Marcie Brown Flies High With Butterfly Girl
The Cello Has a Delicious New Sound
If, during the last decade, you found yourself in Las Vegas at Cirque du Soleil’s O show, you experienced Alameda cellist Marcie Brown. She was hard to miss.
In 500 performances, Brown would saunter onto the stage and coax a lilting melody from a cello that was somehow suspended from her tiny frame. A feathery black headdress bobbed in a black halo around her pale face; she strolled as she played, fog billowing about her. The sound was unearthly, delicate, subtle and precise.
“When it’s her turn to take a solo,” says Bay Area musician Ramana Vieira, leader of the Portuguese Fado Ensemble, “it’s exquisite what comes out. I’ve never met anyone like her in my life.”
Brown’s Cirque experience wasn’t completely ethereal, though. Moments after gliding off the stage, another version of Brown kicked into action.
“I kicked my heels off, pulled the wig off and ran a hundred miles an hour to the sound booth,” remembers Brown, noting that she had but a few minutes to get to the orchestra in time for her next cue. “Getting my heart rate up actually helped me stay expressive even though I was playing the same thing every night.”
With Vegas now well behind her, Brown, her husband, Scott Lyden, and young daughter, Isabelle, live in a quirky, six-bedroom house on the Island’s former navy base. She’s traded the Cirque’s costumes for blue jeans and soft mules but still races to meet outrageous deadlines. She juggles performances throughout the Bay Area in an eclectic array of groups, from classical chamber music with the Enchanté String Quartet to jazz with Agavé to improvising ballads within the Portuguese Fado Ensemble.
Most significantly, Brown recently composed and recorded Butterfly Girl, an album that pays homage to her 6-year-old daughter while reflecting a career of musical explorations.
Like most of her deadlines, Brown met this one head-on.
After setting a date with a studio to record the music, Brown arose at dawn and wrote in her music room—a windowed porch that overlooks a grove of trees and a trampoline. There, she composed until it was time to care for Isabelle, and then returned for another session, long after everyone else had gone to sleep.
This sense of discipline, coupled with her daring, is nothing new for Brown. In fact, it’s the reason she’s been able to keep company with musical giants—Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti among them. Just as influential to her own music, however, are untold scores of performances she did on the streets of New York and in studios around the Bay Area, performing with musicians from Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, India, Italy and Portugal.
Brown is the first to concede that her wide-ranging style is hard to characterize in a single word. “Confused?” she’ll ask, the direct stare of her intelligent hazel eyes softened by the smile in her voice. “It’s classical, gypsy, circus, world cello music.”
Brown’s ability to delve deeply into any mode brings the cello’s brooding sensuousness into new realms. Her improvisations have transformed the traditional, romantic Portuguese ballads in Vieira’s Portuguese Fado Ensemble. According to Vieira, Brown’s introduction of a non-traditional instrument perfectly suits this ancient style of music. “She adds a very Antigua, Old World romantic texture that no other string instrument could replicate,” says Vieira.
With Butterfly Girl, Brown incorporates these influences into songs that complement one another. Creating this sense of continuity is no small feat, says Terrence Brewer, the popular jazz guitarist who adapted his signature sound to fit Brown’s compositions on the album. “To write 10 or 11 good songs and have them flow together is really amazing,” says Brewer. “I’ve been in the industry a long time, and she just has that ‘thing,’ the intangible. You can’t learn it.”
Although Brown named the album to honor her daughter, the title could just as well refer to her own global musical wanderings. Yet she says none of the music she’s played for others gives her as much satisfaction as making her own music. “I don’t feel like I’ve had my breakthrough yet,” says Brown. “It’s my own music that I really like to do.”
Although Brown has been recorded on at least a dozen albums, Butterfly Girl is the first one she calls her own. Throughout the tracks, Brown rejoices in the many modes of music she’s encountered along the way—Latin, Italian gypsy, jazz, Indian, Caribbean and African. Moreover, she plays her instrument in unaccustomed ways. Some of the songs feature seven tracks of cello, bowed, plucked and strummed. “I played the guitar and the bass parts on cello,” says Brown referring to the album’s title track. “All the strings are cello. The more cellos you add, the thicker and muddier it gets. I like that sound, so I was just experimenting with that.”
Raised in Southfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Brown grew up in a family of musicians. Her father conducted the Southfield Youth Symphony, played violin and encouraged music to the extent that Brown never imagined a life without music in it. “It wasn’t a career,” says Brown, “it was just fun. It was my family, what we did.” However, it was not until she left home that Brown encountered a fuller range of music. “We were right next to Motown—the Jackson 5 were just around the corner—and I didn’t even know it.”
Once Brown left the suburbs, she earned a master’s degree in classical music at the Manhattan School of Music but branched out quickly. “I felt classical music wasn’t encompassing my creativity and so began to play in all different kinds of bands and music and on the streets—anywhere,” says Brown. “I quit the symphony thing and jumped on ethnic trains from different countries.”
Eventually, Brown says she found that she missed classical but wasn’t willing to give up the free expression she’d learned from ethnic groups. She returned to school for a second master’s, this time in jazz improvisation and composition at the University of Massachusetts. “As soon as I began to improvise, I felt free,” says Brown. “The written music had me tied down in a way, and with my discovery of improvisation, it was like somebody handed me some wings.”
Brown also suddenly had a powerful new muse in her life: her daughter Isabelle. “She was a miracle baby,” says Brown. “I was 41 years old, and I’d been told by the head of Kaiser that I’d never have a child.”
Within weeks of her daughter’s birth in 2001, Brown, along with her husband and newborn, left for the Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters in Montreal to rehearse for the upcoming Law Vegas shows. “We have a new baby and we’re joining the circus,” jokes Brown, noting that she was playing two shows a night, 10 nights in a row. “That was kind of a magical time. We lived on a mountain outside of Las Vegas, so it was a 32-mile drive to the strip.”
With Butterfly Girl, Brown has funneled her decades’ worth of influences into a tight set of disciplined improvisations.
Jon Evans, a recording engineer at San Pablo Recorders, says it works.
“By the time the actual recording days came around, she knew what she wanted to do well enough to make the sessions run smoothly,” he says. “She left enough loose ends to let herself and the musicians she worked with find their own voices.”
Visit www.marciebrown.com to hear Butterfly Girl, to see Marcie Brown’s next performance or to request cello lessons.