On a recent July evening, the crowd at the tiny downtown art space the Warehouse Next Door could have come straight from the Black Cat. A few dozen stylishly disheveled hipsters crowd into the small room as obnoxious beats seep through the thin walls from the neighboring nightclub. It’s just the sort of place where you might expect to hear a garage band thrash away for a couple of hours.
But on this evening, a young woman in a frilly turquoise blouse appears on the small stage, surrounded by an amplifier, a keyboard, and a cello. Accompanied by prerecorded backing tracks, she delivers a set of delicate music that is as much classical as it is indie-rockalthough it’s not quite either. She plays elaborate piano pieces and, most strikingly, summons beautifully ominous drones from the cello. After finishing one piano number that a casual listener might mistake for a particularly ambitious prog-rock tune, she announces it as the work of “a very famous composer called Anonymous from circa 1325.”
It’s the kind of goofy joke the Canadian Brass might crack over at the Kennedy Center, but no one seems to mind. The performer is warmly received, and after the show she is soon schmoozing with friends and fellow musicians.
This classically trained player in the DIY milieu is Amy Domingues, and she is having a happy moment. Domingues has spent most of the past eight years playing with other people’s bands, carving out an uncommon niche for herself as a go-to gal for indie rockers looking for a cellist to play on their records. She estimates she’s performed on nearly 40 different albums for more than two dozen different artists, including Fugazi, Jenny Toomey, Jets to Brazil, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and Mary Timony.
But now Domingues is concentrating on music of her own for the first time in ages. She recently released an album under the name Garland of Hours, and she expects to begin touring in support of the new, self-titled record in a few weeks. Although Fugazi’s Brendan Canty and Jerry Busher contribute bass and percussion, the songwriting and most of the playing are Domingues’. “I’m kind of kicking myself that it’s taken me this long,” she says. “I’m like, Why didn’t I do this six or seven years ago?”
Domingues, 29, had the advantage of growing up in what she calls “a really musical family.” Nevertheless, she admits, “I think my childhood was somewhat sheltered. My parents only listened to classical music.” With the encouragement of her parents, she began to play piano at the age of 5; by 9, she was also playing cello. But around the time that Domingues’ military family moved to Springfield, Va., in 1986, she discovered a new kind of music that changed her life: Top 40. “It was like this whole new world had opened up, and it made a big impression on me,” she says. “And then when I was in high school, I started getting into all the New Wave and British punk stuff.”
When it came time for college, Domingues considered attending a conservatory, but she wound up eschewing a path she describes as “very competitive and very stressful.” Instead, she studied music at James Madison University, where the pull of nonclassical styles grew stronger. Even as she studied traditional composition, she was playing bass in a punk band with, she admits, the “very embarrassing name” of Gefilte Fish. It was a liberation for someone who, it turns out, never really enjoyed classical performance in the first place. “I would get really severe stage fright [before recitals],” she recalls. “I would get almost physically sick before I went onstage. And at the same time, I was experiencing playing rock shows in people’s basements, and that’s the opposite. It’s such a joyful experience.”
After graduation, Domingues moved to Arlington and found her way into the local music scene. She gave up Gefilte Fish for a new band, Telegraph Melts, an avant-garde instrumental trio in which Domingues shared songwriting duties. In 1997, she met Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey, who invited her to replace that band’s departed bassist on its final tour.
Meanwhile, word got around about Domingues’ cello-playing ability, the result of a calculated decision she’d made when she was younger, on the logic that “there are a lot less cellists in the world than there are keyboardists or pianists.” She also found a unique emotional power in the cello. “It’s a very lyrical instrument,” she explains. “In a sense, it’s like having another singer. Out of all the Western instruments, it’s the one that most closely approximates the human vocal range, in terms of timbre and just the tones that it produces. That’s why, when you go to a movie and it’s a tender love scene, or someone’s just split up, or someone’s died, you always hear the cello come in.”
