It has been over five years now since I was asked to act as Chairman of the Yamaha Music Europe Foundation (YMEF). During a coffee break, the conversation somehow turned to the subject of electric instruments. For many years I was a member of the Smith Quartet and we often worked with electronics and computers. Yamaha make electric string instruments and I asked if I could try a viola, and a few weeks later I found myself hooked up to my daughter’s electric guitar pedals, playing with loops and a whole host of effects that even I as a contemporary musical artist wasn’t really familiar with.
The sounds coming out of the instrument were amazing and really excited me, so I started wondering why the electric (solid body) viola wasn’t written for, in a classical sense. I bought more gear (the proverbial kid in a toy store) and as the range of sounds widened I asked a few songwriter friends to write something for me. Both jumped at the chance – Dominic Murcott, Head of Composition at Trinity Laban, who wrote Black land for electric viola and computer (a work that imagines what lies beneath the surface of Blackheath, a famous London area used as a burial ground for plague victims) and Colin Riley, who at the time was experimenting with hanging from acoustic instruments to reverberating objects. Colin’s resulting piece Fallen Angel used the pure direct signal generated by a solid body instrument and by connecting the signal to a variety of objects via transducers we were able to stimulate a whole range of objects to vibrate and essentially accompany the electric viola .
My mini set included crystal glasses, a tam tam, a bass drum and homemade percussion instruments. It was an extraordinary feeling to be able to control all of this with an arc. I hope these two works will feature on my next album alongside the immersive work of Hollie Harding Melt, change, liquid world for e.viola, the audience wore bone conduction headphones and a string ensemble. I’m recording it right now.
Needless to say, I found it all extremely exciting and was infatuated with the idea of creating new repertoire for what is potentially a new classical instrument.
While all this was happening, I also had the idea of transcribing Steve Reich’s text Electric counterpoint. It’s a piece I came to know well when my band, the Smith Quartet, played Different trains with the Siobhan Davies Dance Company in the 90s. I had always thought the track would work well for the strings; I think it was something about the lyricism of Pat Matheny’s electric guitar playing. I talked to Steve Reich about the idea of transcribing it for electric viola and he gave me his blessing, curious I think what it might sound like. A year and many hours in the studio later I sent the finished recording to Steve who wrote back saying;
“The idea that electric counterpoint could be arched had never really occurred to me. I had never heard this before and it really is an interesting twist on all the other mixes in the room.
Steve’s reaction was of course very encouraging and my sound designer John Marc Gowans and I joked about transcribing something else with even more parts and we had the crazy idea of transcribing Thomas Tallis’ seminal work Spem in Alium. This incredible piece of music dominated my musical life for another year, but was a total joy to record and a huge learning curve in terms of intonation, vocals and balance.
Multitracking so many parts is a very different process to recording with a quartet, when your colleagues are in the room with you and can adapt to each other. When recording multiple voices on your own, the need to retune becomes a big part of the process, as often a harmonic structure that sounded perfectly in tune with, say, seven voices suddenly becomes out of tune when the eighth voice is added. As you add each voice, the overall intonation gets more and more complicated, but eventually we ended up recording the final cadence.
We weren’t sure how we were going to perform the work until out of the blue I got an offer to play in Aberdeen at the Sound Festival. I floated the idea that maybe we could present it as a forty-speaker installation and to my delight they said yes. It was quite a technical challenge as we wanted the audience to be able to interrogate each individual voice and be able to clearly hear what was coming out of each individual speaker as well as a balanced version of the center point. Finding forty speakers wasn’t easy either, but we finally got there and the installation received incredible feedback.
Earlier I talked about trying to buckle up. It became an essential part of the performance when I came across Terry Riley’s 1965 work Dorien Roseaux which was originally written for soprano sax and tape delay. At this point I had decided that my first album would be all about “multiple” altos and I wanted to find a way to be multiple laterally rather than horizontally, and Dorien Roseaux matched the bill perfectly. When the piece was first performed the delay was created by tape recorders, but we wanted to create a digital delay which, although based on the original settings chosen by Terry Riley, used several additional delay lines – applied not only to audio input but also to aspects of tonal balance and spatial motion. I hope when you hear it you will agree that the overall effect is quite extraordinary.
Works by John Ashton Thomas (Variations on the fourth aria) and El Kendall (Bloom) completes my first album for Electric Viola and Several and is now available on the Orchid Classics label. I play both Reich and Riley at the First Light Festival in Lowestoft on the 18the and 19e of June. It should be a lot of fun, most of the festival takes place on the beach!