For Doug Jenkins, the allure of the cello came not from childhood lessons demanded by strict parents, the seductive call of the orchestra, or whatever mysterious pull draws musicians to brave this difficult and esteemed instrument. Jenkins picked up the cello because the lessons came with his rent.
"I was 19, in college down at the University of Oregon, and was renting a room from this woman who was the principal cellist for the Eugene symphony," explains Jenkins. "I played all kinds of other instruments at the time, and she said 'Why don't you play the cello?' So I went out and bought one on a whim, and it was the most amazing thing. I had private lessons for over a year. I lucked out." This luck was part of an unorthodox learning process for Jenkins ("She'd hear me practicing and just yell at me from the other room"), one that continued through his cello-playing career.
In Portland, Jenkins discovered other cellists whose love for the instrument was hampered by their frustration with the way cello music is often perceived by the masses. The cello is seen as a stuffy, impersonal instrument, made for the wealthy, by the wealthy: If Woody Guthrie's ragged guitar could kill fascists, the cello would be the instrument that put them in power, with the epic swell and thrust of a Wagner piece.
With that perception in mind, the Portland Cello Project took shape in the fall of 2006. The project, with its revolving door of members and a lineup that fluctuates based on the performance and the piece, is dedicated to putting on "inexpensive performances of cello music, en masse, in venues not traditionally associated with the cello." It's a bold notion when you consider the cello's intimidating nature as being synonymous with stuffy orchestral pieces—not exactly the centerpiece of a show you'd see in a dimly lit rock club while clutching a can of domestic beer.
But from Beethoven to Britney, it's all fair game to the PCP. In fact, Jenkins is proud of their diverse taste in music. "I love [Britney Spears'] 'Toxic,' and I love Beethoven's 7th Symphony." The inspiring populist master plan of the PCP is to bring the instrument to the people; to make the cello just as accessible as a Fender or a set of drums, available not only in pricey symphony halls but on rock stages, underneath glowing beer signs, presented without an air of pretension.
Despite the modern-day covers, the PCP avoids pandering with cheap gimmickry, as their goal is much loftier than just becoming the next Apocalyptica (the Finnish cello trio famous for covering Metallica). While their repertoire does include OutKast and Bon Jovi, it's also home to inventive takes on music from Bach and Samuel Barber.
"We're sincere. The gimmick side of what we do comes from us just wanting to put on a really good live show," says Jenkins. "We never play with a conductor, which is difficult, but we lead each other and we want to keep the community feel to what we do."