Interview with William Norris – Communications and Artistic Director – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Roundhouse Radio: We had the Communications and Artistic Director from the OAE – William Norris – come to talk to us about the orchestra, and what they do that’s a little bit different as well as upcoming performances. It’s quite an interesting read if you don’t know much about the OAE. What can people expect from a performance?
William Norris: If you look at us on stage we look like any other orchestra to be honest but we are unique because we play on period instruments – either the musical instruments of the time that the music was composed, or replicas. So you get what the composer intended rather than the modern version of it.
RH: The orchestra chose to have no permanent music director – it was part of the original concept from 20/22 years ago – was that a general concern during its conception or was it part of the creators expressing themselves?
WN: It was them wanting to do their own thing. Most orchestras have one conductor who’s in charge – who decides what they play, when they play it and who they work with. This band of people actually wanted to decide things the other way round – they wanted to decide which conductors to work with and run the show themselves. So they set up the orchestra on their own. I actually think it was a really brave thing to do. It’s all run as a collective and all the decisions are made by collective committees. It’s quite an organic structure. The players essentially run the show.
RH: The period instruments – that’s one of the things that grabbed me – I’m not the greatest musician in the world but I can probably identify the basics but can you give us a taste of some of the cool instruments – maybe from the period of the time.
WN: Well to look at the instruments, they are not that radically different from the contemporary versions. But the old violin for example is different to the modern violin. Now the modern strings are made out of metal whereas the strings of Beethoven’s time were made out of cat gut – or sheep gut. Inevitably they produce a different kind of sound. I mean a lot of the instruments of the time were pushed to the limit in terms of what they can do – whereas now it’s quite easy to play Beethoven on modern instruments because it works so much better. But there is an element of risk involved in the old instruments when it comes to a performance.
RH: I have to ask – do we still use cat gut for the strings?
WN: Well I’m not sure whether its still cat gut but it still is definitely gut
RH: How is that to maintain? I assume it must be quite a pricey business to ensure all those instruments remain in tip top condition.
WN: Yeah, I mean it does vary. If you take the double bass for example, the strings for them are quite costly and the players all sometimes have 2 or 3 instruments for different types of music – something for older pieces and something for more recent – so the players tend to look after their own instruments
RH: I read on your website that these instruments sound their best in stone or wood environments and not so much in modern concert halls. Now you guys have travelled internationally, have you seen a venue that you’ve thought incredible – the perfect venue for the OAE in theUK or further afield?
WN: Yeah, there are some halls that are just perfect. We recently went to Luxembourg and played in a venue that was actually brand new – about 3 years old. It was the perfect shape and sound and fitted like a glove. We also recently did a gig at Village Underground – when we first arrived it felt like a warehouse space and the players were not too sure about it but in the end it sounded fantastic. It was the right size for the music that we were playing and was an unusual venue.
RH: That leads us nicely onto The Night Shift – one of your concepts I believe? Can you talk to us about the idea behind it? Perhaps describe what people can expect from it and how the idea originated?
WN: We love the music we play and it’s a great thing to get right. We hate the traditional concept of classical music. We wanted to get a different audience and be able to play different types of music. So when started to look at stuff people didn’t like about classical music concerts we realised that it’s not actually the music at all but its everything associated with it. For example the start time of 7pm, no drinking and the fact that it’s normally 2 hours long. We decided to get rid of the rules. So we put on concerts that lasted only an hour but also had things going on either side. We had music in the bar and a DJ afterwards. So even if people didn’t really enjoy the classical music part, they would still come along because they knew there would be something that they could still enjoy.
RH: That sounds like a great idea. How did you do the prep and research for it then – did you just ambush people on the way out of your concerts and asked them what they thought?
WN: To be honest we just did it and refined it. We already had thoughts about what people didn’t like. Every time we played a concert we would change it a bit depending on what people said. We also did some research afterwards with the audience. Now we’ve got it to the stage where it works and people really enjoy the event and we get good crowds.
