Articles About Von Cello
How Aaron Minsky Became Von Cello
1. Changing the Course of Music History
Changing the Course of Music History
by Aaron Von Cello
I never understood the breaking up of music into categories. I grew up in a home of varied musical tastes. My father was a great classical music lover. I remember, when I was a child, hearing him whistle along with almost any piece of classical music that came on the radio, often telling me the name of the piece and the composer before the announcer. Yet he also had jazz records in his collection and was well versed in popular music.
My mother was a musical theater lover. She knew practically every Broadway show. She acted in a community theater group that she and my father founded. From the age of four I was acting in their shows. Later on I was playing for them. My parents also started a local concert series, booking famous performers of all types from Isaac Stern to Duke Ellington to dancers and acrobats from foreign lands. From the concerts I got an appreciation for the arts of many cultures and I got to meet the performers.
My grandmother was a piano teacher and loved to play popular music. I remember playing songs on the guitar while she accompanied me on the piano. My other grandparents were not musicians but appreciated music. They had a great collection of 78’s with classic pop from the twenties and thirties. Whenever I thought about quitting the guitar, which happened every now and then, my grandfather would talk me back into it.
Away at sleep away camp, I became exposed to hard rock. My camp was not far from the original Woodstock Festival. I remember the counselors going there on their days off, then coming back and telling us about it as though it were a religious experience. We began to see ourselves as the inheritors of the Woodstock legacy. Unfortunately, when I came home I found that my parents could not relate to the music in the same way. Though they were open minded, the sixties' counter-culture was beyond their experience. This bothered me: how could these people who had exposed me to so much, not see the beauty and excitement in this new type of music? I became aware that we were not alone with the problem of different perceptions of the sixties; it became known as the generation gap. I felt that this gap in understanding between the generations was a negative thing. I was surprised that it could even extend to music. Music to me was always something that brought people together, not something to separate them further. I became convinced that the musical generation gap had to be bridged.
I used to wonder why no one played the cello like a guitar. Most of the people I would mention this to, thought it was a ridiculous idea: the cello is not a guitar therefore a cello is played like a cello. This answer made no sense to me. I found it hard to believe that, with the hundreds of years this instrument had been around, no one else had thought to strum, play chords, take solos and make distorted sounds on it. Why was it looked upon as a “serious” instrument, consigned to a certain type of music? Who said it had to be that way?! Acting on this thought, I took home a cello from my high school and started trying to play it in a whole new way. A thrill ran through me as I realized that probably no one else had ever made such sounds before! I suddenly became aware of the way I could bridge the musical generation gap: rock cello. The most dignified of instruments, the ancient cello, wailing like a Stratocaster! The older generation had respect for great cellists, like Pablo Casals. The younger generation had respect for instrumentalists who could master the synthesis of electronics and American popular styles, like Jimi Hendrix. What if someone could combine the two? That would be of interest to both generations and could create a musical bridge between them!
I had had a desire to be a rock star since those Woodstock days when I saw how music had the power to change the world. I also had a sensibility about classical music from my upbringing, aware that great music stands the test of time. It didn't seem enough for me to just get out there and entertain (which I was already enjoying doing as a rock guitarist). A true artist would immerse himself in the music of the past and then create something new. The music would transcend style, culture and generation: changing the course of music history.
Classical Rock - Has it really all been done before?
by Aaron Minsky
Students of Rock history are surely familiar with those early attempts at combining classical music and rock. In the late 60’s and early 70’s it was a whole movement. I don’t know who actually started it but many people jumped on board. I suppose early examples of the trend were The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles Sgt. Pepper. The Who came out with the rock opera Tommy, and even The Rolling Stones went classical with songs like You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Then there were the bands who made classical rock their specialty: groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Procal Harum, King Crimson and The Moody Blues.
Then came disco...and everyone just wanted to dance. After that came hip hop and everyone just wanted to rap. It seemed like the glorious experiment was over, but was it? Actually, it has been inching its way back. The use of background strings has come back strong in pop ballads. In a most unlikely turn of events, recently artists like Aerosmith and Alannis Morisette have released songs with an orchestral background, Madonna has been using new age electronica, and most surprising of all, the metal bangers of Metalica have been playing live with a symphony orchestra!
