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Guelph 2013: Matt Brubeck pushes the cello's boundaries in a solo concert (review)

Matt Brubeck prepares his cello with mini-clothespins, and warned the audience that these might unleash “things I have no control over.” © Brett Delmage, 2013Matt Brubeck solo
St. George's Church sanctuary
Guelph Jazz Festival
Thursday, September 5, 2013 - 8 p.m.

View photos of this concert

Cellist Matt Brubeck moved to Canada almost a decade ago. He's been a frequent contributor to the Guelph Jazz Festival since then, but this was his most high-profile festival concert yet. Accompanied only by some effects pedals and a mixing board, Brubeck played solo, filling the vaulted sanctuary of St. George's Church with beautiful music from his cello for almost 90 minutes.

The concert began with disembodied notes, as he entered from the rear of the church, his bow constantly moving over the cello strings as he paced the length of the nave. He reached the front and sat down, all the while continuing to play, closing his eyes and becoming immersed in the music. It was a classically-influenced piece: variations on a theme, sometimes urgent, sometimes romantic, sometimes deeper and sadder. Throughout it worked with the resonances inside the church before ending on one last deep note.

Brubeck had written almost all the pieces for this concert over the summer, and told the audience that he hadn't given titles to almost all of them – and “they may later turn into something”. This being Guelph, each piece also included lots of improvisation; ultimately, he said, he wanted to let the music speak for itself.

The second piece started out more syncopated, with Brubeck occasionally banging his bow against the strings. He then used loops to play against himself, intensifying the echoes flying around him. Moving easily between pizzicato and bowing, he drew further away from recognizable forms, and then – with a screech from the bow – returned to the original syncopated riff and ended.

Starting with a complex series of notes in an intricate pattern, the third piece was fast and fluid. Partway through, it came to an abrupt stop before he picked up his bow. It was a thoughtful, melodic piece, sounding like a ballad near the end.

Brubeck had warned the audience that he would be retuning his cello during the concert – but what he hadn't mentioned was that the retuning actually sounded musical (unlike the frustrating ding-ding of guitar tunings), as his bow swept across as he loosened or tightened cello pegs. For the next piece he deepened the A string to a G, which he told the audience was the tuning which Johann Sebastian Bach had used in his Fifth Cello Suite and which had been more commonly used in Baroque music. He said it made the cello's voice sound very different to him and opened up new possibilities.

The piece began with a fast riff which reminded me of a folk dance, then became more slow and measured, like a formal court dance. Brubeck added a second, more strongly accented pattern, and alternated between them, and then started looping one over the other. The effect was delicate, with the base pattern muted and the grace notes light. He strummed over the original pattern and then moved a new motif: a simple melancholy melody, reminiscent of Flamenco music but slower.

Brubeck returned to standard tuning for the next piece, which he said was influenced by carnatic music from the Indian subcontinent. It began with low sweeps of music from the bowed cello, deep and reverberant. Brubeck looped those, and started to play a more disquieting and foreboding motif on top. The deep, full sound spread through the church, as the upper motif became more frantic and bright. Then Brubeck added a third voice, more melodic, and also strummed the cello, before finally collapsing all the lines into a simple pattern and letting that resonate once more.

In honour of the one-hundredth anniversary of composer John Cage's birth, Brubeck pulled out a quantity of wooden clothespins to evoke Cage's own focus on sounds (Cage was a pioneer of the prepared piano). With a bit of tongue in cheek, Brubeck warned the audience that these might unleash “things I have no control over”, and attached the clothespins to different places on different strings on his cello, changing the sound and the sound quality of the strings. He then created a range of sounds through plucking the strings: ranging from sombre and bell-like to crisp, light, and muted. Moving the clothespins throughout and using looping, he created layers of patterns – almost his own orchestra – before ending on a last deep bowed note.

“Madiba” (a reference to Nelson Mandela?) began with a strong melody anchored by a bass undertone. It morphed into a fast, bright tune, almost like a mazurka, and then the melody returned, looped over that rhythm. The music continued to dance until near the end, when slowed and deepened and became sadder, ending in one last long note. It was greeted with strong applause, and many in the audience rose for a standing ovation.

The final song in the concert was written this August, when all the Brubecks gathered to celebrate their mother Iola's 90th birthday. While they were there, Matt went into his late father's studio, and composed a short ballad, “Now that you've left us”. He played its melody in a pointillist style, with much use of harmonics, which enhanced rather than distracted from the simple beauty of the piece. The audience was rapt throughout, and erupted into another standing ovation afterwards.

It was a lovely way to end a memorable concert. Brubeck's music is both accessible enough to enjoy immediately and complex enough to find repeated depths in, and I hope these pieces do get further developed for future concerts and recordings.

    – Alayne McGregor

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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See also:

Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival: