In the fashion world, LuLaRoe is bringing leggings back, one pop-up at a time. And it could be said that in the music world, Natalie Haas is helping to bring the cello back as a substratum for Celtic songscapes. Over the years she’s embraced the instrument, transforming its sound to complement those by the legendary Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser.
Haas, 33, met Fraser when she was 11 years old. Her parents had enrolled her and her sister in Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School in California. But unlike her sister, Brittany Haas, she didn’t play the fiddle. Instead, she lugged her cello off to the camp, where there was a specialty class devoted to its role in Celtic music.
“That camp really changed both my and my sister’s life and made us realize that music was something we could do and not just for fun,” says Haas, who is a professor at Berklee College of Music. “It was so important to us that we decided we wanted to make it our life’s work.” Five years after visiting the camp, Haas played her first show with Fraser, and the pair has performed together since. Fraser and Haas recently finished their fifth studio album and the duo will play at C’ville Coffee on March 11.
Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser
For the new album, Ports of Call, Fraser and Haas have swayed from their staple Celtic melodies, which make up only half of the disc. The rest of the tunes were influenced by other cultures and music styles that they encountered while touring. “The ones that we are really exploring on this album are Scandinavia, Spain and France,” says Haas. Part of the exploration centers on the relationship between music and dance. “Halling,” one of the Scandinavian-inspired tracks on the album, is inspired by a Norwegian folk dance that involves acrobatics by male participants. “The goal is to kick off a hat that is resting on a pole that someone is holding up and it’s pretty far off the ground, so it’s a very impressive dance to watch,” says Haas.
“Waltzska for Su-A” is one of three songs that Haas wrote for the album. “It’s a little Celtic and a little Swedish,” she says. “That’s why it’s called ‘waltzska,’ a combination between a waltz and polska. It was written for a friend who came to visit me in Montreal.”
Haas, who has been hailed for bringing the cello back to Scottish music, explains how the instrument declined in popularity in Scotland—largely due to an increase of pianos and accordions that emerged in the 1900s. “They [instruments like the piano and accordion] could project more than the cello in terms of accompanying music for dancing. So cellos became more associated with orchestras and chamber music,” says Haas.
Today, Haas says she can count the number of cellists playing traditional music in a professional capacity on two hands. She credits Scott Skinner with being one of the last famous cellists in terms of traditional music, and notes that Abby Newton, a teacher at the Valley of the Moon camp 20 years ago, was one of the first cellists in recent times to play a role in its revival. “It’s still kind of a very niche thing, but we’re seeing more and more people—especially through the camp that we run—coming to study it,” says Haas, who has spearheaded the cello class at Valley of the Moon since 2002.
“I think it’s becoming more and more accepted, not only in traditional music but also in pop music and with singer-songwriters and all sorts of things,” she says. “It’s a very exciting time for the cello.”