Emily Kennedy was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on CHSR's (97.9FM) program "The Lunchbox" on June 28th, 2018.
MK: I’m here at the casemates, introduce yourself.
EK: I’m Emily Kennedy, and I’m a cellist and a composer.
MK: You’re not a painter, you work on an entirely different kind of art. Tell us what kind of art you work in.
EK: Well I’m primarily a performer, an I’ve just been recently getting into composition more as a way to actually play some stuff.
MK: Now you have something behind you that look a lot like a small coffin but it’s actually a hard case for a cello, is that right?
MK: So how long have you been playing the cello?
EK: For 17 years.
MK: And you’re fairly young, so you started when you were one, is that what you’re saying? (laughs) Were you immediately attracted to the cello? Was there something about that instrument in particular which you said “this is for me?”
EK: I actually started on violin, and I just couldn’t stand how squeaky the violin was. I used to pace back and forth too much because you stand when you’re first learning how to play violin, and the teacher jokingly was like “you have to sit down, stop doing all this weird swaying” kind of thing. So she gave me a cello and then it stuck.
MK: So were you really playing the fiddle at that point? Because most fiddle players seem to be very active and moving around but violinists always seem to be very stern, with an expression on their face of absolute sincerity and importance of the moment. So you just had to get up and move?
EK: Well I don’t know, I think that’s just classical music in general. I think more it was just being nervous when I was younger or something, I was just swaying a lot.
MK: So you switched the entire other end of the strings and did something with a lot more bass, no squeakiness probably at all in the cello?
EK: Oh it can squeak, but it’s just not as bad.
MK: (laughs) So how quickly did you end up going to the cello was it in that first year or was a few years?
EK: It was after a few years.
MK: So a cello, you can’t walk around with a cello. Was that also part of a strategy so that you wouldn’t walk around?
EK: Probably (laughs). It’s actually something I don’t like about it, that I can’t move around. I’ve played with a few bands in town and it sucks that I always have to be the one person who’s sitting in place and I can’t get up and move around.
MK: I’ve seen some of the jug band version of, well I guess it’s not a cello in that case, I think it’s a bass.
EK: Probably a double bass.
MK: Yeah, and they seem to have a lot of movement around. You don’t think you could try that with the cello?
EK: It’s just being on your feet, because I have to sit when I play. So I feel like if I could stand or find a way to stand, then it would be a little bit easier.
MK: So the deep bass sound is what attracted you about the cello. What kind of music do you prefer to play with the cello? We were talking about classical music, which is what most people think of these instruments, is that what you’re attracted to or do you find other kinds of cello pieces?
EK: I kinda do a whole bunch of everything. I try and keep my hands in a whole bunch of different pots. I started primarily with classical music; I went to music school for that, and that was what got me excited about it in the first place. But since then, I knew my dad was really into classic rock and stuff so it was always kind of a joke that you take the cello sideways and it’s like a guitar. So when I was in high school I would play with bands and friends and we’d jam and play at coffee houses. So I kind of carried that, I still have my classical music practice, I guess you could call it, but I do try to step away from that world a little bit. I’ve also been dabbling into some free improv and composition, which is the polar opposite of both of those things.
MK: So I kind of know a little bit about what you’ve done but for those who might not realize, what other bands have you been working with?
EK: I’ve been playing a lot with Property recently. Charles Harding’s group.
MK: That’s about as far away from classic cello as you can get, is it not?
EK: Yeah, I’m amplified.
MK: I know also the lead in Property, he’s playing with electronic sounds. Sometimes you can call them instruments, sometimes they’re just sounds and reverberations. How did that get started?
EK: In my day to day listening, I’m really into electronic music and I saw Charlie play a few times and I really really loved it, and we were friends. I’ve done some work with Cellarghost on their album before, so I thought “maybe I could do some work with you,” and then it kind of just grew out from there. I originally just played on a few tracks and then it kinda grew to me being part of the project along with Luke Wilson.
MK: So you do the classical music still? As well as doing the electronic and contemporary rock kind of bass things?
MK: Is there a preferred size you’d like to be in a group of? Three or four? Or do you like to be there with a full orchestra?