On the other side of the fence, classical musicians have been releasing popular recordings: The Three Tenors sing modern love songs, Itzhak Perlman plays klezmer, Yo-Yo Ma plays country, and string quartets are playing rock transcriptions. Though this has been a recent trend, classical and pop have been intertwined for centuries. Songs similar to the pop songs of today go back to the troubadours of the middle ages and renaissance. Classical composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn were often inspired by popular melodies. In the romantic period the nationalist composers freely used melodies from their country’s folk music. One such composer, a Czech named Dvorak, wrote the first “American” symphony. Titled “From The New World”, and composed in the United States in 1893, it contains many American sounding melodies. As one who always listened to the music of “the people”, Dvorak rightfully predicted that the music of the African-Americans would have a major impact on the future of music. American composers like Ives and Copland were quick to incorporate popular styles in their pieces, and composers like Gershwin and Bernstein wrote music that entered the popular culture.
So has it all been done before? Not quite! In all of the examples above (with the possible exception of Gershwin) either a classical musician crossed over to pop or a pop musician crossed over to classical. The result was usually a musical creation that didn’t quite make it over to the other side. Aaron Von Cello, on the other hand, is not a classical musician playing rock or a rock musician playing classical. He grew up as a rock guitarist but early on worked very hard to first become established as a classical cellist and composer. His classical music is currently being performed in concert halls throughout the world, so now is the perfect time for him to perform and promote his unique “New Classic Rock”. Von Cello is the first rock musician in history to first gain fame in classical music and then return to rock. This is not cross over: Aaron is equally a rock musician and a classical musician. The barrier has been broken. This has not been done before!
Is There Room For Cello?
by Aaron Von Cello
There is a television commercial with the line, “There’s always room for jello”, but I’d like to know, “is there room for cello...in rock?”. Yes, I know there have been string quartets and orchestras which have backed up singers and bands, and even the occasional artist who has had a solo cellist as a sideman, but I’m talking about a situation where the cellist is the artist! In other words, I wonder if a cellist can be accepted as a major rock artist.
It’s funny, the rock/pop world is supposed to be hip, free and open , yet it seems to have a very narrow range of what is musically acceptable. For example, reggae, the national music of Jamaica, is somehow cool, but not the national music of Venezuela or Peru. Another example is instrumentation; the guitar is cool, the bass is cool, even the flute can be cool, but not the oboe or the bassoon or the French horn.
There seems to be a general bias against anything that is perceived as being “classical”. This probably stems from the early days of rock n’ roll when there was a bias against rock music from the general adult population, including the classical community. The early rockers must have felt anger at not being accepted as “legitimate” musicians. An early example of a rock attack (though humorous) on classical music came from Chuck Berry who sang, “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news”. However justified this anger may have been several decades ago, it has now gotten to the point that some in the rock community have become musical bigots themselves, closed off to anything that is out of their narrow definition of rock. This is not hip or free or open minded at all.
I have sometimes felt anger or resentment against me for daring to challenge the rock/pop status quo. I once brought a brand new guitar amp simulater to a gig with a band. The guitarist came over and said, “What are you doing with that thing; it’s for the guitar!” I answered, “When they make one for cello, let me know and I’ll buy it”. Another comment that I have often heard from people listening to my recordings is, “That’s a cello?! It sounds like a guitar!” My answer is, “No, it does not sound like a guitar, that’s the sound of an electric cello!” O.K., just between us, sometimes it does sound kind of like a guitar, but if you listen closely it really doesn’t. The bigger point, however, is that some people get angry at the fact that I make a cello sound like a rock instrument, as if I’m tricking them, as if I’m crossing a line that you’re not supposed to cross. This is the same narrow mindedness that every innovator has to deal with. The cello is a big cool instrument that can rock like a guitar, playing chords and taking leads with an electronic sound, however, because of the bow, it can also hold notes. In fact, it can control notes, making them louder and softer and can even change the tone of a note from its beginning to its end. It has a deeper sound than a guitar and it can play lower and go higher. This is not to say that it should replace the guitar; nothing will ever do that. What matters most is that the cello, like the guitar, is a great and venerable instrument and it is ready to come to the rock music party. “Is there room for cello?”
Crossing the Bridge - My Journey From Rock To Classical
by Aaron Von Cello
People have asked me, “How did someone like you, who was a teen age rock prodigy, decide to give it all up and become a classical musician?” Of course, I never really gave it all up, but the path that I took from rock to classical is unusual, although not as strange as it may at first appear.
When I was a child, my favorite music was Top 40. As pop music began to expand its horizons I became drawn to the most creative side of it. It was probably The Beatles whose music first caught my attention. I was particularly fond of Abbey Road. To my ear, it was the culmination of the experiments of the earlier albums. The sounds were less synthetic and more classic. I was very impressed with the albums’ long flowing medley that went from gentle beauty to full blown excitement without missing a beat.