RH: It seems very well received. It’s certainly something very different. I saw some videos online. It seems you guys even interact with the audience. I saw you chatting to the musicians and to the audience. That’s a great way to break down the barriers between the musicians and the audience. During one of the performances I even saw a garage element. There was a guy rapping on stage and with a flute as well. Who came up with the idea?
WN: That was Nathan ‘Flute Box’ Lee. He did a pre show performance slot. It was one of the concerts we did at an alternative venue called theWiltonMusic Hall. It was an amazing old derelict venue. He basically plays the flute and beat boxes at the same time – so that was pretty awesome. Then in terms of the live performances. We have a presenter and he talks to the musicians and introduces the pieces to the audience and points out some things to look out for during the piece. He also takes questions from the audience as well. We try to show that musicians are like normal people and break down that traditional barrier. That’s certainly something that the musicians enjoy because they want to feel connected to the audience
RH: It seems that way from the video and I imagine the live performances are even more all encompassing. Just taking a step back though, the idea of bringing different elements of musical style into the performances, such as the garage element. You’re aware of the Nero and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra collaboration. Do you endorse things like that? Do you think that’s a really good idea to alert people to the beauty of having different kinds of orchestra experiences?
WN: Yeah just the idea of experiencing a live orchestra is an amazing thing, so I think that anything which gets that sound out is great. Orchestras shouldn’t be set in stone – its good to experiment and I think it’s good to keep these things alive.
RH: Moving on – as part of the artistic development of the orchestra, you have introduced the idea of having 3 different strands which you call Futures – Future orchestra, Future performers and Future audience. You’ve been working with teachers, community leaders and that’s been primarily going on in the kings cross area hasn’t it? What are your plans for the future in terms of branching out and getting new people involved and picking up new talent?
WN: We have a big education programme going on where we live in Kings Cross and we also nurture future talent through our apprenticeship scheme. Young instrumentalists can come and spend a year with the orchestra and get to play in projects and some of them go on and become members of the orchestra. This is the same with the conductors. We have one conductor and the process for conductors is a bit like the x factor. They have an audition and there’s a panel and they vote internally for which one they like. Then we have a young conductor that lives with us for a year. This autumn we have something new which is like the son of the nightshift called The Works. This is another type of concert; it’s a bit more structured than the nightshift. You’ll get walked through a piece of music, bit by bit and we show you what’s happening. Then after we’ve done that, we’ll show you the whole thing through. So that’s starting up next month
RH: Well that’s an incredible opportunity – if anyone’s listening out there and wants to get involved, the best thing to do is visit the website, I guess – is that right? So for those like myself who are completely out of the loop in terms of orchestras – obviously your orchestra is inspired by a particular period. Are there any symphonies or composers that you would recommend listening to as part of an induction pack for someone that wants to learn more.
WN: Definitely Beethoven – I know it seems an obvious one – everyone’s heard of Beethoven but his music is just really powerful and really direct. And the other person I’d choose is Handel – he’s a bit older – a hundred years before Beethoven but again its really emotional and dramatic and lots of his songs from his operas are 4 minute chunks and they’re just concentrated drama and emotion. Those are good things to listen out for
RH: Excellent well that will be on my list to do – I do actually hope to come down to your performance at the end of September but can you tell us what’s coming up for people that are listening and are keen to get involved?
WN: Well our next Night Shift event is at the end of September and we’ve got music from Mozart who I suppose is the king of classical. He’s the one that everyone’s heard of and we’re doing a piano concerto by him. It’s a solo piano with an orchestra and the pianist we’ve got is absolutely incredible. He’s a fantastic pianist – that’s a given – but he’s also really good at talking to the audience and communicating and also improvising, which is not something you expect classical musicians to be good at. He will show in the concert how you can improvise around Mozart’s music and sometimes how classical music can be a bit like jazz in how free it can be.
RH: Well that sounds brilliant – I’d at least encourage everyone to head over to the website and have a look and hopefully see you down there. It’s been lovely talking to you – thanks for coming down.
