DIY Cellist Jari Piper Chases Modern Classical Music in Clubs and on Street Corners

Sunday at Conundrum Music Hall
By Corbie Hill
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Jari Piper plays Conundrum Music Hall on Sunday.

There may be a young cellist busking on local streets this week. He may play something recognizable — a Bach piece, perhaps. Or he may smile to himself and get weird, using the cello body percussively or summoning unlikely timbres that he says listeners have compared to machinery or tiny ants.

“I’m just playing for myself at that point,” Jari Piper says. The Alaska-born cellist, who plays a proper set in West Columbia on Sunday, may also play some sidewalks while he’s in town — and that’s where he’s most likely to experiment and improvise. “Sometimes I’m playing something weird and nobody really listens, and that’s fine with me.”

With a recently conferred master’s degree in music performance from Montreal’s McGill University, the 23-year-old Piper has gone intentionally homeless to tour and expose new audiences to works by modern composers. So he’s playing bars, libraries, metro stations,  basically anywhere he can. And while Piper’s DIY ethos and uprooted lifestyle may be more rooted in the punk world, it fits his mission — to show everyday people that “new music” doesn’t suck.

What: Jari Piper
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: Sunday, July 6, 8 p.m.
Price: $10 ($5 students)
More Info:

“In 21st century music there’s such an incredibly wide variety of genres,” he says, explaining that people get stuck on atonal music or other inaccessible forms and get turned off from modern classical compositions. “My goal is to find the things, the pieces that are accessible to larger crowds and still have some experimental aspects about them and to play them.”

Piper is fascinated by rhythmic and melodic palindromes. While he does play some baroque pieces, he finds it more fulfilling to work with living composers. To him, it only makes sense for the handful of top musicians in the world,  the legitimate prodigies, to release new recordings of Bach standards. He’d rather advance the form by teaming up with young composers and making something brand new. And he’d rather more regular, non-expert people hear the results.

“It’s partly because the classical music world is f#!ked,” Piper says. “Like every other thing in the world, it’s just kind of f#!ked up.”

As a self-booked performer, he’s had a hard time getting the ear of concert series that either work with agents or book years in advance. Unless one is in that world or tapped as a young virtuoso, it’s difficult to break through.

“It’s hard to succeed within that old paradigm,” he says. “I like the formality and the pomp of classical concerts. It’s fun, but that’s an extra level of separation from the audience.”
Rather, he follows the lead of Matt Haimovitz; the Israeli-born cellist, tired of playing the standard orchestral pieces, left that world in the early 2000s in favor of touring nightclubs and bars. This became Piper’s model. He realized he could do everything himself and actively engage audiences in informal settings.

Like Haimovitz, though, Piper’s upbringing was fairly traditional for an orchestral player. His mother is Sharman Piper, the principal oboist in the Anchorage Symphony, and she insisted her children take lessons. Piper was too small for bass, which was what he wanted at the time, so he ended up playing cello.

From there, he attributes several important decisions to laziness. He put off applying to college, and ended up in a music program in Winnipeg, learning from a cellist he already knew. Then, as a post-grad, he ended up touring over the summer because he’d slacked off on applying to residencies. Now that he has his degree, he wants to stay on the road, introducing new audiences to his music in bars, in clubs and, sometimes, on the sidewalk.

“If I’m playing for the crowd and just trying to get money, it’s not very fun, and people, they just must pick up on it,” he says. “But if you just play to make yourself happy, people dig it.”

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