Reviewed by Marvin Ayres
The first thing you discover about the Silent Cello is that it is an illusion. It is a cello, as we know it, in name only. What we're dealing with here is a completely different instrument. That's not to say that it isn't useful or enjoyable. It's just that you have to quickly dispense with your concept of orthodox technique and carefully crafted subtleties, and adapt to the brave new world of its electric possibilities.
When you first set eyes on it, the effect is quite striking. I like the visual design very much, and the materials used are high quality. It is essentially one piece of thin solid mahogany stretching from just below the fingerboard to the tail piece. The strangeness is that there are two plastic mouldings to give it the cello shape, except that one side has its 'rib' missing. A separate rest slots in to enable you to hold it against your chest, since there isn't a back.
It's called the Silent Cello because of its intended function as a practice instrument, the idea being that you plug a pair of headphones into the cello to hear yourself play, without being heard by others. There are three choices of built-in reverb too: 'Room', 'Hall 1' and 'Hall 2', each of which have a separate volume control. Or, alternatively, you can play it 'dry'.
After putting on my headphones and hearing nothing, I realised that I hadn't switched it on! Once passed this elementary error and the initial novelty, I found playing it to be a very unsatisfying experience. The 'chest rest' is quite uncomfortable and feels very unnatural, as does having your knee alongside a piece of moulding (the other knee can go anywhere it pleases). The acoustics are fixed and set, unvarying and quite dull. It is not at all rich in tone; rather, it is masked by the quality of the 'effects'. However high up the A string I played, it still sounded "bassy" inside my head.
Having had little joy playing it with headphones, I decided to put it through an amplifier so that I could hear it externally. This was much more interesting, but not without some newly discovered problems. The top two strings more or less replicate the sound, if not the timbre, of an acoustic cello, which is nice. The major flaw to the entire instrument, though, lies with the G and C strings; they actually sound a bit like a double bass, but even more like an electric bass guitar being bowed! Quite horrible. Yet, I suppose it is closer to a Stick Bass guitar once the mouldings are off. At least you can vary the EQ from the mixing desk.
Another strange and ill-thought-through musical problem is the issue of sustain. We tend to forget just how much control of the velocity and sustain we have with the delicacy of our bowing technique. With the Silent Cello, you can forget it. You bow the C string and its decay lasts until Christmas. I had to keep 'dubbing' the string to curtail it. This happens with or without the reverb.
In its favour, it has to be acknowledged that it is well-suited for non-classical studio work, as there is no micing up involved (even if your cello has a transducer, it still has to be treated and tweaked to adapt to the unique acoustics of your instrument). Having worked with hundreds of sound engineers, I appreciate that I won't have to rely on finding one who specializes in strings. There are no extraneous noises to be picked up (i.e squeaky chairs), and no feedback. Hard disk recording and treatments are much easier too.
I've used it a number of times for these reasons, and the digital effects seem to work much more effectively with it. I most recently used it with my spatial acoustic compositions, using Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, and for a DVD installation. The impact is incredible.
There is a genuine need to make these instruments and to make them well, not as gimmicks, but more as encouragement for fresh new attitudes about playing and composition, notably improvisation. My hope is that these are mere prototypes that will quickly develop and improve. It should be a complimentary instrument that could even re-contextualise the cello, and place it in a contemporary framework as a modern and forward-looking instrument, instead of the cello's current niche as a period instrument. It should also add versatility to the cello for the next millenium.
As a practice instrument it fails miserably. I certainly would not recommend this to any pupil of mine, especially a beginner. I would also question the efficacy of its raison d'etre -- are neighbours really so disturbed by the noise levels of a cello? As an example of modern design it is superb, though I wonder how much input came from cellists in its musical design? To get the best out of this instrument, you're going to have to convert it from a 'silent' to a 'loud' cello, and ditch your studies of Popper in favour of studies of Hendrix!
© Marvin Ayres, 1999
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