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A Little Harsher By Design: A Visit with Lori Goldston

Shulamit Kleinerman
Editorial Assistant

Michael Connolly writes:

Classically-trained cellist Lori Goldston has played with everyone from Nirvana to Cat Power. In this piece, Shulamit Kleinerman talks with Lori about the different components of her musical life: her touring, teaching, and the many projects in which she strives to expand her instrument's — and her own — boundaries.

After fourteen years, forty silent film scores, an acclaimed new- and world-music ensemble, performances with numerous big names on the alternative music circuit, and now a teaching career, everyone still wants to ask Lori Goldston about her time with Nirvana.

"It's such a funny calling card," says the cellist, whose musical interests have never particularly pointed to playing in sports arenas full of screaming teens. "A lot of people get stuck being remembered for something they hated doing. I'm fortunate that I like that band and I like what I did with them."

Lori Goldston

Goldston was performing at a Seattle benefit for victims of the Serbian war when she was spotted by Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic. (His parents are Croatian. ) She toured with the band in late 1993 and into the beginning of 1994, just a few months before Kurt Cobain's suicide.

In retrospect, Nirvana's last days would seem to define an era. At the time, for a young classically-trained musician who had moved from the East Coast to Seattle "on a whim," the tour was "a weird adventure." It was a gig, after all, and not necessarily the most musically rewarding one: "You're constrained in what you can do, because it has to be the same every day. People want it to sound like what they heard on the radio."

Goldston's work with Nirvana is preserved in the recording from the band's legendary 1993 appearance on MTV's Unplugged series. Her cello draws along a rich, steady bass undertow beneath the surprisingly gentle tone of the band in its made-for-TV acoustic configuration. Except for an otherworldly upwelling of passion from Cobain at the very end of the program — a final screamed verse of the Leadbelly classic "In the Pines" that could justify the entire grunge enterprise on its own — there's a subdued feeling to the program. It's true that there isn't much room for more than uncomplicated support from the backup players.

"The Man Who Sold The World" from the "Unplugged" appearance

Goldston has positive words for the tour experience. "It made me really like teenagers, and the whole ritual of rock shows. The kids were so happy and having so much fun, just shining." Nirvana's following "was self-selective. These were smart, sensitive, nice kids. And there were great opening bands."

As for Cobain himself, plenty has been said over the last fourteen years, and Goldston doesn't want to add to it. When I ask her about the band, she says, "They were nice. It was fun." And then she falls silent.

If the Unplugged show is anything to go on, Goldston's description of the tour as a "weird adventure" is fitting. The funereal atmosphere onstage — candles, drapery, and white lilies, all placed at Cobain's request — is made only stranger by the bright television lighting. The singer reaches for cigarettes between songs and fidgets nervously in his office-issue ergonomic swivel chair. He tosses a smart-alecky four-letter insult at the audience before the final song.

The band hasn't quite figured out which songs to play when, or in what key, or which one is Cobain's solo, and they hash it all out between songs. Goldston looks on with a slight smile and an air of unruffled competence, bow poised over the instrument. As soon as they're ready to get on with it, she's ready to play.

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"Guitar was always my first language," Goldston explains. The grandchild of New York opera lovers, she immersed herself in music, playing classical cello and jazz guitar and singing in her high school chorus. Only later would she miss the folk and ragtime tunes of her childhood enough to start "playing the cello in more and more guitarlike ways," experimenting with techniques such as a finger-picked pizzicato.

"The world expanded really rapidly in college," when Goldston started doing a lot of free improvising. "I played a lot of percussion for a while, with some Brazilians I lived near. If people asked me to play something, I'd just agree and find a way to do it. I fell into a lot of situations that way." Providing improvised accompaniment for dance classes — something she still does sometimes — Goldston began developing a stylistic vocabulary that was far more flexible than her classical background. "For modern dance, you can make it kind of a crazy faux-feedback Beatnik freakout. For ballet class, you have to rein it in." After college, in the mid-80s, she chose Seattle for the freedom of its music scene.

