October 1998

No, honestly it is a cello

When one of the country's leading composers sits and plays a sitar solo, having been trained in classical piano, you know something strange is going on, especially when theyÕre using your cello.

In January this year, I commissioned a radical new instrument from a luthier in Seattle. The electric cello has no recognisable cello shape and consists of a set of five strings with individual receptors and data converters. The body (what there is) is made out of figured maple taken from a 200-year-old barn in Pennsylvania, and the fingerboard is made from red ebony. The strings are conventional, with the exception of a guitar E string Š for some reason the demand for cello E strings is rather low! The instrument has an analogue sound which closely resembles a viol consort whilst retaining a unique full tone, rich in harmonics and textures. The instrument can run directly through delay modules, samplers and synth units, or can be played straight into a PA. Each string can be separately assigned to a different channel, making synthesised textures potentially complex.

As soon as the cello arrived, I took it into the studio and began experimenting with all the effects that I'd been practising for years. This led to a recording a piece that I improvised last year called HarrisonÕs Chronometer and consequently the completion of my new CD The Glass Cathedral. A lack of resonance, which previously bedevilled most electric bowed instruments, is now not an issue. The new cello has a natural vibrancy, which allows very high-pitched harmonics to ring generously without any feedback. There is a sinew in the sound due to the presence of so many upper partials, which gives clarity to the most complex of figures without the texture becoming muddy. I was given the opportunity to present a solo concert using the cello at Dartington Summer School. I wasnÕt going to perform music written for conventional cello, there would be little point, so I presented a programme of premieres and commissions. Joby Talbot wrote a piece for the instrument called Falling which used the pure sound of the cello with a wet reverb. Lines build and twist harmonically until an accompanying electric guitar kicks in with distorted repeated chords underpinning the melodies. This sound is not pre-recorded, it is an instantaneous interpretation of the pitch, velocity and aftertouch of whichever chord is active. This is then converted into an entirely different instrumental sound. (Hence the ability to play whatever you choose, be it blues harmonica, marimba, Hammond organ, log drum and indeed sitar).

Falling is the first of twenty different commissions this year, including works by John Woolrich, Julian Anderson, David Bedford, Martin Butler and Daryl Runswick to name but a few, which will be performed in venues as diverse as Kettles Yard in Cambridge and the Knitting Factory in New York. As the worldÕs worst pianist, nine years of study and grade three merit (1984), I can finally approach the grade four syllabus with confidence - if only I could work out the bowings!


Philip Sheppard is cellist of the Composers Ensemble and the Smith Quartet. He has recently been made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music where he runs a postgraduate contemporary cello class. He will take part in spnmÕs Cello Firsts workshop led by John Woolrich, featured composer at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (Saturday 11th October - see events listings for details).

Philip's new CD The Glass Cathedral (BSNCD1) can be purchased at the special rate of £7 by spnm members (closing date for offer 16 October).
Email [email protected]
for details of membership.

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
Gavin Bryars – new music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester