Transforming through Queerness, Issei Herr Finds Magic within her Cello

As soon as I revealed to Brooklyn-based cello player and composer Issei Herr that I was calling in to our Zoom interview from Pittsburgh, she enthusiastically asked if I had been to Fallingwater, the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright house, about 70 miles south of the city. As a longtime Pittsburgh resident, I was a little embarrassed to say that in all my years I’d never made it there. Both of her parents are architects, and a trip to Fallingwater during her childhood was a kind of pilgrimage with her family.

Herr was born in New York City and raised in nearby suburbs, in an encouraging atmosphere infused with an appreciation for the arts. “Even when I was little, I was putting on little productions with family and friends,” she said, “it was really cute, very gay. I guess I started out as a little gay boy. I was taking piano lessons, taking cello lessons… like a kid in the suburbs does.”

It was around age 10 or 11 when Herr had what she describes as her ah-ha moment. “My parents took me to the [New York] Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma happened to be playing. I was just like Wow, this is everything that I want to do. This person is playing an instrument that I also play, and he’s communicating so vividly and so emotionally with this big crowd of people. So I decided then to pursue cello.”

I want people to hear and discover the same beauty and wonder that I find in the pieces that I play.

After enrolling at Juilliard, Herr studied cello performance with Fred Sherry. Renowned as a chamber musician, Sherry has recorded with the likes of Chick Corea and downtown music legend John Zorn. Sherry introduced Herr to the music of Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt and guided her forward into the world of modern and contemporary music performance. Herr adores the classical repertoire, but she was “hitting a lot of roadblocks and getting frustrated with the fact that everybody plays the same amazing piece and has incredible facility.” She found herself wondering, “Where do I find my voice within that repertoire that’s so saturated with so many interpretations?”

Still, even after establishing herself within New York’s contemporary classical community, burnout from the endless hustle introduced new hurdles. “The rewards of working really hard on these pieces with a composer and then playing to an audience of three people was frustrating for me and sort of demoralizing because I think in the end I want to reach people through my music,” Herr told me. “I want people to hear and discover the same beauty and wonder that I find in the pieces that I play.”

In 2021, Herr met composer and instrumentalist Rachika Nayar, who was organizing her debut album release and needed a cello player. “I started playing cello with her and doing live improvisations on top of her pieces,” Herr said. “That really opened up a whole new exciting world of creating my own music and music production. She really encouraged me to go in that direction.”

As Herr began to move from live improvisation to composing, she also began taking baby steps toward her gender transition. “I was starting hormones and just talking with friends about it. I sort of felt like I had to shed old skin in order to come into myself more fully,” she said. “When maybe you don’t appear in a way that reflects your identity and people who have known you for years are still addressing you a certain way, it can be a little bit uncomfortable and lonely and isolating. So, I think all of that combined kind of drove me towards wanting to create my own music on my own terms.”

The tightly-crafted soundworlds on Distant Intervals, Herr’s debut album (out April 7 on NNA Tapes), mirrors the thoughtful, soft-spoken and pragmatic disposition that emerged as we continued to chat. There is a straightforward confidence to her compositional language, with a fierce energy instilled in its ambient washes of sound.

“It was early 2022 when I started making this album, and [the tracks] really felt like diary entries in a way; this safe space where I could explore my own identity and my musical identity and how those were linked together… my musical path, and just transforming through queerness and just being.”

Issei Herr -- Photo by Eileen Emond

Issei Herr — Photo by Eileen Emond

In crafting Distant Intervals, the production process was Herr’s primary compositional technique. The recording studio (a neatly arranged corner of Herr’s Brooklyn apartment) became an instrument unto itself, which Herr described as “another character in the music.” Each of the nine tracks germinates from a seed of improvised material that is carefully layered and reconstructed electronically. It is an exploration of the cello-as-self from many perspectives, harmonizing across multiple dimensions.

“There’s this amazing thing that happens when layering the cello because of its wide range, and also the incredible amount of overtones in just an open string,” Herr said. “When you capture that on a mic, add reverb and layer it, it becomes quite magical. Then you can play around [with] the whole spectrum of overtones and pick things to bring out. I think the album is really me just going into the software and finding the natural magic within the cello.”

The track titles — like Aria (I Stand by the Reflecting Pool and Remember) or Interlude (Sunken Citadels) — suggest a surface-level read (employing terms found in classical music) plus an underlying identity in a parenthetical fragment of poetic imagery. “I was trying to give entry points to these songs for people,” Herr explained. “Everyone can find their own personal narratives or find a space to do some discovery and searching within themselves.”

The album’s accompanying music video, which covers the first two tracks — Prelude (An Eternity of Light) and Aubade (The Farewell Is a Beginning) — is an exploration of medium analogous to Herr’s casting of the recording studio as a character. Shot over a single night and into the early morning, the video was captured in Herr’s apartment, where she created the music. It is “a love letter to that process of discovery and fantasy,” she explains. “Also a time stamp of where I was in my transition. We shot in front of a TV, dreaming of some imagined future.”

Distant Intervals is a fusion of past and present, with an ear trained on a yet-to-be-imagined future. “It’s definitely an exploration of the instrument, an exploration of self,” Herr said. “I was writing it during a period of many different transitions. I started playing cello when I was 7, and when I was a kid I was always fascinated with performance in general. I was so enthralled by the spectacle of it all. It was like, Oh my God, I want to be in that world.” The resulting album is a beautiful and thought-provoking accomplishment that asserts its transformative power with inviting optimism.


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