production of the performer via the cello.  This has obviously helped to drive some cellists to move into the pop and rock world and other cellists to move more into the world of contemporary music and electro-acoustic performance and improv.

The second role technology has in performance is in informing performance practice.  As I mentioned above cellists with access to the internet now have little excuse to be unaware of, say, Ugur Isik’s Classical Turkish Cello playing, or the collaborative effort between Tod Machover and Yo-Yo Ma with the hypercello, or the quirky eclectic pop Guitar and Cello duet Montana Skies.  It’s all there to be discovered on the internet–youtube and other video sites can be every inquisitive cellist’s friend.  It’s also now just as easy to find archival videos of master cellists like Piatagorsky and Feuermann or performances of early music ensembles or classical Arabic ensembles and actually see, as well as hear, how cellists are creating this style of playing.

As far as how technology can change the future of performance it seems, to me, to be an extension of the second role above.  Technology can be a wonderful pedagogical tool in that musicians can see how musicians in performing traditions do their trade as well as the types of audiences that are out there for music.  In some ways this can, and has become a substitute for the more orthodox formal training many musicians get.  Not that this hasn’t already been the case as obviously the recording industry has created generations of pop musicians that have been inspired by just the sounds and playing of musicians in audio (and then video) format.  But now, given that the whole world of music is available for anyone with access to high speed internet connections, inspiration can only accelerate.

On top of that, just being able to find digital copies and translations of the wealth of musical treatises and teaching manuals outside of those indigenous to the country a musician is living in is making it easier to piece together a more nuanced picture of other performing traditions.  Obviously being able to interact with musicians in those traditions through email, online forums, and now with social networking tools like MySpace and Facebook, it’s becoming very easy to be led in musical directions you might not otherwise go if left to more local, regional, or even national avenues of media and education.

CR: Does vernacular music play a role in how you shape and write pieces to be performed?

JS: If by vernacular, you mean more ‘local’ styles and genres as opposed to the more ‘universal’ or international styles and genres (as some would claim Western Classical and Western Pop music to be) then yes.  If you’re meaning Pop music as opposed to Classical music, then maybe not so much.

Most of the works I’ve written the past several years have been more informed by non-Western idioms and styles.  Most of the improvisation I do is also in more non-Western idioms, especially styles of music from the Mediterranean.  I had recently written a bellydance piece with vocals in Klingon, but that is more of an outlier in my musical composition output.

CR: What is the role of visual arts in performance practice? (i.e. usage of dancers, music videos, etc.)

JS: I think that the visual aspect (or maybe we should say the “theatrical aspect”?) of performance has always been a bit of a bugaboo for the Western Classical tradition where we have this notion of absolute music versus programmatic music where the former has a higher position of prestige than the latter.  And while Western Opera and Ballet are traditional multi-media or multi-genre kinds of performances, even those genres seem to get less attention than, say, Symphonic music.

It’s just part of that odd history of Western Art music (and maybe Western culture in general) where specialization has become the norm and we seem to have this drive to become hyper-specialized to the point that we almost completely forget that, when performing, we are on a stage.  And it’s a visual stage unless the musician is in a pit in which case I can see how that hierarchy of absolute music tends to get priority of attention.

This is really very different from how musical performances outside of the Classical genre happen–even in Pop music concerts.  Those kinds of performances are as much events and theatreas they are musical concerts.  And in most of those cases there is also a high level of constant active audience participation.  I almost typed simply “active audience participation” but that would have been unfair and inaccurate.  There’s audience participation in the Symphony hall, it’s just not a constant participation.  I think many symphony organizations are realizing that this is important for today’s audiences which is becoming very apparent with the type of programming that’s starting to happen–the video game music concerts; the concerts tied to cinematic works like the Lord of the rings and Star Wars; the touring Cirque de Soleil program as well as other events that are tied to popular musicians’ collaborations with orchestras.

Whether or not these things will be enough to sustain Symphonic organizations that have been traditionally bastions of absolute music is left to be seen.

CR: What extended or unusual technique(s) do you use?

JS: That’s an interesting question if only because it’s a bit loaded.  Back when I was doing a lot of experimental music I would have answered somethng to the effect of “it would be a lot easier for me to list the extended techniques I don’t use” but now I’m leaning towards saying something like “what’s an extended technique in the Western Classical tradition might be standard technique in another performing tradition.”  I’m reminded of a discussion at the cello chat forum (the forum for the forum for the Internet Cello Society) about a youtube video of a performance of the Beatle’s “Helter Skelter” by cellist Petr Akimov where a poster said something to the effect that the cello used as a crossover instrument rarely come of making good music.  I think my response was something to the effect of “relative to the long tradition of the style of cello playing in traditional Middle Eastern orchestras, Western Classical music ensembles are the crossover styles.”

I think it’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that the historical priority of our own traditions outweigh those of others–and then make musical value judgments based on that frame of reference.

That being said, and getting back to your question:  I’ve used electronics and amplification in experimental setting and in Pop/Rock music band settings;  I’ve used the cello as a prop for performance art and experimental videos–one of my favorite examples of the latter was a video in which I shaved my cello, and;  I’ve sorted out, either by myself, or with help from musicians from other traditions, how to use different left and right hand positions to be able to do special stylistic things that are normal to those traditions or stylistic things that are more related to other instrumental and the techniques used in them.

CR: What image are you projecting as a new world cellist?

JS: That’s a tricky question as it’s something I’ve only just started figuring out recently.  I’ve been toying with a mission statement for what I do to put on my website–basically the defining thing about my musical activities and it’s only recently that I’ve really got a handle on that.  I think I see myself as something of a cultural ambassador.  The normal role of an ambassador is to be a focal point through which a culture may connect and interact with another one.  In my case, especially given my musical activities the past few years, I’ve felt like I’m in the position of being an ambassador for immigrant minority cultures in general.  How I do that is through playing music from non-mainstream (to the USA) cultures and the main instrument by which I do that is, of course, the cello!  I just need to find an eloquent way of stating that in text for my mission statement and I’m good to go!

CR: According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the level of education an individual has is both an accurate indicator of future income and arts participation. Do you think, with this in mind, that people both inside and outside the arts (i.e. performers, listeners, non-listeners that can spell classical music) consider classical music elitist? If so, is this hurting the art form?, helping it change?, mostly what is your take on this type of data?

JS: The recent report the NEA has given for Arts data is disturbing on many levels–if only because it’s a confirmation of the trends that people have been seeing for years (if not decades).  Yes, I do believe that there are a great many people both inside and outside the arts who think that Classical music is elitist.  Some of those inside prefer that kind of designation for their favored form of entertainment for whatever reasons.  Yes, I do believe this is part of the culture of Classical music that is hurting it as well as part of the background by which those who support it expect it to continue to get supported (either via private or public funds).  No, I don’t believe that kind of attitude is going to help it to change–or rather, it will help it to change on by virtue of the fact that by holding onto that attitude that may push more and more people away from the artform, thereby further limiting funding, which will then force it to change.

But, I’m not exactly sure what the indicator is that you’re referring to, as I understood it (and I say this not having read the most recent NEA reports) the report was showing that fewer and fewer people in those higher education/income brackets are going to the arts (and concerts) in general.  Is this what you meant?


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