Review: Cellodramatic/NUMUS

In today’s Record

This version has been differs somewhat from the copy that went in the paper in that now the reader has to do less work to follow my thoughts. Sometimes having a little more time to think things through is better.

Dancers, musicians and stage actors are a different genus of artist than their painter, sculptor, architect, chef, photographer, writer, composer or designer colleagues.

Both groups are creative but performing artists practice an artform that is defined by its inherent evanescence, that is to say, even after thousands of hours of practice, they have nothing tangible to show for it. There is no product.

Pragmatist would argue that spending a lifetime making something that ceases to exist the moment it is created is an exercise in futility. On bad days, many artists might agree but most of the time that very fragility is part of what makes art so appealing.

For musicians, recordings appear to have redressed this imbalance however the great irony of records is that they preserve in perpetuity a performance that did not actually happen. Live recordings excepted, records are an amalgamation of multiple takes, a process that has more to do with chasing the ideal than any artistic foibles. A less abstract analogue is the relationship between the source images from a photoshoot and what ends up on the cover of the magazine after Photoshop.

This sense of the ephemeral is even more pervasive for those that improvise. Not only is there not a written score to give clues as to what happened, the performers themselves rarely remember what they did after the fact. Saturday evening at The Registry Theatre in Waterloo, the show Cellodramatic provided an excellent example of what can happen when five artists arrive ready to take risks and collaborate completely in the moment.

Presented by NUMUS as the second concert of their 2008/09 season, the evening featured a series of structured improvisations realized by cellists Paul Pulford, Nick Storring, Matt Brubeck and Anne Bourne along with percussionist Germaine Liu.

Singing, tapping and short melodic fragments began the show with each player emerging from corners of the theatre and meandering slowly to the stage. The dim lights made them appear very much like wandering minstrels from the twilight zone.

In the second session, the players avoided any forward momentum, instead opting to keep the harmony and rhythm practically static. Motives would come up to the surface for a short period and the slowly fade back into the group, giving the sense of happily being stuck in a giant vat of molasses.

The danger in shows such as this is affectation passed off as spontaneity. All five participants on Saturday evening are experienced improvisers keen to show off the genre to its best advantage. A prime example was the beginning of the next set. Pulford stood up and began to address the audience, as is customary, but a few seconds later, Bourne stood up and started telling a story. Storring and Brubeck followed suit and the speeches turned from earnest lectures addressed to the audience about the idiosyncrasies of their respective instruments to an amusing one-up contest about whose was better.

Cellos lend themselves well to the extended techniques and novel uses improvisation requires because they are extraordinarily flexible and are large enough to be resonant when knocked or bowed in unconventional locations. Also, because the instrument is not fretted, the cello offers a staggering number of microtone or pitches that occur between standard Western tones. Among other things, percussionist Germaine Liu brought with her a snare, floor tom and high-hat as well as an assortment of flowerpots, a metal pie plate and an enamel pot.

It was fascinating to discover how each participant’s skill set informed their improvisatory choices. Pulford’s immersion in the contemporary string quartet idiom, Storring’s interest in sound and colour and Brubeck’s awareness of harmony and texture were all integral and highly individual aspects of the collaboration.

Saturday’s concert may have been an exercise in futility but it was worth every fleeting second.

Next Concert:
Penderecki String Quartet + autorickshaw
15th January River Run Centre, Guelph
16th January Lula Lounge, Toronto
17th January Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Waterloo


  1. Hey Miss Mussel

    Thanks for the review. Didn’t see you at the show! Hope you’re well…

    I’ve been doing some writing too… I’ve got a link to my blog in this comment… So check it out. It may harken back to Kirsten Yri’s class we were in together…


  2. Miss Mussel

    Hello! Lovely to hear from you. It has been a while, hasn’t it. I had a look at your site quickly but decided to save reading it properly until I had a bit of time to sit down and give it my full attention.

    It’s nice to see someone else writing about “the issues” as it were.

    All the best,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *