Name: Theresa Wong
Nationality: American
Occupation: Cellist, vocalist, composer, improviser
Recent release: Theresa Wong's Practicing Sands is out via fo'c'sle on September 14th.

Tool of Creation: Cello
Type of Tool: String instrument
Country of origin: The modern cello was most likely first developed In Italy, around the same time as the violin.
Became available in: The 16th century

[Read our feature about the violin]

If you enjoyed this interview with Theresa Wong about the cello and would like to explore her work in more depth, visit her expansive official website. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook. We also recommend our earlier Theresa Wong interview about alternative tuning systems as well as our feature about the different cello techniques Theresa uses on Practicing Sands.

What was your first encounter with the cello? What was it about it that drew you in?

As a child, I studied piano and was also keen to learn the violin.

In upstate New York where I grew up, string instruction was offered in the public school in fourth grade (age 10). On the night I went to try out different instruments, I remember the instructor telling my mother that the violin was nice, but they needed more cello players, and a beginner cellist would be a lot easier on the ears - and that was that!

Just like any other instrument, the cello has a rich history. What are some of the key points from this history for you personally?

Pablo Casals uncovering the Bach cello suites.

What, to you, are some of the most interesting cello recordings and -performances by other artists in terms of your personal development?

One of my favorite solo cello recordings is By Myself, by Abdul Wadud, who sadly just passed away in mid-August. There is something in his musical language that reflects a very personal, soulful, and almost private connection to the instrument.

With many cellists, it's so easy to hear a musician's 'training' and 'skill', because one usually practices for years and years to achieve that certain 'correct sound'. But that leads to a generic connection between the player and the instrument of what is supposed to be. I'm drawn to artists who go beyond that.

Actually, my development has been guided by a constellation of other instruments and innovators who have inspired me to see the cello differently. The late bassist Stefano Scodanibbio's albums Sei Studi and Oltracuidansa were very important. His work with harp harmonics inspired me to explore the same material on the cello. Oltracuidansa, a piece for pre-recorded multi-tracked and live bass, moved me greatly as a kind of music coming out of the earth.

Another bassist, Mark Dresser, generously and carefully documented his string explorations on the album/DVD Guts, and this work helped to illuminate other modes of playing for me, such as playing bi-tones (hitting the string hard enough to sound both sides of the strings), greater use of the left hand to play the strings, and a more extensive exploration of overtones.

Through the years, other influences have included my mentor Fred Frith's guitar work, the physicality of Kazue Sawai's koto playing, and Peiyou Chang's recordings on the guqin, an ancient Chinese seven-stringed zither.

When talking about electronic devices, we often think about their “features”. But the cello is a complex device, too. What are some of its stand-out features from your point of view? How would you describe its sonic potential?

I like how your frame this question, because I've been slow to add electronics to my setup precisely because the cello has so many acoustic 'features' which I haven't exhausted yet!

In fact here are notes I wrote to myself in 2014:

"If using electronics entails devising ways of altering the main signal, i.e. the sound of an instrument, another approach to generate 'new' or alternative sounds, would be to alter the main signal (i.e. traditional sound of the instrument) by devising alternative ways of physically playing the instrument. In other words, rather than learning how to use Max MSP to create a palette of manipulated sounds, I would rather start by codifying and expanding my vocabulary of physical approaches."

The way the cello body amplifies the rich spectrum of overtones of a single string is so subtly sensitive to variations of touch. With plucking the string, there are so many parameters that a player can work with; how to strike the string, where to strike it, and what to strike it with. Just with plucking, there are so many different techniques, including snap pizz, regular pizz, harp harmonics, glissandi, plucking on the other side of the bridge (which I call dopo ponte), left-handed pizz, hammer-on (to sound both sides of the string), preparing the string with objects, striking the string with different implements … just to name a few.

With bowing the string, there is the powerful 'feature' of being able to create a sustained tone and control a variety of colors through parameters like bow speed, location, and the bow and left hand finger pressure. The cello is also a wooden box - so it has a percussive palette as well. With preparations, a whole sound world of unexpected timbres and textures opens up. Another significant features for me is the fretless fingerboard, which allows me to play in a variety of tunings and not just 12-tone equal temperament. The relative ease of retuning the strings also allows for new harmonic explorations.

Extending a bit beyond the acoustic instrument, amplification opens up enormous possibilities. A microphone can serve as a 'microscope' to reveal all the rich textures and timbres of new techniques and subtle gestures. I have also used a simple setup of Ableton Live to amplify and loop the instrument through four spatially placed speakers. This allows even the simplest material to take on an expansive three-dimensional quality.

Instrument design is an ongoing process. Are you interested in recent developments for the cello in this respect?

Since I have a background in product design, I've always wanted to design a cello of my own; but again, there is so much sound to uncover in the instrument as it is, I haven't realized this goal yet.

