By Thomas May
“Question authority” isn’t just a political slogan. This quintessentially Socratic imperative is also characteristic of visionary artists who are drawn to challenge cultural assumptions that put a damper on the power of the art they practice. For Texas-born cellist Seth Parker Woods, pushing boundaries and definitions comes naturally—both for his own creative development and for his overall sense of mission.
“I’m trying to change the face and the landscape in which music can be experienced, regardless of class or ethnicity or background,” Parker Woods says during a phone interview in May from his home base in Chicago, shortly before heading abroad for a solo engagement in Athens as part of the internationally prestigious documenta 14 exhibition of contemporary art. “So I’m making art in any way possible, whether it’s a familiar recital format or a concept of the cello that brings the instrument into
the visual-arts medium.”
As a corollary of his mission to rethink the performer’s role, Parker Woods refuses to let his identity as a cellist be restricted by conventional perceptions of what a classical string player does. Which is why, even at this still-early stage of his career, he’s already been leaving his imprint on a fascinating variety of collaborations across disciplines.
An increasingly frequent and welcome presence among new-music circles, Parker Woods also draws audiences from the spheres of dance and innovative visual arts. And while the cello is at the center of his creative work, it shares space with his ongoing explorations of kinesthetics and the body, choreography, electronic music, visual art, and theatrical performance. Parker Woods is just as likely to be found performing in an unusual architectural setting—as he did in the reopened turbine tanks of the Tate Modern for the 2012 retrospective of Aldo Tambellini—as indulging his obsession with cello music from the 17th-century Italian Baroque (which his friend Elinor Frey, the Montreal-based Baroque cellist, awakened for him).
This month finds Parker Woods performing in a characteristic variety of concert-hall and unconventional contexts. On August 12, the Arts Club of Chicago presents the premiere of ICED BODIES: Music for Chicago, a performance installation in which he joins forces with the American artist and composer Spencer Topel. ICED BODIES is Parker Woods’ contemporary reframing of a legendary avant-garde collaboration from 1972 between the maverick designer Jim McWilliams and the late cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman. The original version was a durational “happening,” in the spirit of the Fluxus movement (an avant-garde art movement that took shape in the 1960s and ’70s) that involved Moorman using a saw and other tools to play a cello sculpted from ice as it melted. Parker Woods’ project draws on that performance while bringing it into the 21st century.
At the end of August, Parker Woods heads to London’s Royal Albert Hall to perform with the Chineke! Orchestra for its debut at the BBC Proms on August 30. He’s one of the founding cellists of this ensemble, which was created to address the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities among Europe’s professional orchestras. The Chineke! Orchestra’s program includes the first-ever Proms performance of music by American composer George Walker (who was featured in last month’s issue of Strings magazine).
“My upbringing is in classical, and that’s still a major part of my career. But I feel that we as performers have to usher in the music of now and be advocates for it,” Parker Woods says. “Luckily we are living in a period of time when there are so many different composers writing such a wide spectrum of music. And there’s an audience for it.” In other words, Parker Woods adds, the days when all contemporary pieces were considered “inaccessible modern music” are behind us.
Affirming “the music of now,” for Parker Woods, is a part of his mission to expand the image of a classically trained cellist in the 20th century. Trying to find a way to label what he does misses the point. “I don’t describe myself as a performance artist or a cellist or a ‘contemporary cellist.’ I’m flexible enough to be able to float between many different types of voices of composers telling their stories. That’s where I position myself.”
As a boy in his native Houston, where he was born in 1984, Parker Woods recalls falling in love with the sound of the cello when he saw the film The Witches of Eastwick. In one over-the-top scene of this comedy-fantasy, based on a John Updike story, Susan Sarandon plays the instrument with Jack Nicholson at the piano until her cello bursts into flames. Parker Woods started lessons at age five or six. “My father was a gospel and jazz singer, and had a band that would rehearse in our basement studio. My earliest musical experiences came from listening to them rehearse when I was a toddler, and from the records and 8-track tapes he and my mom would play.”
Along with the performer’s drive for expressive communication, Parker Woods possesses the intrepid curiosity of an original thinker and scholar. His training on the cello has intersected with an intriguing academic career, leading him to work with a remarkably diverse roster of mentors over the years. He was accepted into a preparatory program at Juilliard, where cellist André Emelianoff became instrumental in his development. After completing the program at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts—Robert Glasper and Beyoncé number among its graduates—Parker Woods finished his undergraduate studies at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music with Frederick Zlotkin (principal cello of New York City Ballet and brother of Leonard Slatkin).