Since then, Goldston has founded several ensembles with her partner, accordionist Kyle Hanson, and played on dozens of CDs. As a guest performer, she has appeared with a long lineup of notable artists, from former Talking Head David Byrne to alternative songstress Laura Veirs. Her name gets around. When the minimalist singer/songwriter Cat Power played in Seattle, she asked Goldston to accompany her.

"Nobody else plays like I do," the cellist explains. It's not a boast, just an observation.

When she branched out from the classical repertoire, Goldston made fundamental changes to her sound. "Some concrete things I decided to shift: I stopped playing with vibrato all the time. Other things I did unconsciously. I've played for so long now with drummers and guitar players and accordionists that I sound more like those things. Now on the rare occasions when I play with other cellists, it takes a lot of effort to blend my sound in with them.

"I think my sound has more punch to it now, the way a horn might — it's a little more focused and compressed, which most cellists try to avoid. It's a little harsher, by design. I've listened to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler way more than I've listened to almost any other cellist," she notes.

"I like mistakes and grit in the sound, like the grit on the contacts in an old organ. That's the interesting part to me — managing those textures."

Goldston insists that the cello has a lot to contribute to repertoires that don't traditionally make use of it. "It can have a really strong visceral emotional impact. It can make things sound really big, like there are way more people playing. Why wouldn't you want a cello?"

Goldston is also a composer. She has written commissions for dance companies nationally and internationally, as well as scores to accompany more than forty silent films. Most of these she performs herself.

Composition, she says, "happens under emergency conditions," when she gives herself a one-woman crash course in the context for the project. "I'm a really big researcher," she declares, whether she's playing in a new setting or composing. "If it's a Brazilian project, I'll go out and get all the Brazilian recordings I can find." Before developing a live solo score for the 1928 classic film The Passion of Joan of Arc — "a terrific, weird, weird, weird film" — Goldston read everything she could about the 15th-century martyr. "Books and books and books. I have shelves of binders upstairs, information for projects. Hopefully it all goes in."

When I interviewed her, I discovered what it feels like to become the object of Goldston's keen curiosity and intelligence. I couldn't get any of my questions into the conversation until she'd quizzed me in detail about my own musical interests. She pulled books off the shelf for background information. We traded listening recommendations, and she played an LP of 17th-century music she'd recently found in a dollar bin.

She describes her scores to old movies as "collaborations with dead people" — an endeavor that can be every bit as complicated as it sounds. One such project was to accompany a pair of films by Yasujiro Ozu, the influential WWII-era director, along with koto player Elizabeth Falconer. Ozu was firmly committed to the silent medium. "He hated to have any music with his films. I'm sure he was spinning in his grave. I felt bad, but I said, well, it's me or a recording, and I'm better than a recording."

Real-time presence is part of what Goldston values about live performance, especially when - as with film, theater, and dance collaboration — it involves something more interesting and complex than simply playing on a lit stage. Goldston says she's fascinated by the humanist role of the musician and by the "festive, public" aspect of performing.

"When I look at religious people or those with an activist calling, it's harder to think of music as essential. I envy people who get to save people's lives every day. But then, with music you get to promote empathy and bring out the best in people. It gets corny but it's all true."

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She met her partner Kyle Hanson while they were both working at a restaurant — "but we got to be friends because I had seen a really crazy dance piece that he and his sister had made." Hanson pulled her into a theater project on Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism.

Goldston with the Black Cat Orchestra

Together, in 1992, Goldston and Hanson founded The Black Cat Orchestra. By her own admission, Goldston "can never figure out how to describe it." Influenced by diverse musical traditions from Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America, the ensemble gave its own sound to both traditional and original music. The group played on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life when the show toured to Seattle. Today a new configuration plays under the name Spectratone International, often touring and recording with the indie singer-songwriter Mirah. Sometimes Goldston plays guitar in the band, as well as cello. Goldston and Hanson also perform as a duo called The Shifting Light.

