The lesser trodden path

Heather Stratfold, Cellist

Since the dawn of the new millennium, I have taken the lesser trodden path, playing electric cello and improvising, although for 25 years leading up to then I successfully performed as a classical cellist in orchestras and ensembles in London and Sydney. As a high school student, I started performing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and gave my first cello lesson when I was 18. These days, I play a fusion of the old and the new, traditional and improvised.

Dipping my big toe in the water

My transition to a more experimental approach to performance commenced in the 1990s when I worked with Jackie Orszarsky. He was a rock star in the 1960s in Hungary, but when I performed with him his music had transitioned to a fusion of blues and the folk music of eastern Europe. Jackie was a ‘funkmeister’ in the Sydney music scene—a funky bass player and one of the city’s leading lights. He employed string players for the Jackie Orszarsky Budget Orchestra, and I performed in several productions, including the James Bond Show at the Harbourside Brasserie.

The lighting was so low on the stage of the Harbourside Brasserie that I had to improvise as I could not read the score. Nor could any of the other musicians, so we were all in the same boat. I listened to the bass line and the violins, using my harmony knowledge from classical music to work out which notes to play. Somehow we scratched something respectable together each night, but we faked it much of the time. It was okay for productions like the James Bond Show because we knew the tunes, but it was definitely a steep learning curve. Jackie encouraged us to experiment, which was an eye-opener for me as I had never performed in a rock ‘n’ roll gig nor strayed from playing the notes on the musical score. Realising I had a good set of ears, I loved making up music on the go.

From that time on I started working with an eclectic line-up of freelance musicians, including the vocalist Inge Lidjestrom. We would arrive at a recording studio without music, then make it up as we went along. I would write a chord structure, then we would work out something around it. I have always worked within a structure and within that, the frame of the chord. It was often a four-bar chord with several repeats as is the practice with much contemporary music. I would have butterflies in my stomach and sweaty hands while we recorded because improvising was so new to me. As a classically trained cellist who usually had a score to follow, I felt like a beginner, but everyone was complimentary about our music and for some reason I always found the groove. I would get into the zone and my left hand would do amazing things that I would never have dreamed it could do. Inge and I recorded a couple of albums this way and they were successful. I also worked with other singers, like Jay Smith, who is doing well in Nashville.

In the mid-90s I teamed up with the sound engineer Bob Scott and we recorded sound tracks for a couple of movies.  He created music in innovative ways, dropping the cello part down a couple of octaves in one track to make it sound scary for a murder thriller.

At about the same time, I had an 18-month residency performing jazz standards with a pianist at the former Regent Hotel at The Rocks in Sydney (now the Four Seasons). I played jazz standards in the treble clef, so transposed the music from the bass clef, which was an incredible learning experience. I still remember my racing heart every time I stepped onto the stage.

Throughout the 90s, the bulk of my work was classical, orchestral and ensemble performances and teaching, but the more gigs I did in jazz, blues and improvised music, the more my confidence grew. A few of my gigs were at the Basement with saxophonist Adrian Cunningham, then ABC Radio National asked me to do a project with them. Recording the cello track for the Radio National project without other musicians in the studio was a new experience for me. Each of us independently lay down our own track and the sound engineers mixed them to produce the final product.

I later met Reg Mombassa and Peter O’Doherty from Mental As Anything, performing a few gigs and recording five albums with Dog Trumpet, a band they formed. A short time later, I did a John Lennon show with actor and guitarist John Waters, writing the charts for it. Over time I picked up more and more rock ‘n’ roll gigs and I started playing more music where the strings were amplified. It was great fun finding the form from classical music, combining it with my harmony knowledge and playing more jazz chords.

The music scene post-2000

The vibrancy of the music scene for freelance instrumentalists diminished after the smoke from the Year 2000 fireworks cleared from the Sydney skyline. Increasing budgetary constraints meant event organisers cut to the bone the number of instrumentalists they employed for gigs, irrespective of whether the gig was a classical concert, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll or music theatre. Big orchestra opportunities also dried up and string instrumentalists were replaced with a piano in music theatre productions. So I think that is why I kept on with experimental music because exciting new opportunities were opening up, and I realised that this type of music fed my soul. Approaching a few jazz musicians and asking them for lessons so that I could learn electric cello amused them, and they just laughed at me.  ‘Just go and listen Heather,’ Jonathon Schwartz, a bass player in Sydney, said. So I did. I went to gig after gig, listened and learned, explored and experimented. It was a time of intense learning and tremendous fun.

I went through a divorce in the 2000s and while I was living on my own I constantly experimented with electric cello. Then I met Stanley, my partner, who is a blues musician. With Stanley I started a tremendous new journey of learning about the blues, meeting remarkable blues musicians and gaining a whole new knowledge. 

Electric string players inspire me. Fred Katz, a former student of Pablo Casals, is particularly inspiring. He was among the earliest jazz musicians to establish the cello as a viable improvising solo instrument, performing West Coast Jazz on the electric cello. He performed with legendary musicians such as Wes Montgomery and Chicho Hamilton.

