Have You Never Been Cello?

The anti-classical classical music of Rasputina.

From the looks of Agniezska Rybska, Melora Creager and Julia Kent, the three cellists who make up New York's Rasputina, it would be easy to assume that they would be happiest at home, clad in corsets and tatted organdy in dim drawing rooms like the women of delicacy and refinement they resemble. But these musicians are far sturdier than they appear. Creager, who accompanied Nirvana during that band's final tour, says, "We like traveling and playing. We just do our needlework in the car."

In fact, the trio has been touring in support of its haunting new CD, Thanks for the Ether, since September--meaning that their stitchery should have covered at least a dozen ottomans by now. But the raison d'etre of this self-named "Ladies' Cello Society" isn't fine embroidery; it's musical exploration intended to establish the bass member of the violin family as a sonic tool capable of more than moody flourishes. While the songs Creager writes are primarily pop in format and sometimes utilize a thrashing drummer, they reek of dust and decadence due in large part to the cello's staid, antiquated timbre and the counterpoint melodies Creager, Kent and Rybska weave. They may use classical instrumentation, but because of their approach, the results hardly sound like classical music.

"I was never really involved in classical too much as an adult," Creager admits, "though I studied really hard as a kid. I think it's a pretty tight and complete world that I don't hear from very much." But such an exclusion vexes her little, since her main concern has been finding an audience, not a pigeonhole. "When I first started, the concept or idea was already pretty full-formed, but I didn't know what avenue would want to present it," she recalls. "So I tried grant-writing and more performance-art-related spaces, and that avenue was never very responsive at all. Whereas for some reason, in bars and clubs where bands play, we were always very accepted, and it felt normal."

During appearances at such venues, the members of Rasputina inadvertently created a style of their own--one that, like many end-of-the-century visions, draws from pre-existing sources without being beholden to any of their limitations. They've been compared to Rachel's, a chamber-music ensemble made up of musicians from alternative-rock acts, but Creager remarks, "It's a concern of ours that we not be mistaken for some sort of chamber-music group--partly because we feel like the playing level is higher in that sort of scene. It's kind of lame to be a chamber-music group just playing in rock circles to get by on less-than-stellar playing." Still, she insists, musical proficiency remains a high priority: "We have a really strong work ethic and work really hard. But we don't claim to be aiming for classical perfection."

Instead, the three are driven to wrest from their instruments sounds that haven't been heard before, and their technical shortcomings have proven no more an obstacle to them in this pursuit than have the non-traditional approaches of forward-looking DJs into songwriting by sampling. Creager recognizes the kinship. "To us, personally, organic-ness and playing it ourselves is hugely important," she remarks. "But we listen to a lot of different new things, and some electronic music is very organic and involves songwriting with the equipment they're using. Like anything, it's as good and creative as the person who's making it."

In the case of the Rasputina bandmates, their uniqueness has forced them to solve their own problems rather than turning to peers for help or guidance. "We're still pretty much alone," Creager says. "It's been years of working on the equipment, because there's not anyone to turn to and ask. So it's just us, working together, figuring out what will work." Similar challenges have faced Rasputina in performance settings. "As the shows get bigger, we've got to be louder," she allows. "And when we're playing for a crowd of people that don't know us and they see us come out and see that we're going to sit down and that we're nice little girls, we really have to come across sound-wise and surprise them." Among their secret weapons are the effects pedals littered about their lace-up boots: "Any effect that a guitar does, we can do, because we have pickups with plugs on them so we can just plug into distortion or wah-wah."

During the making of "Mr. E. Leon Rauis," a track on Thanks for the Ether, Rasputina utilized a more esoteric device--the machine Thomas Edison designed to record sounds on wax cylinders. When asked about the process that led her to capture her vocals for the cut on such an archaic contraption, Creager replies, "There is a Thomas Edison Museum in New Jersey. And we were at a recording studio in New Jersey, where a man with an Edison machine happened to be recording his wax cylinders--having them recorded to preserve them. And for the price of a very lengthy and detailed explanation on how it works, we got to use it. We just did it on that one song, but the sound conjures up so much even if you're not aware of exactly what it is. It's a sound made on wax, and it's wonderful. There's so much surface sound; the little bumps and scratches on the thing make it sound like crickets. The wax is why the Edison machine didn't take off like the Victrola--because you've got an ephemeral product."

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