Who or what inspired you to take up cello, and make it your career?
I never wanted to play the cello! But luckily for me, my career wasn’t dictated by a choice I made aged four and a half. I was very fortunate to be in a primary school in inner London that participated in a scheme run by the Centre for Young Musicians, whereby cello and violin lessons were offered to primary aged children, and when the initial letter came home in my bag outlining these lessons I said a resounding no. One term later a gap appeared in the cello group, and I went along with my friend in order to escape some other activity in the school day, and here I am now! I will never ever forget crossing the school playground to go to the library hut where the lessons took place for that first time, holding my friend’s hand, I know how the sun felt, what I was wearing, the smell of the library, and the sight of what became my first cello, a quarter size beauty with ILEA scratched on the back. Without doubt it was the brilliant, enlightened and what I now recognise as freeing approach of the teachers, especially my teacher Vicky Miller, that inspired me continuously and enabled me to sculpt my own career as a solo cellist and composer.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Spirituality in the widest sense, and of course music. Tchaikovsky Symphony 6. Rapidly followed by Whitesnake circa 1987 (a great year of rock) and the first time I heard the music of Arvo Pärt, and then listened to this great man say the words “Jesu Cristo” (in answer to an interviewer’s question), and recognising (I think) and respecting the profound and complex meaning this faith has for him. I have my own quite firm spiritual beliefs, (not related to any traditional religion I hasten to add) and at times I find these meditations or invocations to be profoundly influential in the way that I write, or more accurately what I can be a conduit for. On a more down to earth level, pretty much everything has been an important influence! The strength of the brilliant tuition with the CYM carried me back to my cello after a 7 year hiatus following the completion of my performance degree. I was knocked way off course, and left with absolutely no confidence musically and no desire to play my cello after graduation, just one of those things, but when I did return to the cello it was with the spirit of the freedom and joy of music that the CYM staff gave me. I now study with Gwyn Pritchard who is someone I cannot imagine life without. When I’m with Gwyn I feel I want to record every single thing he says, it’s all relevant, related, and delivered with this ability to inspire such belief and confidence. He gets to the centre of the soul of sound, music, whether we discuss cello playing or composition. He is my guru! And the unconditional love and support of my parents and my family gives me both direction and freedom. Having my daughter Eila in 2012 has had a profound influence on my music, largely because I learned how to practice and indeed write in 10 minute bursts! Much of my album ‘Caldera’ was written in these early, earthy months, and I love being a mum.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have an unusual career, insofar as I play concerts all over the world, but mainly I play the music I have written, with occasional ‘guest spots’ of traditional or contemporary solo repertoire. I would feel easier if I could say to you “oh, the greatest challenge was the time I played the Dvorak with such and such famous orchestra in a huge concert hall…”, but that’s not the truth – and me playing the Dvorak is pretty unlikely though one never knows I suppose! My greatest challenge has been myself. I’ve had to do quite a bit of work to overcome my own imposed limitations, to shed myself of the feeling that I’m somehow ‘not good enough’ or without some kind of special power that other widely known soloists seem to embody with ease. Having said that, there is a large chunk of truth attached to that feeling. I’m not good enough to be a great soloist, I’m not a concerto girl, and I think part of the problem for me has been my own (mis)conception that there is only ‘one way’ to be a cellist. Luckily I know that’s not the case now, but it took a bit of time, and was quite a rollercoaster emotionally too. I’ve only recently acknowledged the fact that I am fiercely ambitious and really quite driven in my work, and that’s been a big eye opener for me.
