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Chris White, founder and director of New Directions Cello Association & Festival. | Photo: Sue Henninger.

Looking at his cello, Chris White doesn’t just see an instrument but a world of possibilities.  Mr. White, founder and director of New Directions Cello Association & Festival (NDCA&F), began cello lessons when he was eight-years-old, and eventually received his Masters degree in music performance from Ithaca College.  Non-classical rhythms and non-traditional styles interested him from the beginning.

In 1993, Mr. White was inspired to bring together the renegade cellists he met over the years for an event at the original Knitting Factory, a venue for experimental music in Manhattan on Houston Street.  According to Mr. White, there was more non-classical cello being played in the city at that time than anywhere else in the world. “It was a hotbed for art, music in particular,” he recalls. The “Night of the Living Cello” consisted of 12 cellos performing solo, in duet and ensemble.  It served as a successful precursor for the first New Directions for Cello Festival, held the following year at the Knitting Factory’s new Tribeca address.

Two decades later, NDCA&F  plays on, and Mr. White asserts it’s both important and fascinating to see how cellists collaborate to create new sounds. An original goal of NDCA&F was to remain cello-focused while showing the broad scope of what the instrument can do with other musicians and different styles of music. “That’s the reality of music, making it with other people,” Mr. White explains.

Many are only familiar with the traditional style of orchestral cello, so what Mr. White and other like-minded musicians are doing with the instrument could seem shocking.  For a different sound, the cello can be played as a jazz instrument, replacing the bass parts and solos in a jazz trio. Or, Mr. White says, sometimes he’ll compose an unorthodox trio of instruments not normally seen in this musical genre, like a cello, guitar and flute trio, to see what new sounds emerge.  Farther afield, bands like Break of Reality regularly perform the “heavy cello thunder” of musical groups like Metallica on their instruments. And unforgettable young musicians like Rushad Eggleston have developed a style of cello playing not seen 20 years ago.

The cello is versatile, able to play the melody of a song, a bass line or chords, Mr. White says. With technological advances, cellists can now amplify and process their sound like electric guitars.  They can also engage in “looping,” or building layers of rhythm in different parts of a musical piece and improvising over that, as seen in the video below:

Innovative instrumentalists can “chop” — a type of bowing he likens to a “hockey stop” — where the bow hairs create a rhythmic sound by stopping abruptly on the cello strings. Musicians also tap and slap their hands on the cello’s body or fingerboard to create percussive sounds.  The musical possibilities are endless, Mr. White says.

Mr. White is busy — giving private lessons, teaching at Ithaca’s Community School of Music and Arts and Cornell University, and playing in the Binghamton Philharmonic.  But he still takes time to move his cello in new directions.  “I try to do as much non-classical stuff as I can,” he says. A pet projects is playing in a local improvisational film-scoring trio, Cloud Chamber Orchestra, accompanying silent films several times a year. “It’s very inspirational in terms of improvisation,” he notes. “We’re right there in the movie with the audience.”

After moving to other states, the Festival returned to New York in 2008 to be held at Ithaca College, where Mr. White’s musical career began.  The college is an ideal venue for the festival, with plenty of room for workshops during the day and dorm lounges for jams all night. Mr. White is especially fond of the college’s Hockett Family Recital Hall, which he deems the perfect size and sensitivity for acoustic-type music.

Every June for the past six years, Ithaca has welcomed about 75 adult cellists from various states and countries, and around 20 young cello students, mostly from the Finger Lakes area. Days are filled with workshops with intriguing names like “Flying Pizzicato Delivery Service” and presentations on bows, strings and styles of cellos in the Exhibition Room. The public may purchase tickets for Friday and Saturday night concerts given by New Directions guest performers and festival participants in addition to a final (and free) concert Sunday at 2:00 p.m. by the Cello Big Band.  Mr. White says the concerts provide a unique opportunity to be exposed to different styles of musicianship. And, unlike a classical music concert where the listener knows what to expect, the non-classical music’s improvisational nature means that no two performances are ever alike.

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Chris White, founder and director of New Directions Cello Association & Festival. | Photo: Sue Henninger

In preparation for when Mr. White must pass on his 20-year labor of love, NDCA&F is now a nonprofit with a dedicated board of directors and much of the group’s activity is published online. But Mr. White is counting on the cellists themselves to carry both the organization and festival forward. “If it resonates with you, you’ll want to come back every year,” he explains. “It’s like a family reunion with family members you like. There’s a passionate vibe, and the energy of coming together is palpable.”

As the world changes, so does classical music. “We (at NDCA&F) have helped the cello move into the 21 century,” he says. “We’re keeping the cello alive for new generations to come.”

Edited by Sarah Niss.