It's also a tricky area to navigate, as much of the classical luthier world is extremely conservative and resistant to change and experimentation. I've played a bit on electric cellos, but the problem is, the beauty and character of the cello lies so much in the rich overtone content, which is amplified through the wooden body. With a solid body or bodyless electric cello, the tone just doesn't compare. Of course it can be good for a lot of electronic processing, but then it becomes another instrument altogether. I'm interested in carbon-fibered cellos for their ruggedness, but in terms of innovation, they seem to simply replicate the traditional sound of the acoustic cello.

The curved BACH bow by Michael Bach and the two-bowed techniques of Francis-Marie Uitti have opened up the possibilities of chordal playing, but in terms of design of the actual cello, I'm not too aware of major innovations which have forged new musical possibilities. I would love to design a way for the cello to be quickly retuned to allow for a program of pieces with multiple tunings.  

Tell me about the process of learning to play the instrument and your own explorations with it.

I studied classical cello from age 10-18, taking private lessons and playing in school and community orchestras. I then took about a ten-year hiatus from playing and was immersed in the field of design. While living in Venice Italy working at a design center called Fabrica, my mind was opened to the world of experimental music. Fabrica invited guests artists to do workshops, including violinist Alexander Balanescu and vocalist Koichi Makigami, and that's when I first began to improvise.

I also attended concerts of improvised music and was particularly struck after a performance of Hamid Drake and Assif Tsahar. I felt so moved and wanted to do that kind of work in the company of artists like them. From that point on, I began improvising and exploring my own vocabulary on the cello, piano, drums, and voice as well as exploring composition with text and musique concrète. I also heard Fred Frith perform solo at the Venice Biennale of Music, which led me to eventually study with him at Mills College.

Living in Venice from 2001-3 opened up my awareness to the confluence of conceptual art, design and experimental music, which continues to shape the way I approach my work. Since then I've been actively exploring all the different possibilities of cello performance in a multitude of contexts, including performance art, theater, composition, improvisation, dance, rock bands, film music, and multi-media performance.

Thanks to the encouragement of Annie Gosfield (who was one of my composition teachers at Mills College), I was fortunate to study cello with Joan Jeanrenaud there, who has such a wealth of experience in all of these contexts through her own work as a composer as well as through many years of performing with Kronos Quartet.

In the last several years, I've been increasingly focused on exploring new harmonic territories of just intonation with the cello and voice through my own compositions and in collaborations with Ellen Fullman and Chris Brown. I've been working a lot with just tuning systems centered on A=432Hz and finding an exciting potential through combining these new and very precise harmonic realms with noise, extended techniques and the instability of improvisation.  

[Read our Ellen Fullman interview]

What are specific challenges in terms of playing the cello?

One challenge is the monophonic nature of the instrument.

Having spent many years as a pianist, one thing that I miss on the cello is the ability to have a polyphonic and orchestral range. Of course the range of the instrument is broad in terms of frequency, but this feeling of breadth in counterpoint is something that I work towards through the means of composition, amplification, and electronics.

On a slightly different angle, the monophonic nature of the cello also makes it harder to achieve the sensation of the sound going beyond one's 'single' self, which has to do with a metaphysical connection to reverberation.

A while ago, I read about acoustic research being conducted in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which has a near 11 second delay. A singer in this space can create a sound that effortlessly continues beyond themselves, which affords them a feeling of connecting with the “divine.” This is also reflected in José Maceda’s writing about how gongs reverberate for a long time after being struck. The human action of creating the sound is brief compared to the duration of the sound as it continues in the flow of a larger metaphysical vibration.

A bowed instrument, on the other hand, has a very close durational correlation of action-to-sound. This has been a major challenge for me in the context of solo performance (as many other monophonic instrumentalists may agree). But having satisfactory sound, from the instrument to the amplification to the room acoustics, can enhance the feeling that the performer is merely “igniting” vibrations that are ready to speak for themselves.

Related to that challenge is how to amplify the instrument well. From the beginning, the cello was designed to be played in small acoustic spaces. Improvements to make it louder and clearer were made up until the eighteenth century, but not much has changed in its design since then. Nowadays, the cello is placed in vastly different contexts such as in a rock band next to drums and electric guitar or in an electro-acoustic chamber ensemble performing in a large space. So problems of amplification often arise.

By nature, the instrument's beauty comes from the multi-directional acoustic resonances of string and wood. When you amplify the cello, there are two challenging areas: the microphone or pickup and the amp or speaker. Speakers are usually bi-directional, so you're taking a very complex multi-directional vibration and outputting it in a linear fashion, which hits the ear drums (and the whole body) in a very different way.

There are indeed multi-directional speakers, which I'm very eager to try, but that wouldn't be very practical for touring. I currently use an Acoustic Image Coda bass cabinet which has an outward facing speaker as well as a downward firing one facing the floor, so it feels a bit more similar to the acoustic resonance.

Then of course the mic or pickup is a challenge because it's essentially reducing the vibration in a similar bi-directional way. Through years of exploring, I have come to performing with a high-end full-range microphone, as I find the more my listening opens up, the more I want my amplification system to capture what I hear, which in turn expands the way I listen. This leads to the great challenge of feedback, as the cello just isn't meant to be amplified in the first place!  It's so frustrating to hear (or play in) an electro-acoustic ensemble where the cellist looks like they're miming because they can't be heard.

