by Alex Teitz
When FEMMUSIC first encountered Hannah Alkire it was at a show in held her honor. Hannah is a cellist and the second half of the group Eidolon. Hannah plays the cello more like a guitar. She drums on it, and plays chords, and makes it much more than the instrument seen as part of the orchestra. Hannah plays with such energy and vibrance it is hard to believe that earlier this year she was diagnosed with cancer. FEMMUSIC is privileged to obtain the following interview.
For more information on Hannah & Eidolon write to Eidolon, P.O. Box 477, Berthoud, CO 80513
FEMMUSIC: How did you get started in music? What made you decide that you wanted to pursue it professionally?
HA: My family was very musical…my paternal grandparents opened a guitar studio in the middle of the Depression, and were full-time musicians/teachers the entire time my father was growing up. He was trained to be a professional pianist, and right before college decided to keep music his passion and went into Chemical Engineering. His studies eventually took him to Berkeley, CA, where he took one music class to unwind, and met my mother, who was a music major. From as early as I can remember, Dad played the piano every evening as I was falling asleep, and in the mornings too. At night, he’d play his “big stuff”, like Brahms, so that we would learn to sleep through anything. That way, if he needed to or wanted to play in the middle of the night, he could.
So at four, I started piano lessons, first with him and then with an outside teacher. And somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the cello. There wasn’t really a beginning to that love…I just was so drawn to it, every time I heard symphonies or anything with cello in it. When I turned 8,my parents told me they’d rent a cello for 6 months for me, and if I practiced, they’d buy me one for my next birthday. My grandparents seconded the offer, and the cellos came over the years in huge boxes — first a 1/2size, then a 3/4 size, then my grandmother’s full size, and then when I was about 12 or so, we bought my private teacher’s cello from him when he upgraded, and I played that one for 18 years, until commissioning the one that I play now. When I was 13 or so, my teacher, Mr. Magyar told me that it was time to make the Big Decision…he said that if I wanted to pursue the cello professionally, we’d increase my personal practice time from 2-3 hours a day to 5 hours a day, and would pursue a music school. I agonized, but in the end was influenced by my dad’s own decision years before. I decided that I wanted to keep the cello as my passion, and not risk being burned out by it or burned in general by the competitive music “scene.” I kept it a serious passion, but on the side, and I went into education and got a degree to teach English, French and Spanish. I kept playing through the years of teaching, and joined various ensembles, mostly smaller chamber settings like piano trios or string quartets, wherever I lived. When I took a leave of absence three and a half years ago to have my son, I decided it was the time to go into music full-time, since it had indeed remained my passion. By the time I decided to “take the leap,” I was playing weekly with a rock-and-roll band out of Denver called Adrian Romero and Love Supreme, and frequently out of Boulder with Wendy Woo, as well as doing weekly engagements with the Anasazi String Quartet. I was also involved in a lot of studio session work, which I love. So declaring music full-time was scarcely more than changing the title…it’s always been there as a big part of who I am.
FEMMUSIC: Who have been your biggest musical influences?
HA: My father, certainly, and my mother too. She used to play games with us when we were little, which I realize now taught me very early to really listen and discern musical tempos and pitches and tones and rhythms. My cello teacher, Mr. Magyar was a huge influence and inspiration, and kept me focused through the years of my life that you usually lose focus (i.e. teenage years into college). As far as recording artists, M. Rostropovich and the myriad of other great cellists (including Jacqueline Du Pre for her passion)…violinists like Isaac Stern and Itzak Perlman and Stephan Grapelliand Mark O’Conner…Sting and Stevie Ray Vaughn and K.D. Lang and Edith Piafand Pavarotti and Muddy Waters…Celtic and Latin and African rhythms.I love all sorts of music, and have listened to most kinds during various phases of my life.
FEMMUSIC: The way you play the cello can vary from “slide blues” to a percussive bass. How did you learn to adopt these new forms for playing a classical instrument?
