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A Brush with Immortality
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
(more articles from this author)
2001-10-30
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In my mid twenties, at a point in life when most musicians devote most of their time to getting a steady gig, I was spending countless hours pondering, improvising and composing, creating a new popular style of cello playing. The thing that kept me going through those lean times was the hope that one day, when I became an old man perhaps, my music would become standard cello repertoire. You can imagine then how happy I felt when my "Ten American Cello Etudes" was included this year in concert cellist and scholar, Jeffrey Solow's, "A Guide to the Standard Cello Repertoire!"

My cognizance of the spread of these pieces has come in ever growing waves. I was fortunate to have been able to premiere them at the First World Cello Congress in 1988, just after their publication by Oxford University Press. This gave them a good send off which lead to other publicity including a featured article in Strings Magazine. After that, years passed without much news, aside from several positive reviews. In the mid nineties, I started to notice that when I would attend music festivals, cellists would come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my etudes. On one occasion, I attended a festival and was immediately drafted as a coach. Next thing I knew, a group performance of my etudes was added to the program! During those years I also started to receive letters, programs and phone calls from concert cellists and professors from around the world.

In the late nineties, my "Young American Ensembles" was added to the manual of the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA). Then "Ten American Cello Etudes" and "Three American Pieces for Viola" were added to the curriculum of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, United Kingdom, a group which gives half a million music adjudication exams in over eighty countries every year. Now, with the inclusion in Mr. Solow's list, the fact that my etudes are widely considered to be standard cello repertoire has a solid stamp of approval!

I currently have six titles published by Oxford. The first, and most well known, is "Ten American Cello Etudes." This set was written for college level and professional cellists who have a familiarity with the traditional etudes of Popper and others. It took standard techniques, and some new ones, and applied them to enjoyable, original music in several popular styles. The guiding principle was to create fresh new music which would provide a road map for helping the cello to fully participate in today's changing musical currents, while also helping cellists improve their technique in a fun new way. At the request of several violists, a set of three of the pieces was transcribed for viola as "Three American Pieces."

I called my pieces "etudes", because each one zeros in on a different set of techniques, but in reality, they are pieces of music, each expressing a different mood using the language of American popular music. Many of the pieces are joyful due to the fun I was having coming up with new ways of playing the cello. I was, however, influenced by composers of the past. Impressed by the Bach Suites, I composed in a way that would let the cello stand on its own, making full use of its broad range and ability to create satisfying counterpoint. Most of the pieces rely heavily on double stops and chords to create a robust sound. Often melody is interspersed with chords and bass tones. I was also influenced by the string crossings of Haydn. I would have great fun playing the one or two measure phrases that he would write that made use of rhythmic arpeggios. I took that concept and extended it to whole pieces.

I also borrowed a concept found in guitar playing; that of rhythm guitar. The cello traditionally goes back and forth between acting as a bass or a melody instrument. Why not act as a chord playing rhythm instrument? This concept was further developed in my "Three American Cello Duets", where one cellist plays "lead cello" and the other plays "rhythm cello" throughout a whole piece. This way of playing should lead to a whole new set of possibilities for cellists.

As my original set of etudes developed, I made sure to incorporate different techniques so that playing through them all, a cellist would get a complete work out. Some of the techniques include far reaching arpeggios, spiccato, thumb position, whole tone scales, tremolo, flautando, harmonics, syncopation, legato, and new techniques like finger picking and hitting the string onto the fingerboard with the bow. The technique always grew out of the music and was never an end in itself.

Most of the etudes began life as improvisations. Sometimes I would immerse myself in a certain genre of music and then improvise something that would be related. Other times I would just get into a calm receptive state and just play whatever would come. Only later were the ideas turned into thoroughly thought out pieces. That original spark can be found in each piece and it is my hope that cellists will take ideas back out of these pieces and create new improvisations. Once again we find a new direction for the cello, based on tradition. In Bach's time all instrumentalists were expected to improvise and so it should be again!

I then composed a set of more challenging pieces geared toward bringing this new style into the concert hall: "Three Concert Etudes." These pieces extend and amplify the techniques of the American and also use world music styles such as those of the middle east and Brazil. In the first piece, the cellist plays in the highest possible register and uses more intricate chords. The second makes extensive use of left hand pizzicato. The third piece incorporates several new techniques including singing and stamping while strumming with a pick! It also employs a technique which I believe I invented. I call it the "bow harmonic." It is a way of creating a harmonic using the bow. I even invented a musical symbol for it! These pieces are very satisfying to play and advance the cello musically and technically beyond any of the others. I look forward to the day when a brave concert cellist will take on the challenge to give them a proper world premiere in a major concert hall!

Next I composed the set of duets, mentioned above which would bring the concept of playing chords and taking solos to the cello. It occurred to me that popular styles could also be taught to beginners on all string instruments, so "Young American Ensembles" was born in three volumes (violins and guitars, violas, cellos and basses). These pieces were hand tailored to actual beginning students. Some parts only use open strings and others only three or four notes, yet they sound like basic pieces of rock music or other popular music. This brings a new level of fun to the early days of string study and also brings early experiences of syncopation and other popular techniques such as pentatonic scales and playing with a rough sound (something kids love)!

I realized that to complete the set I needed a bridge from the beginner pieces to the higher level ones, so I composed "Pacific Northwest Suite", for high school and early college level string players in five volumes (guitars, violins, violas, cellos, basses). Based on country music and blues rock, these pieces use string crossings and chords in a similar way to the American etudes and duets, but were hand tailored to actual high school students and can lead string players up to the level of the college and professional level music. The idea behind the writing of music on all of these levels is that now cellists can play Minsky's popular style music from the first weeks of study until they perform as artists in the concert hall!

Adding to a small but important part of the cello repertoire, I also composed "Judaic Concert Suite" which is as yet unpublished. These pieces use similar concepts and techniques to my other advanced music, but apply them to original Jewish music. They represent a modern take on the spiritual type of pieces that Bloch wrote so effectively. I feel that they are part of a venerable tradition and hope that one way or another, they will see the light of day!

It may come as a surprise that the composer of some of the most recent additions to the standard cello repertoire actually began his musical life as a rock guitarist! In fact, influenced by Hendrix and others, it was a search for a unique guitar sound that lead me to the cello. I felt, however, that I would never be accepted as an innovator of the cello unless I first gained the respect of the classical community. Therefore, I studied with top teachers in top music schools and then went on to play with professional orchestras, chamber ensembles and as a soloist, in major concert halls and on radio and television. The acceptance of my etudes by cellists world wide, has given me the legitimacy for which I strove. My inclusion in Who's Who in America, has also helped. I now feel confident to bring my cello style back to the place where my musical life began. Through my recent CD, "Breaking The Sound Barriers" and with my new band, Von Cello, I plan to bring the cello into the center stage of rock! When kids are lining up at music stores to buy cellos, like they do now for guitars, I will know that my goal has been achieved.


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