In those days many groups were expanding the form of rock. Some of the songs and albums that were leading the way were: Eight Miles High by the Byrds, 20,000 Light Years From Home by the Stones, Soft Parade by the Doors, Deja Vu by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Tommy by The Who, The Four Of Us by John Sebastian, In The Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, the medley from Chicago II, the medley on Edgar Winters’ first album, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, Layla by Derek and the Dominoes, Blows Against the Empire by Jefferson Starship, Monster by Steppenwolf, even Grand Funk Railroad got into the act with I’m Your Captain!
I also became very impressed with some bands for their virtuosity, groups like: Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, The Mothers of Invention, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. These were real musicians, as great as those in classical music and jazz. Some bands were combining their sound beautifully with symphony orchestra: Nights In White Satin by The Moody Blues was a classic as was In Held Twas In I by Procal Harum.
The music that I enjoyed the most was the music that made you feel like you were flying through space. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the most popular example in the genre. One of my all time favorites is 1983 A Merman I Should Come To Be by Jimi Hendrix. My other favorite would have to be Dark Star by The Grateful Dead. I guess I just loved free flowing spacey improvisation whether it was called Hard Rock, Acid Rock, Album Oriented Rock, or Concept Album Rock. The only problem was that there was a limited supply of this kind of music and once people heard The Bee Gees sing Staying Alive and saw John Travolta strike that famous pose, it was all over! I was not ready at all for disco and became very disenchanted. I decided to look elsewhere for spacey improvised music. This led me into the world of jazz.
I entered jazz through the back door. I was drawn in by the strange atonal improvisations of musicians like Pharaoh Sanders, Eric Dolphy and this little known German musical wizard named Gunter Hampel. This music had a similar sound to the most intense parts of an extended rock jam. It was amazing from a technical standpoint but the utter formlessness of it became hard to relate to at times. From there I discovered the rest of the great heritage of jazz from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, ending up with a particular affinity for the music of John Coltrane. Coltrane’s playing was almost beyond music. It was like listening to the sound of spirituality; to a great soul communing with God. It was even deeper than Hendrix or Garcia. Again though, there was a limited supply of this music and much of it was too intense to listen to in a daily way, so my search continued.
I next entered classical music through the back door. I became aware of modern classical atonal music from Schoenberg to Carter. It also seemed to be based on freewheeling spacey improvisations that just happened to be written down. As I learned more though, I found out that it was actually based on mathematical formulas. Once I realized this, the music left me cold. I moved back in time to the impressionistic flights of Debussy and Ravel, and then back to the giant endless masterpieces of Mahler, Dvorak and Brahms. Some of these pieces made some of the rock extended pieces seem like child's play. As I dug further I began to understand how all of these composers could not have done what they did had it not been for Beethoven. Listening to his late quartets I became aware of what true musical genius was. Here was music hundreds of years ahead of its time, music from the depths and heights a soul can reach. It was philosophy in sound. For many years I felt that Beethoven was music’s ultimate genius, but little by little I became aware of an older giant. I had shied away to some extent from Bach because of the religious content of much of his music, but as I heard more and more of his incredibly large and consistently powerful output, I became overwhelmed by his creativity. Some of his music is out of this world. It’s as if he had a window open to heaven and just took musical dictation from the angels! His music has an incredible range of moods and styles. From a theoretical point of view, he synthesized all the music that had come before, perfected it, and laid the ground work for all the music to follow. As I’ve been known to say, “Bach is music. The rest is commentary.”
In conclusion I guess you can sum it up by saying that my journey to classical from rock took me from rock to Bach!
P.S. Now I compose Bach inspired rock.
To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before: What Von Cello Can Do That Other Rock Stars Can’t
by Aaron Von Cello
People are always looking for the next big thing and artists try to come up with new ideas to fill that need. Classical musicians may release CD’s of popular music like tangos, folk or new age. Rock musicians may try ideas like playing with a symphony orchestra. Von Cello can go way beyond both of these scenarios. Here are some examples:
1. Playing With Orchestras - Several rock bands have played their songs with orchestras, but has any rock star played in an orchestra? Or have they played a concerto with an orchestra? Von Cello can!
2. Multi Genre Concerts - Has any rock star gone from playing a hard rock tune to playing a classical piece within one concert? Von Cello can!
3. Recitals - Has any rock star, after a large venue rock tour, played small intimate venues giving classical recitals? Or mixing classical with soft rock? Von Cello can!
4. Competitions - Has any rock star organized competitions for instrumentalists playing his published classical pieces, with prizes and sponsorships? Von Cello can!
5. Seminars and Workshops - Has any rock star gone around the country giving seminars and workshops on a new style of playing an instrument? Or discussing the musical connections between classical and rock music? Von Cello can!
