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Chamber Music Outside the (Beat) Box: New York-based Ensemble Project Teaches Instrumental Music’s Relevance Today



Not every chamber music ensemble invokes the work of artists like P. Diddy, 50 Cent and Ludacris. But the Brooklyn-based trio Project is an exception.

Flutist Greg Patillo, cellist Eric Stephenson and double bassist Pete Seymour formed the ensemble thirteen years ago while students at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since then they’ve marshalled their odd-ball instrumentation and eclectic musical influences to create an act that makes audiences of all ages see classical music in a new light.

Before the members of Project were a trio, they were friends who liked each other’s unpedantic approach to classical music.

“All three of us have very like-minded musicianship and we all are very interested in the same type of things, and we’ve enjoyed playing together over the years,” Seymour said. “Sometimes these things just work out like that, that friends come together, and I would say we have the perfect instrumentation for our ensemble.”

Perfect instrumentation for Project’s unique collection of personalities, maybe, but not so perfect for the existing classical chamber music repertory. When they formed their trio, Seymour, Patillo and Stephenson knew there was no music composed for flue, cello and bass trio. So with a blank slate awaiting them, they seized the opportunity to create repertory for themselves, writing music based on influences as stylistically far-flung as classical, classic rock, hip-hop, world music and jazz.

“We’ve all drawn from a lot of these influences to mimic these other genres and people playing other instruments,” Patillo said. “I saw the Grateful Dead and they were a big influence for me growing up, as well as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Paige of Led Zeppelin. These were all great classic rock guitarists and I sure tried my hardest to make my little flute sound like a rock guitar,” Patillo said.

Patillo’s experimentation didn’t end there. After moving to New York City four years ago, he embarked on a plan to memorize a number of classical flute pieces. He moved his practice room into the subway and unwittingly created what has become a central part of Project’s act.

“I’d wake up early and go down into the subways and play for the morning rush hour,” Patillo said. “I wouldn’t make any money down there playing my Telemann Fantasies and my Bach solo pieces, but I’d wait for the last train and I’d play a video game tune, or I’d play a tune with a little bit of beat boxing (creating rhythms with the breath), something from the Top 40. And wouldn’t you know, I’d have kids asking me how I was doing it, I had people putting money in the case.”

With Patillo’s beat box flute playing, Project transforms standard classical works into hip-hop fantasies. Videos of Patillo’s beat box flute renditions of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and other classics have scored into the millions of hits on YouTube.

But even more importantly, the funkified arrangements of classical works Project has created and performed at schools have shown kids that instruments that don’t have computer chips are every bit as cool as those that do.

“We’re trying to get these ideas of these instruments in front of the kids, that you can play these instruments and that, by golly, these instruments can play music that maybe they listen to on the radio,” Patillo said. “I don’t meet too many children that listen to the Mozart piano concertos, but if you can play little hip-hop number with some beat box flute, some rowdy cello, and a big old double bass, all of a sudden they start to think, ‘Hey, these instruments are really cool, these are applicable to the kind of music I’m listening to.’ And at the same time we can present all of these wonderful classical melodies to ears that maybe haven’t heard them before.”

While Project aims to play in as many different types of venue as possible, the ensemble has also played in some traditional concert settings. They’ve performed works composed specifically for them with youth orchestras, on subscription concerts of the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra and with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

“We try and play in as many crazy places as possible, but we’re also trying to play in traditional places crazily,” Patillo said.

Patillo, Seymour and Stephenson know that their work with Project will likely remain a bit of an uphill battle. And it’s not just the divide between classical and popular music they’re trying to bridge. Project aims to bring instrumental music back to prominence in a culture Seymour describes as “obsessed with solo singers.”

“You don’t really hear that much instrumental music in popular culture, and I think that’s really where we’re trying to change things,’ Seymour said. “I think the future of chamber music really is with educating young people, trying to get them to realize that there’s something important about instrumental music and truly fun about instrumental music.”

–Jennifer Hambrick, Chamber Music Columbus trustee

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