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Nineteen Thirteen Meets 2011

Jul. 27, 2011
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Janet Schiff was obsessed. One of her teachers had brought a cello to class, one he had bought in Romania. Schiff describes the instrument, built in the year of her band's namesake, 1913, as “strong” and “confident.” She says she thought about the cello so much that she began to dream about it at night.

“I was convinced it would be mine someday,” says Schiff. 
“For years my teacher was like no, no, no, it's my cello, you'll never get it. He thought it was all a little strange.”

Much to Schiff's delight, the teacher eventually decided to sell her the cello after his quartet decided to get matching instruments. Almost 100 years after its creation, the cello gives the same sound, with some technological updates. A pick up attached to the cello allows Schiff to record and play back phrases of her playing on looping devices that Schiff navigates with foot pedals. The result is the ability to have multiple layers of cello sounds overlapping at once.

“My loopers can handle up to 99 cellos each, but that would get muddy so I keep it to one to twelve layers,” Schiff says. “It's a lot of fun to mix the 1913 technology with 2011 technology.”

Nineteen Thirteen has a unique set up of chamber rock that consists of Schiff and her prized cello flanked by two percussionists—classical- and jazz-trained Scott Johnson and former Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo. DeLorenzo's famed steel brushes, which he used to help create the Femmes' signature sound, can be found on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum alongside the sticks of other famous drummers.

The group's first show was an impromptu set at the Circle-A Café in September 2010. Schiff had written song structure, but left room for improvisation, an element the band still utilizes today. This freedom to help create fresh material was a point that appealed to DeLorenzo after the Femmes went on hiatus.

“It was almost like being a glorified jukebox on the road, because there was no new music being generated, it was just going around playing the hits,” DeLorenzo says of touring with the Femmes. “In this, we not only get to work with Janet, who is always writing, we also have that little strand of improvisation, so we can exercise that muscle as well.”

In addition to the three core members, the trio sometimes features guest musicians such as Sigmund Snopek III and members of De La Buena.  
Nineteen Thirteen's first recording is an EP titled Infinite Prelude, released in May.

The group has gotten a favorable reception at a wide range of venues, ranging from a punk-rock club in Chicago (where they were billed as “heavy cello rock from Milwaukee”) to the Jazz Estate, where they perform frequently.

They also played an opening at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where they interpreted artwork by sculptress Nathalie Meinbach into music. Meinbach translates weather data into sculptures and illustration to suggest music notation, and the trio set her vision of Hurricane Noel to a danger-climaxing crescendo of sound.

DeLorenzo attributes the Nineteen Thirteen's appeal to the trio's energy and novel approach. “It's an element that you've heard before, but you're not quite sure where,” DeLorenzo says.

“There's a sense of nostalgia in it, but at the same time it has a contemporary feeling,” agrees Johnson. 

This enigmatic quality—a feeling of being a 1913 antiquity yet vividly alive in 2011—is what draws fans in from the mohawk crowd to museum receptions.

Nineteen Thirteen plays Linnemann's Riverwest Inn on Saturday, July 30 and the Jazz Estate on Thursday, Aug. 11.


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