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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013

No Guitars in Nineteen Thirteen

Making rock with cello and percussion

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1913 was the year of calm before the storm—the year before European civilization shattered on the battlefields of World War I. In that year an artisan in a far corner of Europe—Romania—crafted a handsome cello. The instrument survived both World Wars, and the rise and fall of Fascism and Communism, before crossing the Atlantic and falling into the hands of a Milwaukee musician, Janet Schiff.

“I’d like to think I willed it here,” Schiff says with a gentle laugh. The cello became the inspiration for her band, Nineteen Thirteen, a trio consisting of Schiff and a pair of percussionists, Scott Johnson and Victor DeLorenzo. Despite its avant-garde-looking lineup, Nineteen Thirteen doesn’t play daunting, shrieking atonal music. Their new two-song CD single, The Ballroom & Mr. Panicker, could be described as experimental pop-rock with Schiff’s multi-tracked cello laying down a steady, guitar-like rhythm while launching into lovely, sad melodic leads. The accompanying percussion provides intriguing metallic tones as well as a beat.

No guitars? Schiff tells the story of how, at age seven, she took the guitar her parents gave her and began playing it with a coat hanger. She was born for cello. When she was 10, her parents relented and purchased one for her. “I can’t stand guitars!” she insists. Schiff studied classical music with a sonic experimental bent, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and UW-Milwaukee, picking up cello gigs at weddings and coffee shops.

Nineteen Thirteen formed three years ago when Schiff recruited Johnson, whom she saw play with Lyssa Spencer, for a gig at Circle-A Café, the tiny, hip hangout in Riverwest. She had occasionally played improvisational music with DeLorenzo, a founding member of the Violent Femmes, and invited him to sit in. “We had such a great time at that performance, we thought we’d carry on together,” DeLorenzo says.

Schiff is the chief composer of Nineteen Thirteen’s artful songs, though her recent work draws from the inspiration of a trio in which each instrument is integral. Nineteen Thirteen has also performed an intriguing array of covers, including Kraftwerk’s “The Model” and “Autobahn” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

“We’re going for a fine art thing,” DeLorenzo says. “We play museums, galleries, wine tastings—and punk clubs, too.” Schiff adds: “We play exactly the same music wherever we go.”

Nineteen Thirteen perform at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 19, at the Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave.