It's too late for another article about how "the Portland Cello Project brings classical instrumentation to the masses." Judging by a slew of collaborations with high-profile Portland musicians, a recent sold-out show at the Doug Fir, and this week's release of a full-length record, it's already been brought.
"It's funny being interviewed now," the Portland Cello Project (PCP)'s Doug Jenkins tells me, "because we used to get asked, 'Why the cello?' Now everyone wants to know, 'What's the business plan?'"
The business plan is comprehensive enough that the 16-person pool of classically trained cellists could afford to self-release their first album, which comes out on Tuesday, August 12, and features Portland musicians performing their own songs with cello accompaniment, with a few all-cello arrangements thrown into the mix. The results range dramatically in tone and genre, from Nick Jaina's moody, haunting "Power" to the driving urgency of experimental hiphop quartet Hurtbird's "Living on the Side of the Why" to the arrangement of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's "Danza del Fuego." Old songs gain a new texture and depth; Laura Gibson's lovely "Hands in Pockets," for example, is here wistful and more melancholy than the sunny original.
While some bands simply give their songs to Jenkins to score, others work with the ensemble to develop songs together—something the PCP plans to do more of in the future. "I want to move away from, 'oh, you've got a song, we'll put strings on it' and more toward a collaborative compositional process. [The CD release show] is going to be the last of the schizophrenic shows with 10 different bands on the bill with us, and after then it's going be a little bit more focused," with "just one or two guest artists onstage, doing four or five songs each that they've written with us or for us."
The CD-release show at the Aladdin features eight guest artists, including Horse Feathers, Laura Gibson, and Loch Lomond, whose Ritchie Young notes that performing with the PCP is "very powerful. Fifteen cellists playing in a hardwood-floored room can make your business tingle."
As 3 Leg Torso's Courtney Von Drehle puts it, "It's great that the [PCP]'s repertoire is so all embracing and the audience is exposed to so many different styles and eras of music that defy usual programming logic."
That defiance of "programming logic" is evident on the album, which Jenkins acknowledges is "not easy to digest."
"We haven't really gotten any bad press yet, but I think this record might get some when it comes out. If I were writing an article about it, I would be like, 'These are my favorite songs, I don't know why these other songs are on here, and I don't like the order of the songs.' I mean, personally I love the order of the songs, I think it provides a lot of interesting cognitive dissonance, but that's what I would say about it."
"You just wrote your own first bad review," I tell him.
Jenkins laughs. "Well, we should end it on a positive note and say, 'Some people will like some things, and some people will like other things, and that's kind of like the life of any music scene. And that's why this record really captures the life of the Portland music scene at this moment... or something like that.'"