HA: I have a good friend who had faith in me 7 years ago, and who insisted I could learn (despite my strictly classical background) to improvise. I argued with him for a month or so, then tried it. And you know, it clicked. We started with free improvisation….melody or sound or rhythm outside of charts or time signatures or keys. Then I learned to read charts, and started playing with Woo and then other groups. I took studio work for pop music and rock and country and drumming and even thrash. In the Anasazi quartet, we worked up arrangements of Led Zeplin and Grateful Dead and tangos, and then I started learning blues licks and jazz chords. I listened to music I’d heard all my life but never really HEARD, and all of a sudden I realized there was world of different musical “feels” out there that I had no idea about, and I wanted to learn about so many of them! My experience with Adrian Romero’s band really took me a long way in learning new styles and trying out new sounds with the cello, like amplifying and distorting and playing with a pick and learning classical guitar finger-picking patterns. I went from hearing it as a voice, to hearing that voice sing the blues, or be a sax, or be a bass guitar, or mimic drums or conversations or electric guitar. When I met Joe, I admired him a great deal for his musicianship, and for his realness and great kind-heartedness as a person. I realized that he could play with a million different styles, and we started incorporating all sorts of things into our music. He told me that he wanted our music to challenge me as a cellist and musician, and that he also wanted our live shows to showcase all I could do on the cello.…and I’m so grateful and happy to have that coming true, and to keep searching for new ways to hear the cello, as well as enjoy all the ways the cello has been heard for decades. Fundamentally, the cello is an instrument that can touch into our emotions and move us, and I never want to get too far from that.
FEMMUSIC: What has been your best experience in making the 2nd CD?
HA: I always have a hard time defining “the best,” since I celebrate so many things along the way! The first “best” thing was realizing how playing with Joe in Eidolon has strengthened me musically and technically on the cello. I love being in the studio with Joe….we’re really well-matched, in our standards and stamina and need for an occasional chocolate break! Another “best” thing was recording my first movement of a Bach Suite. The Unaccompanied Cello Suites are difficult, not only technically but also because they are musically complex in their voicing and phrasing. I was pretty intimidated to try one, but Joe really encouraged me. I play different movements of Bach in each of our live shows, but that’s different somehow from doing it on a record, completely solo where people can hit their play button if they want to check out a phrase. I told him that usually cellists study the Suites for 20 years before recording them….then I realized that I’ve been playing the cello for almost 25 years, and studying Bach a huge part of that time, so I officially qualify, even by my standards! So I did it, and I’m very happy….it’s a personal accomplishment. I guess the overall “best” thing about the 2nd CD is that I’m here to make it, and that Eidolon is alive and well and so very fulfilling to Joe and to me, and that’s what I celebrate most of all.
FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry have you ever faced any instances of discrimination? How have you dealt with them?
HA: Although I’m aware of discrimination in the music industry, I can’t say that I’ve run into much of it personally. I’ve been in sort of unusual settings, and that’s helped I’m sure. I have stayed out of most orchestra politics, and have really enjoyed all the chamber groups I’ve played in. The times that I was in contact with the industry through the nightclub scene or festivals or competitions, I’ve been there as the cellist of a rock band, which puts me into a different category somehow. People tend to really respond to the cello, and I’ve gotten comments (which I consider some of the highest compliments) that when I play, people don’t think, “Oh, that’s a woman playing”, they think of the cello and say that it sometimes could be a woman playing and sometimes could be a man playing. That’s what matters, is that the music comes through, and so far, I feel that’s what’s happened for me.
FEMMUSIC: What would you like to see changed most in the music industry?
HA: I would love to see the playing field leveled, so that music could be defined by quality and musicianship, not by who has the most money or can advertise with the biggest brightest billboard.
FEMMUSIC: Tell me about your cancer.
