As far as band names go, the Portland Cello Project’s isn’t exactly cryptic.
It’s a group of cellists, based in Portland, who’ve come together to play music. Pretty standard stuff.
Standard, that is, until founder Douglas Jenkins expresses his excitement about bringing the PCP to Central Oregon next week (see “If you go”), and blurts out the group’s newest venture.
“We’ll be unveiling a Rihanna song in Bend,” he said in a telephone interview last week.
Now, if you’re a fan of pop music, e.g. Rihanna, you might be confused. And if you’re a fan of classical music, i.e. the kind often played by cellists, you might be confused.
And that’s perfect, Jenkins said.
“If (audiences) leave with ... a lot of confusion, I’m fine with (that),” he said. “Like, ‘Why did Arvo Pärt come after Britney?’”
Pärt is a contemporary, minimalist classical composer from Estonia. And, yes, “Britney” is Britney Spears, the pop tart-turned-tabloid star whose Grammy-winning 2004 hit “Toxic” is the most-requested song in PCP’s repertoire.
It’s that mishmash of a repertoire, combined with PCP’s classically-trained chops, that has made the group an unlikely breakout star on Portland’s overflowing music scene. According to www.portlandcelloproject.com, PCP’s material includes everything from Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Outkast to Bach, Beethoven and Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla.
In between, there’s Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin, Pantera and Pink Floyd, ABBA and A-ha, plus Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, theme songs from films (“Star Wars”), television shows (“Star Trek”) and video games (“Super Mario Bros.”), Portland-based indie faves like The Builders and The Butchers, Weinland and Laura Gibson, and original tunes, too.
On any given night, PCP’s setlist depends on the atmosphere in the room.
“If it feels like it’s a crazy, more wild bar, we’re going to pull out the louder, faster stuff,” Jenkins said. “If it’s more of a listening room, it’s going to be a little bit more of the mellow stuff.”
That said, the original goal of the Portland Cello Project was to take classical music — long trapped in theaters and concert halls — into unexpected venues, Jenkins said. The idea started with Tony Rogers, a cellist who knew many folks in Portland who played the same instrument in non-traditional ways and invited them to his house for an old-fashioned cello jam (as if there is such a thing).
“We did it and we had fun and we thought, well, wouldn’t it be funny to try to play a bunch of classical music at bars,” Jenkins said. “So we played a show at the Doug Fir (Lounge), and it was fun.”
That was in 2006. The group had so much fun, it did the same thing down the street at Holocene, and invited some local singer-songwriter friends, such as Gibson and Peter Broderick, to join in. Jenkins wrote cello arrangements for their songs, and also began arranging “funny covers” of tunes like Spears’ “Toxic.”
Those first two shows were hits. The Holocene show was a sellout, powered almost entirely by word of mouth, Jenkins said.
“I don’t even know why it happened a second time,” he said, “but it did, and we’re lucky it did, I guess.”
Three years later, Jenkins has a group of 15 to 20 cellists who rotate in and out of the project for different gigs, depending on who’s available. Most PCP shows have eight cellists on stage, though six are coming to Bend because of the size of McMenamins Old St. Francis School’s stage. Last year, the group released its second album, “The Thao & Justin Power Sessions,” featuring collaborations with West Coast indie darlings Power and Thao Nguyen. And last summer, SPIN Magazine named them a “Hot New Band,” whatever that means.
Jenkins credits PCP’s formation and rise, as well as the favorable response the band has received, to the familial atmosphere among Portland’s musicians. Over the past decade, the town’s music scene has blossomed into one of the finest anywhere, and its segment of musicians playing gentle indie-folk — the kind particularly friendly to the cello — is richly talented.
“I think (PCP is possible) just because Portland has one of the most vibrant music scenes in the country,” he said, noting that almost all the group’s members play with rock bands as well. “We’re all transplants, and I think most of us did move here because of the music scene. We’re just drawn here because it’s such a vibrant scene, it’s an inexpensive place to live, and it’s a big enough city that there’s enough classical music gigs (for us to) pay our bills. I think it’s just the perfect mixture of factors.”
He continued: “Not only is the music so good here, but everybody gets along really well. There’s not a whole lot of competition because everybody’s kind of doing their own thing, and everybody goes to each others’ shows and is really supportive of each other. So I think that’s a lot of it; it’s a really open and tight and friendly and supportive community.”
For Bend, the PCP has prepared a three-hour-plus set, the vast majority of which is new arrangements, including collaborative work with guest artists David Shultz and Catherine Feeny, songwriters from Richmond, Va., and Portland, respectively. As for what, exactly, the band will play, that will be determined, at least in part, by the crowd.
And that’s the point of putting classical music in new places, Jenkins said.
“(Often in classical music), you’re expecting your audience to come to you rather than reaching across the aisle to them, and I feel like that’s one of the things that’s a little bit alienating about the classical performance tradition,” he said. “It’s very much expecting people to come to you rather than reaching out. And I think music is such an act of communication, you have to reach out to your audience. It’s a two-way thing. They’re giving you energy back and you’re giving them something as well, and I feel like that’s sometimes lost in the classical tradition.
“I try to avoid that with this group whenever possible,” he said. “We try to connect.”