EK: I prefer smaller groups. You have more freedom and there’s more artistic liberty, I suppose. When you’re in a big orchestra you’re kind of just a cog in the giant wheel, which is fine and it can be super powerful if you’re playing great masterpieces, but I like being able to make decisions.
MK: So the cello is one of those instruments that I look at because I am not a musician, and I look at it and go… I mean, I can kind of understand a guitar, it has all these frets, I know where fingers would go. How do you guys figure out where everything should go on a cello? Is there markings that I can’t see?
EK: When you’re first starting, yes, but it’s all muscle memory. That and ear training. It’s kind of the bane of my and most string players’ existences; because you have to play in tune. Guitarists are lucky because they have frets to tell them where to go but if your ear is off or if you can’t hear yourself it’s really hard.
MK: Now you’ve basically had a lifetime with the cello, it must be like an old friend now. How many cellos have you gone through in your lifetime? Is this something where you’d still have that first instrument?
EK: No, this is my third instrument. The first one I started with the school string program, so it was just a rental from the school district. And then I had a cheap student instrument that my parents had bought. It was decent, I used it up until partway through my undergrad.
MK: Now when you say cheap, this is all relative, right? What’s a cheap cello?
EK: I think that was about $4,000.
MK: Yep, that’s a lot more than I would consider paying for. So compare that to your current cello, which I presume you wouldn’t call cheap?
EK: Well actually I lucked out with that. Some people spend $20,000-40,000. I had one of my teachers who I was studying with tell me that if I wanted a career I would have to drop $40,000 on a cello.
MK: So basically you’re buying the equivalent of more than a good car to invest in this instrument. What difference does it make? How much do you notice and how much would the average person notice about the difference?
EK: That’s a question I’ve been struggling with for a bit, because I probably should “upgrade,” whatever that means, to a newer instrument. I haven’t yet because with the kind of stuff I’m working on, I don’t really need something that’s a Strad.
MK: Is there a Stradivarius of the cello as well? Everybody hears about the violin version, but they also do cellos as well? I’m assuming it has many more digits to its price tag?
EK: Oh yes, many more. You can’t buy them. You have to be given one. There are competitions; like Canada Council… I don’t even know if it’s by competition, I think you can apply or something. But yeah, you’re loaned one for like two or four years or something like that, but then you have to give it back and it cycles through different people, which is fair.
MK: With these different instruments, is it the quality of the sound or the ease of playing and instrument?
EK: Both. Sometimes I’ll go into music shops and I’ll try their instruments, and it is ease, you can relax into it. Things will speak better, easier articulation, the sound.
MK: What does that mean to me, who doesn’t have any idea what that means?
EK: Sometimes you can feel like when you’re bowing, it’s really difficult when you try to catch the string, and so what happens is you’re constantly fighting the instrument that wants to make rough sounds.
MK: Is that the string or the body of the instrument who’s changing that?
EK: It’s hard to tell, it’s the whole thing. Sometimes it can just be that the strings need to be replaced or the bow needs to be replaced. Sometimes it’s just the make-up of the instrument, or it could be the weather. They’re temperamental, they’re like human beings.
MK: So speaking of temperamental, you’re working here in the casemates this week, you’ve literally got only three walls, how is that for your instrument? Is that a challenge?
EK: It’ll be fine on a day like today where it’s sunny out and nice. I didn’t take it out at all yesterday because it was rainy and cold. It messes with the wood.
MK: It’s like you’ve got this really expensive kid that’s never going to grow up, and you need them to perform on command for the school play. What are you working on? You said you working some kind of composition?
EK: Yeah, so a few of my projects recently have been dealing with translation, so what I’m doing is I’m taking stats from the recent flood and am kind of finding ways to transform the numbers into musical notation. So I’m doing a series of small miniatures for the cello and viola.
MK: So in that process of translation, is it going to be a graph we’re going to hear or is it going to be the flavour of each set of stats? Have you figured that part out yet?
