Ishmael Ali wears many musical hats: composer, guitarist (in the bands Je’raf and Errata) and co-founder of a recording space in North Lawndale.
But it’s his most recent instrument, the cello, that has become a true obsession.
“I used to put on gigs, and Fred Lonberg-Holm played on one of them. I was like, ‘Oh, you can make these sounds on a cello?“” Ali recalled, referring to the improvising cellist who was a cornerstone of Chicago’s experimental music scene for years. (Lonberg-Holm has since moved to upstate New York.)
“I haven’t been able to put him down since. And I might as well see how far I can go on this.
Now Ali is one of many artists exploring the expressive potential of the cello, seemingly converging on Chicago overnight. Some have more or less returned here after stints in other cities, like Tomeka Reid, long a mainstay of Chicago’s free jazz scene, and Helen Money, the stage name of rock musician Alison Chesley. Others are brand newcomers, like olula negre, a resident artist at Elastic Arts who co-curates her AfriClassical Futures series.
Coincidence or not, the influx of cellists to Chicago has not gone unnoticed.
“I feel like so many people just popped up. How did we go from three cellists to around 30? Ali said.
Katinka Kleijn can confirm this impression. A cellist who plays in the Chicago Symphony and on the city’s improvised music circuits, she’s lived here since 1995 and remembers when Chicago cello improvisers more or less started and ended with her, Lonberg-Holm and Reid. Now she’s smitten with the town’s young cello guard, with whom she shares a lot of bills.
“Everyone in the scene regularly makes remarks, like, ‘Whoa, there are so many cellists here right now,'” she says. “But the cello really is a perfect instrument for improvising. You can be the bass, you can be the lead vocal, you can play chords, you can do pizzicato (plucked strings), you can play extended techniques… The instrument is made of wood and metal, so you can also join the percussion. If you think about it, there’s really nothing like it in an improvisational or jazz setting.
Kleijn regularly teams up with Lia Kohl, another cellist in town who takes an expansive approach to the instrument inspired by performance art. (For a chart-topping entry into his output, Kohl’s debut solo album “Too Small to be a Plain” and last year’s “Our Savings,” featuring clarinetist Zachary Good and percussionist Ryan Packard, are debuts. good starting points.) In 2019, Kleijn and Kohl staged their collaborative piece “Water on the Bridge,” a performance that saw them play, scrub, and wade with 30 damaged or dilapidated cellos in the Eckhart Park swimming pool. . I attended this performance; the spectacle was unforgettable, as was the strangled cry an audience member let out when Kohl threw the first cello into the pool.
This visceral reaction sums up what the mad cello scientists of Chicago are up against. Despite the versatility described by Kleijn, the cello is primarily associated with Western classical music – a trap traditionally shunned, for some reason, by its violin and double bass siblings. One learns to approach the instrument as a sacred object, not to be sullied by incorrect technique or “ugly” sounds.
Every cellist I spoke to — except Ali, who is self-taught — spoke at length about unlearning the resolve of classical music pedagogy, a process still ongoing for many of them.
“I feel like classical music needs you not to have a body. Bodies have limits, but I’ve had very few teachers who take that into account. By the time I’m done my master’s degree, I had tendonitis in several places,” explains olula negre, scholar and curator of Elastic Arts.
“Since then my relationship with the instrument has changed – it had to if I wanted to continue playing. A big part of that was freeing myself from the existence of a right and a wrong way to play the instrument. The right way is the one that works for my body and achieves the sound or technique I’m looking for.
Reid, who came into the orbit of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on the South Side after moving here two decades ago, has also had her classical training tested on the free jazz scene.
“I was trying to learn standards and basslines with my mentor, but nobody wanted to do the songs. If you were on a gig and tried to quote something, people wouldn’t ‘bomb’ you. not musically, which means they would blow you up all of a sudden. They really wanted you to create your own language,” Reid explains.
“Even now it’s ingrained in me, because I hadn’t tried to memorize a bunch of licks. It’s an interesting point of view, I think.
Soon to be a graduate of Northwestern University’s Ph.D. program, composer and cellist Mathew Arrellin writes music in the same Western classical tradition he learned at an early age. But he says self-directed explorations on the instrument were the biggest inspirations for ‘Bifurcations’ and ‘Apparitions’, the two 2018 solo cello pieces he recently recorded and released on his debut album, ‘Metasomatic’. .
“Even then, I felt there was so much I didn’t know about the cello, so I started improvising to find something more personal to try. There was so much ground to explore: for example, what if I put my finger here and left the other string open? Now touch both strings? What about putting more pressure on the bottom string than the top string and then reversing that? I almost walked through it like a seeker,” recalls Arrellin.
Chesley, the cellist who plays Helen Money, also went through Northwestern’s demanding Bienen School of Music. But she felt she had met her group of people among other rock musicians, outside the cloistered Evanston campus, and eventually dropped out of her degree to hit the road with alternative rocker Bob Mold (of Hüsker Dü and Sugar). Now, as a cello teacher who runs a private studio and a class at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chesley says she tries to be mindful of How? ‘Or’ What she teaches her students, who are mostly beginners.
“All the musicians I look up to sound good. I feel like that’s where it all has to start,” Chesley says. “That’s what I try to teach my students. I don’t teach them to rock, and I don’t really teach them to improvise. But I teach technique and how to get a good sound on your instrument.
So give it a few years. Perhaps even more inspired cellists will take up the torch from these artists. One thing is certain: it’s something Reid, who moved here in 2000, could never have imagined.
“It was a bit lonely for a while, of course,” she says. “It’s very cool that there are a lot more string players in general, and especially more cello improvisers. I haven’t even met them all yet.
- Ishmael Ali performs with Vivary 9 p.m. June 29 at Cafe Mustache, 2313 N. Milwaukee Ave., pay what you can, cafemustache.com, and debuts his interactive composition “Archipelago” September 9 at Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey Ave. #208; elasticarts.org
- Helen Silver plays a solo set at 8:30 p.m. July 3 at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., $20, emptybottle.com, and releases “Trace” (Thrill Jockey) in January 2023.
- Katinka Kleijn performs with reedist Hunter Diamond and bassist Jason Roebke 8:30 p.m. July 28 at Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey Ave. #208, pay what you can, elasticarts.org
- Lia Kohl performs Aug. 19 at The Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; constellation-chicago.com; 7 p.m. Sept. 1 at Comfort Station, 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave., pay what you can, comfortstationlogansquare.org; and releases “The Ceiling Reposes” (American Dreams) in the spring of 2023.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our coverage of classical music. The Chicago Tribune maintains complete editorial control over assignments and content.