In a way, the artistic destinies of the equally unorthodox “OK Computer” and Portland Cello Project were meant to coincide. They will do so Sunday, Dec. 10, when the PCP appears at Benaroya Hall for what is expected to be a thrilling performance, “Celebrating 20 Years of ‘OK Computer.'"
Radiohead’s 1997 album “OK Computer,” a masterpiece that explored fears of technology-driven human isolation and political angst approaching the 21st century, was largely, and ironically, recorded in an ancient stone staircase, a ballroom and other unlikely corners of an allegedly haunted, 16th century manor house in Somerset, England.
The Portland Cello Project, formed in 2006 from informal gatherings of Portland cellists to jam and drink beers, has brought its classical music instruments and repertoire of 1,000-plus old and contemporary works to a biker bar in Billings, Montana, a woman’s prison in Anchorage, Alaska, and arena concerts starring heavy metal guitarist Buckethead, a favorite of headbanging teen boys.
In a way, the artistic destinies of the equally unorthodox “OK Computer” and Portland Cello Project were meant to coincide. They will do so Sunday, Dec. 10, when the PCP appears at Benaroya Hall for what is expected to be a thrilling performance, “Celebrating 20 Years of ‘OK Computer’.”
Portland Cello Project: Celebrating 20 Years of ‘OK Computer’
7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. Tickets start at $35; scattered single tickets may be available by calling or visiting the box office. (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org)
I know: just another chamber music ensemble dabbling in rock ‘n’ roll, right? Wrong.
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Here’s some perspective. In 1995, the rapidly evolving, trend-defying Radiohead was in search of new musical direction. Resisting pressure to repeat the same recipe of melody, introspective lyrics and seductive hooks on their guitar-oriented hit album “The Bends,” the group chose to dive into the unknown instead.
Like the late-period Beatles, Radiohead was eagerly searching for new sounds, textures and a vivid, densely-layered sonic world that pushed the boundaries of pop form. That parallels the mission of the PCP, which roams the full, expressive voice of a cello not only on music by Bach, Vivaldi and Fauré, but living luminaries including Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Beck and Talib Kweli.
The main thing, says PCP artistic director and founding member Douglas Jenkins, is that every piece is treated with equal sincerity, and arranged not just to invoke the original but deconstruct and re-imagine its essence.
“When we began, we had to decide what we were going to do. Were we going to be a gimmick band or a serious one? We all were really enjoying our musical community and wanted to last. So we felt like we had to keep things serious.”
Jenkins and his fellow players first took on “OK Computer” in 2012, when the album turned 15.
“We initially decided we shouldn’t touch something like ‘OK Computer,’ that it was perfect,” says Jenkins. “But five years ago, we were on tour probably 100 nights, doing well and feeling strong musically. We thought we should do something a little bit taboo. We all love that record and decided to tackle it. We’ve been performing individual songs from it ever since, and have grown closer to them as their arrangements have evolved. We thought, for the 20th anniversary, it would be fun to revisit the whole of ‘OK Computer’ again on a large scale.”
The result is often spectacular. For instance, the PCP, complemented by brass, winds, drums and voices, performs one of “OK Computer”’s best-known songs, “Karma Police,” translating the dystopian paranoia of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s lyrics and the band’s mournful, understated arrangement into an epic revelation of between-the-lines emotions.
“Radiohead was playing music that, in a lot of popular music circles, was considered out-of-bounds,” Jenkins says. “But they did it fearlessly and with great effect. I feel like we tackle the subject matter genuinely.”
During its ten years of touring and recording, the Portland Cello Project has seen numerous players come and go, depending on career obligations.
Collaboration is essential for PCP, which has worked with folk legend Peter Yarrow, Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and the Dandy Warhols, among others. Jenkins says championing new work by rising composers is also important, as are education programs and master classes.
Though PCP will surely sound wonderful in the refined acoustics at Benaroya, Jenkins says performing in unexpected places remains a core principle.
“We played a street party for a thousand people on a loading dock in an alley off the City Winery in New York. The longevity of this group comes from nothing being off limits, as long as we strengthen communities and build bridges.”