Oliver Coates, ‘possibly the busiest and most popular cellist in contemporary music’, has collaborated with composers including Mira Calix, Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi. He has also created an album of drone and micro-electronic sounds, Crystals are Always Forming, with Leo Abrahams. Oliver spoke to John Wadsworth ahead of performing as part of a double-bill concert with Elaine Mitchener at OVADA, on June 1st.
Despite an output and concert repertoire that cross many musical boundaries, do you think that your conservatoire training will always mark you out first and foremost as a ‘classical’ musician?
Great question. I didn’t know about classical music as an umbrella term for what I did when I was little, becoming more and more obsessed with music. In my late teens during my time at RAM [the Royal Academy of Music] no one used that term. I was engaged each day with specific tasks: how to articulate the music of Bach, how to negotiate a relationship with a composer who would become a friend, how to share their worldview, how to find empathy with musicians from all over. These days I have an object oriented approach – I can see that the words ‘classical’ or ‘jazz’ have inputs and outputs, distinctions which are maintained, practices protected. They exist in media and industry, all with good reason. This is not necessarily the case amongst practitioners of sound, even among listeners, and with language you can get far more specific and accordingly open more doors. I use funny combinations of words – entropic, washed out, creeping, glowing, dystopian. I’m working on a dance record. I want to focus more on sounds and bodies in spaces, music as medicine. African rumba has been on my mind after an encounter with a particular producer last week.
Would you argue that the cello is more conducive to genre hopping than other instruments?
It’s good for cultural hopping. It opens up love and warmth wherever you go – in airports or places far away from the UK. The whole unit, the case, the questions of transit, the colour of the wood, then the sound once heard is gratifying in new spaces, just bass notes without ideas attached. I try to allow outside sounds to influence the way I draw the bow across the string – medieval music or techno. You have to filter the resonance, working with a singer-songwriter for example; it can dominate the emotional bandwidth.
You collaborated with Mica Levi on her soundtrack for the film Under the Skin, and have since gone on to perform excerpts live. How does playing the score onstage differ from recording in the studio?
There was a score to start with and some aspects of the score we obeyed precisely, and some of the cues we used as departure to improvise with. Then for a few precise moments I was called back in to track, to record some harmonics to duet with Mica’s viola. We played a full stage version with the film in the RFH [Royal Festival Hall] last year and this was a new arrangement based on how the music was eventually edited to the film. And then another extract, ‘Love’, I made using layers of multitrack cello, which I figured out away from the original sessions.
In a previous interview, you have spoken about playing music as ‘a kind of excuse, or a structure, to celebrate buildings.’ In this respect, do you believe that the concert hall tradition is an acousto-spatially stifling one?
No! My statement applies to the concert hall tradition too. There are all kinds of concert hall traditions – Hendrix played at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve never felt stifled in a concert hall. The music makes the difference, not the tradition; there are great and bad instances of all kinds of practices. Analysis of this sort leads to conclusions which don’t take into account unique human experience. I’m not only talking about warehouses. You have to work hard to be yourself, for example, in the Wigmore Hall – the green room is full of pictures of Casals and Isserlis. I worked with a magician in there and we had some live animals, and also worked with Jocelyn Pook on a big piece about mental health, and that helped me a lot. The nineteenth-century architectural vision of the audience narrowly funnelled through an entry door before the reveal of a wide open space is a powerful thing. Also powerful is the idea of democratised space, where the stage boundary is a bit more permeable. I’m into walking onstage and improvising these days, responding to the room unpremeditated. I take my cue from Horowitz. He did that in Carnegie Hall; he came on and played simple chords.
A photograph on your website shows you using a Bach Bogen bow, which enables a cellist to play all four strings at once. Do you think that contemporary compositions for cello should complement extended techniques with such ‘extended’ instrumental components?
Every day I try to lose ‘shoulds’ or ‘should-nots’ or ‘oughts’. I want unmediated expression, codified love; whatever materials come to hand can be good enough. MIDI flute with a pitch bend might be the perfect sound. Writing for cello is about finding sounds you like and putting them in some kind of order.
How did you come to select your set list for your concert at OVADA, co-promoted by Oxford Contemporary Music, at June 1st?
Knowledge of space, and awareness of Tim Hand’s expertise putting on great shows for OCM. I’ve chosen a couple of virtuoso classic cello experiences, such as Xenakis’ Kottos, some Messiaen, music for curved bow, and I’m performing some of my own recent tonal works.
Oliver Coates will be performing at OVADA on June 1st, as part of a double-bill concert along with singer Elaine Mitchener, promoted by Oxford Contemporary Music. Tickets can be booked in advance here, and you can read our interview with Elaine here.