I recently bought a cheap electric guitar to compose a commissioned piece, and I immediately fell in love with it because it was a revelation to play a string that was meant to be amplified! I've since begun to perform on it along with the cello, and this has been very interesting in terms of understanding the sonic possibilities of a string. I feel this will influence my future ideas of new cello design. 

Some see instruments merely as tools towards creativity, others feel they go hand in hand. What's your take on that?

Instruments definitely go hand in hand in my creative process. When I compose, I'm interested in expanding the sonic possibilities of an instrument, so I usually compose through playing the instrument myself or working closely with a performer.

What interests you about the cello in terms of it contributing to your creative ideals? How do you see the relationship between your instrument and the music you make?

The cello is very close to nature and the immediacy of the body which is important to me. The materials are basic; wood, string, and hair. I see music as a very fundamental phenomenon of vibration, which is essentially what our whole universe is made of; molecules in vibration.

In terms of the music I make, whether it's solo work or pieces with collaborators and ensembles, I am fundamentally interested in vibration and the possibilities of how music can shape us and the world around us.

How would you describe your personal style of playing the cello?

I approach the cello as a soundbox with infinite possibilities. I am an explorer discovering secrets - the strings reveal their secrets. I embrace the instrument's potential for melody, new harmonies, noise, textures, timbres and rhythms. I utilize all the materials including: scordatura, just tunings, string harmonics, percussive sounds of striking the cello body, preparing the instrument with objects like clothespins, tin foil, ping pong balls, and friction balls, and timbral variation through inventive bowing and plucking techniques.

An important part of my cello playing also involves forging a timbral merging with the voice through singing and playing together.

In the light of picking your instrument, how would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation vs perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

My passion is for radical, innovative, and inventive music. However, all music is part of a continuum and history, and I find the most compelling music recognizes its lineage somehow, even if it is through the act of rejecting it.

I'm not at all interested in continuing the tradition of classical cello performance, but rather in revealing the magnificently rich and multi-faceted sound world that the cello contains when it is played in unconventional ways.

What does playing your instrument feel like, what do you enjoy about it, what are your own physical limits and strengths?

I love the earthiness and physicality of playing the cello. It's a bit like getting massaged from head to toe! My body basically has five contact points with the wooden box and bow, which is perhaps the most of any traditional instrument. I think this is partially why I am continually trying to figure out how to best convey my experience of making music on it.

As the player, my whole being receives so much vibrational information - from hearing backward emanating sounds to having the fingerboard so close to my ears, to hugging the entire instrument with my body. Even in a small room, much of what I experience gets lost in transit to the listener, not to mention the difficulty of projecting these subtleties in a large venue. But I do feel through many years of exploring microphones, speakers and spaces, I am becoming more adept in revealing all of the richness and magnificence of the cello that people aren't generally aware of.

Through singing and playing together, this physical transmission of vibration has even more power and potential. I love exploring the synthesis of the cello and voice together and the joy I feel when I'm not sure which instrument the sound is coming from anymore.

How, would you say, does the cello interact with other instruments from ensembles/groups you're part of?

In The Chromelodia Project led by Chris Brown, I am playing and singing in a 43-tone octave devised by Harry Partch for music Chris has written for himself on piano and electronics and Kyle Bruckmann on oboe.

[Read our Kyle Bruckmann interview]

In this situation, the ease of playing in this tuning system on the cello sits between pressing keys on a piano (automatic) and the arduous task that Kyle has bending pitches on an oboe (nearly impossible!). Timbrally, I love how these instruments blend together with electronics, wind and strings. The cello has the advantage over the piano of being able to control tone through sustained notes, but the piano can easily articulate many notes with accurate tuning much easier than I can.

In my collaboration with Ellen Fullman and her Long String Instrument, I have developed a role for the cello to navigate its place amidst the massive sound of the LSI. In our piece Harbors, the cello is amplified and panned in a cross-stereo spread across four speakers placed at the corners of the room. Using Ableton Live, I loop the cello at times to create a spatialized sonic field. Using pizzicati and glissandi, I also employ techniques that contrast the vocabulary of the LSI's long tones. However, at times, I do simply play long tones with the LSI in search for a phenomenon we call bloom.

When this happens, a tone of the cello sympathetically resonates and/or amplifies a frequency that is already sounding on the LSI, or triggers an overtone or subtone that isn’t yet sounding, thus causing an existing chord to suddenly ‘bloom’ into a slightly shifted harmonic structure.

Are there other cello players whose work with their instrument you find inspiring? What do you appreciate about their take on it?

Besides Abdul Wadud, I've generally been drawn to cellists who take the cello into unexpected directions.

Others include Charlotte Moorman for bringing the cello into the realm of performance art, Arthur Russell for the earnestness of his song writing and disco music, Tom Cora for the joy and irreverence of his improvisations and songs, and Okkyung Lee for revealing the beauty of extreme noise on the instrument.