Cellista and the Art of Political Performance

Cellista often performs in elaborate costumes.
Cellista often performs in elaborate costumes. Temira Decay

Freya Seeburger, better known by her artistic moniker, Cellista, is a performer who doesn't believe in the stage. She's all about bringing people together, and the separation a stage creates between the artist and the audience is counterproductive to that goal.

Musing on her hopes for her latest performance piece, titled Transfigurations, she explains, "I don't do it on stage, and I never will. There's something about audiences and performers being together on the same equalizing platform, watching and listening and responding to each other. I guess that's what I want out of it. It's a place for my community to sit together and be present together."

Cellista has made a name for herself by pushing the conventional boundaries of art. Growing up in Longmont,  she began playing the cello while she was a student at Sunset Middle School, and credits the public school with introducing her to the instrument that would become her signature.

"There were a number of reasons why I chose it, but I really feel like it chose me more than anything else, so it's definitely been my life partner ever since," she says.

While the cello remained a mainstay in her work throughout her adult life, she later experimented with multimedia and intermedia art forms. In 2014, she was chosen to perform at the Sub Zero Festival in her current home town of San Jose, California. She decided she wanted to work with her friend, visual artist Julio Flores, to create an installation for the underground music and arts festival.

"I realized that I really had no interest in performing on the stage, and I wanted to do something where it was very participatory and responsive to the audience around me," she says. "So with Julio, I created this very ornate installation that had me heavily costumed, and it had me in this very ornate birdcage on the street. There was lots of beautiful lighting, and I used my loop station, and I would invite the audience to share a wish or a hope or a dream with me, on a tag they could tie to the birdcage. And then I would play an improvised response to it for them. And the thing just went kind of viral over the course of the festival. From there, I've just been very drawn to intermedia."

Cellista's cello is named Chordelia. - TEMIRA DECAY
Cellista's cello is named Chordelia.
Temira Decay
 In late 2016, Cellista began to work on a piece called Wants, whixh would eventually develop into her current project, Transfigurations. Wants, a twenty-minute sound collage with dancer Lilith Ransom, was her first "political performance piece," an artistic response to the post-election sociopolitical climate in the United States.

"I would call it a political performance-art piece. And it was really meant as a response to the Trump presidency," Cellista says. "It was meant as a response to the gentrification going on in the Bay Area, and watching a lot of my colleagues be priced out or displaced. And it organically grew into Transfigurations. Because it started as just a twenty-minute dance performance piece with me sort of live-scoring it, and it became this album with a book, and then a whole theater piece around it, and they all work together."

Shortly after releasing her first album, Finding San Jose, in 2016, Cellista began writing Transfigurations, an album that defies genre, spanning everything from hip-hop and classical to ambient and pop. At the same time she worked on it, she envisioned an accompanying performance piece of the same name. "They're kind of conjoined, I would say," she explains. "I definitely work that way, where it sort of just — it's not all at once, but it's one unit of work that contains these various components, and so that's sort of my method."

While she was conceptualizing Transfigurations, she frequently bounced ideas off her favorite sounding board, her father, Frank Seeburger. Of her father, who taught philosophy at the University of Denver for 42 years, she says, "He's my resource for any sort of intellectual thing I have going on conceptually with art projects. And so we had talked at length about just a lot of comments within Transfigurations, and I realized that maybe we should just put our thoughts and ideas into a collection of essays that could accompany the album."

The resulting text, which includes essays by both Seeburgers, is called A Listener's Guide to Cellista's Transfigurations, and is available with her album on her Bandcamp page.

Transfigurations, which will be coming to Denver's Mercury Cafe tonight, Friday, September 27, is a performance-art piece that combines film, dance, music and real narratives from the artistic community to critique and comment on the fate of creatives in a rapidly gentrifying world. Friday's show will feature composer and pianist Sean Renner performing a prologue piece, as well as the Ensemble Cellista: pianist Katie Coleman, violinist Shawn Prudehomme, and dancers Aaron Simuovich and Mojo DeVille, all of whom Cellista met through her day job as a professional cellist.

click to enlarge Cellista will perform Transfigurations at Denver's Mercury Cafe. - COURTESY OF MERCURY CAFE
Cellista will perform Transfigurations at Denver's Mercury Cafe.
Courtesy of Mercury Cafe
Although Transfigurations was inspired by Cellista's experiences and observations of California's Bay Area, its themes are sadly universal. 

"It's expressing a lot of issues of identity, of loss, of displacement, acceptance, and my response to the experiences of my community right now, and I think that all of these threads, they make up Denver as well," she says. "I'm thinking, in particular, [about] growing up in Denver, my art scene there, and I see that the same stories are happening, even though it's a different place. I'm thinking of places like Rhinoceropolis, and what a difficult time it's been for Denver artists to remain in Denver during these shifts. Because every time I come home now, I'm shocked. I remember going to college and going to Paris on the Platte, to study and stay up late and smoke cigarettes. But you know, a lot of the places I cherished growing up and during college, they're like yoga studios now, or like doggy daycares. And I think it's just so heartbreaking. It hurts."

When asked what she hopes her audience takes away from Transfigurations, Cellista rejects the idea of teaching the audience a set lesson.

"I don't like to task the audience," she says. "I'm asking them to be present in it. It's a tough work. It's tough, because conceptually it's experimental. It think it's a very accessible piece, but it demands a lot already. All I'm asking is that my audience is able to be present, and to listen, and allow these stories to be heard. It's fine if people don't get it, or if they dislike it or whatnot, but I do just ask them to be present."

Cellista will perform Transfigurations on Friday, September 27, at Denver's Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street. The prologue performance by Sean Renner starts at 8 p.m., and Transfigurations begins at 9 p.m. Admission is pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $10.
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Cleo Mirza recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and anthropology. She enjoys good food, cheap wine and the company of her dog, Rudy.
Contact: Cleo Mirza