6. Endorsements - Has any rock star helped design and endorse their own line of instruments? Perhaps, but Von Cello can!
7. Coaching - Has any rock star gone on a tour of schools and universities, conducting orchestras and giving master classes? Von Cello can!
8. Breaking and Burning - Has any classical musician given a performance and then smashed or burned his instrument? Von Cello will! (Any donors?)
These are just some of the things that are possible when a rock musician is also an established classical musician. Each of the above categories can include many sub categories as well. The possibilities are endless.
by Aaron Von Cello
A provocative title perhaps, but I’m referring to little parts of instrumental solos which, in popular music are called licks. Guitar players, in particular, like to think in terms of licks. When I was coming up as a young guitarist, I can’t even remember how many times I heard someone say, “Hey man, cool lick”, or, “How’d ya do that lick?”, or, “Where’d ya learn that lick?” I remember how, when a new song would come out on the radio that had a cool guitar solo, all the guitar players in the neighborhood would try to figure it out. Sometimes a couple of us would get together and trade licks. I might show you a Hendrix lick and you might show me one from Clapton or Van Halen. Trading chords to songs was also a major way to increase your repertoire. It was real life, on the job training.
When I started playing the cello, things were very different. Cellists basically learned from teachers. The teachers, in many cases, taught a certain style of playing that was passed down from their teacher. In fact, there were schools of playing, each with its own tradition of technique and musical interpretation. You just didn’t find cellists hanging out trading licks. It was also very rare to find a cellist trying to come up with a new sound or new way of playing. There were reasons for this. For one thing, to have a solo career, you had to win competitions. To win a competition, you had to play the required pieces within accepted guidelines. Cellists would flock to teachers who either were competition winners or who had students who were competition winners. After all, such teachers had interpretations that had proven to win. On the other hand, if you wanted an orchestral career, you had to audition in front of judges who were also steeped in certain traditions, so you had to learn to play within that set of guidelines. This situation led cellists into becoming replicators, not creators. Some cellists, even after becoming professionals, would go back to their teachers for lessons when learning a new concerto or sonata!
I didn’t fully realize at the time how unusual my perspective was. Most people don’t go from a childhood of rock guitar to all out classical cello in their mid teens. No wonder I sometimes caused my teachers consternation: I had a trading licks mentality in a world of strict tradition! Often I felt the need to hide my true thoughts from my teachers and colleagues. When you’re young, you usually want to fit in and be accepted by your peer group. As the years went by though, I became more and more comfortable with being myself and expressing my unique position. I am now actively promoting a new chapter in the life of the cello, and by challenging the traditions of the cello world, I am also setting an example for people of all walks of life to be free to see things in new ways. In my case I have developed a whole series of music books which teach cellists (and other string players) how to play in a new style, a style of chords and licks. My books have become standard repertoire internationally, in many schools and universities, and amongst many performers. Now I am moving to the next level by using my new style in recordings and concerts. Eventually, I plan to publish sheet music with the notes that I play in my recordings. This will provide a road map of pop music concepts for a new generation of cellists.
Like the British Invasion of pop music in the 1960's, perhaps there will be a string invasion of pop music in the future. In my opinion, pop music would only benefit from the beautiful sound of real rocking strings, and classical music would benefit from new techniques and sounds for strings as well as a renewed interest in the string instruments and their traditional repertoire. In the meantime, I dream of that day when cellists will trade licks, just like guitar players, and a new gust of musical freedom will blow into those great, though somewhat rusty, traditions of cello playing.
P.S. The above artice was printed in the newsletter of the Violoncello Society. For that publication the following paragraph was added before the last one: Examples of rock guitar licks abound; perhaps the most famous being the opening notes of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode". Jazz, of course, is largely based on licks. The cello repertoire is also replete with licks...if one knows where to look for them. For instance, the Bach Suites are a gold mine of licks (ex. Suite #3, Allemande, meas. 1-2, 3-4, 6-7 etc.). Other examples of licks can be found in Haydn's Cello Concerto in C (ex. many short phrases in the last movement), and in Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata (meas. 40-43, 44-47, 60-61, etc.). Some etudes contain multiple licks (such as Berteau's etude in G, and Minsky's "Like Crazy"). Orchestral pieces and chamber works also have licks. One of my favorite examples is Beethoven's Quartet in C# Minor, the piu mosso section of the fourth movement. (It sounds like a parody of rock music, 200 years ahead of its time!) By practicing and analyzing the many licks of the classical and popular repertoires, cellists, through improvisatory techniques, can create new licks and develop a collection of licks for use in composing and soloing.