"Our whole operation revolves around music," she says. Their young son Isaac has accompanied them on tour. "We've been kind of merciless with the kid." A favorite family anecdote recounts how, as a toddler, Isaac thought that every adult could boast of at least one CD and every households had a drum set in the basement.

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Now that she's a parent, Goldston spends less time touring and more time teaching. Her students range from children and teens to retirees. For a musician with such an individual artistic vision, there's no ready-made teaching approach. Besides, it's the first time that she's seriously focused on teaching. "I don't know what I'm doing," she confesses. "I have to figure it out for myself."

In fact, though, she has plenty of good ideas, from the tried and true to the truly innovative.

Some of Goldston's students want to go beyond technique and make the leap to improvising on their instruments. She is perfectly poised to offer her students "a more well-rounded education." Goldston, who has taught at a teen rock camp, looks for students who are interested in playing in bands.

One of her students "brings a CD of a song that she can't figure out the chord changes to, and that's my excuse to talk about theory. You need some basics, really dull theory things, to know what's going on. Then we'll talk about pop arranging: how this kind of voicing makes it sound especially spacey right here, how the flute's doubling that major seventh. At some point she'll probably be in a situation where she'll play cello in a band."

Teaching people how to improvise, she says, "isn't really an oxymoron, but it has the feeling of one. I haven't really hit on the solution to that question." Goldston gathers some ideas from watching dancers work. "Dancers are better at talking about improvisation, and they have systems for teaching it." She notes that there's also a wealth of books available on teaching dance to kids. The books' creative ideas for exploring one type or aspect of movement at a time, using imitation, or establishing a relationship in space or time to another dancer adapt well for teaching improvisation to musicians.

Goldston gets teaching ideas from watching her own child learn, too. ("Having a kid changes your idea of everything!") At Isaac's preschool, she noticed, the teachers make sure to buffer the structured activities with "some free spazz-out time before and after." Goldston wonders about building this kind of rhythm into her lessons, with time for improvising, or even just relaxed movement, at the opening and closing of the hour.

In the end, she says, improvising comes down to "just doing it. Just fool around with the radio on." Having followed her own ears to a satisfying career, she places a lot of trust in turn in the musical sensibilities of her students.

Still, though, Goldston emphasizes the classical basics. "I'm a little bit conservative. I want to immerse them in that world. It's an endless, exciting universe. I don't need to push pop music; it's everywhere. I push the other stuff.

"I have Western classical music to thank for being able to get around efficiently on my instrument," she continues. "The attention to detail is hard to beat. And I still like that music. It's comfortable and homey, and playing chamber music is still one of the nicest ways to socialize. I don't feel that I've discarded it or moved beyond it or anything like that."

In addition to the standard sorts of method books and duet books that most classical teachers rely on, Goldston uses YouTube to give her students more perspective, sending them home to watch Casals master classes.

She laments that some students are turned off from classical music by the way it's presented by other teachers. "My students come in with a lot of orchestra music that they're not very excited about. And yet there's a whole world of nice orchestra music out there." In November, one of Goldston's students announced that she had decided to quit orchestra after being assigned a piece called "Santa's Fiesta." Goldston agreed that the sixteen-year-old was right to look for an experience better suited to her intelligence. "I said, yes, that's totally abusive."

Whatever inadequacies may be found in the school music situation, Goldston points to a silver lining. "If private instruction is the sole means of getting your kids a musical education, people take it more seriously. This means there are opportunities for people like us." LM

Shulamit Kleinerman lives in Seattle, where she maintains a private violin studio, teaches historical arts workshops and early music classes for school-aged children, and writes and lectures about music history. She is also the Editorial Assistant for The Learning Musician. Shulamit can be contacted through her profile on the site.

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