If going to a rock concert is like drinking a microbrew of the music world, then going to the symphony is the fine wine. There's a little ritz, a little pomp, attendant to classical music, and the huge symphony halls, expensive tickets and aged music all play into that. There's more to the genre, its instruments and the people who play it, though, and Portland Cello Project, now in its 13th year, is proof to believe that those musicians and instruments can make something contemporary feel even newer.
That's exactly what it will do on Thursday, Nov. 21, when it touches down in Garden City to play songs from Radiohead's influential album OK Computer at the Visual Arts Collective. Originally released in 1997, OK Computer is Radiohead's third album, and, at least in America, the English rock band's breakout commercial and critical success. The band has since earned worldwide renown for its fresh mixture of electronic and rock, and it's willingness to fiddle with form, content and sound make Portland Cello Project's tour around OK Computer so intriguing: If the original album was revolutionary for straddling competing musical conventions, squeezing that sound through the ringer of a pack of incredibly talented cellists makes the upcoming show that much more captivating.
This collection of young cellists grew "out of a joke," according to Artistic Director Douglas Jenkins. They thought it would be funny if they started performing unconventional songs in surprising places, but what started as a gag has long since grown into travel and better-paying gigs. Their first performance was in 2006 at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Oregon, and by their third show, they were already selling out of tickets. Since then, this unorthodox group of classical performers has played unexpected music, from Pantera and Kanye West to Bach and many more in between. The current iteration of the group includes vocalist Patti King of The Shins and a recent solo project, where she goes by the name Patrician. The cellists are classically trained all-stars with lengthy CVs, and most of them are a part of this project as a hobby.
"We probably initially became a success because of viral videos of Kanye West songs," Jenkins said, "but we consciously made a decision after that to focus on quality rather than just viral gimmicks, which is what has sustained us."
Though many musicians have cycled in and out of the group over the years, the mission remains the same: "To bring the cello places you wouldn't normally see it," "to perform music on the cello you wouldn't normally associate with the instrument" and "to build bridges between different musical communities through educational, community outreach, and through collaboration with myriad artists," according to Portland Cello Project's website.
The number of members of the troupe have grown significantly and now perform nationwide, all the while staying relevant.
"When we're adapting and arranging we always make sure we're not cutting any corners and we try to make sure that everything is high quality," Jenkins said.
The decision on the part of the Portland Cello Project to tackle OK Computer arose out of the place the album holds among Radiohead fans, and that moment in the late 1990s—the end of the millennium and the beginning of the internet era—when it landed. It was an album in which Radiohead seemed to capture something that no one else had, and its multilayered sound is what made the group attracted to it.
"Trying to arrange an adaptation of an album that is already a perfect soundscape was both the biggest challenge we could undertake," Jenkins said, "and as the show came together through trial and error, it became the most rewarding to perform."
Jenkins added that he wants audiences to have "face melting" experiences on its current tour through the Northwest until the end of the year, plus an additional show in March of 2020 in Anchorage, Alaska. Though Portland Cello Project's repertoire is enormous and diverse, these Radiohead covers are truly unique and mystical in some way, and for folks who grew up in the 90's wondering how an album from 1997 is relevant today, just remember that Target is currently selling Nirvana T-shirts to Gen Zers.