Cello Fury rocks with a new voice

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 6:16 p.m.

The “one true path” idea is particularly ill-suited to the arts, where individuality and distinctiveness are prized. And it certainly doesn't fit the career opportunities and choices facing young musicians.

In 2009, three young graduates from Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities — Simon Cummings, Ben Munoz and Nicole Myers — decided to create their own path and formed the cello rock band Cello Fury.

It was a bold move with little precedent, but has paid off.

Myers says it was the great time she and her classically trained colleagues had playing rock music that led to Cello Fury.

“I did love playing in orchestra when I was in college, where I also played string quartets,” she says. “Playing in Cello Fury combines my love of chamber music with having my voice heard almost as a soloist in rock. We get to keep all of our classical training but twist it around and add that rock flair to the music.”

The group plays about 100 gigs a year and released its second album, “Symphony of Shadows” in May. Cello Fury, which played the halftime show at the Steelers-Ravens game in December 2009, has performed as far west as Iowa and as far south as Texas. Sometimes, it performs with singers and has enjoyed success playing with dance companies.

“We are full-time musicians, which encompasses playing in the band, teaching in our private studios — which is great — and recording projects on the side as solo cellos for other people's albums,” Myers says. “I feel very lucky we're able to do music full time. Combining performances with outreach concerts definitely helps round out our incomes as musicians.”

The three musicians work together to continually refine their vision of rock cello music, but the actual composition work is split roughly 50-50 between Munoz and Cummings.

“Depending on the song or project, we'll get together and combine both of our compositional ideas and styles and work from the ground up,” Munoz says.

Cummings says he was fairly young when he started writing classical music, 14 or 15, but he grew up playing in rock bands and was writing rock songs. His favorite bands when he was a kid were Smashing Pumpkins, Rancid and Nirvana.

“Our songs can be very intense because we tend to put it all out there,” Cummings says. “We don't get a chance to describe what we're doing in words because we usually perform without a singer. So, everything we need to say has to be in the notes. The music definitely is derived from what we feel. We try to come up with beautiful melodies and sounds. Sometimes when I write, and I'm not thinking of anything, I just get my cello out and look for interesting sounds.”

He credits the Finnish band Apocalyptica, which formed in 1993, with starting the rock cello genre.

“We are definitely influenced by them. We don't compare ourselves to them because our songwriting and sound is different from theirs,” he says. “Our amplified cello sound, in itself, creates big, full sound with the drums, aside from a songwriting style that's a little less metal and more progressive rock. We rely on more intricate chord progessions than theirs. We also use more from classical, maybe late romantic, mixed with more contemporary.”

Cello Fury's drummer David Throckmorton knew and worked with Myers years before the ensemble came together. But when the three cellists decided they wanted to add a drummer, he was tied up with other projects. By the time other drummers didn't work out, his schedule had cleared enough to play with the cellists.

“It felt kind of normal from the beginning,” he says. “I knew what they needed from me. It's similar to a lot of other rock music I play with singers in that their compositions are similar to pop and rock music, with a verse, chorus and occasional bridge structure to the song. It feels kind of like I'm playing with a singer and bass player and guitarist maybe.”

Songwriter Bill Deasy, who is one of the singers who has performed with Cello Fury, says, “Personality is a big part of it when you're collaborating with people. The first thing to check off is, they're nice people to work with and good to hang with.”

He sang with Cello Fury on New Year's Eve 2011 at the Byham Theater, Downtown, where they performed a handful of his songs, but he knew Myers from years earlier when he hired her to play with his band and on one of his CDs.

“Nicole had some pretty good familiarity with some of my songs, and we took that as a jumping off point,” Deasy says. “They're very professional and thorough. I was thrilled as a songwriter. I'm always interested in hearing what people bring to your music. This was new, and that's gold for me.”

The Cello Fury musicians are committed to education and inspiring young musicians, apart from the private lessons they give. They look forward to school concerts and make sure to include Q&A sessions with the young people.

“They're a treasure. They are wonderful musicians and very excited to share their passion for their music,” says Lisa Hoitsma, executive director of Gateway to the Arts from 2000 to April 2013.

Hoitsma was especially impressed that Cello Fury was “up to any challenge” and would go anywhere in Western Pennsylvania, out to Cambria and Somerset counties as well as schools in Pittsburgh.

“They came on board for Pittsburgh Dreamers summer school,” Hoitsma says. “We wanted fourth-graders and up because of motor skills (for playing music). They were completely undaunted when they got to a school on the South Side and found mainly second- and third-graders.

“These kids didn't want to be in summer school, and it was hot and dusty in the school, but they were so inspired by Cello Fury that 95 percent of those kids wanted to continue playing their instruments when the program ended.”

Choreographers and dancers also enjoy collaboration with Cello Fury, which has provided the music for three works by Bodiography Contemporary Ballet and one by Texture Contemporary Ballet.

“Working with them was a great experience,” says Alan Obuzor, Texture's founder and artistic director. “I think they're absolutely great as musicians and artists and people. What makes them special is that their music has life and energy that touches you in a personal way. It does for me personally.”

He loves string instruments because they have a vocal quality that reaches people.

“The way they blend that with the music they play is fascinating,” he says. “They fit in bars and outdoors performances. What's unique to them is they're chameleons and fit in anywhere.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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