written by Matthew Swann, Associate Producer of Reverb Festival 2012
Classical music can seem full of jargon. Most of it is very useful to professional musicians and academics*, but it can be confusing and off-putting to people coming to classical music gigs for the first time. But perhaps the most difficult jargon of all is how we describe the thing itself. Classical Music implies stuffy concert halls and formal etiquette to a lot of people – all things that Reverb and the Roundhouse definitely aren’t, so what words should we use to describe what we’re doing?
Perhaps a better phrase than ‘Contemporary Classical’ would be ‘Alternative Classical’ or even ‘Alt-classical’. What we mean by this is that we still have all the amazing, wonderful rich music, but in an environment where there are no pretentions, no set formalities, and anyone can feel comfortable. The Night Shift perhaps have the best phrase: “Classical Music – minus the rules”.
The above all describes what this movement doesn’t do. What this movement does say is that we should put this amazing music in equally amazing venues, that if the best rock shows can have incredible lighting and visuals so should we, we should bring musicians like Imogen Heap and Johnny Greenwood into the fold and explore what they can do with an 80-piece orchestra or an a cappella choir, it says we should explore more of the music being written today and in the last 50 years (much of it a huge influence on electronic, dance and alternative music – just ask any techno DJ about Steve Reich.) and when we do delve into previous centuries, we should present the music in fresh and innovative ways. One more thing this movement doesn’t do though, is mess around with or dumb down the music. The performers are world-class, and the music is incredible.
Hear Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, here.
Describing the indescribable is always difficult. To use the famous phrase (variously attributed to Steve Martin and the 19th century composer Clara Schumann), “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t talk about the music and the experience. One of the things I enjoy about going to alternative classical gigs is the chance to have a drink and conversation about the performance. Don’t take my word for it though – ultimately the best thing to do is come and experience this beautiful, exhilarating (at times shocking), and wonderful music for yourself.
*Perhaps a glossary of some of the terms used in Reverb 2012 might be useful:
To music academics, ‘Classical’ music actually refers to a very specific period in musical history, roughly 1750-1830. The term ‘Western Art Music’ is the phrase used to describe the full span of music from around 1200 to the present. (‘Western Art Music’ always seems to me like describing fine wine as “fermented, barrelled, grape juice”. Accurate, but it kind of kills it…). Beyond academia we tend to use Classical Music as a catch-all for anything written from about 1600 to the present day. The Aurora Orchestra (Sat 25 Feb) explore three different examples of how classical music evolved in the 20th century and how it was influenced by lots of different musical styles including jazz.
Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story:
A solo instrument accompanied by a larger ensemble – usually an orchestra. The word concerto (lots of musical terms are Italian) is thought to come from the words conserere (to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight), and concertos tend to both pit the orchestra against the soloist and weave them together. Again, difficult to explain the real complexity of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and different composers have different interpretations, but Gabriel Prokofiev explains in music far better than I do in words. His Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra is performed on Sat 3 March. Visit myspace.com/gabrielprokofiev for examples of Gabriel’s music.
This means playing music on the instruments used when the composer was alive. Musical instruments evolve all the time. Until 100 years ago violins and cellos, for example, used gut strings (yes, actual gut from actual animals – usually cats). Nowadays they use metal or plastic strings. This makes them louder and easier to play but hearing music written in the 18th or 19th centuries as the composer would have heard it can be an enlightening experience, and there is something raw and visceral about the sound they make. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are one of the world’s greatest period instrument groups, and are pioneers of the Alternative Classical movement with their Night Shift format (Fri 24 Feb), and will play music written in the aftermath of the French Revolution on the instruments of the time.
View The Night Shift’s trailer or see The Night Shift play music by CPE Bach, son of JS Bach, possibly the greatest ever classical composer:
Unaccompanied voices singing together in a choir. Its literal meaning in Italian is ‘in the manner of the chapel’, and comes from a time where instruments were used sparingly in religious services. Today, it tends to cover a wide variety of musical styles and choirs from beat-boxing and R&B to classical, but what they all have in common is that they can create a huge range of textures and sounds without needing instruments. A great example of this is Imogen Heap’s a cappella sound track to The Seashell and the Clergyman on Sun 26 Feb – Imogen creates the most amazing sound world from spooky, whispering effects to driving rhythms, all produced by the human voice, and you can hear a cappella groups in styles ranging from folk to punk at Voices Now (Sun 4 Mar)
See what happened at Voices Now 2011 and some great examples of a capella singing, here.
