A Gut Feeling About This
We’ve had several requests for an article about cello strings. In my work on this topic, I was thrilled to interview Jason Calloway, cellist of the Amernet String Quartet, Ensemble-in-Residence at Florida International University in Miami. Florida was the only place I’ve lived where I didn’t use gut strings due to the humidity. Calloway often plays new music as well – in my mind, both the local climate and the music style are strikes against using gut strings. In addition, I thought he might have had some trouble using gut strings for string quartet work, especially after my conversation with cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. But, surprisingly, Jason not only uses gut strings under these circumstances but is so enthusiastic about them that he should be a paid gut strings ambassador!
Originally, I had planned to discuss only strings with Jason, as he offered to assist me with my article on that topic. However, I enjoyed our conversation so much that I decided to share the interview with you even before presenting you with the article on choosing cello strings. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Meet Cellist Jason Calloway
Brenda Neece for the Cello Museum (CM)
I am very interested to hear about your choice of gut strings, particularly as you are based in Florida – the only place I didn’t enjoy using gut strings. You play in a string quartet, and you have a strong interest in new music. How do you make gut strings work for you?
Jason Calloway (JC)
I should start by saying that I did play as a kid, some on gut strings, don’t ask me why. One of my teachers was Orlando Cole, and I know he liked [gut strings]. Like everybody of his generation, he had switched in the 70s, when Dominants first came out – everybody started to use those instead.
I foolishly went away from it for a while and was playing the standard Larsen and Spirocore strings most of the way through school. But another one of my early influences, and sometimes teacher, was Lynn Harrell, who played practically his entire career on gut strings. He only moved away from them at the very end, when Pirastro created these Perpetual cello strings. He was always a tinkerer, and he got me back into using gut strings. That was almost 20 years ago now, and I cannot conceive of the sound I want to hear without those strings.
So, as far as the quartet, it’s funny that you bring up Jennifer because we’ve talked about this exact subject, and she told me the biggest issue she had with her colleagues was they got tired of her Oliv D [gut wound with aluminum]. When I use an Oliv D, I’ve never had that problem.
Playing Gut Strings
I suppose there are certain things that some people might like, different from what these strings do, but keeping them in tune has never been an issue for me. Maybe 10% of the time, I’ll feel itchy to do something different. Usually, I use a [Pirastro] Gold A, sometimes Eudoxa A [CM note: both gut wound with aluminum], but I’ll pull [that] off and put [on] one of Dan Larson’s Gamut, unwound As. I know it doesn’t make any sense to say it, but they are brighter, louder, and more intense than the gnarliest steel A string you’ve ever heard. I love it. Plus, you’ve probably played Baroque cello, and it has the same sort of slightly dirty exterior but with all the qualities of a modern A string. I love that string! But that’s the only time the guys in the quartet will ask me to maybe knock it off. Because it’s so different – in a good way to me – but it’s not a good thing in a group situation. But that’s a great string for contemporary music, for example. It’s awesome.
It’s so interesting to hear about your experiences with gut strings because I know many younger cellists have never tried them. I remember my teachers were familiar with them, so I had the opportunity to try them and ended up loving them. Unfortunately, not everyone has that chance today.
What is your standard setup? Which strings do you have on the cello that you use most of the time?
I always have an Oliv C [CM note: gut wound with silver]. I usually use the medium gauge, but I do have a couple of the very last super heavy-duty strings they made for Mr. Harrell. They made him some 38.5 strings – stiff, especially for him. [CM note: The standard medium gauge Oliv Cs are 36.5.] Since he died, they don’t make them anymore, but I have one that’s very well-loved that was his. I have one that I play that’s newer, and one more that’s brand new. Most of the time I don’t use those, for the same reason as that Gamut A – they’re just a little much. But [my standard string setup is] the medium Oliv C, usually Eudoxa G and D, and then the Gold A. Sometimes [I use] Oliv in the middle, but usually not. It’s a good blend for me.
I love gut strings, and I know Erica Lessie at the Cello Museum loves gut strings, too, but she told me that she couldn’t use them anymore because she’s in Chicago. She finds that they dry out, and the tuning goes way off, plus she does a lot of outdoor gigs. So she’s had to change over to synthetic strings. Also, in speaking with cellist Sarah Freiburg, I learned that her teacher made her use a gut A string to learn bowing skills – pulling, rather than choking the string. I thought that was a creative way to teach and learn.
What are your thoughts on this, and what advice do you have for students and new cellists trying to choose strings?
