Julie-O: Mark Summer
Updated: Jul 1, 2022
Mark Summer is a two-time Grammy-award winning cellist and composer.
He is known for his rich and creative blend of classical music with many other genres – particularly jazz. Throughout his career, Mark has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible on the cello
Although Mark is most well known for being the co-founder of the pioneering string quartet Turtle Island, I know Mark as the composer of one of my favourite pieces of music of all time – Julie-O – a piece for solo cello.
Listen to Mark's performance of Julie-O on Turtle Island's album Metropolis.
During the UK’s many lockdowns, I found myself listening to Mark’s performances of Julie-O every day. It always cheered me up, even in the darkest moments of an English winter lockdown. I started wondering about the story behind this piece – so I reached out to Mark.
Mark and I caught up via Zoom on Friday 4 February. He gave so generously of his time, his musicianship and his thoughts. Before the interview, Mark asked if he could use this interview to share some personal news with his friends and fans.
I’ve done my very best to record the interview as faithfully and respectfully as I can.
Enjoy, my friends.
Julie-O is so full of love, hope, joy and freedom. What was going on in your life when you wrote it in 1988?
All my music is hopeful! I like to cheer up myself with my music. I wrote Julie-O after a period of huge change and upheaval. I had a tenured position with the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada. During that time, I started feeling really sick. I thought maybe I had cancer.
Mark playing with his dear friend 9 time Grammy Award nominee, Tierney Sutton.
I quit my symphony job after three seasons and started playing improvisational cello at the Blue Note Cafe in Winnipeg.
The iconic Blue Note Cafe in Winnipeg, which closed in the mid 90s.
I met Darol Anger (an amazing improvising string player) at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The next thing I knew, I was in a car driving back to California where I'm from to reconnect with him. Darol and David Balakrishnan (a highly accomplished jazz violinist and composer) , asked me to help form the Turtle Island String Quartet, an improvisational chamber music ensemble.
Turtle Island String Quartet - this version of the group played together between 2009-2012
Turtle Island String Quartet was an immediate hit with audiences. By the time I composed Julie-O, we were just about to record our second album. When I wrote Julie-O, I was supposed to be writing a string quartet piece for the album, but I only finished part of it. There was a pressure to get it done on time.
One of Mark's favourite public performances of Julie-O at the Perth International Music Festival - sadly, the video quality is pretty bad you can hear the beauty of the performance.
Instead, I sat down at the piano, wrote the melody [for Julie-O] and began to embellish that melody on my cello. Julie-O encapsulates all of the techniques that I was figuring out on the cello in order to play jazz, rock’n roll, fiddle music and the blues.
Video still of our interview.
It didn’t occur to me that I could write a solo cello piece for a string quartet album!
You composed Julie-O by starting with a melody – is that how you usually compose?
Yes, I improvise by either singing, playing the piano or the cello. Sometimes all three. I often close my eyes and go into the zone.
When I first started improvising in public (after I left the symphony), my ears would get bright red! It was a combination of the vulnerable place I was putting myself in, as well as the heightened sensitivity of my hearing – all the blood would go to my ears.
Watch Mark perform Julie-O as a duet with Jacob Szekely.
When I compose, I seem to plug into a place where I’m deeply connected to creation. That’s how I feel. I feel like it’s just coming through me. My ego wants to own it, but really, it’s from the universe. To be able to tap into that is such a gift - I’m so grateful.
Video still of our interview.
You created a lot of new cello techniques in Julie-O, can you tell us about them?
The cello techniques in Julie-O are an integration of everything I learned as a classical cellist with everything I developed playing different styles of music.
Watch Mark perform Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing.
In classical music, the big music for cellists are the Bach Suites for solo cello. The techniques and the thinking behind playing Bach transfers to playing a piece like Julie-O. I tried to make Julie-O have a story arc that takes you on a journey.
Listen to one of my favourite versions of Julie-O - the most romantic version, in my opinion.
I also created all sorts of techniques to make the cello sound like a band, to make it groove. I was inspired by Leo Kottke’s guitar playing. He is well known for his wildly creative pieces for both the 6-string and 12-string acoustic guitar – doing things people hadn’t done before. I brought some of Kottke’s techniques and exuberance to the cello. So with Julie-O, you not only need to have the classical chops to play it well, but also be willing to learn new techniques.
