For the Cello, an Amplified Role in the Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

As one of the few cellists to have made a career as a jazz soloist, Erik Friedlander believes his instrument is comfortable in the worlds of jazz, popular, and avant-garde music. "Musicians are opening up to what the cello can do," he says. "If you play saxophone you have the weight of history on your back. We don't have that to live up to so we can create our own way."

Mr. Friedlander's fellow downtown musicians might agree. The cello is becoming the preferred instrument among many experimental rock bands, forward-thinking composers, and promoters of avant- garde concert series.

This past June, at the Bang on a Can Marathon, an annual festival of new music in New York, cellists were the backbone of several of the headlining groups including Real Quiet, a chamber trio consisting of cello, piano, and percussion; Odd Appetite, a cello and percussion duo inspired by Balinese gamelan and South Indian music; and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the organization's house band, which features the amplified cello of Wendy Sutter.

Elsewhere, cello soloists are tweaking the instrument's serious image. The Canadian cellist Jorane has released five albums in which she simultaneously sings and plays the cello in songs by artists such as Donna Summer and Daniel Lanois. On Friedlander's new album, "Block Ice & Propane," he evokes American roots music by using lots of banjo-style plucking along with traditional bowing.

The cello's popularity outside of the classics is partly driven by necessity: The lean standard repertoire for the instrument consists of four or five major Romantic concertos.

"There isn't this huge weight of repertoire," says Mary Lawson, a cellist in Ethel, an amplified string quartet. "A pianist can't even hope to learn the complete piano repertoire in a lifetime. A violinist can barely manage the major violin repertoire. But as a cellist, you can definitely play the whole cello canon. You very quickly start looking beyond that."

Friedlander points out that rock musicians are becoming more aware of the cello's range and see it as an alternative to the violin, with its folk fiddling or jazz associations. …