If a person possesses a really sophisticated bow arm, it shouldn’t really matter. I consider myself lucky in the sense that Mr. Cole and Mr. Harrell both held and used the bow in the traditional way. For grad school, I went to another of Mr. Cole’s former students, Ron Leonard, and nobody used the bow more beautifully than he has. I still remember Edith Eisler even wrote something like that years ago in Strings. She went to review something he played and made a point that she’d never seen – not since Leonard Rose – a bow arm on a cellist that looked like that. Because of what he taught me about how to use the bow, I totally reworked [my bowing technique] in grad school. I went from the top-down old-fashioned type of thing to the Galamian-Rose: the paintbrush, the collé, and all of that. He didn’t make everybody do that; I guess he heard me and looked at me, and felt like I would benefit from it. I’ve always prided myself on being a really good student. Going into his class, I was always surprised because I had some classmates who would argue and disagree with him. I always wondered why they bothered to go there in the first place. I always did what he said, and it has made such a huge difference for me.
Gut Strings Evangelist
That’s the way I choose to operate. The years when I was young, of Ševčík 40 Variations and the endless collé exercises Mr. Leonard made me do, have also allowed me to play exactly the same way with gut strings. It is possible to articulate and play just as cleanly, but with all the nuance and color that you get with gut strings. You can probably tell – I do try to evangelize wherever I can. It’s not as if I wear a gut strings t-shirt, but if people see my setup, they see I have no fine tuners, and they [often] ask me about strings.
Advice for Trying Gut Strings
If a cellist is interested enough, I always remind them that the first problem is, when you’ve never played gut strings, you’re not used to the (slightly) extra time that’s required for them to stretch out. By the end of a week, you’ll feel like you still can’t articulate, and the sound is not what you’re used to, and then you’ll take strings off and give up.
That first time, you have to give it two [or] three weeks, not only [for] the string to stretch out, but [also for] you to stretch out; you have to adapt if you’ve never done it. Once you have the sound in your ear, it’s addictive. Everything else I play feels dull by comparison.
I also recommend people use, as a “gateway drug” to transition, a full set of Passione [strings], because those A strings are not gut but they’re lower tension – they’re a little bit different. Of course, the G and C – I call them now “poor man’s gut” because they sound like halfway to gut, which is what they are. They’re a good way to adjust to the thicker gauge under your hand and this little bit of stickiness if you’re used to pressing down too hard, till your hand is fluent in shifting and adjusting with the bow. Plus, they stretch out a little bit faster than Olivs do – the low strings anyway.
The Power of Gut
I’ve played all gut strings, but not on a modern instrument. Now I’m really curious to try the unwound gut on the A.
The first time I ever played it in concert, I’ll never forget it because it really helped. We were on the road and we were playing a program where we finished with [Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 in a minor,] Opus 132, which has this whole finale with giant solos for the cello. Even when it’s well-rehearsed and well-balanced, it’s a noisy place for me. When I put that string on, suddenly, I felt like I had to lay off a little, because the A string gave me more than I needed to cut through all that noise. I would use it all the time if I could get away with it!
On Cello Bows
I’m curious to know whether one of the other factors is the bow. Obviously the bow technique, you’re going to need that, no matter what you’re holding in your hand. I really like heavier bows, but I know many cellists really like lighter bows. Of course, it also depends on the cello, too. Please tell me about the weight and what kind of bows you use.
I use both heavy and light bows. When I was a kid, Mr. Cole was really into heavy bows, and I borrowed a variety of heavy bows from him to use. I still joke about this with my quartet colleagues, because we all had teachers of that generation who had huge collections of bows that they’d just bought willy-nilly. Mr. Cole owned, as far as I can remember, two or three Kittels, and a couple of Tourtes. I mean, Peccattes and Sartorys were three steps down the ladder from those, and he had many. It was crazy, the kind of bows he had, but he got me into heavy bows.
I do have some older French bows that are on the heavy side, and rather stiff. But, I would say, probably two-thirds of the time my go-to bow is a Jose DaCunha. He’s here in Miami; he was in New York when I was in school, but he likes warm weather and boating, so he moved down here about 25 years ago. I’ve had a couple of his bows, and they’re on the light to the slightly heavier-than-light side. And they produce a totally different sound on my instrument from those heavier, stiffer French bows.
I like them both. I wouldn’t even say it depends on the repertoire. It really depends on my mood – nothing more than that. Some days, I pick up the DaCunha, and everything feels great. Some days I pick it up, and I’m not thrilled with what I hear, and I go to something else.
It’s nice to have options!
You are dedicated to the preservation and performance of Jewish art music suppressed by the Nazis and Soviets. Please tell us about that.
Performing Jewish Art Music Suppressed by the Nazis
Well, I should start by saying that my mother’s family came from near present-day Odesa, and immigrated right around the turn of the 20th century. With this Jewish background, this stuff was always of interest anyway. I’m from Philadelphia, and I used to go every summer to a festival in Puerto Rico that was run by a man named Luis Biava, who was a wonderful musician who was the principal second of the orchestra and conducted the youth Chamber Orchestra at the Temple Music Prep where we all attended.
