CNN: Cellists kick out the jams at SXSW

March 19, 2011

When Matt Haimovitz and Uccello take the stage, they sometimes work their cellos more like guitars, or drums, or or any other instrument that might be chucked across the room in a fit of rock-rage musical passion.

“I do not condone what we are about to do,” Haimovitz quietly told an audience this week before two musicians beat the junk out of a cello propped sideways on their laps.

This is, of course, what it takes to be an eight-person cello ensemble playing one of the biggest musical events of the year. South by Southwest might have a reputation for launching shoegazing noise bands, gangster rappers and Waylon-esque country wailers to the mainstream, but among the 2,000 acts in Austin this year, it was their cellos that played before Bob Geldof’s SXSW keynote speech.

“I’d been wanting to play South by Southwest for a long time,” said Haimovitz, a professor at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal. “That was the first real project that made it possible.”

Haimovitz has played CBGB, and recorded an arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for cello. Still, to treat a cello ensemble as a big band required creative musicians and new arrangements of jazz works made famous by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and John McLaughlin.Meeting of the Spirits

It helped, too, to have access to the greats themselves, like McLaughlin, who jammed with the cellists and appeared on Uccello’s album, “Meeting of the Spirits.”

“We did a lot of listening. It took us a year to figure out how to count and swing,” Haimovitz said. “To have one sound come out and look and see it’s a cello, that was kind of neat.”

When Haimovitz credits the members of the ensemble, he refers to them as being “on the electric guitar,” or “on the drums,” as if it weren’t a cello propped between their knees. (That cello that took the beating? Haimovitz calls it their “cello machine.” They picked it up for about $50.)

But something special really began to happen as other classical musicians applauded their sound, along with jazz purists, and even some popular music press. A Grammy nomination for “Meeting of the Spirits,” pushed it “out of a big, big pile of music to listen to and made it a priority,” Haimovitz said. (Uccello didn’t win, but Haimovitz did get to sit by The Ramones that evening. Not too bad.)

And for the leader of the group, the real change occurred as “I stopped relating to the others as students, which they all are my students, and started to work with them as colleagues.”

Haimovitz knows they won’t all stay in Montreal forever, but with experiences like this behind them, he said, they can go anywhere.

“Some are going to end up in an orchestra, some in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Haimovitz said. “They’re ready for just about anything. Their ears are open, and their minds are open.”

by Jamie Gumbrecht

View this at the CNN website.

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