Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cello is a Percussion Instrument

Rufus Cappadocia

Musical Tuesdays @ The FFH

If you've ever had to take a general music class, you know that instruments are grouped into families...

If you haven't, here's basically how it works:
Musical instruments are categorized by how they produce their sounds. Stringed instruments, obviously, have strings. Those strings are vibrated by some sort of mechanism in order to produce frequencies and their subsequent overtones (aka "notes").

Wind Instruments need air to create vibrations, like flutes and clarinets.

Percussion instruments, well, they are percussive. Something has to hit them.

My instrument, the cello, fits nice and neatly in the category of stringed instruments.

And, as any true artists would have it, the barriers of what cellos are expected to play in this category are being ruthlessly, systematically blown to smithereens.

I've been playing cello professionally for a decade now, and pretty much every gig I've had outside an orchestra was the same type of part writing; long notes, pretty melodies, and maybe some double stops (playing two notes at a time) here and there to make things interesting.

No one was forcing me to play like that, that's just how cello parts were written. I didn't think to play anything else. And for what I was doing, that was working just fine.

But there is something about the size of the cello that makes it very special. It has bulk and power and muscle, yet it is still small enough to exhibit musical finesse and nuance. With these elements combined, an entirely new cellist has evolved.

Did you catch all that? Me neither.

Rufus is one of the first cellists I noticed that was taking percussive cello techniques to an entirely new place. I actually saw him live once, but he was playing with someone else and didn't feature this type of playing a lot. That and I think I was working the venue at the time so I was in and out of the kitchen and couldn't really listen...

Regardless, I stumbled on this video later and realized fully what he was doing. I have no clue HOW he's doing it, but I get what it is he's doing... get it? Got it. Good.

So then my brain got going, especially considering my band Tanager doesn't have a drummer. I play cello and rhythm guitar, so my role has always been to substitute drums. I realized I had already slowly started to do what Rufus has done and had begun to cater to my cello's split personality. I wasn't playing just melodic lines anymore, I had started playing chords and I was playing them in rhythms.

Then I found these guys. The group Crooked Still has rhythm beyond rhythm and not so much as a sign of a drummer. How do they do it? You guessed it. Cello.

Their cellist, Rushad Eggleston, got the rhythmic cello bug too, but has his own take on how to do it. This video doesn't focus entirely on him, but if you find yourself bobbing your head while you listen, you can thank Rushad. That "low part" you're hearing and enjoying is all him and the upright bassist.

This next video is of Sarah Jarosz, a very young (still finishing college) power source for the folk/bluegrass genre. In this video, her cellist is also filling the rhythm role.

Nathaniel Smith is the cellist in this one, and his approach is a bit more subtle than the previous two. The effect, however, is just as poignant. You have another cellist that rhythmically drives the entire ensemble from the bottom end of the chord structure.

I remember even in high school always saying that I enjoyed playing cello as a rhythm instrument, but I didn't realize to what extent other cellists were developing new techniques for it. It's a cool feeling to know that other musicians you listen to have had similar thoughts to your own and acted on them. Makes me feel like I'm part of a movement!

Every instrument is revolutionized periodically. Most of the time I feel like these revolutions are truly realized all too late. We look backwards in time and rever at those who have transformed their medium into something completely different and we say, "Wow, if only something totally new would happen now."

*News Flash* Revolutions are happening. All over the place. You just have to pay attention.

I got lucky, and I happen to be not only alive, but paying attention while my instrument is being transformed.

Pretty cool, right? Now if I could only figure out how to actually PLAY like those guys!

Ha, I'll let you know how that's going next week...


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