Name: Theresa Wong
Occupation: Cellist, vocalist, composer, improviser
Recent release: Theresa Wong's Practicing Sands is out via fo'c'sle.
If you enjoyed this interview with Theresa Wong and would like to explore her work in more depth, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook. To keep reading, head over to out our earlier Theresa Wong interview about alternative tuning systems.
This interview is an extension of the feature with Theresa about the cello.
Theresa Wong: "Practicing Sands is my first solo album of works for cello and voice. These pieces are a result of many years of developing a personal vocabulary on the cello that stems from the question, "how can I rediscover the core of the cello as wood and string and hair, or even simply as a tree?" Implicit in this question is a desire to go beyond the cello's cultural heritage.
I try to imagine if I were to stumble across a cello while walking in the woods, what would I do with it if I'd never seen one before?
In this album, each piece explores a variety of techniques which I've been developing over the years. Far Away Friends and Meadow both work with combining a multitude of pizzicato techniques such as harp harmonics, glissandi, left hand plucking, and plucking dopo ponte.
Since I'm utilizing many overtones of the open strings through the technique of harp harmonics (lightly stopping a nodal point with the thumb and plucking the string with another finger of the same hand), I've tuned the open strings differently for each piece to create harmonic variation. (The tunings are: Far Away Friends: IV:Bb, III:F, II:D, I:G and Meadow: IV:A, III:G, II:D, I:F#). I was first inspired to try harp harmonics after hearing Stefano Scodanibbio's Farewell for contrabass.
Quiet Clearing was written in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic to express my grief over the loss of human lives due to covid.
The song juxtaposes my voice singing a melody with the cello again in scordatura (IV:E8vb, III:E, II:D, I:G), played with a combination of the left hand strumming, plucking, and playing harp harmonics and the right hand playing a ping pong ball on the strings to create a less predictable percussive texture.
Outsider is my homage to the glissando.
It's funny how in Western classical music, glissandi are often seen as 'goofy' or imply something lustful or loose in moral character, or even scorned upon because they suggest that someone can't play in tune. But in so many other musical traditions like classical Indian music, American country, and ancient music of the Chinese qin, the glissando plays a crucial role in carrying the expressive power of the music. This piece also employs combining a glissando with a bi-tone (hitting the string hard enough to sound both sides of the string), which creates a simultaneous upward and downward slide. I find this so delicious!
Three-quarters through the piece, there are some sounds that I don't even quite understand, but I think they have to do with extended harmonics being triggered through playing a combination of a harp-harmonic with the right hand while sliding with the left hand, creating a sort of whistle tone. There are also hammer-on bi-tones (a tip of the hat to Mark Dresser for this technique) which are further explored in the track Gray Green Glass. This technique uses both left and right hand fingers to tap the strings forcefully and rapidly to sound both sides of the string.
Sedimental explores merging the timbres of the cello and voice into a single composite sound. I envision this sound as a sedimentary rock, composed of unique and contrasting elements that form a whole.
Wrong Bird was improvised on a cello strung with four C strings and tuned randomly. I was curious what it would sound like if I tried to improvise a melody without really knowing what pitches would come out. So this track reveals the impetus of making a melody without the intended melody itself sounding, like a child pretending to speak without knowing the proper words to say.
Trees Remember utilizes many of the pizzicato techniques I've mentioned above, with the addition of knocking on various parts of the cello body. Some of the strings are also prepared with a small plastic clothespin, or bear clips as I call them - a cherished gift from cellist Bob Marsh.
Everyday Light plays on a similar voice-cello synthesis as Sedimental, but channels a bird-like vocabulary inspired by the calls of European Starlings.
Opening Sea is a development of an extreme detuning that I first used in the song Nightwatching, from the album Venice Is A Fish. The C string is detuned so low that it growls in a noisy flabby drone, but taut enough that you can still hear overtones of this growl. I find this sound sublimely beautiful, much like the wildness of being at sea. The G string is tuned to the ratio 9:8 of the detuned string, sounding a justly-tuned major ninth above. (Tuning: IV:C8vb, III:D, II:D, I:G)
When I approach this piece it feels a bit like surfing. The C string sets up a series of waves in flux, and the G string and the voice are added in interplay with them; at times creating beating frequencies, at times soaring and dancing around the wave, at times locked in with the overtones of the fundamental wave.
I was originally going to record this album in the gym of the Headlands Center for the Arts, but then the lock-down began in early 2020 and I decided to proceed on my own at home. This turned into a three month study of microphone techniques which has transformed my process of listening.
Fortunately between my partner Ellen Fullman and me, we have a lot of microphones on hand because her Long String Instrument is too large to bring into a studio.
[Read our Ellen Fullman interview]
I began by simply trying out different traditional configurations to hear what the variations yielded; XY, ORTF, spaced pair, mid-side, and Blumlein. I took an online course in recording and became quite obsessed with microphone shootout videos, which were like mini ear training modules. I also got a lot of tips and suggestions from friends like Maggi Payne, Adria Otte, Myles Boisen and Sean Meehan.
I decided on a basic setup using seven microphones to capture the voice and cello: a Blumlein pair of Bumble Bee ribbon mics in front of the cello, a spaced pair of DPA 4011 condenser mics placed higher to capture the fingerboard, a mid-side configuration of a Neumann M149 and DPA 4011 below my seat to capture the sound emanating from the back of the cello, and a Sennheiser MD 431 II dynamic mic for my voice.
As I mentioned before, playing the instrument is a full-body experience as a performer, so I aimed to capture this in the recording. It was interesting to hear the mid-side configuration behind the cello, which captured a very strong third partial (interval of an octave plus a fifth) compared to the sound coming from the front of the instrument.
For each piece, I adjusted the microphones slightly inch by inch in order to maximize the musical intent. Utilizing microphone placement as an extension of composition, I hope to convey my own embodied experience of these pieces as haptic vibrational sculptures. Of course having gone through this process, I would probably do it all completely differently now - using a minimal combination of ribbon and omni microphones!"