From Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to heavy metal, from classical music to Elliott Smith’s punk-folk, the Portland Cello Project plays it all.
And the band, fondly known as PCP in its hometown, plays in all kinds of settings, too — from rock clubs to the airwaves of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Friday (Feb. 5), the group will bring its eclectic and unpredictable musical mix to Olympia for “Beck, Brubeck and Bach.”
The title suggests part of the program, surely. But while its last album, “to e.s.,” is made up of Elliott Smith covers and new compositions inspired by the late singer-songwriter, the group might or might not play any of those pieces.
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“I don’t know what we’re playing,” said Diane Chaplin, one of six cellists who’ll perform here along with a drummer and a singer. “We’re very spontaneous.”
In fact, the group came into being more or less by accident, said Chaplin, who joined five years ago. She spoke with The Olympian about the group’s beginnings, the appeal of the cello, and more.
Q. How did the Portland Cello Project get started?
A. The founders’ intention was to amuse themselves. There were a bunch of cellists in town who were doing a variety of different projects. They weren't necessarily doing classical things, but they never played with each other because most bands had only one cello. They said, “Hey, we never get to spend any time playing music with each other. Let’s hang out and play.”
They did that, then they said: “This sounds great. Let’s go to a club and do this for fun. We’ll play one show.” The show was so received that they were encouraged to continue, and that was that.
Q. For a classically trained musician, how does it feel doing non-classical material?
A. In this day and age, most musicians — even heavy-duty classically trained people — play other things. You get hired to be in a backup band on somebody’s rock or pop CD. You get hired to play a Broadway show. We all understand the genres. We understand how to play them and how to be flexible.
Q. When you’re choosing songs to arrange for cello, what do you look for? Are there songs that just don’t work on the cello?
A. I’m one of the main arrangers right now. If I hear a song that has lots of thin guitar, sometimes that doesn’t translate as well to the rich sound of the cello. If I hear a song that has a bass part that really moves, that really grooves, that will often sound fabulous on the cello.
The cello is really a low instrument. With six cellos, the sound can be kind of muddy if you don’t have enough variety. A good vocal, a good rhythm and a great bass line will translate very well to cello.
Q. Do you play in different styles for different genres?
A. It’s not necessarily about whether it’s classical or rock. Some classical music is light and sparse, and some classical music is really rich. Some rock songs are very rich and romantic sounding, and some are really rhythmic and driving. It’s more of a matter of finding the sound.
When we do things that are more metal-based, we play louder, harder, more aggressively. We wouldn’t be afraid to make slightly crunching noises.
Elliott Smith’s music is very delicate. It has a romantic sensibility, so we’re more likely to make beautiful sounds when we’re playing that music, rather than aggressive sounds.
Q. What is it that makes the cello such an appealing instrument?
A. One can’t get away from the comparison with a human body. It’s body sized. You hold it like you’re holding a body. It’s almost like you’re dancing with someone when you’re playing the cello. When you play the cello, you feel like you have another person with you all the time.
And it is said to be the instrument that is the most like the sound of the human voice. There’s a warmth and sometimes a breathiness. The low range is about as high as human males go, and the high range is about as high as human females go.
Because cellos are able to play both low ranges and very high ranges, they work in an ensemble better than, say, a violin. They can cover all the parts.
Q. Do you sometimes have one of the cellists play the vocal part?
A. Yes. Sometimes, we will assign someone to play the vocal line the whole way through: “You’re the singer in this song. Sing it on the cello.” Sometimes, we’ll split it up between the cellists; everybody gets a little solo. It brings a different sound that is very interesting because all cellos have a little bit different sound.
Q. Are you working on another album?
A. Yes. We’re always working on an album. But we are not talking about what it is yet.
Portland Cello Project: Beck, Brubeck and Bach
What: The popular Portland cello ensemble has performed everywhere from symphony halls to punk rock clubs — and on American Public Media’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 5).
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.
Tickets: $35 and $45; $32 and $41 for students, seniors and military; $18 and $23 for youths.