Portland Cello Project has been performing an eclectic array of music on cellos for well over a decade, and though their repertoire includes classical pieces by composers like Bach and Saint-Saëns, much of it, is, as they put it, “music you wouldn’t normally associate with the instrument,” including arrangements of songs by popular artists such as Kanye West, Beck, Dave Brubeck, and Elliott Smith. Artistic director and member Doug Jenkins played in the group’s first show in 2006, Skip vonKuske joined shortly after in 2007, and Diane Chaplin played in her first performance with the group in 2011.
In the fall of 2012, the group famously played Radiohead’s OK Computer in its entirety, and since then they have added several other Radiohead songs into their regular rotation as well. In early 2019, they released a full album of Radiohead tracks called Homage to Radiohead and also toured it throughout the United States.
Doug, Skip, and Diane took some time to tell FRONTRUNNER more about the attraction to Radiohead’s music, as well as what they’ve learned from playing the cello; and in the process, reminisced a little about the group’s history so far.
So first off, why Radiohead? And why OK Computer specifically, with such a vast discography to work from?
Doug: OK Computer was, at the time, such a departure from what [Radiohead] had done before sonically, so the large palate and just the seminal and timelessly inspiring nature of that record are its appeal.
Are there any other Radiohead songs you tried that were rejected? If so, why?
Doug: All of the songs were arranged and then re-arranged, and then re-arranged again at least (some more than that) just because we wanted to do it all right. So their arrangements have evolved and continue to evolve as we grew–and continue to grow–to know them better. (There’s so much musical subtlety and richness to them).
But [as for] outright gave up on…I tried to have us stop doing “Fitter Happier”, but was vetoed. “You and Whose Army” we had, but the arrangement didn’t do it justice. “All I Need” from In Rainbows felt like it would be a no-brainer for a natural adaptation, but I never even brought to the group to rehearse because it never felt like the climax would be the same without the piano, pure and simple.
Others for non-cello reasons: Dollars and Cents we have a great arrangement for (especially when we have Tyrone Hendrix — who has played with Prince, Stevie Wonder, and many others — and JP Downer in the rhythm section). But the vocal line on that one is really tough to pull off if you’re not Thom Yorke. All of them are really tough to pull off if you’re not Thom Yorke, which is why we’ve done them alternately with choir instead of single voice, or mostly with Patti King (The Shins) singing, since she’s a chameleon and has a really good musical sense on how to make them hers rather than just emulating Thom Yorke (which is basically impossible to do authentically).
Have you received any feedback from Radiohead themselves about your interpretations?
Doug: No. The only superstars we’ve heard feedback from over the last decade of performing and adapting music are Jay-Z and Beck. Radiohead saying something positive would be a huge honor. But they probably have heard a million adaptations of their work at this point, so they’re probably very understandably weary or apathetic about new ones.
Which member of Radiohead do you identify most with, and why?
Skip: Jonny Greenwood. His work with film scoring and guitar playing are very striking.
Doug: Me, personally? I have never thought about this. Either Philip Selway or Colin Greenwood. I like to hold shit together, and I get a special satisfaction out of things just being really solid on stage, and those guys always lay down such a consistent foundation.
Portland Cello Project has always worked in the overlap of pop and classical. What do you enjoy about that? What have you learned from it?
Skip: As a cellist who has built a career more on the pop/rock/jazz side of music, but with the training in classical, Cello Project has convinced me, music is music, and any audience can appreciate a wide variety of styles.
Diane: I come from a really intense classical background – I’m the most “highly-trained” of the cellists, with a Master’s degree in cello performance from Juilliard. Classical music has a tendency to conform to “the way it should be played” with more standards and traditions than other styles. So one of the things that I like about PCP is that we go out of that box – even when we play classical things, we’re not trying to create some pivotal interpretation of a masterpiece. I have a huge amount of fun playing all the music we do and it’s made me braver about trying unusual things and pushing my own limits.
