The curvaceous back of the cello inspires some interesting visual analysis. To some it resembles the supple femininity of a woman’s body, with its husky timbre and smoke-ring seductive vibrato. To others, the faint hourglass shape is more akin to a black widow’s territorial marking, a man-eater to be kept at arms length with its sudden shrieks, guttural moans, and penchant for low, dark passages. Throughout her second album under the Helen Money moniker, Alison Chesley’s Jekyll/Hyde cello possesses the bodies of both.
My favorite piece of music written for and performed by the cello up to this point is John Taverner’s The Protecting Veil. A liturgy written for the Virgin Mary, the cellos in Taverner’s composition pierce the sky with their personifications of anguish, the ear piercing screeches and aching beauty of the instrument’s contemplative low rumble tied together by the piece’s sublime bowed fugues.
Like Taverner’s The Protecting Veil, Helen Money’s compositions defy a separation between the bifurcated range of the cello. In Tune moves from the unearthly beauty of contemplative drones and looping passages, to moments of distorted and reverb-heavy, frenetic cello-attacks that would leave even a legendary guitar shredder like Mick Barr speechless. These movements do not announce themselves in any traditional compositional sense. For example, the album’s title track moves between both extremes within a time-frame compressed down from a lesser cellist’s entire album. This sudden attack on the senses causes one to question the very nature of distortion on a cello. Is the only difference between the two passages of music a change in tonal fidelity? Or is there some stark metaphysical change in emotion orchestrated by Chesley herself? The soft/loud dynamic isn’t split between tracks (with the exception of the Minutemen cover, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”) so much as it represents Chesley’s arc of neo-classical ideas within each singular composition.
I had heard Chesley’s work in two of my favorite albums of 2009 before I heard her album in its entirety. The emotional weight she brings to Mono’s Hymn to the Immortal Wind, and particularly on Russian Circles Geneva, is astounding. Recorded in Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio, the album’s production lends a gritty analog edge to an instrument that has real teeth in the hands of the right person. And teeth it certainly has. Chesley’s cello has the snarl of post-apocalyptic composer Ben Frost’s best work. At the same time, Chesley’s heavy, droning soundscapes call to mind fellow Second Citiers, Pelican with their heavy-without-power-chords expanse of equal parts hope and gloom.
The past few years have seen enough insanely talented cellists cropping up to make us critics question the line between rock and roll and classical music. Telegraph Melts, Nat Baldwin, Cursive and CJ Boyd are all indebted to Alison Chesley’s pioneering cello work. She brought the electric cello to the front stage of America’s consciousness with her original power-pop project Verbow. Since then she has helped musicians and directors of both film and stage voice their musical ideas in the way only a cello can. In Tune is out now on the highly prestigious Table of the Elements label.