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Von Cello: Shredding With A New Kind Of Axe On Excalibur
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
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Upon seeing the cover of Excalibur by Von Cello, with the artist pulling an illuminated string bow from a rock, I thought back in my college days. At Oberlin College there were many talented, classically trained cellists, violinists, bassoonists, and other concert instrument players. Almost none of them would have posed for such a picture for fear of their reputation amongst peers and professors at the Conservatory of Music. Everyone took themselves so seriously that humor was not an option. And neither was jammin' on the blues, let alone rock. As one viola player once said: "I'd love to be able to play by ear, but I can't." The culprit here was the rigid mind set of the classical music world.

Von Cello, however, defies categorization. He is a well-regarded composer who has written music books that have influenced the cello and string music world by providing the basis for a new playing style. On Excalibur (Von Cello - Excallibur), this style manifests itself in soulful sounds similar to the mournful wails of Robin Trower or Jimi Hendrix' cries of love, but are far richer because the cello is larger than the electric guitar and made of resonant wood and thick strings.

[Kirby] How did you start playing the cello as a rock instrument?

[Von Cello] When I got into junior high school I decided to play the cello so I could get into the school orchestra. But I still saw myself as a rock guitarist. I was playing guitar in rock bands starting in sixth grade and was playing professionally by high school, but I couldn't figure out what would distinguish me from classic rock guitar heroes like Clapton, Garcia, and Zappa. Then one day I got this idea to explore playing the cello in a new way. I took my cello home from school and started to figure out how to play chords on it and strum it like a guitar. I also figured out how to get feedback type sounds, like Jimi Hendrix, just using the bow. A thrill ran through me as I realized that I was creating sounds that had never been heard before. Here was the chance for me to make history! I could do for the cello what Hendrix did for the guitar!

As they say, the proof is in the pudding. On the opening cut, a rendition of "Purple Haze," he creates lush waves of acid rock sound, taking Hendrix' guitar and translating it to the cello. His wailing leads, unlike the legion of guitarists of the last 30 years, capture the otherworldly essence of Jimi's sonic breakthrough on the cello. To grasp the significance of this, ask yourself how many cellists do you know or have you heard outside of an orchestra. Yeah, I thought so. His unique, genre busting "celtar" style and innovative, creative ideas are also evident on the Beatles' classic "Dear Prudence," where his rich tone, brilliant use of overtones and harmonics, and emotionally intense phrasing takes the song higher than the original. How Von Cello came to create and develop his techniques would make a good bio-pic in and of itself.

[Kirby] Your approach is positively unique. Most players I know started on rock and moved to jazz or stayed with rock. Or they (like me) started out in classical music and moved to rock later. Why did you decide to go from rock into classical music?

[Von Cello] Excellent observation! It is indeed rare to go from rock to classical. When I first cut my hair, quit my band, and started practicing the cello day and night, my friends thought I had flipped out! You can read an article about it from my drummer at the time, here:

I wanted to do "something" that would change the course of history and be remembered. When I decided to make music my vehicle, I felt that I had to gain credibility, not just in the transitory rock world, but in the classical world. I set out to master classical cello so that when I went back to rock I would be taken seriously, not just by rock fans, but by the whole world. I went to college for music, ending up with a BM and MM in music performance from the Manhattan School of Music. I spent summers studying with Julliard professors so that I would have the same training as the top soloists in the country.

After that experience, I went back to my original goal of creating a rock style of cello playing. Unable to find any music books that taught such a style, I decided to create a series of cello etudes to teach myself, using popular music in various styles. I approached Oxford University Press and they recognized that the string repertoire needed a shot in the arm. They felt that the work of an American composing cellist would be of great interest in England and elsewhere. They were right. I get programs of performances of my music from England, Spain, Israel, South Africa, and other countries.

Von Cello's books touch on aspects of music that are almost totally unaddressed and unrecognized in the world of classical music (including so-called modern or contemporary concert music). His first set of pieces, "Ten American Cello Etudes," explore using the cello in rock, blues, Latin, folk, country, French, and experimental styles. These pieces are for professional or college level players. Next came "Three American Cello Duets." These pieces use two cellos as if they are two guitars, with one playing "rhythm" and one playing "lead." The styles included blues, Motown/Native American, and country western. After that came his most advanced and innovative book, "Three Concert Etudes." This set features American, middle eastern, and Brazilian styles, and include new techniques such as having the cellist stamp his feet and play the cello and sing at the same time.

He composed the "Young American Ensembles," which bring the same ideas in a very easy form to beginners of all string instruments including the guitar. Von Cello then made a set of ensembles for high school, or intermediate level, players, the "Pacific Northwest Suite," based on Americana. He also published the "Judaic Concert Suite," which brings these concepts into Jewish music. Currently Oxford is reviewing a suite of Grateful Dead transcriptions for solo cello called "Dead Cello." You can find out a lot of detail regarding this topic at:

Von Cello illustrates his approach to the music of the Grateful Dead with his version of their song "The Other One." This gypsy blues number is so-so as a Dead song. Here Von Cello's call-and-response, two-headed approach to the riff-heavy melody spins the piece into a whirling dervish propelled by drummer Matt Johnson (who played with John Mayer and Jeff Buckley), and features a nimble-fingered bass solo by Tony Steele and searing leads by Von Cello himself.