Doug: All music has something good in it, and all music is related either through similarities or contrasts. It’s wonderful to play with this group and get to go on different journeys every night exploring those similarities and contrasts. We don’t just do Radiohead — we have over 1,000 pieces of music in our repertoire, so even our Radiohead performances will have everything from Nina Simone adaptations to Diane [Chaplin] playing the Elgar Concerto; Lili Boulanger to Beyoncé.
How did you first choose to play cello? What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the instrument since then?
Skip: I was eight when I started. As a teen I picked up the bass and guitar to better hear myself jamming with friends and drummers, but was surprised to discover that you could amplify the cello. Seems silly now, but it was a big surprise to me in the early 90s.
Doug: It’s the most like the human voice, in range (from the bass to the soprano), the rich timbres–and it feels like you’re dancing with it when you play it.
Diane: I was brainwashed into playing the cello by my elementary school music teacher. She would show me pictures of the cello and play me recordings while intoning, “Isn’t this the most beautiful instrument?” But she was right – it was destined to be my instrument. The most surprising thing about it (and really, about any instrument) is that it never stops being the most difficult thing you can do. No matter how advanced or fabulous your capabilities, there are still many things that are fiendishly difficult and that you have to practice for months before you can walk on a stage to perform. Play the cello loops one into the essential human condition: that we strive to better ourselves, to reach higher, to achieve more.
What is one of your favorite memories during your time with PCP?
Skip: Once at Millennium Park in Chicago I found out that Dave Brubeck listened on the phone while we were playing Take 5. Playing in Alaska one weekend and Louisiana the next comes to mind as well.
Diane: One of my very favorite shows remains the full album of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, which we performed to a huge, packed ballroom of screaming metal fans. I had never even heard of Pantera before, and here we were acting as a kind of icon cover band. That kind of experience has been, to a large extent, part of what makes PCP so fascinating for me and my classical mindset: I get to hear music I would not normally listen to, I perform music in a genre that I don’t know. I have to push myself to get into certain styles and modes. It turns out that everything sounds good on a cello, so even if you don’t like to listen to the harshness of some kinds of metal music, most folks will love it on cellos.
Doug: At a punk rock club in Fargo, ND (Dempsey’s Aquarium), playing Manuel De Falla’s Danza del Fuego at midnight for a packed house. The arrangement has sections with col legno, and a woman in front, quite inebriated, the first time we started going col legno, screaming, “Woohoo! Col legno!”
What about the biggest challenges?
Skip: Balancing numerous obligations while prioritizing the work we do collectively is always a challenge, but worth it.
Doug: Technical things. We worked with a microphone company in Denmark to help fine-tune some microphones they had to work in the wide variety of situations that we perform in. And financially, trying to be a classical ensemble on a rock band’s economic cycle.
What are some of the most creative or nontraditional ways you‘ve used your cello?
Doug: We try to stay relatively traditional in use (other than sul pont, col legno, playing on the other side of the bridge on occasion, sometimes percussion — stuff that isn’t horribly non-standard). People come to hear the cello, so we avoid the electronics in Cello Project performances and try to keep things lush and cello-y.
Skip: I use the cello like a paint brush, but I’m painting with sound. I use multiple effects and looping to create soundscapes that utilize the lushness of its natural sound, while manipulating it to sound more electronic. Even when minimal effects are used (like with Cello Project) I do my best to emulate the voice, guitar, bass, saxophone, violin, or whatever instrument played the parts on the original recordings we cover.
How does decision-making work in the ensemble?
Doug: We go where the wind blows.
With the recent release of Radiohead’s OK Computer sessions, is there any talk of making more rare Radiohead covers? (Or 18 hour performances of the whole thing?!)
Doug: It’s hard to say. Venues are still asking for more Radiohead from us, so we’ll probably add a few more pieces to the repertoire as we keep traveling it. I haven’t listened to the 18 hours yet, but I’m guessing that’s mostly takes and retakes and discussion, etc., which if someone tried to relive, I have to say, might be a really dull and bizarre form of performance art.
What else is coming up this year for PCP?
Doug: We just did a tour where we had the entire repertoire memorized. That’s a new thing for us since we’re all classically trained and it was really liberating to not have music stands on stage and be that connected musically. That’s what I’d like to do, but again, we go where the wind blows.