Portland Cello Project
The first time you see the Portland Cello Project perform you might be perplexed when you hear affectionate fans shouting "We Love PCP!"
In spite of a barrage of musical and visual sensory overload, you'll figure out that you aren't in a crowd of horse-tranquilizer-snorting maniacs, and that "PCP" is the tongue-in-cheek acronym of this group
of classically trained cellists.
But you'll wonder what kind of a crowd this is In the course of one of PCP's epic 2-3 hour shows (the format of which is always a one-time affair the group writes almost entirely new arrangements
for every performance cycle) you'll see such sights as: old ladies, straight out of the symphony hall nodding their head to cello hip-hop; young children playing air cello while dancing to 16 cellos
accompanying The Builders and The Butchers; hipsters too-cool-for-school mesmerized by Arvo Paert; members of the Decemberists playing late 19th century Russian compositions transcribed for Hammond Organ, a 40-piece choir, and of course: a symphony of cellos.
Since the group's inception in late 2007, they have performed with a veritable "Who's Who?" list of Portland musicians, from Laura Gibson to The Dandy Warhols, Horse Feathers, Mirah and Loch Lomond, just to name a few.
The cello is more-or-less the only constant in this amorphous collective from Portland, Oregon. Yet there is an organizer holding this anarchic display of controlled chaos together. You'll see him sitting in the back row of the cello section at all of these shows, as if to appear an anonymous member of the horde. This is Douglas Jenkins. Jenkins, who often pens15-20 new scores for each performance, has led the band through two previous CD's of original songs and covers, and has been at the heart of the band's rise to immense popularity in their hometown.
The group's newest full-length is being released on June 9th, 2009 on their new label, local independent Kill Rock Stars. This CD and indeed the relationship forged with this well-suited record label
embodies the group's belief that "collaboration is the cornerstone of independence and artistic freedom." Two of the artists who have collaborated with PCP: Thao Nguyen of Thao With The Get Down Stay Down and local musician Justin Power, contribute four songs each to this CD, the Thao and Justin Power Sessions. And the other four songs on the record are strategically placed examples of cello sublimity and madness: from a Pantera cover, to a solemn religious piece by John Tavener.
Although it's no longer an anomaly for popular musicians to work with an orchestra, it tends to be on the symphony's terms, in the symphony's concert halls, and for the symphony's exclusive rates. The
classically trained cellists of The Portland Cello Project are working to reverse that tradition by making their talents accessible to their guests wildest dreams, while bringing the instrument into venues where
you wouldn't normally see cellos. With this in mind, the group will be touring throughout 2009-2010, bringing their collaborative philosophy to a dirty punk club near you! (or in this case, the High Noon Saloon)
Beast of Seasons opens with a hum and drone, a veil of fog conjuring a sense of atmosphere not unlike the Pacific Northwest coastal timber town where Laura Gibson was raised. A plaintive strum emerges with a voice in tow; a candle, a tender and flickering wisp of a voice suffusing the space with a warm glow. This voice, registering as little more than a whisper, rises above the subtle and evocative instrumentation with uncommon intimacy. Coos and cracks, chirps and slurs, clucks and purrs all come into focus with perceptive musicality.
Steeped in the fingerpick-guitar rudiments of folk music, inspired by the expressionism of classic jazz vocalists, and finding common ground in the minimalism and ear-taunting of the avant garde, Laura Gibson alights on a branch of the music tree that no one else has found. Gibson reveals that her own singing is more informed by a sensitivity and self exploration than by training. "I like to feel the rumble in my sternum and the vibrations in the back of my throat when I sing. I tend to gravitate toward simplicity and minimalism, but I am very conscious of the particular notes I play."
Equally deliberate, and as a nod to the vinyl record era, Beast Of Seasons is split into two parts. Part 1: Communion Songs, and Part II: Funeral Songs. "In looking back over these songs, I found two themes arising: First, reaching towards something outside of ourselves, be it a lover or god or family (Communion Songs) and second, grappling with the idea of ultimate aloneness and acceptance (Funeral Songs)." The songs isolate distinct and familiar emotions from the many reactions to death, ranging from fear ("Where Have All Your Good Words Gone"), and denial ("Sweet Deception"), to brave acceptance ("Funeral Song").
As a whole, the record might be interpreted as nine meditations on mortality. This is not to say it is a work of philosophy, but rather a group of meditations, or gut reactions to the idea of death. Written from a room in a house overlooking the mossy gravestones and mature maples of one of Portland's oldest cemeteries, Gibson notes she finished the last song just days before moving out. "When I was finished I felt a great relief," she offers, as if an epilogue to the opening line of the album: "I have carried beasts for many seasons"
Drawing on anatomical imagery (words like bones, skin, tongue, and spine appear multiple times on this record) Gibson updates the pastoral imagery of Appalachian folk and country blues idioms with the landscape of the body. "I feel the seasons changing in my lungs, and I recognize grief as a weight in my bones," Gibson explains. On "Funeral Songs" she blurs this line, "Ask no greater pardon than the pattern time is carving in your skin." Though each song dances around the theme of death, ultimately, they reflect the urgency of life.
Her accomplice for Beasts of Seasons was friend and Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine. The project offered Martine a departure from the grand visions of bands like The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens. The computer in Martine's studio was eschewed in favor of a vintage, slightly shaky, two inch tape machine. Limited to sixteen tracks, many things were recorded live. Instead of laying down multiple horn tracks, they invited all of their horn playing friends over one afternoon to collaborate. Instead of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, they formed a choir of compatriots.
In fact, many friends dropped in to contribute, including musical collaborator Rachel Blumberg (M Ward band, Bright Eyes), Nate Query (Decemberists), Adam Selzer (Norfolk and Western, M Ward), avant-garde violist and composer Eyvind Kang, solo artists Laura Veirs and Shelly Short, Danny Seim (Menomena) and many of the people who have formed her touring band over the past two years (Cory Gray, Sean Ogilvie, Dave Depper, Jason Leonard, Micah Rabwin). The evocative artwork was painted by Evan B Harris.
Sprinkled between the tracks are field recordings of a parade that interrupted a quiet session on a sunny Saturday. The stark contrast of recording sober (occasionally somber) songs of mortality on a beautiful sunny day as a parade went by was not lost on them. Martine and Gibson embraced the dichotomy, both thematically and personally, and wove these audio snapshots in as a counterpoint.
"Glory is found in those closest to you," said Gibson. For her own part she offers, "As a writer, all I could hope to be, if nothing else, is honest and generous in spirit. I have been alive for exactly 29 years, perhaps not as old as the trees, but certainly older than the birds. There are days I feel like an old women, and I find that death is a calm and familiar presence. There are days I feel like a young child, where death seems so foreign and shocking.
Perhaps, more than anything, Gibson's songs might be quiet reflections of the human body, reflections both of strength, and of frailty." With Beasts of Seasons, Gibson offers up an intimate affirmation of mortality, both vulnerable and courageous, dark and illuminating, ordinary and extraordinary.
High Noon Saloon
701A. E. Washington Ave.
Madison, WI 53703
|Minimum Age: 18|
|Kid Friendly: No|
|Dog Friendly: No|
|Wheelchair Accessible: Yes!|