Down there, I met a man who became a mentor to me, whose story I had read in The Philadelphia Inquirer, six or seven years before that, before I even met him. His name was David Arben. He was born Chaim Arbeitman. It was front page news above the fold in the Philly Inquirer, when I was in middle school, how he had stayed in the orchestra one last season before retiring, because they were going to go on tour, among other places, to Poland. He hadn’t been back in Poland since being sent to a concentration camp as a child. He found the synagogue he’d attended as a kid in Krakow was still there, and he played a recital. The paper sent their chief music critic with him to write an article and shoot pictures.
I was so taken with the whole thing. Of course, his story – the Reader’s Digest version – is that he and his family were picked up in the street near the synagogue. Everybody else died; he was the only one to survive a number of different camps because he had his violin with him. Because of all of that, there was ignited in me an interest in exploring this music.
As luck would have it, some of my closest colleagues over the years [have connections, too.] The violist in my quartet, originally a violinist, is a first-generation American who is the grandson of four survivors and son of two. The first violinist in the group is from Tashkent, originally, and they moved to Tel Aviv when he was a teenager. Another dear friend of ours is the concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony, who’s also the son of a cantor. We started doing this repertoire together going back almost 20 years.
First Cello Experiences
What was your first experience with the cello, and how did you choose to play it?
Well, I vaguely remember that, when I was seven, which was just before I started, we attended a recital at the Academy of Music, which is the old hall of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We attended a recital of Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Apparently, because of a family connection to the presenter, we were sitting in the proscenium box, stage left, that was as close to them as anyone could be. I don’t remember anything about the concert; I could just picture myself sitting there and looking in their direction. I don’t remember what they played, although these days I’m sure I could look it up. But my dad remembered that I just sat there with my mouth agape the whole time – completely transfixed.
Of course, I wasn’t coming to this as a total greenhorn. My parents were singers originally and I played the piano as a kid and sang from the time I could. So there was always music around. But I certainly hadn’t experienced a cello or any other instrument besides the piano at home until that concert. And then shortly thereafter, [I saw a demonstration] in the public school.
Music in Schools Makes a Difference
To this day, everywhere we go on tour when we do school visits, I make sure to tell this story. Despite the fact that I grew up in a well-to-do suburb where music was in the schools, the only reason I picked the cello is because they did a demonstration for the whole student body. I heard the instruments of the string family.
My parents were both singers, originally, and neither one of them would have thought to put a string instrument in my hand. They played the violin, which sounded too high to me. The viola, then, as now, made no impression on me. The double bass was obviously too big, because again, then as now, I’m not going to win any height competitions. The cello, because my father was a bass-baritone and my mother a mezzo, that must have been the vocal range that felt right to me.
I went home from school that day and couldn’t stop talking about it. We went to Mr. Zapf, who was the fellow who ran all the instrument rentals in the Philadelphia area for years and years. He was a German immigrant. My mom knew him well because she was a general music teacher in the public schools. Within a day or two, I had a cello. I did later add the tuba, but I had to let it go because it was all a little much to try to keep up two instruments.
I read that you own a copy of the Sleeping Beauty Montagnana cello. Please tell me about your cellos and bows.
A Cello for Playing in the Park
My park cello, as I mentioned, is a Jay Haide. Just the other day, I met a guy who was telling me he’s in the market and can spend $40,000. I said, “I have to be honest with you. I’m glad that you can do that, but I think these days, unless you can spend $540,000, you’re better off spending $6,000 and doing something else with the rest of the money.” I pointed him to the Jay Haides. I’ve borrowed them in various places when I’m in a situation where I can’t take my instrument for some reason. I’m very happy going out on stage playing them when they’re nice ones, and they’re set up correctly.
A Love Affair with the Sleeping Beauty
My main instrument was Mr. Cole’s [own] copy of the Sleeping Beauty, which he owned for almost 50 years. The maker’s name is Michèle Ashley. She now lives in Montreal, but at the time she built this cello, she lived in Waltham, Massachusetts. She studied violin making in Cremona, alongside Mr. Cole’s son, David. That is how she met him and then later made this copy.
As far as I’m aware, it was, at least at that time, the only copy of the cello made with the [original] cello present – not made from the template. On the one hand, it’s very precise to the original, but in other ways, she actually broadened the lower bouts a little bit, believe it or not. That doesn’t bother me, but I’m so used to it. I suppose it would probably bother other people. But and I have to say, I know that these days, I’m not alone [in playing a modern instrument]. There have been articles written about it, and there are some prominent soloists who play modern instruments.
