More than just an endlessly daring debut record, Marina Hasselberg’s Red ended up being something of a life lesson for a Vancouver-based cellist who’s never been afraid of change.
Interviewed at the upscale-casual Thierry Bakery, the Portugal-born musician acknowledges that the album isn’t the one she set out to make. For that, she couldn’t be happier. Truly great artists learn that change is a beautiful thing, even when it might at first seem scary. And by refusing to tether itself to any one section of the record store—abstract electronica, soft-focus no-wave, tribal world music, and live-wire jazz are all valid reference points—Red is indeed an album that celebrates a freedom Hasselberg once perhaps thought impossible.
“For for me it was great not only musically, but for my life—to learn to accept that things are the way that they are,” she says thoughtfully. “I know that I can obsess about a group of six notes, and spend hours and hours on them to perform them once, which for years was a big part of my life. In classical music, if you learn something like the Bach suites—every single professional cellist in the world has learned those pieces. And there’s the amount of recordings—some cellists have recorded the Bach suites three times.
“So It’s very weird,” Hasselberg continues, “to play them in a room knowing that there is no way you are going to offer people the best version—literally no way. And, for me, that started to not be very pleasant. But if I am playing a piece that I’ve created, that’s kind of pure. No one else is playing my music the way that I meant it to be. It’s no longer about artificially trying to create this perfection that, really, is not very human.”
Those who’ve followed Hasselberg since she first arrived in Vancouver in her 20s might have rightly expected a straight-up classical record. Her time on the West Coast has seen her serve as artistic director of the forward-thinking chamber music-focussed Novo Ensemble, a principal-cellist tenure with Vancouver Island Symphony, and collaborate with local heavyweights from Early Music Vancouver to the Turning Point Ensemble.
Red has moments that fans of traditional classic music will find themselves profoundly moved by, including a beyond-beautiful reading of Linda Caitlin Smith’s “Ricercar” and the somber grey-skies meditation “Things Fall Apart”. But Hasselberg sums up the whole record as “impolite, honest, raw, savage, transparent.” And, in case that doesn’t quite cover it all, “Sweet and tender and elegant at times.”
She might have added “shocking” to that, if only because, as noted, she originally had a very different record in mind.
“I wanted to do something that was more like an acoustic, gentle, beautiful album,” Hasselberg notes. “I had this vision in my mind where it was music for people when they are home—maybe dishwashing music. I like the idea of doing my dishes at the end of the day, doing simple things like cleaning up the counter, and having music that is simple and intimate—almost like there is a cellist playing for me in my living room while I do my house tasks.”
For how she got to Red, let’s rewind a bit.
Born to a German father and a Mozambique-raised mother, the cellist grew up in a countryside home just outside of the medieval UNESCO World Heritage city Evora. On the stereo during her formative years was everything from the Beatles and Genesis to African and Brazilian world music to the groundbreaking giants of jazz. Every hard-core music fan has a moment that shifts their view of the world, whether it’s discovering the brute-force majesty of the Sex Pistols, lightning-strike power of Slayer, or genre-smashing rap radicalism of Kendrick Lamar.
Hasselberg’s artistic path would be shaped by a couple of pivotal moments. The 1991 film Tous Les Matins du Monde, which tells the story of composer Marin Marais during 16th- and 17th-century France, fascinated her, partly because of its use of the viola da gamba—a close relative of the cello. Right around then, at age 10, while hanging out with her dad at work, she heard a cello being played on the radio.
“Somehow it really resonated with me, and I learned later on that the cello is the instrument that’s closest to the human voice in timbre and register,” she says. “So a lot of people have the same first reaction that I did.”
Enrolling in an arts-first school in Southern Portugal, she promptly went all-in on music. While kids around the world spent the late-’90s obsessed with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, *NSYNC, and, um, Kid Rock, a teenage Hasselberg was developing an awestruck appreciation for the genius of classical music. But even as she excelled on the cello, she admits that there were dark times during her adolescence which would carry over to her adult life.
