Kathy McTavish is a tall willowy woman who closes her eyes, raises her face upward and embraces her cello with flowing motions in a full body-and-soul communion with the music. The sounds are otherworldly, subterranean, sometimes aquatic, often surprising. While watching her perform, I look over my shoulder and around the room to see if there are other instruments being brought into the mix.
Quetico is a duo composed of Kathy McTavish with her musical partner David From (frahm) on piano. They released their latest CD with a concert at the Friends Meeting House in Duluth. Their performance was a collaborative work with the poet Ellie Schoenfeld, writer Barton Sutter, and visual artist Bruce Ojard. The event may launch more performances in this quaint venue and the sweetest acoustics in the area.
On their website From and McTavish describe their music as, “...an improvisational blend of cello & piano... soulful jazz...” One only needs to listen to the first few minutes of the title track, Voyage Out, a 27-minute piece, to hear both the jazz and the soul.
Our conversation opens with “What do you mean when you say improvisational? “It's more on-the-spot music than the classical music I once played,” says Kathy McTavish. She played the cello intently for 20 years, then burned out on it. “It was all I did to the point of perfectionism. I was playing professionally while still in high school.” She had a hard-driving teacher and her life became unbalanced. She put away the cello and escaped into a hippie commune of south Minneapolis. She felt like she had been battling heroin. Now she wonders if she can survive with maintenance doses and moderation.
“It's really more collage than improv,” she says, “there are lots of lines ready to go, but we don't really know how they fit together until we get there. In our ostenato style of looping and building we set ourselves up for new discoveries and spontaneous composition.” In the improvisational style of Quetico a musical language is established, call-and-response sets in, and collaboratively built patterns emerge.
McTavish describes an aha! experience with a very simple chord progression, a basic armature for “something surprisingly sublime ... emotional.” She says she could be content playing privately. “The experience itself is fulfilling. It's magical, and so simple.” But David From has encouraged stage performances: “The audience expands the collaboration,” he says. “They feed the musicians with their energy and share the unique language ... the experience builds community.”
McTavish is actually quite willing to take her work out into the world. She performs with other artists around town, like the Sara Softich Band and the Three Altos. She sits in regularly with the Amazing Grace Chick Jam. She and From have been recording ardently and have two new CD's to offer at Friday's show. One is Voyage Out, their second CD. The other is McTavish's solo work, Cello Dreams. She is also one of the artists on a new CD by poet Ellie Schoenfeld.
“Soundscapes” leaped to mind to describe the music of this duo, and I discovered to my delight that seven tracks on the CD CelloDreams are titled “Soundscape.” These would work well in collaboration with artists of other genres. They could give sound to paintings, or to films or plays. The multimedia performance at the Meeting House worked well; their living-room intimacy is sustained in a larger venue.
David and Kathy have been together for three years. “David has some solid voices and style,” she says, “I felt like I came to his level while discovering the voices of my cello.”
The performers for the collaborative show have worked with one another only rarely, though Ellie Schoenfeld has been weaving her poetry into the works of several area musicians and has recently gotten more involved with the music of Kathy McTavish. “As it happens, music changes poetry and vice versa,” Schoenfeld says. “But music is not really behind the poems.” Multimedia encourages “a great feeling of synergy.” Besides writing poetry and novels and teaching about writing and literature, Barton Sutter has worked extensively with his brother performing poetry/music as the Sutter Brothers. Bruce Ojard says he is a bit nervous: “This is bigger than I thought and there are no rehearsals allowed.” His show was a spontaneous interaction with the performers.
I imagine a powerful cosmic force in charge of such a show. As Schoenfeld spoke about last-minute performance decisions, getting “a feel” for the event, and “finding new discoveries” with each performance, I imagined a voice from the heavens, “Oh my Dog, these artists have not rehearsed a lick together and the show is in five minutes! I better get in there and help 'em out.” Then the performance turns out like magic... perhaps because it is.
Quetico, Kathy McTavish, cello and David From, piano have produced two CD's, Quetico, a demo CD (2005) and Voyage Out (2006). Kathy McTavish has one solo CD, cellodreams: i meant to say (2006). They will be playing Third Thursdays at the Amazing Grace Cafe in Canal Park, Duluth beginning on St. Patrick's Day.