One of my favourite parts of Julie-O is where you link a plucked section with a bowed section using three harmonic plucked notes. Can you tell us about how you got the idea to do that?
It’s funny about that. It was Darol (Anger) who told me to connect these two sections with harmonic pizzicatos. It’s beautiful and very practical. While the notes are still ringing, you have time to pick up your bow and get it ready to play the arco section!
People who perform Julie-O are pushing and pulling the tempo. Do you mind that?
I used to mind it. First, I want to say that I never expected anyone to play the piece. I only wrote it out when I decided to publish it. Then I got kind of attached and wanted people to play it my way.
Watch Mark perform Julie-O as a duet with violinist Mateusz Smoczynski
There’s a cellist named Kevin Olusola who sings with the acapella vocal group, the Pentatonix. I got together with him in Los Angeles. The two of us met and played Julie-O together. That’s when I found out he didn’t really read it off the page, he learned it by ear. Part of me was “Hmmm, I don’t know” and part of me was like “Great!”.
Listen to Kevin Olusola's performance of Julie-O. The only musician who can beatbox and play cello - beautifully - at the same time.
In some ways, I like his phrasing better than that of any other cellist. Such freedom. And I am tremendously envious of his beat boxing! When I was a kid, I used to walk around trying to do that but with Kevin, there’s real technique going on. I play drums, I’m always hearing drums in my head, but Kevin’s a master.
Watch Kevin Olusola perform Sign of the Times.
While you’ve left a lot up to the performer, you've quite specifically put some semi-quavers in parentheses. Why have you done that?
That’s how I indicate ghost bowing. It’s a bowing technique intended to drive the music forward and keep the rhythm of the music in the way rhythm guitar and drums do in a band. We didn’t have either in Turtle Island, so I had to figure out a way to help keep the groove moving forward. Guitars do this by strumming, but ghost bowing does that for strings. Though, not everybody performs it that way. [Mark performs a demonstration on his cello.]
Watch Turtle Island String Quartet perform Jimi Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower.
There always seems to be a clear distinction between classical music and other genres. Can you tell us about your view?
I often think there’s a black and white distinction made between classical music and, say, jazz. But to me, it’s shades of grey. The harmonic language of jazz comes from classical music anyway.
Video still from our interview.
Pablo Casals played Bach in a very, very different way than most cellists now perform it. Casals plays Bach in a much more romantic way. In fact, Casals figured out a way to play the Gigue of the first Suite in a way that’s almost jazz. [Mark sings to demonstrate.] Casals tied notes that were supposed to be rearticulated and also used syncopation.
Listen to Pablo Casales, Bach - Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major.
Do you consider yourself a classical musician or a jazz musician?
I’m really the product of both. I’m a product of very old school classical study and then...the Beatles, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. The masters.
Listening to the Beatles helped me in hard times – my parents’ divorce – their many remarriages – dealing with various step-fathers and step-mothers. I think the Beatles saved my life!
Strawberry Field a Salvation Army Children’s home. John Lennon and George Martin (who arranged the piece) created the song Strawberry Fields Forever.
Were you always drawn to other genres of music from a young age?
Yes! When I was a child, I was thrilled with the music of Vince Guaraldi on the television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I watched the Ed Sullivan show when the Beatles played. When I was in high school, I’d listen to famed jazz pianist Roger Kellaway’s cello quartet – the first piece (Morning Song) on the Come to the Meadow album sounds like nothing I had ever heard before. A wonderful merging of classical and jazz influences.
Listen to Roger Kellaway's Morning Song.
I think Julie-O has a similar percolating energy to it. I started learning the piano when I was young – but it was very difficult for me to follow two clefs. That led me to improvising instead of playing what was written. My piano teacher was not amused.
Listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I loved it – to me, improvising is so much more pleasurable and personal as a creative person than playing what someone else has written. Even when I hear people playing Julie- O, what I really want to hear is their own music. That’s what I encourage my students to do – write their own pieces.
Watch Mark's Ultimate Cello Groove lesson here.
You’ve mentioned a lot about the misery of traditional classical music education and your love/hate relationship with the cello. It makes me wonder why you stuck to the cello for so long?
[Laughs] Yeah, I wonder too!
My father really pushed me hard. And then he turned me over to teachers who pushed me really hard. Then fairly quickly, I was in a situation kind of beyond what I could figure out as a 9.5-year-old. I still know the month I started playing the cello – November 1967.
