By Cliff Hall | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Commissioning an instrument is, by its very nature, a personal experience. But for Mia Pixley, a San Francisco–based cellist and psychologist who is becoming known as much for her cello soundscapes as her ethereal songs, the process became an extension of both her musical and cultural heritages. The end result is the Ripple cello, a joint effort between Pixley and luthier Andrew Carruthers. Blurring the lines between an electric and acoustic instrument, the Ripple cello melds both Pixley’s creative ambitions and Carruthers’ sonic explorations into a truly 21st-century cello that pushes the boundaries of conventional instrument making.
Tell me about your primary instrument.
The Ripple cello is a creative collaboration between violin maker Andy Carruthers and me.
What was your process in commissioning this instrument?
The process of commissioning the instrument was like idea ping-pong. I would offer an idea, and Andy would quickly send an idea back. We often shared video or photo inspirations, as well. At one point, I was reading a book called How to Read Water and sent Andy a passage describing how a certain ripple pattern was formed. I also made a number of visits to his workshop before and during the cello’s construction.
In terms of the actual details of this process, I wanted to make sure that the percussive surface of the cello was functional, not just beautiful. Meaning the ridges and ripples were located in places where I typically strike, rub, or knock the instrument. This kind of constraint proved to be useful for Andy, as it gave him a bit more design guidance.
Additionally, we both (but especially Andy) wanted to draw inspiration from the inherent order and chaos found in nature. As an avid swimmer, I brought in an idea around light refraction in water. Then, Andy thought of soundwaves and ripples, which is more closely tied to the nature of an instrument (and music). This is also an example of how Andy and I “idea ping-ponged” the cello into existence.
What led you to want to work with Andrew Carruthers?
Over the last five years, I had been incorporating percussive elements (striking the body of the cello like a drum) into my compositions, songs, and playing. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I took a number of lessons with cellist Mark Summer to begin to learn about what percussive things a cello could do. Then, a colleague of mine told me about Andy’s off-beat violins. I was curious if Andy would be interested in making an off-beat cello with me, where the design lent itself to an accentuated bass drum sound by slightly ballooning the lower bout of the instrument. Unfortunately, this idea was not feasible. But, as we spoke, Andy and I began to imagine other percussive possibilities, hitting upon a fruitful and enjoyable collaboration.
What was it like the first time you played the Ripple cello? Any surprises?
Thrilling! Andy first showed me the instrument before it was varnished. The cello was so fresh; it was just gorgeous. I couldn’t stop touching it! Andy and I had spent so much time talking about it and sharing ideas that it felt a bit surreal to finally “meet” Ripple.
In terms of surprises, I wasn’t expecting the ridges to be so loud when I ran my nails over them. They give quite a rip!
How much input did you give about the carving on the exterior? Does it affect the sound of the cello when played normally with a bow?
As mentioned earlier, my main input for the carvings was to place the circular ripples where I strike, tap, or knock the cello—and to place the ridges where there are a variety of sounds (kind of like a drum kit). Then, my other input was to place the horizontal ripples on the upper bouts of the cello, where I could easily access them. I wanted to make sure the ripples were functional.
In terms of sound, I don’t feel the ripples influence the sound too much. But the instrument is still opening up. So, we shall see.
What input did you give to the more typical considerations (shape of f-holes, size of cello body, interior graduation, height of arch, corners, etc.)?
None. Once Andy informed me that it was unrealistic to make the lower part of the cello bulge outward to be a more like a drum, I decided to keep quiet about any other typical aspects of the cello building.
How much was looping incorporated into the design?
Looping itself wasn’t too much of a consideration in the instrument’s design. However, I did have electronics in mind—mostly through my effects box. I knew that whatever bass-drum sounds I could get from the instrument’s design I could augment with a pitch shifter and some reverb.
What inspires you about looping? How often do you work it into your music?
For me, looping tends to expand whatever sounds and textures I’m already exploring. On the downside, sometimes looping can get insufferably repetitive, or I can use it as a crutch, such that it hinders my pushing myself to discover new extended techniques. But oftentimes, I use looping to open up harmonic and rhythmic possibilities.
In terms of loopers, I have one of those five channel Boss RC-505 loopers, which makes composing or creating pieces fun, playful, and super low stakes. I can build sections of a piece and take them in and out. It’s great. I’ve written a number of instrumental pieces by simply sitting down with the looper and exploring. As a sidebar, with the singer-songwriter tunes, I usually don’t use the looper. That tends to be a different process.
Was the Ripple varnished with oil or spirit varnish?
The varnish was all Andy’s determining. He used an oil varnish.
What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
The ridges and ripples! The cello’s surface is such an invitation for exploration and ingenuity. It has been enlivening to focus my practice time on expanded percussive playing. Over this last week, I’ve started listening more closely to flamenco music (the palmas, pitos, and toque). I’m wondering how to emulate some of these rhythms using the ridges and ripples on the cello.
The other gift of the instrument is that because the cello looks different from others, it frees me up as a player in the audience’s eyes. Ripple’s uniqueness sends an immediate message that I’m probably not going to play Bach. There is nothing wrong with Bach, but it is nice to be quickly placed outside the parameters of a classical cellist—because I’m not one at this point, at least.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
The cello and I are still getting acquainted, but I would say the cello’s personality is a tad moody, very sensual, irreverent, loyal, and when in a good mood, a really fun time.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
The instrument is relatively new, but I’ve enjoyed playing it with amplification, effects, and in smaller venues where people can clearly hear the percussive elements and see the visual details.
What is its greatest strength?
The instrument’s surface. Also, someone told me once that the cello looks tribal. That felt empowering and connected—given my racial and ethnic heritages.
What are some of its limitations?
I feel Ripple’s bowed sound is still opening up. I’m working on learning how to draw a variety of bowed sounds from the instrument. It has felt motivating to draw out these bowed sounds to match the textures of my singing voice so they can blend together nicely.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?
The instrument would roll its scroll at me for offering it tea, and then tell me we are getting tequila and tacos, and going dancing.
Mia Pixley’s Gear
Strings: Larsen A and D; Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore G and C
Case: Alan Stevenson