EK: I’ve been working on it today, yesterday, and this morning. What I’m doing is I’m switching the numbers into actual pitches, so I’ve determined the key that I want to be playing in. Because I want it to sound semi-decent, I don’t want it to sound really weird. I’m mixing compositions with my musical taste I guess. I’m going to be layering them. As you can see, I’ve compared the dates with the water levels in Fredericton, and then the amount of water above the flood line. So I’m gonna use all of that information to kind of layer on top of each other in chords.
MK: What elements are you looking to transform to make this? Is this about tempo or the note itself or sustaining? Is it the note specifically?
MK: Have you done anything like this before?
EK: I did a project with a weaver and a poet, and so its kind of like a big game of telephone where we have a set rubric and we can transform words or letters into a weaving pattern. And then I can use that same rubric to transform the weaving pattern into music pitches. It’s kind of like a spin-off of that, but with different rules.
MK: So are you looking specifically for this kind of challenge? Is that where you’re at in your career? That you want to have what people would consider maybe a bit more esoteric translation? Is that what you’re looking for?
EK: Yeah, it’s fascinating, it’s kind of cool to limit yourself in some ways because it’s easier to explore within certain kinds of confines than it is to… I don’t know, I can get really overwhelmed otherwise.
MK: I’ve heard this said numerous times, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it, that art comes from restriction or compromise or limitation or rule; you don’t want to dominate that art, but just having that little bit to start from really helps the creativity, is that what you find?
EK: Yeah, totally.
MK: So when you present these pieces, will you give context or do you want people to experience the piece first and then learn the context?
EK: What I’ll probably do is I’ll write a little paragraph on the front of the score, so like people who are playing can read it and understand the context. I’d rather present the music just as music. And if I were to play this, I might tell people kind of what it’s based off of, but I don’t think I would go into huge detail on all the math that I’m doing behind it, it might be a little boring.
MK: And what is the math like? Because people have told me that music is math in a sense, is that the way you see it to or is that the way you interpret it?
EK: It can be. My brain doesn’t necessarily work that way all the time, so I’m more trying to find the emotion behind the math.
MK: Where would these pieces be performed? Is it something you’re producing just for yourself? You said the score would be available for others to perform?
EK: Yeah, if they like it. I’m planning on doing a recording of it, just gonna sit down and catalogue it, and then I’ll probably just make it available online as a PDF.
MK: Do you ever think about the combination as a sort of visual piece where you would have, for example, of the flooding of the water that came through, and your piece playing underneath it, to kind of be the score, quite literally, for that visual, is that something worth doing along the lines, or do you feel like you need that?
EK: I think it would be cool, I really love interdisciplinary collaborations, so if that ever was a thing, I would totally look into it.
MK: So if people drop by this week, are they going to hear you play very often? Are you going to play these pieces as you go through?
EK: It’ll be about 50/50. What I’ll be doing is that, now that I have what I’ll be working from, I’ll be half notating, half playing and experimenting a little bit.
MK: Do you ever draw any inspiration from classical composers when you’re building this? Are you taking sort of a Bach structure if there’s such a thing? Or a Mozart structure and then transforming it to fit this particular inspiration or is completely from your exploration of work?
EK: I probably am taking inspiration, but not intentionally. Like it’s probably just from being submersed in it for so long. People might compare this to… You know what? No, I’m not even sure. I just kinda stumbled upon composition as something I just started doing, there was no “I”m gonna be the next Bach” or anything like that.
MK: Is there a composer you draw any inspiration from for your cello work? Is there someone who really hits the notes you were looking for?
EK: There’s a composer in the states right now, her name is Caroline Shaw. She’s super badass, but my music does not sound anything like her’s, I just think it’s really cool to see more women composing.
MK: So do you do this? Are you lucky enough to do this as your day job? Obviously this week you’ll get the chance with the Artists In Residence, but is it something where you still do it for fun/passion and occasionally for a gig here and there?
EK: I mostly do cello teaching, that’s my day job, and then just freelancing; playing whatever I can.
MK: Well I wanna thank you very much for talking with me today. And I’m sure with the reverberating walls in here it’s going to be quite an amazing acoustic space to round out the cello.
You can listen to Emily's interview on the CHSR website here.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2018