As I grew up in Adelaide and most of my family still lives here, Stan and I moved across in 2010. The music scene in Adelaide is quieter than in Sydney—there are fewer opportunities for freelance instrumentalists, so it has forced me to carve out my own space and my own identity as a musician. Finding teaching work as soon as we arrived helped me to become established in Adelaide, and I gradually picked up more and more classical, experimental and amplified cello gigs. I hooked up with several musicians in Adelaide and we have done some great gigs together. I did a gig with Olivia Newton-John and the Adelaide Art Orchestra and recorded blues albums and performed several gigs with Cal Williams Jnr. I also did recording sessions with Anthony Stewart at Red Brick studios.

A time to reflect

A few years ago, I crashed after driving myself far too hard for too long. I knew I was heading towards some sort of health crisis, but was in denial and kept burning the candle at both ends. I had a heavy teaching load at a private school and was cramming in several gigs, including touring around the Eastern states for five months performing the music of Elena Kats-Chernin in the Ensemble Theatre’s production of Frankenstein. The play, which had a run at Sydney Opera House, is based on the Mary Shelley original story and written by Nick Dear. The soundscape artist was Daryl Wallis. It was an absolute dream gig, with solo cello and amazingly talented actors.

However, I had stopped listening to the warning signs, ignoring the exhaustion, migraines and recurrent sinus infections . . . and pushed on. For the first time in my career, I cancelled some gigs because I was so unwell. I did not know what was going on and neither did the doctors. It took them a long time to work out it was chronic fatigue syndrome. I was too exhausted to work, plummeting into a spiral of deep depression.  Doctors gave me prescription medicines, but they made me worse.  Hitting a wall, everything fell into a heap at my feet. It dragged on for three years, despite all the visits to doctors, naturopaths, herbalists and psychologists. I was stuck in a hole and didn’t know how to climb out of it. Thinking that I was never going to work again, I believed that I would never be able to hold my head high in the music world. When you are sick, you think you will never get better and that this is how it will be forever.

Eventually deciding to give traditional medicine a miss as it was clearly not working, I  instead focused on self-healing through meditation, yoga and diet. Instead of focusing on the illness, I focused my energies on healing and recovery. I am amazed at the transformational change that comes from healing yourself—it is tremendously empowering. For anyone going through a health issue, it is critically important to realise that we have more skills than we think, and we have the power within us to get ourselves better.

Working my way to good health, I have reached a place where I am beyond my illness. I feel pleased that I did it myself rather than relying on the medical system. There is still so much stigma associated with a diagnosis of chronic fatigue and depression and in the past few years I experienced a lot of shame. But I read a couple of books lately, finding my own answers for dealing with it. I realised that I don’t have to live as that small ashamed person anymore.

I am not sorry that I went through the pain I have been through. Instead I am glad as it has given me something more to put into my music. I now know how to play blues with feeling as I have lived through them, just like so many blues musicians who had a much tougher time than me.

I read the Bamboo Parable on patience the other day and it reassured me to some extent that the last three years have not been a complete waste of precious time. ‘You may think you haven’t been putting yourself out there lately, but you’ve been growing roots deep into the ground, you’ve been gaining strength and in time it will blossom into rich fruition.’

When I was a young musician, I lived in the oblivion of youth. I thought I would always have work, that it would be easy to find, that I would always be healthy and stay married forever. But life rarely unfolds that simply and you get bruises along the way. For a musician these life experiences can have a powerful influence on your art. If you embrace them, you can hear it in your music in terms of what you play, how you play it and the emotion it expresses. Life’s challenges humanise us all, but they are especially important for musicians as they are a catalyst for expressing our humanity . . . and audiences can feel it. They appreciate the rawness and the honesty. Our audiences relate to the traumas we face as humans and if you are strong enough to admit your struggles, it is powerful and transforming. Everyone who has a heart—which is all of us—will at some time be touched by one or more crises—we need to realise the human journey is about infallibility. We are fragile and bad things can happen at any time in our lives, but we have the power within us to overcome even the most challenging circumstances.

I have realised that as a busy musician you can end up playing like an empty blank canvas, but I am driven to play with deep emotion and put everything I have experienced into each performance. Everything I have experienced throughout my life and career has brought me to the place I am in now and I love it. You can play perfect notes but if you do not have anything to say, the experience for your audience can be dull. I do have something to say and I want to connect with my audiences in a way that powerfully resonates with them.

Stepping out alone, becoming my own artist

Lately I have stepped out on my own, becoming my own artist. I am singing and playing cello at the same time—something you rarely see because it is so difficult to do. Pursuing the lesser trodden path, I have gone out alone, creating new ways of bringing together classical music with other genres like jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I am also exploring fringe music and am at a critical juncture in my life spiritually and creatively; a place where I feel confident to explore new styles of music that involve a fusion of all the music I have played for over 30 years.

There is an energy that guides me. Sometimes I will be playing and my left hand will start doing things that I did not know it could do—I do not know how it happens—but I just go with it—let it unfold and the music flows. I wonder how I played it. It is as if I go out of myself and it is like flying. At the gig I feel euphoric, afterwards asking myself, ‘How did I do that?’

The Bamboo Parable sums up where I am at. There are two plants growing—bamboo and a seedling—the seedling shot up, had a short life, then quickly burnt out. The bamboo didn’t flower for five years then when it did the flower it was 100 metres tall. I feel like the bamboo. I have been in a transition and now I am ready to burst into flower. It takes courage to go it alone, but I am confident I have what it takes to be my own artist. I have been on a journey of tremendous discovery and learning during the last few years, and have reached a point in my life that feels like a good place to be.

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