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."
The static-laced programming heard on Thirties radio is also referenced on Ether. "I think it's an influence, sound-wise," Creager acknowledges. "There's something very unsettling when the scratchy sound is combined with some of the lyrics." She adds, "To make a record is a challenge just because it's sound only, and you have to be aware of that when you're making it. And that is similar to a radio show, which is pretty much a forgotten art. I don't know if other people have those feelings when they're making a record, but to me it's like an audio-only secret show."
This description helps provide a context for the wide variety of material on the new disc, including a German-language rendering of "Trust Allstars," a cover of the Prohibition-era composition "Why Don't You Do Right" and the spoken-word tale "Nozzle," which Creager reads in the voice of a malevolent, backwoods Mother Goose. ("I'm from Kansas, so I have that accent at my command," Creager says, laughing.) This last track underlines Rasputina's fondness for gothic storytelling--particularly the writings of the late Angela Carter, a favorite of Creager's and Kent's. Among Carter's most vivid works is her variation on the Lizzie Borden tale: She characterizes the infamous murderess as a meek lass who spends her days sweating out the New England summers in heavy woolen garments before shitting on her parents' beds and then axing them to death. The protagonist of Rasputina's "Shirtwaist Fire" shares much in common with Borden: Creager sings "Girls work hard for small rewards or invitations to dine/Or one kind word from one who loves them, but what I have earned is mine" about a young pyromaniac whose primary accomplishment is setting a cowering friend ablaze.
The literary tenor of Creager's songwriting comes naturally; her formative years were spent buried deep in books, daydreams and the dress-up box rather than as an inductee in the cult of the cathode ray. "A lot of people become musicians out of being a fan, and I wasn't really like that," she reveals. "But what I was interested in as a child does reflect what we're doing now. I actually was a fan of writers and would write letters to children's book authors. The one that I was obsessed with was Zilpha Snyder. It was kind of fantasy stuff--alternative realities. A boy goes through a doorway or mirror to ancient Egypt..."
Rasputina's costumes--in concert, the women don layers of strangulatory Victorian underpinnings--emphasize the musicians' fascination with other times and places even as it draws attention to the immobility their instruments demand. The cellists have claimed the outfits also serve as a protest against "decolonization," but Creager admits that this assertion is more comedy than reality. "It's kind of trying to be un-PC," she maintains. "If anyone bothers to think of what decolonization is, it's obviously a good thing. But humor is very important to us and is also something I don't know if we could get out of a classical setting."
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Nor would such a format support the themes of female dementia she is wont to limn lyrically. "I read a really good book called Idols of Perversity, and it went through images of women at the turn of the century and how each image grew into another one," she says. "The image of the insane woman was very acceptable, because if a woman said whatever she wanted and was interesting and off-the-wall, she would not be threatening, because she was insane. Then there was the fairy with the broken back, which is found in many paintings. Originally, there were a lot of images of women in trees, which had to do with fairies--another way for women to have interest while being non-threatening. After that, in paintings and advertisements, they had fallen out of the trees, and the images were all of contorted women who had broken their backs. The next stage of painting was an arched-back woman, which is an orgasmic thing."
Such observations, and the aesthetic from which they spring, have more to say to Nineties listeners than seems obvious at first blush. Rasputina may not share much in common with current pop, but it cuts through the collective unconsciousness with the power of ingenuity. "When I grew up in Kansas, they didn't have MTV there, and different kinds of records and magazines just didn't get out there," Creager notes. "So if you wanted to be alternative--well, alternative didn't exist. But if you wanted to do something like that, you had to make it up from your own imagination.
"It takes courage to be different in a place like that," she says. And she has no shortage of it.
The Cranes, with Rasputina. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 29, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $10, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-