Portland Cello Project is a collective of classically trained cellists that came out of, you guessed it, Portland, in 2007. And they’re bringing the cello to pop culture, playing music that you may not normally associate with the instrument. They’ve played everywhere from a punk rock club in Fargo North Dakota to a sports bar in Lubbock Texas. I spoke with the group’s artistic director Doug Jenkins who started off by explaining how the group began.
So how did the Portland Cello Project begin?
It was like a big random act of cellos coming together. There were a bunch of cellists who moved to Portland around 2006-2007 and we’d go to each other’s shows and support each other. And this one guy Tony Rogers invited everybody to his house to play some cello ensemble music in his living room and we did. We had some beers and maybe we had too many beers because then we were like ‘let’s do this in bars, let’s bring the cello group to bars.’ And we did.
I booked us a show at the Doug Fir Lounge and it was fun and some people came. I think most of us at that point were like, ‘that was a fun show, we’ll never do this again, that’s it.’ And so for whatever reason we booked another show and another show and we just kept doing it. And we started invited our friends onstage to sing with us like singer songwriter Laura Gibson and Horse Feathers and people like that.
For one show I thought it would be funny to arrange a Brittney Spears song and that was immediately a good idea. From there we kind of got this reputation and evolved into what we’re doing where we take the cello places you wouldn’t normally see it and play music you wouldn’t normally hear on it. We play very little classical music anymore and we collaborate a lot with our friends so we’ll bring them onstage with us and play.
Why the cello? Why not the piano or the violin or the oboe or another instrument?
There’s really two parts to that answer. I mean, one, we all play the cello. Two, we’re lucky that we all play the cello because it’s an instrument with such a wide range to it. I mean it’s beautiful when you play it really low and beautiful when you play really high. We can play the orchestral music that’s not even written for us. There’s the practical side of it is just the cello is capable of being its own orchestra. Having a bunch of cellos is capable of sounding like a regular orchestra in some ways. And there’s the other side of it where we all happen to be there at the same time and we all play the cello for a long time.
You guys are into collaborating with other musicians, how has that shaped your work?
That’s something that has evolved over the years for sure because it’s, um, most of the cellists in the group don’t improvise at all and most of the people we collaborate with pretty much only improvise. They don’t read music, they don’t score things out, they write songs, they memorize them and they play them and they play them from the heart.
With a lot of classical music you’re basically trying to recreate something that’s been written down often a long time ago and put your own spirit into that. Working with collaborative musicians is a different process in that we are a part of that inspiration as its being created. It’s very different than what most classical musicians are used to doing their whole lives. And it’s exciting. So it’s almost as if we have two people that are in the room that speak a different language and we have to translate for each other and figure out how to make things work.
So what’s the process like of creating the music?
In general we score almost everything out. So there’s that initial learning to work together process and stuff like that. But then we do usually write everything down because we score things out based on what the collaborative musician would like or based on the vision of the person who’s scoring the piece that we’re going to be performing. And then from there we play through the music and we talk a lot about what we want to do in terms of the expression and the dynamics and all that stuff.
We write a lot of very strange notes on our pages. Initially the music that’s in front of us looks like any other score but because we don’t have a conductor we have to know where the cue’s coming from, where the tempo’s coming from. There’s a lot of names all over our music so we know where to look and where to listen and where to think about where things are coming from. So there’s a lot of looking around the stage at who’s doing what and when.
On tour do you plan what each set’s going to be, Is it the same thing every night?
It varies a lot. We often will make set lists before shows when we’re on tour because we want to make sure we have things mapped out right. And sometimes we will just call it out on stage. Depending on the room is really what defines what we play. If we’re in a nice theater we might play a different kind of set than if we’re in a dive bar. When we tour we could be in a symphony hall or in a pretty rugged punk rock club every other night. So it really depends on the place we’re playing and how the sound is and how the crowd feels.
Your new album, which was inspired by hip hop, was released May 1. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Hip hop really is the most vibrant and creative American art form. Like it or not it’s everywhere it’s going to be in all the commercials you see, the influences there, all the movies you watch. the way that hip hop music is called production which is kind of a strange word because I don’t see really any difference between production and composition. You’re writing a song and you’re building it texturally like orchestrating it with all the different sounds and stuff. So we made the record based on that idea of trying to really celebrate and pay homage to this American art form of hip hop music
Portland Cello Project will be in Columbia playing at Mojos May 9