“I’ve done a lot of therapy to try and figure out what is the source of that side of me,” she freely admits. “It really bothered me in my teenage years, and now I guess I’ve learned to live with it, even though I’m still super-curious about it. I was always like a sad kid. I was very patient—I didn’t cry. I remember my parents said that I would wake up in the morning, and then would just sit in my cradle. I wouldn’t call out—I’d just sit there. I was that kind of kid—not very happy, but very patient.”
In her mid-teens she had to move, unhappily, from home to an arts school located in one of the few areas of Portugal where it snows, not optimum in a country where central heating isn’t always a thing.
“I was away from home—maybe 16 or 17—and it was a school that was freezing,” she remembers. “It was like my soul was freezing while my body was doing the same. It was intense.”
Asked if coming to Canada in her early 20s gave her a fresh start, Hasselberg allows that’s partially true. After getting her bachelor’s degree in Lisbon, she enrolled in the masters program at the University of Western Ontario in 2008. But it was seeing Vancouver for the first time that made her feel like, maybe, she was meant to live here.
“I fell in love the moment that I arrived,” she marvels. “I remember it being May, a beautiful day, and walking to the end of the pier at the beach. It was sunset, there was a seal on the water, and I remember thinking, ‘This is it!’. It was a big moment. Vancouver became home, and I’d never felt home before anywhere, including Portugal.”
While she arrived a classical cellist, deeply immersed in the worlds of Marais and Bach, Hasselberg eventually found a welcoming community in Vancouver’s rich improv-music scene. And, in the end, it was players, peers, and friends from that scene who would all deeply impact Red; playing on the Jesse Zubot-produced album are drummer Kenton Loewen, guitarist Aram Bajakian, and electronics-wizard Giorgio Magnanensi.
Part of the beauty of the record is that rules are made to be broken. So while Red starts with one of the first-ever compositions for solo cello, “Ricercar Primo”, the track is awash in waves of soothing white noise, which one might posit sounds like the Pacific Ocean waves which spoke to Hasselberg upon landing in Vancouver. Offer that the wild, guttural scraped cello on “Feras’ ‘ suggests big wild cats in, say, the Amazon rainforest, and Hasselberg will happily allow that was indeed the intention.
But ask about the electronic flourishes that take the acoustic-eerie “Só” somewhere into deep space (complete with alien-transmission weirdness from Magnanensi), and she’ll note the recording is mostly her solo with a baroque cello, caught improvising on tape while Zubot and Loewen were outside the studio having a smoke.
The track that perhaps best sums up Red? That would be, fittingly enough, “Red”, which kicks off like a subterranean nightmare straight from the script of The Descent and then winds its way through a world that suggests November funeral dirges, darkened Nevada ghost towns, and the most obscenely beautifully bleak parts of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
In other words, it’s a record for making movies in your mind, something that pleases Hasselberg immensely—mostly because of the way she changed her thinking to make Red happen.
“I didn’t make the album for people to like it,” she says with a smile. “The initial dishwasher version of the record probably would have been that record—something that works for people when they are home alone. Instead, on the day I was supposed to start recording, I decided, ‘No. I’m going to do this honest, raw thing, let it be what it is.’ I let go of the idea of impressing someone so I could be hired for a festival. It was more like ‘This is for me.’”
She notes that, for the longest time, performing live as a classical musician was a part of her identity, positing a big reason for that might have been the validation that comes from an appreciative audience. (Even if, it almost goes without saying, someone out there was guaranteed to be doing a better job tackling the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach.) And today?
“I barely play concerts now,” Hasselberg says. “I stopped when the pandemic hit—because there were no concerts—and then I never felt like doing it again. So I rarely play concerts now, and I think there’s a reason. With Red, I healed a part of me that I had never healed before. I no longer need to be loved by an audience. And that’s a huge thing. I’m not depressed about not doing concerts—I love playing music and I do it all the time. I’m recording, and I definitely want to be a musician all of my life. But I no longer need the validation of an audience. I like it. But I don’t need it.”