It’s a typical nightclub. The sound system is blaring music so loud it drowns out any possible conversation, forcing all of the dancing, drinking, and smoking twentysomethings to rely on body language to communicate.
While all of this is going on, three or four other twentysomethings, with their scraggly beards and pink-highlighted hair blending into the crowd, set up for a live performance. There’s the typical complicated process of setting up: Cables must be plugged into amplifiers and speakers — not to mention be untangled.
But the bar patrons, their senses dulled by six or seven $1 Coronas, start to notice that there’s going to be live entertainment and begin to watch the band set up. Those on only their first, second, or third Corona notice something odd — there aren’t any guitars or drums.
That’s because the band is Cellofourte. Tate Olsen, Nicole Myers, Ben Muñoz, and Simon Cummings make up this local rock band, which consists of four amplified cellos and no vocals, no drums, and certainly no electric guitars. The group plays arrangements of heavy metal and rock along with songs written by Muñoz and Cummings.
On Sunday, Nov. 4, Cellofourte won a battle of the bands sponsored by WQED and the John Lennon Education Tour Bus. Cellofourte beat out dozens of hopeful bands from colleges around Pittsburgh to become one of only five finalists. Then, after performing before judges from the music industry and a live audience, Cellofourte was named the winner.
As winner, Cellofourte gets to record a CD on board the John Lennon bus, a nonprofit, mobile recording studio, and will receive 1000 copies of the CD, color jacket and all. Even before winning, the band had already started working on their second album, due out in January, which will consist of original material.
Since 2004, Celloforte has built a solid fan base in Pittsburgh, but is always finding new people to impress, like Marvin Hamlisch, principal conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops. Hamlisch, an Oscar, Grammy, and Tony award-winning musician, invited the group to play with the Pops in 2008.
The group started out in 2004, when Olsen and Myers were students in the classical cello program at Carnegie Mellon University. Having grown up with rock music and wanting to play it on the cello, Olsen got Myers and two other cellists together to play some arrangements of heavy metal songs by Metallica and Led Zeppelin. A few weeks later, a little bit of hearsay gave Cellofourte its first gig, and the rest is history. “We’ve come a long way since then,” Olsen said.
In 2006, the group recorded a CD, Unsung, featuring arrangements of rock and roll songs and one original rock song by Cummings, who joined the group as a cellist in 2007. They continued playing gigs in clubs around Pittsburgh, including Club Café and Mr. Small’s Funhouse & Theatre. Things started to pick up during the summer of 2007, when the group competed in the Emergenza music competition, geared toward unsigned artists. The band won competitions in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio before being eliminated in Cleveland after taking second place.
The group has become tight-knit over the years through intense practicing and performing. Cellofourte rehearses once or twice a week, in addition to playing three to four gigs in the city. (Sometimes, only three members can make a rehearsal, in which case they call themselves “Cellothreete.”)
Both graduates of the School of Music, Olsen works for the Pittsburgh Symphony and dresses up as Beethoven for promotional gimmicks, and Myers teaches at several schools and privately. Cummings is a senior at Carnegie Mellon majoring in cello performance, and Muñoz is a junior at Duquesne University. Cummings and Muñoz both plan to graduate before devoting themselves totally to Cellofourte.
So, what makes Cellofourte appealing to audiences? The group and people close to them say there are many reasons why the band is so successful.
Michele Marion, proprietor of Curtain Call, the Pittsburgh Symphony Store downtown, thinks that the group’s choice of recognizable songs like “Stairway to Heaven” grab people’s attention, and then they realize it’s being played on four cellos.
Marion sells Celloforte’s CD, which she originally received as a demo from Olsen. Before she started selling the CD, she used to have problems playing it in the store, because people would hear it and want to buy it, and she didn’t have any copies to sell. Marion said, “I can’t tell you how many people walked up to the register and said, ‘Is that Evanescence?’ ”
Recently, Muñoz and Cummings have been composing original rock songs for the group, which is what their second album will consist of. The songs sound like rock songs, but the powerful sound the cellos can produce when amplified is often surprising to audiences. Audiences are attracted to the group’s virtuosity, hands and fingers moving at lightning speed, and the complexity of their songs, featuring crisscrossing rhythms and sudden changes.
