Improvisational talent and a taste for experimentation coming to Hobart in June.

A solo cellist sits centre stage, weaving together strains of classical, jazz improvisation and experimental punk. This is the world of cellist and vocalist, Helen Gillet.

Combining classical technique with modern experimentalism, the New Orleans based musician creates a unique sound that is ultimately personal. “I am presenting who I am, and I have an inherent broad mix of genres in my background as a human. It wouldn’t feel like I am fully sharing myself to the audience if I left any of those genres out of my show.”

Armed with an electronic loop pedal and acoustic cello, Gillet creates an immersive experience that crosses traditional musical boundaries. She will bring her distinctive sound to Tasmania’s DARK MOFO festival in an Australian exclusive. Of her two performances, one will last for nearly seven hours. It will certainly embrace this year’s theme: darker, and weirder.

Gillet’s performance technique is unique in that she sings whilst she plays, creating an exquisite blend of tonal qualities. She begins by recording a solo cello melody to her loop pedal, which she then loops on repeat. To create harmony she records a second melody over the first, and repeats this process until a series of loops play simultaneously. It’s akin to an orchestra of cellos and, paired with her live vocals, she’s been accurately described as a “one-woman show”. Her work is essentially a culmination of her past, her present, and the future.

Gillet was born in Belgium, and lived in both Singapore and America before she’d completed her schooling. Her earliest memory of the cello is at the age of nine in Singapore, where her first teacher spent a month encouraging her to hug the cello before she learnt to play a single note. Following the insecurity caused by frequent relocation during her childhood years, Gillet found a sense of acceptance and belonging in the orchestral program at Chicago’s Libertyville High School. It was this community within music that motivated Gillet to complete her master’s degree in classical performance at the Loyola University of New Orleans.

Gillet was increasingly drawn to the freedom of improvisation. The New Orleans music scene, with its passion for musical risk-taking, was the perfect location for experimentation. “I was influenced by the New Orleans spirit of anything goes as long as you have your ears open,” she recalls. “There is a grit and rhythm to my music that comes straight out of New Orleans.”

Gillet went on to study improvisation with Nancy Lesh, an Indian classical cellist who has devoted her life to North Indian Hindustani classical vocal music. Gillet later studied jazz cello with Ernst Rijseger at the New Directions Cello Society, and analysed performance techniques of punk rock cellists Charles Mingus and Tom Cora. Drawing together these contrasting influences, Gillet’s cross-genre style challenges the boundaries of traditionally separate music genres. “Somehow, it all makes sense. The Hungarian rock opera, the covers of Patsy Cline and Velvet Underground, and the French chansons covers all share a cinemative quality. I feel I weave that together through the cohesive factor of looped cello backing track and my vocals,” she explains.

So what role does a classical background play in the life of a jazz-based, avant-garde cellist? Gillet credits her technical proficiency to the “thousands of hours” spent in the classical practice room. “In my opinion, classical music remains the best way to truly learn how to play the cello. That may change one day when cello is added to the Jazz curriculum!”

The double bass is the closest instrument to the cello, and its role in the jazz world plays a large part in shaping Gillet’s sound. She frequently works with bassist James Singleton, inspired by the way the cello and bass blend sonically. “I often take the role of bassist in jazz ensembles. I occasionally even stand up to get that bass player posture and really dig into the cello strings.” Of her collection of 15 cellos – affectionately labelled ‘freak cellos’ – one even has bass strings fitted. “I bring out the freak cellos for more experimental noise, grunge or multi-disciplinary performances. I look forward to growing my arsenal of freak cellos in the future,” she laughs.  

Gillet uses technology to play not only with sound, but also with time. Her performances at DARK MOFO will involve meditative cello improvisation and experimental loops in celebration of the Winter Solstice. For every 50 minutes of performance, she’ll take a ten-minute break by leaving a loop running. Her use of modern technology opens a new world of musical possibilities that is yet to be fully explored, and Gillet is leading the way. “I love teaching young aspiring musicians about looping, cello improvisation and listening,” she comments.

As a leader of this alternative performance style, it’s not surprising that Gillet takes her sound to unique spaces. The future holds the possibility of a performance in a silo, and even a “nomadic tour through Aboriginal Australia with my cello. Perhaps my freak desert cello will by ready by then?” Her two Tasmanian performances will take place in venues that are symbolic of the explorative and the traditional. On June 19 she’ll perform in the vast Nolan Gallery at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) from 10am to 5pm, and on June 20 she’ll play the ‘witching hour’ at midnight in the majestic St David’s Cathedral.

It seems fitting that Gillet will weave together the contrasting sounds of the old and the new in venues that are similarly representative of the past, the present and the future. “The world is a big, diverse place. It’s nice to remain open to all genres, and the influences that come knocking at your door and tugging at your soul.”

Helen Gillet performs at MONA on June 19 and St David’s Cathedral on June 20