HA: Almost exactly one year ago on Dec. 30th, l998, I was scheduling a studio session with Joe for our first record, and I was going to sing parts to a song. I was practicing in my house, and my cough was worse than it had been. In frustration, I called him and cancelled the session, and made a doctor’s appointment instead. My symptoms were a cough and asthma-like symptoms, and a pain deep in my shoulder that kept me up at nights. My doctor took chest x-rays and had me come back to the office, telling me that there was a mass in my chest and we needed to do further tests. A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, in the form of a tumor in my chest that was the size of a cantaloupe just over my heart. I started chemo within a week, and did 6 cycles of chemo that is called “CHOP.” The tumor shrank to the size of my fist or so. Then I had radiation, and in August was declared at the end of treatments, and threw a huge party in celebration. I went in for my one-month checkup, and then a three-month checkup, and the doctors declared a clean bill of health, and the appearance of what is hopefully a lump of healthy scar tissue left in my chest. I will have checkups every three months through the first year, and then six months, and then yearly. If I go five years with good health, I am officially in remission. During this year, there were people here taking care of me constantly, in more ways than I can even tell. It was amazing, like riding a huge wave of everyone’s support and love. I worked with a therapist and nutritionalist and acupuncturist and massage therapist to keep my body strong despite the onslaught of chemo drugs, and visualized the tumor dying and shrinking and becoming healthy scar tissue. And I prayed. I lost all my hair, and much of my memory during the experience, but went to Joe’s every day that I could to play the cello and work with him and even record. We did some shows, and that was wonderfully healing but terrifying, to be performing, wondering if my mind would blank on the parts. That focus with him was an absolute lifeline, and helped me to keep my footing through those long, foggy days and weeks. My son was an important part of my fight too, because he was so little and yet so encouraging and good. He was two most of this year, and would come give me hugs when I was tired, and ask if I was going to the doctors when I would leave him with someone, and would ask if I was better yet. He came with me almost every day to the “Big Machine,” where I went for radiation, and touched it and drew pictures of it and told me, “Mommy, you’re so brave.” He was so brave and good, with all the traffic of the year and me being out of it and into it and all over the place.8. How has your world changed since your cancer experience? My world is more real and present and alive then ever before. It has tenderized me a great deal towards others who have gone through, or are going through intense medical experiences. It has made me realize how much I live for, and how important it is to live fully and to face into fears or limitations that I have. Some of my favorite words have always been those from the Prophet on Joy and Sorrow, where he tells the people that, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” That’s always rung so true for me, but is even more so now, and I feel that my capacity for joy is heightened. People tell me now that they hear so much more in my music than before, and I’m so very thankful for that. I feel that my soul has aged 10 years or more through this experience, and that’s of value beyond words to me. I want to and fully plan to live out the rest of my full life, but I don’t measure that in years or time as much as I do experiences and moments. I am alive because God wants me to be, and that gives me a sense of responsibility to not take Life for granted, even for a moment.
FEMMUSIC: What advice do you have for any woman who is diagnosed with your cancer (or any others)?
HA: Fight, fight, fight!! At one point in my experience, I emailed a friend in New York that I had “one fist left”, meaning that my tumor had shrunk to the size of my fist and that’s all that was left of it. He thought I meant that I was fighting with only one fist, but was fighting away anyway, and so “One fist left!!” became our mantra of encouragement and courage and defiance in the face of fear and obstacles.
Another band, the Samples, did a concert to help benefit me and passed around a pair of boxing gloves that everyone there signed and then sent to me. I hung them by my bed, and at my celebration/recovery party, I hung them from the top of the tent. I loved them, because they reminded me, even when I felt small and fragile and gray, to fight with all I had, to keep fighting and remember everyone that was thinking of me and praying for me.
FEMMUSIC: What are your plans musically for the new millennium?
HA: To play like crazy! Joe and I are really excited to get out and tour a lot more and reach more people with our music. It’s the way, I feel, that we can really help and even encourage and inspire people in different situations, and that means the world to me. Plus, we’ll be making our third record by the end of 2000.
FEMMUSIC: What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
HA: Listen to everything you can get your hands on, and listen for phrasing and arrangements and voicing of what’s already out there. Then play from your heart. Accept feedback. One thing that my cello teacher told me that really stuck was the concept that having talent was good…but the more talent you had, the more work you must do. With talent comes a responsibility to work really hard to round it out and bring it to maturity and make it honest.