String Fever

Lyle Lovett's super-cellist John Hagen smashes preconceptions about his instrument

Hagen recalls that it hadn't occurred to Robbins to add a cellist to his film band, not until Altman's party. Which could prove it ain't what you know, it's who...except that wouldn't take into account Hagen's skill, or his long years of study and work, on the road and off. And on again. And again.

Fact is, he's rode pretty hard. His longest break this year has been eight weeks. But he says he likes the touring, that he'd much rather be in front of an audience than in a studio A a good thing considering he's called not just for Large Band gigs and the odd command performance (one inaugural ball included) but also for Lovett's duo, trio, and quartet bookings. He's crisscrossed the country too many times to count, played Europe ten times, and appeared on the Tonight Show "six or seven, maybe eight" times. Letterman had him on twice. And Hagen still suffers a bit of stage fright.

Fight-or-flight floods of adrenaline. Some things don't change.
Large Band shows give Hagen substantial down time, wait-in-the-wings time, time to pump anticipatory angst. He plays on about half the numbers, taking the stage only as needed. The horn section kids him, calls him "cello furniture."

Once last summer, at a live radio broadcast from a New York City bar, he was forced to spend his wait face-to-face with the past-capacity crowd that had crammed itself in front of the tiny stage. It would be dangerous for him to materialize on cue as usual, he'd been advised. Impossible to navigate such a treacherously tight space. "Cellos are very expensive pieces of equipment," Hagen notes, "and fragile. If you fall with one, you're in trouble. So I found myself just sitting, waiting on stage."

To be stuck there doing nothing but eyeballing an audience for fifteen or twenty minutes could rattle some performers, even those not jitter-prone. But Hagen appeared absolutely placid. "I was probably thinking about where the next Laundromat was," he says. "I could sure use some clean underwear."

It's a joke. And it's not.
When the challenge of the road isn't scoring something with a spin cycle, it is, Hagen says, "not to lose too much skill."

Vacation A time at home in Austin, time not spent performing A means working three to five hours per day on the instrument: scales, arpeggios, etudes, strengthening exercises, classical pieces, knuckle-crunching stuff. "It's a great time for me to remember that I do play cello," he says deadpan. "Or to remind me that I don't...and that I need to."

That punch line is trademark. Hagen's way tougher on himself than his audiences typically are. His solo on Lovett's "You Can't Resist It" so regularly draws ovations that the kudos should be cracking him in the head. "People aren't really familiar with what a cello can do," he says, "so it's surprising. It becomes suspenseful because they really don't know what to expect."

True enough. Most audiences wouldn't expect a cello A in this case a delicate, 93-year-old Thomas Earle Hesketh A to break through a fat, horn-backed rock-and-roll song and grab 'em by the scruff. Which is more or less what Hagen's several-minutes-long, semi-improvised solo does.

That audiences go unmitigatedly nuts for it no longer surprises him. Why they go so nuts does, however, puzzle him. "It's not that unusual," he insists, insisting in the context of "early twentieth-century composers who were writing amazing cello works." When the context is the sleepy body of pop cello, he concedes the solo is "unconventional" A still a tame description for an abstract soundscape that opens with what Hagen himself calls "screaming" harmonics. Then it plows a few waving walls of sounds, reverts to a brooding blues, climbs ear-clawing pitches, and even dumps the audience into stone-dead calm. "That's an interesting moment," Hagen allows. It's a challenge, he explains, "not to fill up all the spaces," to make silences as purposeful as the music.

And what about the whole of the soundscape? Its function? Its significance in the pop scheme of things? Hagen ponders these questions. Shrugs his shoulders. "Basically," he finally says, "it's having fun with noises."

"I don't feel revolutionary at all," Hagen says of his work. "It's hard to, after so many years of doing this, it's hard to view myself as doing something unusual any more. I used to go out on stage apprehensive about how people were going to react to the cello. I mean, I was doing it and I thought it was unusual. It always felt like I was on uncharted waters."

Nowadays, Hagen believes the cello is "on the verge of making a big breakthrough. It's really an amazing instrument, it'll do so many things. You can play bass lines on it, you can do bass solos and then pluck up a little higher than a bass, you can bow the blues or jazz on it, you can cover the midrange, you can cover the upper stuff.... I wouldn't be surprised to see somebody come up who really can blow jazz on a cello, like a Coltrane or somebody. I mean, why not? Certainly you can get around on a cello like that, classical players do it. It's just a matter of someone really coming along and just work, work, work, until they work their fingers to the bone."

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