“Dance was important to me as a kid, and I already had a connection to musicians who were involved in this medium,” he recalls. “After college I stayed in New York trying to find a way to blend classical and contemporary.” During this period Parker Woods began playing on tours with such popular artists as Peter Gabriel, Lady Gaga, Adele, Sting, and the late Lou Reed, as well as subbing with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
A connection to opera, ballet, and film composer Patrick Soluri opened the door to Europe, which has remained a major focus of Parker Woods’ career as a performer and scholar. Through Soluri, he was engaged to perform in the Berlin Staatsballett orchestra. He later worked with the contemporary choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and P.A.R.T.S., the dance academy of her company Rosas. A residency at the Centre Intermondes in La Rochelle, France, led to several more collaborations.
“I just kept breaking all the rules,” says Parker Woods. He wrote out-of-the-blue to the adventurous composer and cellist Thomas Demenga in Basel, was invited to audition, and got accepted into his studio, where he completed a master’s program for soloists and musicians specializing in contemporary music. Living in several different countries in Europe, Parker Woods completed his PhD thesis at the University of Huddersfield in the UK.
At Huddersfield he chose a topic that combined both his scholarly and performance interests. In fact, Parker Woods’ thesis provided the basis for a landmark achievement in his performance career, from which he continues to draw. “My thesis is titled Almost Human: The study of physical processes and the performance of a prosthetic spine. My research looked at subjective movement and intention in musicians and dancers, and used the data and understanding from case studies related to the classical and contemporary music canon to create new works for cello, dancer, and electronics (also titled Almost Human).”
Parker Woods also synthesized ideas gleaned from his collaborations with groups across the Channel. In Belgium he spent time with the Ictus Ensemble, which toured with a project involving students from their Academy and the Royal Conservatory of Ghent. This work involved “kinesthetics and trying to find ways to understand movement as physicalized or compositional gestures between musicians and dancers,” Parker Woods says.
While in Switzerland, Parker Woods rekindled a longstanding interest in electronics thanks to the encouragement of trombonist and composer Mike Svoboda—himself a protege of Stockhausen. Parker Woods recently channeled this into his highly experimental debut album asinglewordisnotenough (released in 2016 on the London-based label Confront Recordings). Stretching the definition and image of the cello itself, the album features premiere recordings of works by Michael Clarke, Edward Hamel, George Lewis, and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay—three of which were composed for Parker Woods.
“I just kept breaking all the rules.”
—Seth Parker Woods
Early in 2016, after another stay in New York to participate in Invisible Thread, a musical about connections between artists in Ghana and the West (the work of Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, which was staged by Second Stage Theatre), Parker Woods relocated to Chicago. “So many other new music groups had popped up while I was in England. It’s become an even more vibrant city, with a beautiful community that supports groups for all types of creative crafts,” he says.
As an example, Parker Woods cites the convergence of personalities that inspired him to undertake his ICED BODIES project, which he initially conceived while studying in Basel. The exhibition “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” at Chicago’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art was a spur. “I’ve been a big fan of the Fluxus art movement and how these artists challenged institutional practices,” he says. Parker Woods was able to meet with Jim McWilliams (now retired in Santa Fe), who had created the ice cello for Moorman. He also received encouragement from former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who revived Ice Cello in 2004.
“Now is the time to do this piece, I realized. In some ways I could say I’ve appropriated part of the original, but am keeping true to the core of what Jim McWilliams envisioned and designed. But I’m also doing it in my own way to bring it into 2017. I decided to highlight and salute the topic of mental disability. I’m always interested in the homeless and how they get to that point. So I designed a conceptual performance installation. ICED BODIES is an ephemeral, long-duration work using some of the ideas of McWilliams but pushing it further. The sound of the dripping and crackling ice is amplified,\electronically processed, and diffused through glass sound sculptures, and a beautiful, striking obsidian-colored cello.”
The new season promises an even wider range of activity. Along with several more performances of Morton Feldman’s modernist classic Patterns in a Chromatic Field (which he performed earlier this year with pianist John Snijders at Durham University in England), Parker Woods will give a series of duo recitals with the French-American pianist Julia Den Boer, combining works by Clara Schumann with envelope-pushing modern pieces for cello. In 2018 he will serve as artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College, and make several debuts, including at the Cluster Festival in Winnipeg with a program that features a new work by Cassandra Miller. September brings the release of Trajectories (on the Recital label out of Los Angeles), an album on which Parker Woods is joined by pianist R. Andrew Lee to perform music for cello and piano by the young New York–based composer Michael Vincent Waller.
“When I reach 70, I want to look back on my career and be able to say it was fun and that I didn’t do just one thing,” Parker Woods says. “There’s nothing wrong with devoting a life to one style and genre. For me, my life has been filled with so many different types of experiences culturally. But I’m just an artist responding to what I know. I hope the legacy I leave behind will stand the test of time.”