Portland Cello Project Tackles Beck, Brubeck and Bach

Get strung out on PCP Saturday, June 22 at VAC


After listening to a few tracks from Portland Cello Project's upcoming CD, Beck, Brubeck and Bach, the novelty of hearing classical musicians play rock songs wears off. Then there comes a gentler feeling, which is more like being led out of the forest of false categories than clinging to the hollow surprise of hearing a familiar song being played in a different way.

This quality is at least part of PCP's success. The troupe, which plays Visual Arts Collective Saturday, June 22, has been around since 2007. More than 20 participating musicians, distributed between Portland, Ore., Seattle and New York, fill its ranks, and PCP's reach continues to grow--not because audiences dig shock value, but because the cellos sound really good.

"It's not as huge a divide as we're taught to believe," said PCP Artistic Director and Manager Doug Jenkins of the leaps between Bach and Beck, rock music and cellos.

Jenkins pointed to the unifying architecture of sheet music as proof. Song Reader, Beck's 2012 album of sheet music, prompted Beck, Brubeck and Bach by virtue of it being a written rock album in the mode of classical music, rather than an album cut in a studio. Where Song Reader rethinks recording forms, Beck, Brubeck and Bach rethinks recording content.

The album was recorded between December 2012 and May 2013, and will be released sometime this fall, though a few copies will be available at the VAC show. But the album isn't a random juxtaposition of three musicians composing in different genres, all played by cellists: it's a long-form affirmation of the universality of music.

That doesn't change the fact, though, that the group undermines stereotypes about classical music and musicians. PCP has played punk rock clubs and symphony halls, frequently inviting other musical luminaries onstage. At the VAC show, that luminary will be Laura Gibson on vocals. Though all of the cellists are classically trained, of the five playing at the VAC, one specializes in jazz compositions (Skip vonKuske), while another, Anna Fritz, is a folk musician. The group isn't breaking rules, it's shifting expectations--and the shift resonates with audiences.

Unlike conventional classical music concerts--where Jenkins observes "a brick wall between us and the audience"--PCP's shows foster a more vocal relationship between the musicians and the crowd with its energetic stage presence.

"Live shows are so fun," Jenkins said. "We never repeat a show."