Cellista calls performance ‘my imaginary autobiography’
By Bridgette M. Redman
Sometimes an artist’s most fanciful flights of imagination are also the ones that hit closest to home.
Performance artist and composer Cellista said her latest album — which is a creation part-opera, part-theater, part-poetry, part-beat box — is a piece that is ultimately her story. The title character, Pariah, represents the artist.
“Pariah — she’s me,” Cellista said. “It’s my imaginary autobiography.”
The album dropped on October 1, the same day that she debuted a live staging of the story at the Santa Monica Playhouse. That show opened with Kristen Lynn and the Fox Gloves, whom Cellista said would play a set of very moody Leonard Cohen covers.
Composer Sean Renner provided the overture performance and buoh dancer Ibuki Kuramochi performed to the accompaniment of Cellista on cello. Other collaborators on the recording include composers Mazz Swift, Joshua Icban and Peter Colclasure.
Performers include work from actress Dawn L. Troupe, soprano Carla Canales, soprano Hilary Whitmore, rapper Demone Carter, beatboxer Track IX, and poet and journalist Gary Singh.
Cellista intentionally hired a production crew that was led by 65% women, including Heidi Trefethen, SF Jazz and Symphony Orchestra Musician, as the lead engineer and Anna Frick as astering engineer.
Cellista wrote the original treatment and the overall story arc and then handed it over to her father who is a former professor of philosophy.
“I had him fill out the rest,” Cellista said. “He got it back to me and I edited it and after setting everything to music, it dawned on me I’d like to record it in immersive audio.”
Born out of anxiety
The story follows the journey of Pariah, a woman cast out of her community for daring to speak truth to power. In a dreamlike and theatrical manner, the album follows her exile from her home city Cloture to her encounters with apparitions, love and her eventual acceptance of herself.
“I call my work stage poems,” Cellista said. “They are resistance art, they are politically concerned, observant and revealing. Their intention is to break down barriers between audience and performers in a collective act of witnessing.”
“Pariah” was born in the depths of the pandemic, an event that disrupted a lot of things for Cellista. She had been on a national tour and was supposed to go to the EU in March, but the pandemic cut short that tour very abruptly.
It was an event that she said hit her hard, but she attempted to keep creating. She put together an EP with her friends, connecting remotely. During this time, Pariah was born.
“I started writing,” Cellista said. “’Pariah’ was born out of my anxiety. I was doing free writes.”
The work falls into the realm of fairy tale because of iconic elements of journey, mystical characters and magical transformations. Cellista explained that she takes pillars of reality and places them in a surreal environment. It gives her a chance to talk about truth, to talk about otherness.
“Parian’s gift is that when she gazes at others, they see a truthful reflection of themselves,” Cellista said. “That gives her quite a bit of power.”
Her work is always politically rooted, though she explains that “Pariah” is not overtly political. It does, though, examine border crossings, the idea of otherness and the idea of seeing truth and being unable to really speak truth to power without fear.
“It is about being gazed at,” Cellista said. “It is a continuation of all my work, but more of a fairy tale format. I really try in my work to break down borders between audience and the performer. The act of performance is an act of collective witnessing. Both audience and performers are equal.”
She said that for the past nine months, she’s been talking about Pariah as if she were a real person, especially when the process gets disrupted.
“Whenever something goes wrong, I say ‘Dammit, Pariah, why do you have to be like that.’ She feels really real,” Cellista said. “She is someone who is unafraid. She is unafraid to exist in the cracks. She belongs everywhere.”
There were a series of mishaps, including such things as one of her sopranos being attacked by a dog that bit her hand and sent her to the hospital. Another time Cellista was on her way to mix the album at Skywalker sound. She stepped out of the door with her soprano and a car ran over her foot.
“It was always on the way to a studio to record that something would happen,” Cellista said. “We were starting to wonder if Pariah is a witch. Maybe that Delta variant is Pariah. Every time something happens, we’re like, ‘gosh darnit, Pariah.’”
Cellista said this has been one of the hardest projects she’s ever worked on.
“It’s only 25 minutes long and I feel like I’ve had 10 babies,” she said.
Pariah—the titular character of the project—exists in a city, Cloture, where she is literally a pariah because of her super power, her gift of seeing truth and daring to speak it to power. Upon being exiled, she is cast down the mountaintop and she awakes in an enchanted forest. There she encounters several apparitions and through their gaze, she finds herself and achieves acceptance.
She eventually realizes that everywhere she goes is home. At the end, after encountering her lover, she realizes she wants to walk alone and rather than being Pariah—someone who is unwanted—she is now Wanderer—someone who by choice wanders the world.
Cellista is a new resident of Santa Monica, having just moved there in February. She is eager for her neighbors and fellow Santa Monicans to see her work.
“I really strive for my work to create reflections of a place I call home,” Cellista said.
“Pariah is my artistic statement and my way of saying hello, I’m here, this is my home.”
Her artistic hello is steeped in different genres, political commentary and beautiful imagery.
Genres include classical music, opera, hip-hop and rock. Because her foundation is that of a classical cellist, the forms are classical even as they are spiced with non-classical pieces. Cellista plays a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello and an 1885 Czech cello.
All the genres, she said, create a platform from which she can examine themes of othering, exile and banishment. It also allows her to break down barriers between audience and performers.
The work includes many media from music, book, film and dance.
Because it was being created during the pandemic, it made project management very difficult. Cellista said that sometimes when she looks at the logistics alone, she is amazed that it was ever born.
“The work could be unbearable at times because of the amount of collaborators,” Cellista said. “I had performers who rightfully pulled out at the last minute because of COVID. We could only have one or two people in the chamber at a time.”
Despite the challenges, the final work is something the creators take pride in. They’ve even submitted the work for a Grammy in the category of immersive sound.
Cellista chose immersive sound and composed music allows audiences to hear the sound approaching them, moving around them.
“It’s like when you are in the forest,” Cellista said. “You hear something scary and don’t know where it is coming from.”
Along with the release of the album, there is a companion book co-written by Cellista’s father, Dr. Frank Seeburger, with a preface by the composer Daniel Felsenfeld and illustrations by Jaclyn Alderete.