Each week until December 2012, we’ll be uploading an interview with one of the artists involved with Reverb Festival 2012. Our first interview is courtesy of rising star Ana Silvera – you can listen via Soundcloud or have a read below:
Ana Silvera – performing with the Estonian Television Girls Choir
AS – Ana Silvera
AM – Alex Mee – Roundhouse Radio
AM: What will you be performing?
AS: I recently wrote a piece called Oracles which is a song cycle in seven parts. And I’m also writing a four piece movement for choir electronics and solo voice which is a work in progress. It doesn’t have a title but it’s a collaboration with composer Max de Wardener who’s working on the electronics and co-arranging with me.
AM: What is it about the voice as an instrument that inspires you?
AS: I think it’s the most expressive pallet you can possibly have especially if you take it beyond the normal realms of what choirs and voices are expected to do. My plan for this piece is for it to take in all sorts of feelings and sounds, so percussive as well as harmonic and polyphonic. It’s just this amazing instrument tool to play with. The Estonian Girls Choir are soprano, alto and tenor and so that’s an interesting challenge to not have bass in there.
AM: When we were doing some research for this, one of the tags that people use to describe you was as a folk opera artist. Is that a tag that you’re happy with and do you feel it describes your work?
AS: Oh wow – that’s interesting. The opera bit is a little misleading because it implies that I sing in an operatic way which I don’t but I suppose that’s referring to the strong classical influence to my music and the folk is definitely true. Perhaps not in the normal sense of a folk sound but probably more in the sense of telling stories, relating narratives using traditional tales to shape my music and taking on personas from various folk tales.
AM: How was it working with the Roundhouse experimental choir?
AS: It was a great pleasure. They are really strong and lovely singers. I felt very supported because it was an interesting process of creation. I had the idea before I had any of the music to make this seven song cycle and they were very much with me as I developed it. Also their willingness to experiment as their name suggests was really helpful because I could just give them a sense of an idea and they could run with it.
AM: You mentioned the folklore aspects of your work. Why have you chosen to use that as inspiration? Was it just a personal interest?
AS: Well that’s a really interesting question. I think there’s something very archetypal about those stories and there are some very important emotions and journeys but at the same time it’s so multi-layered. They work on both the literal – the sheer enjoyment of a story – but also a psychological and also a spiritual sense because they often involve some kind of spiritual question and quest. I think I was also keen to not solely write songs from a personal perspective because I think that can sometimes be quite limited. You create a persona that is the conventional ‘I’ which is the artist and I wanted to broaden that out and deliberately take on different personalities and perspectives.
AM: Are you also doing a collaboration with Imogen Heap on the night?
AS: We are indeed. I’m probably going to be dueting with her on one of her songs and I think it’s going to work the other way round as well although we’re yet to decide on what we’re going to duet on together.
AM: Are you looking forward to it?
AS: Absolutely. For a start she’s got a fantastic voice and I’m getting to know her work. I was obviously already aware of her and her work and thought it was excellent. So I’m very much looking forward to it. Harmonising is one of my favourite things to do. So not only am I going to have a choir but also a fellow solo artist – it’s great.
AM: Do you think bringing in highly recognised artists from pop culture helps people to access more classical inspired work?
AS: Yeah I guess it does. It’s hard for me to say because I’ve come from the other way round. I’m from a very classical background and it’s been a journey for me going towards pop music via classical. So I suppose it can work both ways.
AM: And finally, what pieces would you recommend for someone just starting out with this type of music?
AS: I would listen to Grizzly Bear, which I’m sure lots of people know. They do some pretty amazing stuff with choirs. Also there’s a composer called Max Richter who wrote a series of pieces. One called Infra which was set as a dance by the Royal Ballet. Also connected to that style are people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass whose style is very melodic and rhythmical, something that you might recognise from pop music.
AM: That’s great, thanks for talking to us
To read more about Ana’s performance at Reverb 2012 and to buy tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
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