Quality, accessible, cello arrangements: That is what [email protected] does, and they do it well.
[email protected] is a cello ensemble consisting of UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students. Started in 2012, the organization’s work stretches the possibilities of the cello and creates a space for students to experiment with different sounds and practices available to the instrument.
“The original group started (as) a knock-off group of (the) Berlin Philharmonic Cellos,” said recent Berkeley graduate and Celli member Leo Steinmetz in an interview. “So a bunch of people in (the campus) orchestra had heard a bunch of their stuff and thought, ‘We should do that,’ just because they thought it would be fun.”
Celli also breaks the stereotypical image of the cello player.
“There’s an old picture of the UC Berkeley orchestra from 1920, and it’s just all men. There’s a pretty big problem in the field of most concertmasters being men; almost all famous conductors are men,” said Steinmetz.
Celli was conceived by members of the cello section of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. They often recruit members from the orchestra who have a solid background in traditional cello performance. Most of the members of Celli started playing the cello at a very young age.
The members of Celli have ranging interests and different backgrounds. Lanvi Lu is a sophomore studying nutritional studies and music, Yuki Mizuno is a senior studying computer science and applied math, and Steinmetz graduated last May with a degree in physics and astrophysics.
“I started playing cello in fifth grade, when I was around 11, and I’ve been playing since,” Lu said.
Many of Celli’s members have a background in classical music but joined Celli because they wanted to have fun with their instrument, rather than perform in a very strict, regimented setting.
“Both of my parents are classical musicians, professionally, and my older sister also plays an instrument,” Steinmetz explained. “Everybody just seemed to be playing an instrument, and I picked cello because I liked how it sounds.” He started playing at the age of four.
Celli is a way for many of its members to delve in to their love for the cello in a low-stress environment. Their practices are less time-consuming than the orchestra and give them the flexibility to choose their own pieces to arrange and play.
There is also a lot of freedom in the process of choosing which pieces the group wants to play.
“A lot of the times (we think) this random piece that we heard on YouTube sounds really good … then we just try it,” Mizuno said. “If we like it, we just play it. It’s pretty free-for-all. We do whatever we want to do,”
Instead of performing only in concert halls, which are typically reserved for more wealthy audiences who can pay a hefty entrance fee, Celli members play in small groups around the Berkeley community. Celli ensembles can be seen playing under the Campanile, in art galleries and even on the streets of Berkeley.
They also consider the acoustics of the areas they perform in. Mizuno recalled playing once in the entrance hall of the Heart Memorial Mining Building. The combination of the high ceilings and the low sounds of the cello created a “really nice sound.”
“I really like performing in the breezeway between Hertz (Hall) and Morrison (Library),” Steinmetz added. “There’s the roof, so it’s easier to hear yourself; when you’re playing outside, there’s no acoustics and no echo.”
Performing for the general community of Berkeley does have its colorful moments. While most times the audience is polite, each member of Celli could reflect on a time where their audience was a little less than respectful.
For example, Lu recalled her first gig at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, during which they “were all playing and some guy mooned us from the window” — eliciting laughs from the assembled cello players.
The players say they are not performing to expose their audience to their music: “I don’t think we try to be different from anyone” Mizuno said. “We just do what we like to do together, and people think it’s interesting and different.”
The nature of their performance, however, exposes the public to classical music and classical instrumentation.
In the United States today, access to a classical music education continues to be very expensive. A decent cello can cost up to $1,000, and while some may opt to self-teach, lessons can also cost thousands of dollars over time.
Though the cello has been used in many modern hits, such as the Beatles’ “Blackbird/Yesterday” and “Strawberry Field Forever” as well as Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” very few people notice its distinct sound within the mix. Fewer still have ever seen the cello played live.
Celli provides a chance for its audience to do so.
“We sort of have two Celli brands; there’s Celli and Celli Pop,” Steinmetz explained. “So all the stuff that we play on campus is Celli Pop in quartets, and then we do have weekly rehearsals for our classical stuff, and we have two or three concerts a semester — like big, more formal classical concerts.”
Celli allows people to casually listen to the cello and watch an ensemble performance. Students can stop for a couple minutes on their way to class, as can community members. Mizuno prides himself on the fact that people coming to his performances with Celli do not need to worry about wearing the proper attire. They just come in what they were already wearing.
While playing classical music has not traditionally been considered “cool” and certainly not “casual,” Celli’s arrangement of pop songs is well on the way toward changing that.
[email protected]’s next performance is April 15 at 3 p.m. They will be performing at ACCI Art Gallery on Shattuck Avenue.