January 24, 2003

A not-so-mellow cello: Byfield musician explores instrument's non-classical possibilities


Staff writer

Forget all your preconceived notions about the cello. Put aside the image of the classical cellist's commanding presence in the string section of the symphony orchestra.

Kristen Miller is about to prove the cello has a funky side, too.

The Byfield cellist is among a counter-culture of musicians taking the four-string instrument in a new direction.

Miller has even coined a trademark name for her own personal style of music -- Cellobrew -- "a pinch of folk, a dash of tradition, and a whole lotta groove."

"I think it's a mistake to assume classical music is the end of the line for the cello, for any instrument," she said.

She's been referred to as "Yo-Yo Ma on acid" and "the Mona Lisa on a skateboard." And while she doesn't particularly care for the rebel label, she won't argue it too aggressively.

"I just set out to find my creative voice," said Miller, who has just released her debut CD, an eclectic recording of originals that draw from folk, alternative world music traditions.

It's not that Miller doesn't have enormous respect for the classical orchestra musician. She was classically trained herself, and teaches her students in part from the classical perspective. There are symphonic pieces as well that, as she says, "totally blow my hair back" -- Bartok's "Dance Suite, Stravinsky's "Dance of Psalms," anything by the Russian composer Shostakovich.

She even tried going that route herself, landing a seat in the cello section of a small local symphony. But she immediately felt suffocated by the rules, of both the ensemble and of the music, and yearned to break away from the rigidity of it all and create her own way.

"It felt like I was wearing someone else's clothes," she said of her short-lived symphony career. "They were too tight."

At home in Byfield, where she settled with her husband, David Merrill, a computer software specialist, four years ago, Miller is free of those restrictions. Their 19th century Colonial sits just yards off the highway, yet the backyard offers the rural setting that encourages her creativity.

Inside, the decor is cozy and inviting. The living room with its pale yellow walls and off-white cushiony furnishings is filled with light and the sweet sound of the wind chimes serenading from outside.

In contrast, her studio, separated from the living room by French doors, exudes warmth with its deep burgundy walls and Oriental area rug on the wood floors. Her antique French cello crafted of spruce and maple, which attracted Miller because of its dark, grainy sound and powerful punch, stands ready to play.

Miller gently swayed in a white wooden rocking chair in the living room -- her long auburn curls dancing on her shoulders, her hands, at once elegant and strong, embracing a mug of tea -- and talked about her journey to the non-classical side.

An 8-year-old growing up in Connecticut might not seem the typical cello player. But from the moment Miller first heard the grand instrument at school, she had to play it herself.

"From the day I touched this thing," she said, "I knew this was my destiny."

Miller pursued the cello, and went on to study it at the University of Connecticut, where she obtained a dual degree in cello performance and music education, her other passion, in 1990.

Her first job was at a private day school in Rye, N.Y., just seven miles outside the city. For seven years, she was the school's self-described left-wing elementary music teacher in what was a predominantly conservative Republican environment. Much of her focus with the students, who were as young as first grade, was on world music.

"My mission with the program was to bring a sense of commonality to music," she said, "a sense that everyone can do it."

To assist in her teaching of world music, Miller enrolled in the summer program at New York University's Kodaly Institute, named for the Hungarian composer.

The intensive program, which she pursued for three summers, and its drew her more and more to the world of ethno-musicology folk and ethnic music, especially the contributions of African-American and Native American artists.

She spent hours hanging out and listening to musicians in Washington Square Park, sitting in on gospel choir rehearsals, learning Iroquois stomp songs, and listening to old Smithsonian folk recordings, collecting songs and singing games to bring back to her students.

"It was a really big growth time for me, personally and musically," she said.

Meanwhile, she continued to pursue the classical genre with her cello, giving lessons on the side in the living room of her apartment and playing at weddings and other gigs,

Soon, she was wrestling her passion for the cello, which was at the core of her life, with her newer interest in folk music.

"I was doing divergent things." she said. "How do I piece together a creative life from this? I really struggled with this conundrum for years."

She carried that conflict with her when she moved to the North Shore with her husband in 1997. It was after landing a seat in a local symphony following years of unsuccessful orchestra auditions that she realized she had to make a change.

"I sat in rehearsals and waited for it to get fun," she said. "Part of me was just crying out to create something."

Miller knew she enjoyed playing the cello. Now, she just had to figure out a way to play it that would please her personally, too.

"Music for me has always been about self-exploration," she said, "and exploring the world and its relationship to me and vice versa."

Aware some cellists were adding electronic elements to their music, Miller delved into digital looping technology. The equipment, which allows Miller to record several distinct rhythms, and continually repeat them while she simultaneously plays another melody, completely changed her style of playing.

"I started to write, write, write as if I had been waiting for this moment all my life," she said. "Everything changed on a dime."

Her music tends to push the boundaries, incorporating world music, African rhythms and Middle Eastern scales as she treats the cello as a bass, guitar, rhythm machine and melodic instrument in one.

While staying true to the core beauty of the cello as an instrument, she enhances its sound with a pick-up mike on the bridge that's connected to a tone-altering pod more commonly used by electric guitarists to add more bass, reverb or delay.

In the process, Miller found she could speak more eloquently through her music, as she has done with songs such as "Later That Day," which describes a critical awakening in her life, and "Nickel Indian."

"We can say things through whatever your creative form is that we can't say in conversation," she said. "I wish for an end to oppression. I can say it, or I can play you 'Nickel Indian.' It's its own unique language."

Her debut CD, "Later That Day," was a collaborative effort with her co-producer and engineer, Chris Magruder, her "Gemini twin" who made the recording a reality. Magruder's South Berwick, Maine, recording studio was used for the project.

The CD also benefited by the percussive kick of Scott Kessel, a master drummer with a world music background who played everything from sticks to brooms to rakes to chains for the recording.

Calling it a hard-won battle, she said she believes she succeeded in her effort to change her perception of what the cello can do.

"I didn't want to do a commercial thing," she said. "I wanted to write and record what's inside of me....

"It was real important for me to be honest in it. There's a lot of beauty and joy and wonder and marvel in life. But there are also a lot of other emotions -- grief and sadness and anger."

Miller continues to explore her classical side. It's not uncommon for her students -- she gives private lessons to 18 pupils (primarily youth but a few adults) -- to play both a Vivaldi sonata and some improvisation in one class. She currently has a waiting list for new students.

But she's also begun writing material for a follow-up CD. She admits "Later That Day" is a quirky piece of art that's not for everybody. And she's perfectly fine with that.

"That was an important lesson for me. Sometimes there isn't a box for you to fit in. Some times you have to make your own," she said. "It takes an immense amount of courage to really look inside yourself to really be who you are."


Kristen Miller debuts her new recording "Later That Day" at a CD release party on Sunday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Firehouse Arts Center in Newburyport's Market Square. The show will also feature special guest artists Kate Redgate and Heidi Stone. Tickets are $7 in advance or $8 at the door. For reservations, call the Firehouse box office at 978-462-7336.

© 2003 The Daily News of Newburyport. Republished with permission.