The Wrong Way to Learn About Classical Music: The season of the cello, pt. 1

At Notable Noise, classical music is covered for (and by) people who don’t know a sonata from a suite, or their andante from their allegro, but who nonetheless look to classical music for something more substantial than “music that helps me relax/study/look sophisticated.” If you’re looking for in-depth dissertations on the variations in Boulez’s conducting style, look elsewhere; if you’re looking for a lighter – but not condescending – context to put classical music in, hopefully pieces like this will be enjoyable.

Somehow, the winter of 2012/2013 has turned into the season of the cello. At least for me. Of course, the cello is fine any old time of year, but it is a particularly wintry instrument, with its deep resonance and expansive tone. If you were staring out onto a snowy landscape, with barren trees and ice floes in the distance, a mournful piece of cello music would definitely be the most appropriate soundtrack.

And, of course, I was looking for just such a soundtrack. You see, down here in Florida, we don’t really have winter … it’s just not a thing. (And that’s great!) But I still think the Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year – is a day worth commemorating, so I put together a night at a local pub where I’d DJ some particularly wintry, non-holiday music. First stop: the cello. Or, more precisely, the cello of Hildur Guðnadóttir, who released the 35-minute long track “Leyfdu Ljosinu” as an album this year.


Recorded in one take in a room with three microphones, “Leyfdu Ljosinu” is simultaneously intimate and panoramic, and while it’s a bit dronier and more visceral than what I was looking for, it provides a perfect introduction to Guðnadóttir’s other work. And there’s lots of it. Guðnadóttir has worked with Throbbing Gristle and Múm, and when you combine those two experiences with her formal classical training, you arrive at basically the definition of her sound. There’s a challenging and artful approach to her music that belies the ethereal beauty of the soundscapes she creates, and her mastery of her instrument makes her capable of pushing her cello to its sonic limits. So, while “Leyfdu Ljosinu” wasn’t the stark snowscape I was looking for, her 2006 album Without Sinking (reissued in 2011 by Touch) definitely was.


It’s incredibly evocative stuff, as dense in emotion as it is empty of sonic clutter. And although there’s lots of modern processing and loops and guests like Jóhann Jóhannsson, the focus – inasmuch as this hazy dark dream of an album is focused – is Guðnadóttir’s cello.

And thus, I had apparently realized what would be the most perfect instrument to soundtrack a season (if not a bar night … that was kind of a flop). And, of course, it led to me digging into a bunch of other recent (and recently rereleased) cello music. In part two, I’ll talk about some of the “real” classical music that I’ve been enjoying this winter, like Elliot Carter, Sol Gabetta, and, duh, Jacqueline Du Pré. Stay tuned.


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