Musical language: Catherine Monnes is bringing music to life

Catherine Monnes performs at The Bridge PAI’s Telemetry series on Saturday. Photo by Tom Daly Catherine Monnes performs at The Bridge PAI’s Telemetry series on Saturday. Photo by Tom Daly

In the sunflower yellow kitchen at the back of her narrow house, Catherine Monnes drops a few thistle teabags into a pink tulip-shaped teapot full of boiling water. She slides the lid into place and carries the pot into her plant-filled sunroom. The evening light is disappearing behind the trees in her North Downtown yard as she sets it down among the orchids on her table.

Monnes’ home is full of things that have a story: paintings of a strangely tiny-footed Bob Dylan and another with three of The Beatles, as well as a chair covered in reptile teeth that she bought in New Orleans from a man frustrated that he hadn’t made any sales that day.

As she pours, Monnes, a multi-instrumentalist perhaps best known for her cello and fiddle work in a number of Charlottesville bands, recalls the story of how she came to own her cello. A bag of cello pieces came from a friend who’d found the fragmented instrument wasting away in a rotting case in a flooded basement. Other musicians and luthiers told her it’d cost thousands of dollars to fix—money she didn’t have—but she held on to the pieces for a few years.

At violin competitions, she kept running into the same young man in the wee hours of the morning, when both of them were still awake and searching for a jam partner. Monnes soon learned that he was apprenticing to be a luthier, and she mentioned the cello to him; he excitedly asked if he could do the repair and Monnes says he charged her just $250 “to bring these pieces to life.” A set of cello strings alone can cost that much, she says, eyes wide.

“It’s still not a great cello, and it needs regluing all the time,” Monnes says, but it’s her cello, and her affinity for the instrument dates back to childhood.

When Monnes was growing up in New Jersey and then the Washington, D.C., area, music “was one of those things that you just did. You hang clothes on the line. You play music,” she says. Monnes recalls singing constantly with her four sisters, and in the same way that some kids pretend to play the piano on the kitchen table, she’d take two curtain rods and imagine they were a cello and a bow.

“My mother played classical music, and I was almost violently disinterested in it,” Monnes says. “It put me to sleep, and I also saw her doing this really intense scramble-struggle for work.” Monnes also saw her mother’s battle with self-worth—if she didn’t get a job, she doubted her talent, her dedication. “I didn’t want to do that,” Monnes says, and so she listened instead to Jimi Hendrix and other experimental musicians.

But she never gravitated toward the guitar, or to drums, “the obvious instruments for the kind of music that I was drawn to,” says Monnes. Instead she pursued the violin and cello. Monnes says she “wanted to figure it out, how to make cello, and violin, speak that [type of music].”

“I was really wanting to bring another sound to the palette of everything, and that’d be both in terms of bringing a cello into places it isn’t usually, and also making a cello sound ways it doesn’t usually.” That urge comes naturally to Monnes, who believes that every instrument has its own voice, and it’s up to the musician to coax it into speaking a certain language.

“I really care to be listening,” Monnes says. She thinks her ability to play music responsively is why she loves performing in projects led by other musicians—she’s provided cello work for glitter rock outfit The Sally Rose Band (the eponymous Sally Rose is Monnes’ daughter), goth-ish rock band The Secret Storm, experimental jazz group Restroy and flute-doom metal act FLOOM. When she talks about how touched she is by the number of musicians who invite her to play music with them, Monnes places her palm to her chest, closes her eyes and bows her head. “I’m really moved and excited to be invited,” she says.

Her upcoming set at the Telemetry experimental music series at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative on Saturday is a rare solo set. There will be some cello, of course, but she’ll also play a few synthesizers she made in an instrument-making class taught by Peter Bussigel in UVA’s music department.

Each of her solo pieces has a certain shape and progression, but there will be plenty of room for improvisation, and Monnes plans to participate in the usual paradox of performance “of either losing yourself or being completely there. …It’s almost like I don’t know which to say,” she says, laughing.

Monnes thinks her set will be entertaining, but she wants it to be more than that. “I hope it’s musical, that it has some beauty, that it has some edge,” she says. “I can usually manage interesting. And I’m thankful if beautiful happens.”

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