Quick: Name your favorite cellist (besides Yo-Yo Ma). Can't think of one? All right, how about your favorite guitarist, drummer or singer? That was much easier, wasn't it? Chances are, when you hear the words "rock star" or "Portland music scene," the cello is the last instrument that comes to mind—unless you're Doug Jenkins of the Portland Cello Project.
"It's hip," says Jenkins, 31, about being a cellist in Portland. "It's super-hip. The second people find out I play the cello, it's like, 'Hey, want to play on my record?'"
As Jenkins tells it, Portland's cello community is on the rise. Bands like his own chamber-rock quintet, Bright Red Paper; WW' s 2007 Best New Band runner-up Horse Feathers; and folk-rock outfit John Weinland have all been seen cavorting with the Portland Cello Project, a collective of local cellists that's turning the traditional concept of orchestra performance on its head.
For the past year, the 10-plus member Project—which includes Horse Feathers' Heather Broderick, Vagabond Opera's Skip vonKuske, "honorary member" Tony Rogers (Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co.) and CelloBop originator Gideon Freudmann—has been putting on inexpensive performances at non-traditional venues like the Doug Fir and Crystal Ballroom. A typical show includes a classical piece, an instrumental version of a popular song (Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It" was a recent offering) and a collaborative performance with an indie-rock band.
No longer are cellists hiding in the wings, reliving memories of traumatic junior-high orchestra performances. Gone is the discomfiture of lugging around a huge stringed beast. "I have to admit I was embarrassed to carry the cello around, since it was so big and I was so small," says cellist Sonja Myklebust, 21, of her younger years playing the instrument. Now, the cello is becoming more a badge of honor—the brand of a unique skill amid a sea of guitarists.
And cellists are actually earning some respect in Portland's über-hip music scene. "It's just a trip to play cello music and have everyone scream and yell and love it," says Jenkins—who began playing cello 12 years ago—about the Project's live shows. Such enthusiasm is, in part, thanks to more bands of twenty- and thirtysomething musicians adding cello to their repertoires, not to mention the Project's decision to play more rock-oriented venues. "It's awesome to have eight cellos onstage at the Holocene," adds Jenkins.
Fame (or screaming fans, at least) aside, there's no fortune behind the Project: It rebuffs the financial support that a typical orchestra receives, like wealthy donors or a fundraising board. But, unlike struggling Portland rock bands, Jenkins and most of his crew are professionally and gainfully employed as musicians, from jobs giving music lessons to playing in their own bands to working in studios. "Having a niche instrument is huge," says Jenkins. "Both in the ability to find work and to be easily adaptable to another musician's or band's style."
Adaptability is key to the Project's success. Rather than composing original material, the cellists play arrangements of other bands' songs, serving as a complement rather than competition. It makes sense that artists like singer-songwriter Laura Gibson would rather perform with the unifying sound of 12 cellos than a more distracting 12-piece orchestra. "The cello offers a nice, tasty sonic earful," says Project member Freudmann, 45.
This "sonic earful" also pushes bands like Loch Lomond (whose viola player, Amanda Lawrence, is also a Project cellist) to churn out bigger, better live performances. While the Old World folk ensemble already writes haunting melodies, adding 12 cellos to a song like "Tic" forces the band's musicians to another level. Singer Ritchie Young's voice becomes strained, more emotional; Scott Magee's drumming becomes more deliberate to match the cellos' huge sound. The Portland Cello Project might be just another member of the band—but it's the strongest, loudest one.
The Portland Cello Project plays Friday, Oct. 26, with Norfolk&Western, Loch Lomond and Skip vonKuske at the Aladdin Theater. 8 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. All ages.