Cello Without Boundaries: Interview with Tina Guo

Published in the May 2009 issue of the Overture, official publication of Professional Musicians, Local 47.

Cello Without Boundaries

From classical to prog rock to metal, cellist Tina Guo pushes her instrument to a realm of endless possibilities

by Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor

Cellist Tina Guo has never been one for cookie-cutter labels. A virtuoso on the classical cello, the 23-year-old crossover artist is equally skilled as a powerhouse shredder on electric cello, masterfully balancing classical elegance with her inner metal child.

Tina began her musical training at age 3 in Shanghai before moving to the United States when she was 5. In the classical realm, Tina has appeared as a soloist with many orchestras internationally, including the San Diego Symphony, Thessaloniki State Symphony in Greece, Petrobras Symphony and Barra Mansa Symphony in Brazil, Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia, and most recently she performed the “Shostakovich Cello Concerto” with the National Symphony Orchestra in Mexico. She has also recorded with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Josh Groban, Michael McDonald and John Legend.

On what she calls her more visceral side, Tina plays electric cello on her own metal music as well as in progressive metal band Off the Deep End and has performed with rock artists including Zakk Wylde, Derek Sherinian and Persian superstar Andy Madadian.

Tina speaks with the Overture about coming to terms with her divergent musical identities, her upcoming projects, and her lust for life.

You started music at a very early age, which I understand wasn’t always easy.
Both my parents are musicians. My father’s a cellist, and my mom plays violin. Plus, they’re Chinese, so they’re very strict! It’s very rare for a kid to want to sit in a room eight hours a day practicing. My parents forced me to, and I hated them. But after I grew up a little and came to L.A. for college at USC, my love of music developed. I realized it wasn’t just a punishment. I found that having the technical control of the instrument gave me the ability to express myself freely. It’s a very good foundation. Actually, pretty recently I’ve repaired my relationship with my parents.

You play classical on acoustic cello and metal on electric cello. How do each enable you to express yourself?
The beauty of classical music is being able to push and pull within a defined boundary, being able to work magic within what’s allowed. I think classical and metal are the two closest, emotionally, in music, because they’re very deep. There’s a lot of depth and emotion. In metal, usually it’s more tortured emotion. When you play metal, there is no box, you can do whatever you want. I feel most spiritually connected to the universe through classical music. But metal, that’s primal. It’s carnal, it’s visceral. It’s not on a higher realm of being. Classical, for me, is more enlightened. They’re both on each side of the extreme.

What inspires you most as a musician?
Emotionally and mentally, for a human being, at least for me, I think you have to experience life in order to express it in your music. I mean, what is your music going to say if you don’t know anything?

What are you working on right now?
I have my solo classical stuff, and I’m just starting to work on my solo metal project. I’m working on a metal version of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

You’re also in a progressive rock band.
I have a band, with my boyfriend, called Off the Deep End. We are off the deep end – we’re crazy! My boyfriend has more of a classic rock influence than myself. It’s an interesting mixture. Our very first gig was the official wrap party for the Sundance Film Festival. We only had two songs, because we had just started the band. So we played our opening song, our closing song, and got off the stage.

Who has had the most influence on you musically?
When I was at USC I played at Disney Hall in a quartet with Midori. She’s a great musician. I learned a lot from her. I’m naturally really crazy, up and down emotionally. She taught me there’s something beautiful about control, and when you do decide to go over the edge, it’s really something major.

Who have you worked with on the metal/rock side?
Recently I played on a track with Zakk Wylde, the guitar player for Ozzy. Most of the time people still use string instruments and cello for pretty things, which is fine, but my metal side wants to replace the lead guitar and do all that with electric cello.

These days a lot of traditionally orchestral instruments are going electric.
I think it’s definitely a movement that’s starting. Electric guitars once didn’t exist, but somebody decided to plug in a classical guitar, and now electric guitar is like second nature.

You joined Local 47 a year ago. Has being a union member had an impact?
When I was at USC I met Mark Robertson, a union member who plays violin, who told me about it. Being in the union’s great. All of the major session work and TV shows and movies – you can’t do them if you’re not in the union. It’s a great safety net with the economy the way it is. They have the Relief Fund, there’s a Pension Fund, there’s health insurance… I was amazed when I found out about it, because being a freelance musician and not having a retirement fund is really scary.

Do you have any advice for aspiring cellists?
I don’t mean to be cliché, but just be yourself. I can’t tell anyone to be wild and do everything, ’cause maybe that will make someone unhappy and miserable. You just have to do what you love to do. But also be realistic. If you find that something isn’t working out, don’t stick in there until your life falls apart. Also, I think marketing yourself is very important. You have to meet people to get places. Sitting in a practice room for 10 hours a day is not gonna get you anywhere.

Classical and metal are seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum. How do you account for being able to so seamlessly delve into both realms?
You only live once, and you have to embrace life. You have to do everything that you can do – without killing yourself. I don’t drink at all, I don’t do any drugs. I guess I find my excitement in other ways, and I try to artistically pursue as much as I can to the very extreme without going overboard. Whatever you tell me I can’t do, I’m gonna do it just to make you angry. Sometimes that gets me into trouble, but for me personally, I’d rather be the lion than the lamb.

Visit Tina Guo online at http://www.tinaguo.com.

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