“As we’ve been recording some earlier tunes versus brand new stuff, the complexity of what we’re writing now is at a different level than what we were writing early on,” Olsen said. “It’s so difficult to nail everything that’s going on.”
When it comes to composition, Cummings has done his homework. He studied composition briefly with Efrain Amaya at Carnegie Mellon and learned the music of Schoenberg, Webern, Penderecki, Lutosławski, and many others. He uses this classical craftsmanship to write rock songs. “I’m sort of adventurous. It’s not really formulaic at all. I come up with an idea, and the way it progresses it’s more classical,” he said. “I include so many rock elements it sounds like a rock song. It’s not as simple as you think.” Still, people have to be able to understand the pieces “after three beers,” Olsen added.
The group’s classical training has helped them develop the virtuosity and precision that impress audiences. Cummings values his classical training: “We wouldn’t be able to thrash around and lay into the instruments if we didn’t have the classical background to begin with,” he said.
All four cellists studied at times with Anne Williams, longtime principal cellist of the PSO, or David Premo, another PSO cellist. Inspired by their training, the members of Cellofourte rehearse their own music just as they would classical string quartets.
“We really pick apart the pieces, we don’t just throw them together,” Myers said. That includes two boring hours of intonation work and playing the music under tempo. This kind of regimen is necessary to perform the songs accurately and get the group comfortable enough to cut loose on stage.
When Olsen started the group, he didn’t ask for Williams’ or Premo’s permission or help, who started to hear rumors of a cello rock band before Olsen gave them a demo CD. “As a teacher, we want our students to be successful,” Williams said. “I realize there are alternative possibilities, and as long as students are able to support themselves doing what they love, go for it. I think it’s fantastic they’ve been so successful, and I credit them for all their hard work and vision.”
Premo heard Cellofourte perform at the Emergenza festival in Pittsburgh. “To say they’re not doing classical isn’t disappointing to me,” he said. “They’re trying to invent something new.”
Premo also taught the group some stagecraft, something that isn’t taught in the classical world in which both Williams and Premo work and teach. He learned stagecraft outside of the classic realm, when he was in an Army band that played for dessert receptions at the White House. In one song, Premo and his bandmates held their cellos in place and twirled them. He taught the members of Cellefourte the “move,” which they incorporate into their shows.
Cellofourte usually rehearses in the evening as day jobs and school eat up the afternoons. Because time is so scarce, the group tries to maximize their rehearsal time. Once they’ve learned a piece, they will rehearse it without any sheet music in front of them. While practicing, the group’s comfort with each other and the music is evident. When one member begins at a particular spot, the others know exactly where to come in, with few words exchanged. The members breathe together, look at each other, and lean toward each other when playing.
Cellofourte’s ensemble skills, honed in rehearsal, have been tested in live performance. The group always made fun of Muñoz for carrying an extra cello bow, until Olsen’s exploded in the middle of “Dream Within” during a concert. Instinctively, Cummings reached over, grabbed the bow, and tossed it to him, and no one has made fun of Muñoz since.
As Cellofourte has started to get more gigs the last few months, the group has experienced growing pains in balancing school, day jobs, and Cellofourte. “If we could be a touring rock band, and we could just play clubs and stadiums or whatever for a living, we would totally do that,” Cummings said. Myers and the other members share that dream, of making Cellofourte their day job. Premo thinks the band can make it big, saying the group playing in Heinz Field “may not be too far-fetched.”
So, next time you go out with some friends to a club on a Saturday night, or flip on the radio, listen carefully — this version of “Stairway to Heaven” or the hot new rock song may be the sounds of Cellofourte.