Most people know what the cello is supposed to sound like. It should be Bach, and somber and beautiful.
Kim Souther is a classically trained cellist, and has performed in many professional orchestras, so it’s a little bit of a surprise when she plays a piece of classical music and then can turn it into a bluegrass song.
“When you have a musical moment, it’s just awe inspiring.” Souther is still a classically trained cellist, she’s just trying to move the cello beyond the limits of classical music. “There’s a whole new realm that I haven’t discovered and that’s where my heartsong is.”
Souther was drawn to the cello as a child. “You always hear it playing minor keys. And I was very meloncholy.”
She tried to branch out in high school and college, but was told no. “You play the cello it’s a classical instrument, you can’t do jazz. Sorry.”
So she went down the classical path, teaching and playing in the orchestra. “You’re playing in a cello section that is attempting to sound like one cello. And so there’s not a lot of personality that comes out of your instrument. It can be very subtle.”
While living in Texas, Souther reached her low point. Frustrated with the audition process and the musical scene, she gave up. “I stopped playing for about two years.”
In 2008, her husband got a job in Sturgeon Bay. “You move to a new place, it’s new, new possibilities, fresh opportunities.”
Souther rediscovered her passion, and realized it didn’t always involve blending in. She started to improvise. “When I realized that it came very naturally to me not having to read notes, just being able to create, also that creates a freedom of understanding your instrument better, so then you realize what the cello is capable of doing, and what it’s limitations are and what your limitations are.”
Soon, that improvisation turned into a concert series at her home, called the Backporch Sessions. She invites other bands to the stage, and joins in to show how the cello can fit into something like gypsy swing. “I’d love to put a group of musicians together in a circle and just see what happens, because that’s where the magic happens, honestly. It’s just, here’s the key, I wrote this tune, do your best. And some of the most magnificent music can happen from that.”
But Souther’s improvisation goes beyond genre. “I was trying to get a cello bow to bounce because that was the technique I was working on that day and I thought what does a strainer do, I wonder how it bounces on the string, and I tried it and thought that’s great. From there it went to, and let’s try it with a spatula, and what else is in the kitchen? And I still do it.”
Souther is not sure how much of this is experimentation and how much is finding the next great sound. “Do I want to record it or am I just making a point by playing with a spatula, but some of them are making some amazing sounds.”
Souther says part of this success is due to her location in Door County. “Nature’s incredibly inspirational.” And it helps draw in a crowd. “It’s just an easy place for you to say I’m going to try something new, would you like to come to a house concert and you get an audience.”
For this classically trained cellist, there’s nothing better than standing up and jamming out with some friends in the backyard. “There are times when you want to blend in but there are other times where you’re allowed to come out and be as creative with the instrument as you would like to be, and I think that’s what’s so fulfilling.”