PROJECT TRIO PREVIEW IN WALL STREET JOURNAL
By CORINNA DA FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Eric Stephenson sits in a basement studio near Brooklyn's Manhattan Bridge Overpass, demonstrating how to slaughter a chicken on the cello.
"In the end, when the chickens are in their deadly moment, it sounds like this," Mr. Stephenson says as he places his bow behind the bridge, digs in, and produces a sound that might also be the screech of a delivery van overshooting a red light. "You can imagine the faces of the audience when I pretty much cut the chicken's head off," he says with a proud grin.
The memory has bassist Peter Seymour and flutist Greg Pattillo, the other members of Project Trio, their Brooklyn-based chamber-music ensemble, bent over with laughter.
The three classically trained musicians have achieved wide appeal by bringing their subversive humor to such works as Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and Rossini's "William Tell Overture." Their arrangements of classical, jazz and rock standards have drawn millions of viewers to their videos on YouTube. Many are students—the group makes a mission of performing for schoolchildren, building its live programs to meet the National Standards for Music Education.
Mr. Pattillo is known for his "flute-boxing"—channeling hip-hop techniques of vocal percussion, or beatboxing, through his instrument. Mr. Seymour will slap, tap and sometimes punch the body of his double bass, turning it into a drum. And Mr. Stephenson's arsenal of special effects includes the rhythmic "chop" borrowed from bluegrass mandolinists and the "seagull," a harmonic glissando down the entire length of his fingerboard that sounds uncannily like the ecstatic squeal of an electric guitar. But when it comes to bringing down the house, he says, there's nothing like the sound he produces toward the end of "Pelea De Gallo," that original composition depicting a chicken fight.
"Pelea De Gallo" is the final movement of the "Random Roads Suite," a work that lends Project Trio's latest album, "Random Roads Collection," its title. The group will mark the album's release with a performance Wednesday at Joe's Pub.
In a way, the title also describes the musicians' careers. When the three met as students at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Mr. Pattillo says, their goal was to find work as orchestral musicians, even though they each played other styles of music on the side. By 2005, when Messrs. Stephenson and Seymour played in a music festival in Boulder Colo., "we would talk quite often about the trials and tribulations of being an orchestral musician," says Mr. Seymour. "We tried to figure out how to bring together that classical chamber tradition, but in a modern way. As a kind of band."
Around the same time, Mr. Pattillo moved to New York. "I couldn't find work and I was kind of bumming around and I played in the subway. Beatboxing was an experiment to try and get money in the flute case. It could have been anything; people could have liked salsa. But the beatboxing really worked, so that's what I practiced. I developed a whole subway routine."
In 2006, when a video of him flute-boxing the theme to the cartoon series "Inspector Gadget" went viral within days of its posting—to date it has been viewed more than 26 million times—it became clear that the sound appealed to more than New York commuters. "That was what gave us a kick in the pants," Mr. Seymour says.
While the ensemble's repertoire includes original compositions and works by Jethro Tull, Guns N' Roses and Charles Mingus, Project Trio is best known for its arrangements of classical-music favorites. "Extended techniques definitely drove our style," Mr. Pattillo says. "It was fun to take something out of context and add a beat to it. We call it 'jacking.' It turns people's heads. We know a lot of repertoire that ought not to have a beat to it."
The tongue-in-cheek arrangements work on more than one level. There is the subversive pleasure of watching them "jack" a tune like Peter's theme from "Peter and the Wolf," transporting the action from rural Russia to a contemporary urban jungle. Then there's the high-energy physicality of the group's performances. At any moment in concert, Mr. Stephenson might be head-banging over his cello and Mr. Seymour walking on the spot behind his bass while Mr. Pattillo half dances, crouched like Kokopelli, the flute-playing, hunchbacked fertility god of Hopi mythology.
Throughout, there is the first-rate playing that grounds them in classical music. "With a lot of pop music these days, you don't necessarily get someone playing an instrument at a really high level," Mr. Seymour says. "Classical music has a huge dynamic and emotional range, a huge vocabulary, and much of that is lost in pop music. We can play really loud and wild, but what makes it wild is that we also know how to play really quietly and beautifully."