[Kirby] You mentioned that the books formed the basis or blue print for your innovative style. What is innovative about it?

[Von Cello] Since I started as a rock guitarist, I approach the cello as if it were a big guitar; in fact, I call my style "celtar," the combination of the cello and guitar. I figured out how to play all the chords I played on the guitar on the cello. My music makes cellists use the bow in a choppy way that sounds more like picking, and necessitates a new bow grip. I also use a guitar pick and play the cello over one leg in one of the pieces. Another technique I created is the "bow slap" in which you hit the string so hard with the bow that it snaps onto the finger board. I play standing with the cello strung over my neck with a guitar strap. I use foot pedals to get distortion, overdrive, digital delay, wah wah, etc. The bottom line is that I have created a new "school" of cello playing, with printed music that can take a cellist from his first weeks of study, up to a professional level.

These techniques are evident on the song "You Say So." Performed as an unadorned power trio with Andy Lowe on bass and John Di Guillio (who toured with the Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins, and Parliament Funkadelic) on drums, his strumming and riffing is incendiary. On "Visions of Eternity" he shows deft fingering and finger picking. He creates a fat rock sound throughout the song with his unique bowing and wah wah pedal work. Each part of the song - introduction, verse, chorus and bridge - has different sonic touches that add to the drama and emotion of the song, culminating in a blazing finale that is a homage to Frank Zappa's solo on "Willie the Pimp" and Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl."

[Kirby] You mention that your spiritual beliefs are expressed in your music. What are these beliefs and how are they incorporated in the songs?

[Von Cello] I grew up on the music of the sixties, when the message was as important as the music. On the other hand, music that gets too preachy can be annoying. So I try to strike a balance. My main spiritual belief is to have an open mind. I deal with this idea in my song "You Say So." The first verse speaks about a man who "meditated day and night and left a path for me." This is Buddha. The next verse speaks of a man who "gave his life for me." This is Jesus. The chorus in each case says, "You tell me your truth but I don't know. Should I buy it just 'cause you say so?" So far, the song appears to be anti religion. But the last verse speaks of a man who "sang about a world (with) no heaven and no hell." This is John Lennon. In my song I question the atheist too!

In many of my songs I fight against those who try to dominate others, whether it is a mean boss, religious groups that use the fear to scare people into belief, or police who enforce immoral laws. On the CD I sing about looking for "the blessing inside the curse" (Chances and Choices), karma (It Comes Around), and angels (Vision of Eternity, Leading Me On).

As you can see, there are a lot of spiritual messages in my music, but they are not obvious. They are there to be discovered by those who are motivated to look. We should not allow narrow-minded people to set the boundaries of what can be accomplished in this world. That is what I am saying every time I play my celtar.

It's all about freedom. Today our freedoms are being challenged from every direction. We find in closed societies that people are forced to follow strict codes of behavior, and calls are being made to enforce those codes on others. We see in free societies that people are reacting in fear, either by self-censorship, or by an increase in government surveillance and control. I can't remember a time when freedom was so under attack all around the world. So, in a way, the celtar takes on an even deeper significance today. Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

Whether or not his lyrics are dreams of impossible dreams, it is refreshing to hear a New York musician who's not too cool to say something sincere and heartfelt about, you know, life. "Vision of Eternity" is an excellent lesson in how to match evocative music with the emotions of the lyrics. The music on the verse is lilting, psychedelic pop with a melody that feels like innocence and awe: "She's an Angel, flying through the sky / I can't touch her, and I don't know why / she's standing, right in front of me. Like a vision of eternity."

The chorus is a heavy rock funk groove with smoldering cello licks and smooth-riding vocals: "And I'm gonna do, what I gotta do, to make my dreams come true." On the bridge he gives voice to pure rock frustration and longing: " When I try to get close, she moves away now / When I wake from my dreams, she doesn't stay now / And it's like a mirage, she does betray now / When I question her ways, she doesn't say now."

Von Cello primarily performs in a power trio. There are shows, however, where he adds a vocalist and keyboards to the group. "Our show is all about communication," he states. Von Cello goes further than most when interacting with the audience. "I try to sense the underlying mood and project it back to the crowd. We recently played in a prison. We played some up beat rock tunes, but you could see that the prisoners were just not into it. Finally we did a jam in my song "Spy Vs. Spy," and I tried to put into sound what it must feel like to be trapped in a prison, surrounded by police and dangerous criminals. I started imitating police sirens, and dropping musical bombs, playing with frenetic and deep emotion. When the tune was over the crowd went nuts. From then on we and the crowd were one."

[Kirby] How has your music been received, both at home and abroad?

[Von Cello] I do have a large following in England, especially among string players. Many students choose my pieces because they are fun to play. There are constant performances of my music in England and other countries. There is a lot of interest in my music in Asia, which has a deep tradition of string playing and heavy interest in American culture. I know that I get radio play in Siberia with Radio Penguin, and I have fans in Japan and China who have bought CDs over the internet. Just as Jimi Hendrix got his big break in England, I believe I may have the same situation in Europe or Asia. Doing weird things with a cello is still a scary thought to many people, but I hope someone in America will have the insight to sign me before I get scooped up overseas.

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