The Portland Cello Project grew from a mission to bring cello music to places you wouldn’t normally hear it, often rock clubs and dive bars, and perform and record music that isn’t normally played on the cello. Through relentless touring and over the course of eight albums—including 2012’s Homage, which covers Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West, and other leading hip-hop artists, and Portland Cello Project Play Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, the first complete recording of Beck’s 2012 sheet-music book—this revolving lineup of cellists has earned a massive fan base and praise from Rolling Stone, MTV, and Spin. The group’s 900-song repertoire runs the gamut from Bach to Britney Spears to Dave Brubeck to new works written by its members, and they perform it all with equal reverence.
Artistic Director Doug Jenkins took a break from the group’s year-long tour in support of its new Elliott Smith tribute album, to e.s., to talk by phone about how there never was and still isn’t a plan. These cellists are in it to have fun.
How did the Portland Cello Project come together?
The group kind of started almost accidentally. A bunch of really wonderful cellists had just moved to Portland who were all classically trained and had a history of playing classical music, but also were playing other types of music. Gideon Freudmann had just moved to Portland. Zoe Keating had just moved to Portland—and she stayed for about six months, I think, maybe a little longer—before she moved to Northern California. I had also just moved there, and this guy named Tony Rogers, who plays folk music and stuff—he lives in Austin now.
Tony called everybody up and said, “Come to my place, let’s do some cello ensemble music together and drink some beers.” And we did. Then we did it again. Then one night over too many beers, we were like, “Why don’t we start performing in bars—that’s what we do when we play other types of music. Let’s try bringing this type of music to the clubs.”
Matt Haimovitz had already been playing the Bach suites at CBGB [the legendary punk club in New York City’s Bowery], and we were pretty much following that model of playing classical music in nonclassical environments. The first few shows were like that, a lot of Vivaldi and stuff. Then we were playing one show in a club and thought wouldn’t it be funny to make a string arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and while we’re at it, why don’t we invite some more friends onstage to sing and play and make it look collaborative. From there, it was all downhill.
Had you already been arranging pop songs for cello?
When I was in school for music, we’d get the cello ensemble together and make like crazy posters—as if they were rock shows—and try to do funny ensemble music. I am not the only cellist who has done that. I guarantee if you go into any university, you’re going to find the cello students doing funny arrangements. The cello lends itself to it. We have the big range, we can play the violin parts and we can play the low parts, and we can put together pop music pretty easily. And people like it. It’s obvious that it’s something the audience enjoys.
You’re known for a variety of things, the pop stuff is popular and does well online, but you commission new works, and play classical and jazz. How do you curate this?
The goal is always a variety and knowing the audience wants what’s happening onstage to reflect themselves. Nobody just listens to one kind of music. Everybody likes to be surprised. We try to find a bunch of things that are really wonderful and put them together in unique ways. We have so much in repertoire. Every night is totally different.
The philosophy of the group is to go where the wind blows. If something’s fun and we’re feeling it, we just go for it. We’re not tied down to any master plan or grand arch other than go where it’s interesting and where it feels good.
Our first tour was opening for Buckethead, the heavy-metal guitarist guy. He requested us personally. For the classical people in the group, that was quite the wake-up call. There were 15-year-old boys in the audience banging their heads and we’re like, “How are we going to keep them from throwing things at us?”
We played a lot of heavy-metal covers, like Pantera and a lot of video-game themes.
How did you take on the role as artistic director?
It was serendipity all around. Of all the people who were at those first rehearsals, I was the one who had the contacts to do the booking and stuff like that. It was no big deal. Tony moved after about a year. He was gone before the group really started to get off the ground. There was definitely this ‘What are we going to do’ kinda feeling. I fell into the role and feel very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
It’s the nature of the beast. A lot of people in, a lot of people out, depending on their schedule. That’s been a fun thing about it. There are many cellists in Portland who have played with the group or do play with the group—everybody from the principal cello at the Oregon Symphony [Nancy Ives] to someone who just plays rock music and isn’t really classically trained.
I noticed that Nancy Ives composed a piece for your new Elliott Smith tribute album, to e.s. How did that project come about?
I was hanging out in the studio with Larry Crane [producer and archivist for the late indie-rocker Elliott Smith] and said, “Why don’t we do six songs as an homage, just to mess around and see what we can do with it.” And I asked Larry if he would co-produce it and really hold it to as high a standard as he possibly could.
We wanted to do something special and, at the same time, mix it with commissions for new works, so that we’re looking at something from the past that was influential and making something new out of it so we can move forward from it. Half the record is Elliott and half the record is new commissions by young composers who could use their music recorded.
It took about a year to make, the longest it’s ever taken us to make a record. I’d write up arrangements, we’d go into the studio, I’d record them and send them to Larry and he’d be like “Yes” or “Nope, that’s not even close. It doesn’t have the feel I want. It’s too classical. Elliott would never do anything like that.” Elliott is so passionate that our natural idea with it was to be that passionate and push and pull tempos like that, but that was the stuff that would turn people off immediately. It was a big thing we learned: Get the passion in, but it has to be humble.
I have to ask—does your life ever feel like a Portlandia sketch?
The Portlandia folks come to our shows! The fact of the matter is that Portlandia is not inaccurate. It’s practically a documentary. They have a karaoke contest skit that was taken directly, I think, from our Dance Party shows.
We do a Dance Party show that’s essentially all the best karaoke singers in Portland coming up and singing guilty-pleasure pop songs with us. We did it first!