Reverb Festival runs from Fri 24 Feb – Sunday 4 Mar at Roundhouse, Camden. For full programme & to book tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
The second installment of our weekly interviews with Reverb 2012 artists is from Nonclassical’s Richard Lannoy. You can listen via Soundcloud or have a read below…
Richard Lannoy – Nonclassical
Performing with London Contemporary Orchestra
RR – Roundhouse Radio
RL – Richard Lannoy
RR: If you knew nothing about Nonclassical, the fact that you just said you’re a composer as well as a DJ – maybe this is a good point for you to explain what Nonclassical is all about and the club nights?
RL: Nonclassical started around 2003 by my friend Gabriel Prokofiev and prior to that I started a night called Sub-Vision in 1998. It was quite an interesting time. We’d set up a night which involved DJ’ing and contemporary classical but we’d recognised that these two weren’t so distinct. There were a lot of similarities between these two worlds so it made sense to bring those two worlds together.
RR: As a person that’s not been exposed to the classical world, to hear that there is this kind of a mix and then to go online and hear the work that you’ve done is extraordinary. Was that your initial idea, your initial concept at the beginning? People weren’t listening to the music, how can we spruce it up or was it literally you bringing two styles of music together that you liked?
RL: Neither actually. It was more about recognising this similarity between the two different genres. People had been separating the two quite distinctly and actually we recognised that they were similar. In the early 90’s The Orb had been sampling Steve Reich, which was later remixed by Coldcut and, interestingly enough, Coldcut’s mix showed very much what the influence of 1970s minimalism had on trance and techno later on. Going back further Kraftwerk was also being influenced by Stockhausen from the 1960s. And you’ve got Stockhausen’s influence on the Beatles for Sgt Pepper. So actually if you scratch beyond the surface and dig a little deeper, you realise pop and the so-called world of art music is quite similar – much more so than what meets the eye.
RR: Now Nonclassical isn’t just a club night is it – it’s a record label as well, which is what you release your music on? Also the club night is based at the Horse and Groom in Shoreditch. Is that still the case?
RL: No, we’ve actually moved. We generally have moved a lot around East London and Shoreditch and at the moment we’re doing quite a lot of different nights in other places. We recently did the Spitalfields Festival for two weeks where we presented lunch time concerts out in the open for the man on the street – so anyone could turn up and listen. So we’re trying to get the message around to as many places as we can. We’re currently resident at the Troy Bar in Hoxton.
RR: That’s quite a trendy place to be. I heard that your audiences are quite varied. There are a lot of young people there which is brilliant to see. How are you finding your open-air concerts at Spitalfields? Are you finding them well received?
RL: Yeah absolutely. We had a great response to all the concerts we did at Spitalfields, even during the rain as well. It’s a really strange time of year in June when you expect people just to come out in the hot sun but even when it was bucketing it down people still came and checked it out.
We had a particular concert one lunch time when we had Larry Goves who’s a fantastic electro composer and Gabriel Prokofiev’s string quartet being performed as well as DJ Switch performing the two concertos for Turn Table’s version and a great guitarist called Karl Herring as well. So there have been lots of different people involved including our releases – Tansy Davies with the Azalea Ensemble who’s another excellent composer.
RR: You talked about sampling pieces of orchestral music, including The Orb. If you’re recommending me to go and listen, if I’m coming from a pop background – are there any artists that you would recommend me to listen to so I can be eased into the orchestral world?
RL: That’s such a huge question. There are a lot of different people that I could recommend. But I would just say dive straight into the orchestral – it’s not even about chamber or orchestral. One of the things we’ve tried to do is break down these misconceptions. There was one night when we had John Richards down with his dirty electronics crew from up North and we had about 25 people on stage with lots of home made instruments and electronic bits and pieces. Could you call that orchestra or a chamber group? We’re trying to blur the definitive really. We’re also trying to present things much more informally. I think people often forget that when chamber music began in the early 19th century, it was actually a social occasion where people actually came and hung out in their living rooms and listened to their friends come and perform. And I think somehow over the years that concept has somehow been sidetracked. So we’re just trying to get back to the idea of people enjoying the music as a social occasion.
RR: You were talking there about having the electronic crew on stage. This is essentially a new genre of music that you are creating. Have you given it a new name?