By the late ’90s, Domingues’ focus on the cello began to pay off as demand for her studio work grew. “She’s got great technique,” says Canty. “She could probably play with any symphony, and yet she’s decided to devote herself to helping other people achieve their goals in the studio and collaborating with a lot of supercreative punk rockers.” In some cases, people she’d already worked with referred her to other bands and artists; in others, artists simply happened upon her at a gig.
“Garland of Hours and I were on a bill together at the Black Cat, and I was totally blown away by her playing,” recalls Boston-area musician Timony, who asked Domingues to join her band for the medieval-tinged 2002 LP The Golden Dove. The two soon became good friends, collaborating on other projects besides Timony’s music. “Amy taught me to crochet,” Timony says. “Touring together, we made lots of hats and bags and crafts in the van. I think she could make an entire afghan in about an hour.”
Indeed, Domingues seems to keep herself almost impossibly busy. In addition to her studio jobs and Garland of Hours, she plays cello regularly for the neoclassical Threnody Ensemble, and she’s working with Virginia-based composer-producer Holmes Ives on an album of electronic-classical remixes. Those are also her sad strains you’ll hear on the soundtrack to The Weather Underground, a documentary film opening at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge this week. On top of everything else, she has spent more than a decade teaching cello and piano in a private studio to around 20 students; she also taught orchestra in Fairfax County’s public schools for three years. (Before that, Domingues worked in the Washington City Paper’s classifieds department and occasionally freelanced for the paper.)
And then there are the weddings. As is the case with many working musicians, these jobssometimes with ensembles, sometimes soloare mainly about paying the bills. “I could write a book about everything I’ve encountered,” Domingues groans. “The quintessential thing that happens is that we’ll be playing the prelude music and some guest will come overinevitably it’ll be a frat guyand say, ‘Know any Skynyrd?’ The funny thing is that we do have an arrangement of Lynyrd Skynyrdand ‘Purple Haze.’ We only pull those out if it gets rocking.
“At least,” she adds, “I’m contributing something to someone’s special day.”
Contributing to other people’s albums, movies, and special days, however, brings its own frustration. Telegraph Melts broke up in 1999, but Domingues still had tunes of her own in her head, and she was eager to bring them to life. “Maybe three years ago, I started feeling like I was spending all this time working on other people’s music,” she says, “and that I wasn’t really creatively fulfilled….I just needed more.”
So she began to write songs, mainly for the piano. As always, she drew on her classical training. “I used a lot of things I had learned in theory and composition classes, things that just sort of shaped my sense of style,” she says. “Things like having a common theme, a motif, exploring and developing and coming back and restating it, and then tying it back together.”
Domingues had worked with Canty on the soundtracks he produces for nature documentaries, as well as with him and Busher during her contribution to Fugazi’s 2001 album, The Argument. Last year, the two began to help her flesh out her newest compositions, which Canty describes as “hyperstructured…an intellectual pursuit, like doing a crossword puzzle.” The songs evolved as the trio jammed a bit together, and the end results were released last month on the nascent Arrest Records, a label co-founded by Canty’s brother, former Nation of Ulysses member James Canty.
The album suggests that piano may be Domingues’ first love after all: Most of it is written around the keyboard, with her cello in a supporting role. The tracks alternate between brooding and bright, falling into a stylistic no-man’s land. Canty likens it to “Philip Glass minimalism,” and then jokes that “it’s impossible to categorize without making it sound awful…or really New Age-y. But it’s not.”
Domingues says she’s happy with the record’s reception so far, noting that she was pleasantly puzzled to learn it’s selling well in Japan. She and her collaborators have already written several new songs, which they’ll be performing as they begin to tour in the United States and Europe this fall.
It’s fitting that, as Domingues ventures out in a leading role, it will be under the Garland of Hours moniker. The name, she says, “illustrates the merging of two things that are disparate…the meeting of the impossible.” For someone who has successfully bridged that vast space between classical and popular music, it’s a perfectly apt concept. CP
Garland of Hours performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.