Matt Haimovitz goes Bach to the future

Cellist Matt Haimovitz doesn’t rage against the machine, as much as he appropriates its sounds and rhythms and incorporates them into something larger and more powerful than the machine itself.

Haimovitz on playing classical music in non-traditional settings such as bars and nightclubs: "Bach didn't write for the music hall, he wrote for the people. I'm just getting back to classical music's coffeehouse roots." / Photo: Steph Mackinnon

Pioneering cellist breaks tradition to feed tradition

By Neale McDevitt

Cellist Matt Haimovitz doesn’t rage against the machine, as much as he appropriates its sounds and rhythms and incorporates them into something larger and more powerful than the machine itself.

A former child prodigy, Haimovitz has lived the life of an elite classical musician, first playing Carnegie Hall at the age of 13, performing with legends such as Zubin Mehta and Isaac Stern, and having had no less than Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman as mentors.

But he’s also pushed hard against that tradition, raising the eyebrows of purists by showcasing his virtuoso talent in non-traditional venues like New York’s infamous punk club, CBGB, and spicing his repertoire with everything from folk music to rock. It’s safe to say he’s the only cellist in the world who has performed with the New York Philharmonic who can also play a mean rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star-Spangled Banner.

“Initially, the classical music establishment thought I had gone nuts,” said Haimovitz, a professor in the Department of Performance at the Schulich School of Music.

Crazy as a fox. His most recent project, a CD titled Meeting of the Spirits, has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Classical Crossover Album category. Typical of Haimovitz’s boundary-breaking sense of adventure, the album includes rarely heard – perhaps never-heard – cello arrangements of jazz classics by John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Lewis, Billy Strayhorn, George Gershwin and Charles Mingus.

The kids are all right

Just as daring as the choice of material for the CD (all of which was arranged by award-winning composer David Sanford), was Haimovitz’s selection of musicians. Rather than recruiting more seasoned collaborators, Haimovitz, the album’s co-executive producer, enlisted his all-cello band, Uccello, whose members – Amaryllis Jarczyk, Alice Nahyun Kim, Chloé Dominguez, Yoona Jhon, Dominic Painchaud, Leana Rutt and Andrea Stewart – all study under him at the Schulich School. “I am always looking for innovative projects and ways to expand what we do phonically and rhythmically and in terms of expanding the range of our instruments,” Haimovitz said.

And, as Haimovitz points out, the kids are more than all right. “They worked so hard through all this,” he said. “We played eight shows in the U.S. before moving to some very long days in the recording studio. … And in the end, you should see some of the people who didn’t get [the Grammy] nomination – major artists, real superstars. I see no limits to what [the members of Uccello] can do.

“I remember learning a lot from my teachers [in the classroom], but when they invited me to play with them – this is when things really started to open up,” said Haimovitz. “Now that I’m on the other side, it is really gratifying to share this experience with my students. I’m quite thrilled by it all.”

But, as happy as Haimovitz is about his class project getting a nomination nod from the folks at the Grammys (“It would be neat to meet Eminen”), the thrill he speaks of isn’t found in collecting accolades and prizes. It always comes down to the music.

And, as if to allay the fears of those purists in the crowd, Haimovitz maintains that the more he pushes away from the classical core at the centre of his musical self, the stronger its gravitational pull grows. “No matter what I do, what still gives me the most meaning is to sit down and play a Bach Cello Suite or a Ligeti String Quartet,” he said. “But now having played jazz where I’m working with a rhythm section or improvising with other musicians, and having played very demanding works by a maximalist composer like Elliot Carter – this range of music just informs that standard repertoire and opens up my ear to everything I play. I feel like a richer musician and a much better teacher having been open to all this.”

Drawn to the cello’s mystery

Haimovitz picked up his first cello at the age of seven and, he says, “within a few months, I went from wanting to be a fireman to telling everyone I was going to be a cellist.”

His mother was a pianist, so Haimovitz grew up surrounded by classical music and frequently going to concerts. But he admits that his attraction to the cello was, in part, a rejection of his mother’s instrument of choice. “I didn’t see much mystery in the piano. You hit a key and it makes a sound,” he said. “But the cello was so exotic, more so in the way the sound was produced – the bow drawn across the strings. It was a mystery to me how sound was coming out of this strange box.

“Later I fell in love with the depth of a cello’s sound and its closeness to the human voice,” said Haimovitz. “And, as I’m still learning, it has an incredible ability to transform itself. It can play jazz bass, percussion, classical and it can sound like a saxophone or an electric guitar.

“And part of my curiosity in trying new things is trying to keep lit that initial flame of being obsessed with the instrument and trying to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. But, even today, I am continuously amazed by how much I don’t know.”

See Matt and Ucello in the recording studio.