RL: Well I’m very hesitant about genres and compartmentalising and actually what I’ve been trying to do for many years is actually break down all those boundaries. Pierre Boulez in the 1980s was talking about trying to break down boundaries between orchestral music and chamber music and have a bit more of a free flow between all of these things. And I think the same could be said for breaking down all these different genres. I find it quite frustrating that there’s rock over here and then there’s jazz over here. At the end of the day it’s all music. People draw inspiration from all different types of music. Even if you go back to the classical world, for example – Vaughan Williams in the 20th century drew inspiration from folk music. Even Beethoven drew upon folk music for some of his string quartet. The idea that there have been these two mutually exclusive zones has been a real shame. I don’t really understand how that’s come about.
RR: So what you’re saying is don’t pigeonhole things – come with an open mind?
RL: Yeah I think that’s true. What we’re trying to do is look at the sonic side of music as well which is inspired by Stockhausen and the electro acoustic movement of the 1960s to draw on all sorts of sonic possibilities of acoustic classical instruments. I mean just last week we did a performance of Hellman Larkmans cello piece. That draws heavily on the sonic accepts of the sound of the cello so it’s not really about particular romanticism or anything you want to associate with that instrument. It’s about getting the actual sound of it which I find extremely interesting. I think that also draws parallels with DJ’ing and with re-mixing and record production. That’s really where the parallel comes in with us. That’s why the label has been releasing a lot of re-mixing, to sort of draw parallels with that possibility as well.
I mean the policy with remixes on the label is that no other material other than the source material is to be remixed. So there’s no external synths, no drum breaks, no vocal snatches like you would traditionally get with remixing that’s happened over the last 20 years. It’s all about getting into the actual sound. So you’ll hear from all of them – Gabriel’s quartet has been remixed just using the sound of the quartet. I wrote a piece called Tangled Pipes for Consortium Five for one of our releases and that was both remixed by Gabriel and Radioproof who both used just the source material of the recorders. One came out very dub steppy, another one was a slightly house influenced track but never the less just listening to them, they were just using the sounds of the recording. I think this is a very exciting thing and is a very interesting way forward.
RR: And you’ve been attracting some big names as well. I saw Hot Chip was on one of the remixes as well. Do you look to find artists to remix your work or do they approach you? How is that relationship?
RL: I think it’s a bit of both. A lot of people have been getting very interested in what we’re doing. Ultimately whenever a new release comes out, generally the door’s thrown open. We’re not necessarily saying we want this person to do it, or that person – the door’s very much open for anyone to come along and do a remix. That’s been the policy throughout.
RR: Do you have a favourite at all?
RL: There are too many!
RR: So, basically have a look through the discography and see what takes your fancy!
RL: Absolutely, there’s a whole range of different approaches right from highly experimental to dance floor. It’s a really good mix bag of stuff.
RR: Well you’re obviously playing Reverb Festival at the Roundhouse, is there anywhere we can catch you in between?
RL: Well yes, as I said – we’re resident at the Troy Bar and the next night is the 5th October where we featuring G project – a fantastic duo, consisting of Genevieve Wilkins and Gabriella Swallow who are percussion and cello respectively. They’ll be supported by Christine Howden who’s a great Soprano, accompanied by Ahmed Dixon who’s a great guitarist. Kings Place are also presenting one of their ‘Out Here’ sessions on Nov 21st. I’ve got a piece of mine being performed by Karl Herring and Gabriel is having his piece performed for multi track cello which will be performed by Peter Gregson and we’ve also got the music by Taseyi Davies being performed by the Azalea ensemble.
RR: Well just listening to this is really interesting. What do people do if they think they’ve got a fantastic remix – is there any way they can get in touch with you or share their music so that you can have a listen?
RL: Absolutely you can get in touch via the website which is non-classical.co.uk. We’re currently looking for remixes to be done by Gabriel’s up and coming multi track cello piece, so there’s always an open call for remixers who want to get in touch who are happy to make that happen.
RR: Excellent – well hopefully you’ll be hearing from some people. So just to wrap up Reverb is obviously coming to the Roundhouse in 2012 and you’ll be versus the LCO. Are you looking forward to it?
RL: Absolutely, I think it’s going to be an extremely exciting night. For me it feels like a bit of a homecoming because when I started Sub Vision back in 1998 in Chalk Farm – it was only a few DJs and a couple of instrumentalists and we were exploring the possibilities of DJs and electronics and now all these years later, we’re back at the Roundhouse with the LCO and we’re putting on the club in various bars in the Roundhouse. It really is going to be an exciting night. It really does feel like the whole scene has really been developing over the last few years so I’m really looking forward to the Roundhouse night.
RR: Well thank you for coming to talk to us.