Mark started playing the cello in November 1967, the same month/year that the very first issue of Rolling Stone magazine was published.
It was a huge deal. My dad was a school teacher. He was an in-your-face kind of dad. He didn’t have musical talent like I did and so he lived vicariously through me – I’m the first born, so that's part of the dynamic, too. And it was hard. It was really tough.
Still from our interview.
He got me a teacher who was in the LA Philharmonic. My teacher literally said, “Bach is my bible and if you don’t practice it carefully, I’ll take it away from you.” Which is a ludicrous thing to tell a young person.
The LA Philharmonic in 1967 - Mark's first cello teacher was a member at this time
Everything about the cello seemed fantastically expensive and such a big deal. The shop where we bought my first cello was like a temple. Deathly quiet and dark - like a bank.
There's no way of getting around the fact that even after all this time, I still have a love/hate relationship with the cello.
You wanted to use this interview to let your friends know about some personal news. Would you like to share that news?
In 2019 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I’ve kept the news among my family because it’s taken me a long time to process the diagnosis and try and understand what it means for me.
Ken Cook, piano, with Mark Summer at Silos, Napa, Calif., in 2016. Photo: Silos, Napa.
After I left Turtle Island (in 2017), I played two concerts. One with jazz legend pianist Kenny Barron and the other with the virtuoso clarinettist and composer Paquito D'Rivera. It was during those concerts when that I noticed that something didn’t feel right, especially when I was playing in the higher register. I thought, maybe it’s because I’m getting older. But, it was really obvious to me when I was performing my piece, Pattern Language. I knew something was wrong.
Listen to Mark performing Pattern Language.
It took two or three years to get diagnosed – in the end I had to get a second opinion. My wife was with me when the neurologist told me. And it blew my mind. We walked out of the doctor’s office and I said to my wife, “Did that just happen?”.
Video still from our interview.
Straight away I went on the L-dopa drug that everyone takes when they get Parkinson’s. Immediately, I was less clumsy and less slow. I was walking better. And I got kind of excited. I finally knew what was wrong with my body and I knew what to do about it. But there are a lot of difficult aspects to Parkinson's. And no cure yet, unfortunately.
Mark performing David Balakrishnan's piece Force of Nature with the Neuss Chamber Orchestra in Germany in 20
There are all sorts of things that you can do to hopefully slow the progression of Parkinson’s – things that are supposed to engage both sides of your brain.
Video still from our interview.
One of the recommended things to do is boxing! I love the Rocky movies and Mohammed Ali, so I was excited to take up Rock Steady Boxing, a world-wide program for people with Parkinson's.
Video still of our interview.
Although it’s hard not to have periods of despair, I am trying to live as healthy a life as I can. I’ve moved to an almost exclusively vegan diet – as this was recommended to me by my naturopathic doctor. And, funny to say, but it’s only occurred to me recently that probably the best thing I can do to get both sides of my brain engaged is to play the cello. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
Video still of Marks TedXMarin performance of Julie, which you can watch here.
I love playing the cello. It’s still tremendously challenging and yet it still brings up difficult feelings.
But the biggest joy in my life are my children – my son, Michael, plays tenor sax, and is a physics teacher in New York City, my youngest daughter, Corinne, is in law school, while my other daughter, Mimi, is studying book repair, and book and paper conservation.
My other son, Nick passed away in a car accident in 2001 – he was studying to become an engineer at UC Berkeley.
You mentioned that your spirituality helps?
I spend a lot of time working on my spiritual practice. I’m trying to work on humility – being a giver rather than a taker. The idea of being a Bodhisattva in Tibetan spiritual practice–putting aside your own personal needs and thinking about others and how to ease their burdens. It’s a high bar to reach every day, but I try.
Video still of Marks TedXMarin performance of Julie-O, which you can watch here.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It’s a tremendously inspiring time in music. Perhaps because the political situation right now is so painful to witness, musicians have responded with an overflow of rich creativity.
Video still of our interview.
Life brings us all sorts of unexpected joys and sorrows and it’s up to us to appreciate the joy and accept the sorrow.
If you enjoyed reading about Mark and his music, you might also enjoy reading my post about Jean-Michel Court, who played the oldest instrument known to history. You might also enjoy reading my interview with Dr Anne Lundy, the very first African American to conduct a major American Symphony orchestra.