Music: New Directions for Cello

College hosts festival for alternative playing. By Mbeti Hyess

In June the College hosted the 14th annual New Directions Cello Festival, a “forum for the exchange of music and ideas in the field of nonclassical and alternative cello,” as festival director Chris White ’87 puts it. He and assistant director Sera Smolen ’77, M.S. ’86, brought nearly 80 cellists from as far as British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Puerto Rico to share in a three-day celebration of music not commonly taught at music schools — especially that incorporating improvisation.

“It’s a select bunch [of musicians],” says White. “But now you can hear cello in popular music and rock. It’s infiltrating — getting into popular music in a big way compared to 10 years ago. Yo-Yo Ma has done a lot to open people’s ears, as has the popularity of Brazilian music and Bobby McFarrin.”

Cellists who have participated and performed in prior festivals include Dawn Avery, David Baker, Rufus Cappadocia, Vincent Courtois, Akua Dixon, Robert Een, Erik Friedlander, Jami Sieber, Jane Scarpantoni, and White himself. This year, guest cellists played in combination with guitarists, keyboardists, bassists, drummers, and singers. IC cello professor Elizabeth Simkin performed in a concert with bass professor Nicholas Walker, and nine IC students and two alumni played their own arrangement of a rap tune by Kanye West called “Hey Mama.”

The cellists haven’t entirely broken with tradition. White plays in the Binghamton Symphony, teaches at Ithaca’s Community School of Music and Art, and runs a private studio. Smolen plays in Cayuga Chamber Orchestra and teaches with the Syracuse Symphony.

“Nonclassical cello playing is still a niche thing,” White says. “It was fun to bring it here to Ithaca.”