“In 1992, Michèle Ashley copied and replaced my Sleeping Beauty Montagnana, which I had played on for 35 years and her instrument has given me great pleasure. It has all the attributes we seek in a cello – ease and evenness of response, plus a basic beauty of tone that would be an asset for any player.” – Orlando Cole, Curtis Institute
The Beauty and Practicality of Playing on Modern Instruments
Despite having had access to some really fine instruments over the years, [I’m happy with my modern cello.] One hundred percent of the time, no matter how beautiful [an older] instrument was, there came a time when seams opened up, or the adjustment was off – and it was always something. It’s like driving an exotic car; when they run, they’re great, but the rest of the time they’re on the tow truck. Mine is a modern cello built in 1992. It has never been in an accident, it’s never had a crack. Mr. Cole took care of it, I take care of it, and it’s stable. I live in a very difficult climate, and I travel a lot, which doesn’t help at all. All of that only makes me happier that I play on a nice whole, healthy, modern cello. As I said a moment ago, unless somebody has high six figures or more to spend, it is absolutely not worth the small improvement that you might find over this one. This cello was $26,000, and she still sells cellos for $26,000. I mean, why would I ever dream of mortgaging my internal organs to buy something that might be a little bit better?
I’m very, very happy with my Ashley cello, and I will never part with it. It was my teacher’s, and I think he was 94 or 95 when he let me know he was going to start to settle some of his affairs. I had borrowed the cello before, and he knew I was comfortable with the size, and he gave me the first crack at it. So I was able to swing it as I was finishing grad school, and I have no interest in ever playing on anything else.
The Sleeping Beauty
What is the most unusual cello you have ever played? And your favorite?
I don’t know that I’ve played anything that’s really, really unusual apart from that original Sleeping Beauty – I’ve played that. Sadly, it’s sleeping again. So [Mr. Cole] gave the cello to his children in the mid-90s, and they arranged to sell it. Heinrich Schiff literally sold the farm to buy the cello. Shortly after that, he developed all these physical problems. As far as I’m aware, the cello is still in Vienna and hasn’t been played. He didn’t play himself for the last eight or ten years of his life. I’m not aware that it has been sold, or that it’s being played at all.
My favorite cello I’ve ever played? Well, that’s hard to say, I would still have to go back to the Sleeping Beauty. I was awfully young, and obviously not up to what the cello could do. But I did get to play it once in the summer I studied with him. I played the Barber Sonata, which was written for him, and which I learned with him on the cello.
Of course, it creates what I consider to be the ideal cello sound, which is based on the bass. I realize it’s not everybody’s favorite thing, necessarily. But, we play a bass instrument and that’s what it is fundamentally. So if that’s not there, I’m not as excited [by the sound] if an instrument is super bright, or a sort of lean tenor sound – some of the later Strads are a little bit more like that. Montagnana clearly modeled his patterns on older instruments rather than the instruments of his own time to favor the bass. And that’s definitely what I want to hear in any instrument.
How do you find balance as a professor, a string quartet cellist, a soloist, and with all that you do as a gigging musician?
I wouldn’t say I’m particularly adept at doing that, but on those occasions when I can find it, it’s usually from putting the cello down, putting it away. I love to read – I read a ton of fiction. I have two school-age children, and my wife and children and I are very outdoorsy and active people. So, we like to travel to parks and ride bikes, go on hikes, go swimming, work out, read, and do all the other things that are out there that aren’t music. But she’s a musician, too – a violinist who plays on gut strings also, by the way.
I find that’s really the only way to find balance when what we do as musicians often does, and can come to define who we are. I’m not sure that that’s always the healthiest thing for us. I mean, you do need to have an element of that inside, to possess the motivation and the discipline to do the nuts-and-bolts work and intellectual and musical work to be able to play music for a living. But the flip side is that, for a lot of people in our field, it can create a lot of mental health issues and issues of insularity and self-worth and all these other problems. And the best way to solve that, I think, is to put your instrument away and have other activities – hobbies that broaden our point of view or nurture our souls in other ways. And that’s what I do as much as I can.
A Love of Reading
What genres do you read?
I try not to get too stuck in one. If I had to pick a favorite, nowadays, we would call it speculative fiction, but I used to just call it dystopian literature as a kid. Probably two of every five novels I read are in that general vicinity. If I read something like that I’ll put it down, finish it, and then read a classic or read something modern – or something totally different, too. So I don’t get stuck in one lane for too long.
Please tell us about your upcoming cello projects.
We have a whole bunch of new and recent repertoire of works for mezzo and quartet that we’re going to be doing with my sister, who’s a mezzo-soprano.
We premiered a piece of Augusta Read Thomas that she wrote for us [a few] months ago now. We do a piece of Gabriela Ortiz that we like a lot. We’ll probably start doing again the second quartet of Schoenberg, which we love.