On a lighter and more practical note, it’s sometimes a challenge to work with the technology that I use and keep both hands and feet doing what they are supposed to do (I play my electric cello standing up and use a loop station and an effects board) whilst rattling through some ghastly col legno loop that somehow has to stay in time. That kind of thing, that’s a challenge for me! And allowing the juxtaposition I suppose between highly focussed practical application, the physical aspect of playing my cello, coupled with a non-tangible, emotional yet somehow elemental aspect, allowing the two to co-exist and each being valid and essential. I’m not sure, the more I think about it the more confused I get which isn’t ideal in an interview! And if I was being frivolous I’d say in this line of performance there are times when finding the venue can be a bit of a challenge too – I’m thinking both of the M1 here, and navigating around Japan a few years ago with Tallulah Rendall…
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I always feel a great pride in my recordings, because I know very well the feeling of the blank page, the wav with nothing in it, and the looming deadline, and for me the recording (and more-so the creation) process is a journey that is always unexpected, at times harsh; equally exhilarating and humbling. Each album or EP has somehow developed me as a composer and cellist. ‘Caldera’ has some tracks on that I never knew I could write. Or play for that matter, I’m thinking especially of ‘Adder Stone’ and ‘Amberay’. I’ve also just finished a big piece for Australian filmmaker Michael Fletcher, called ‘This Path With Grace’, and that piece has set a new benchmark for me. It’s built (as is often the way) from a very small fragment, it’s what I call the DNA of the piece, but it just seemed to unfold and arise and became something I didn’t recognise, that I felt in awe of. I don’t mean the compositional merits, I mean the energy that the piece evokes. I’ve even got a choir in there, which obviously makes the solo version a bit tricky, so I’ve got a couple of ways I can play this, solo, or with ensemble.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Probably whatever I am studying or writing at the time, because that’s where my musical focus is. From a traditional point of view, when I’m ‘on it’ I think I do some of the Bach Suites fairly acceptably. I have a very close and complex relationship with these suites, as do all cellists I imagine, but I distinctly feel strong personalities, and I feel infused with different energies when I consider each of them. Quite often when I am invited to perform on ‘acoustic cello’ it’s with the proviso of ‘play anything you like’ so I would usually play some of mine, ‘The Hidden Forest’ and ‘A Leaf’ and then ‘A Key’, for example, book-ending a Bach suite. Post-CYM I had a very unsettling teaching experience with the D minor suite, and it’s only lately I’ve been able to return to that one without feeling sick, and I’m so glad I got over that! I never quite know how I’m going to play them, sometimes I tip the hat to authenticity and sometimes I prefer to languish a bit with them, it depends how I’m feeling really. And I do like a more agricultural approach to the gigues most of the time if you know what I mean, just ballsy. As long as I believe what I’m doing, or feel certain of my intention it feels OK somehow!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’ll have to adapt this question a bit if you don’t mind. I chose my concert programme for each performance with several factors in mind. The first is length of programme, some concerts are 40 mins, some are 80, some have an interval, some don’t etc, and the set needs to be paced well for my sake and the audience. Many of my pieces are quite ‘long’ in terms of gig audiences, especially as I write and perform instrumental music. For an audience used to classical concerts my ‘long’ pieces at 10 minutes are rather short, and so I have to bear in mind to some extent to whom I am playing, and the venue. If I’m on stage following a goth rock band I’ll want to keep it upbeat with perhaps a considered reflective moment two thirds of the way through. If I am playing in a concert hall to a seated audience I can take my time and build from my simple elegiac looped quartet Vigil in to something much more drastic by the end of the set.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch because I’ve played several concerts there, including a big one when I was 6 months pregnant, where I was joined by 11 brilliant musicians from across the globe, plus Amy Richardson-Impey, pole-dancer extraordinaire (in a church, it was awesome!) to interpret my first album ‘From The Sea’. So I’ll always have fond memories of St Len’s, and Rev Paul Turp. I’ve played some stunning venues in Australia, on my last tour a beautiful open air stage just outside Perth especially springs to mind, the sounds of the bush and the vast Australian night sky right there, all around us. It was breathtaking and I’m hoping to discover even more beautiful spaces to play when I head back in late February. And the Schauspiel Theatre in Leipzig too, because it was the scene of my first solo concert in Germany, I was dead nervous and the crew were fantastic and made me giggle just before I went on, so it was a good one!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love listening to the Brandenburgs, well, any Bach actually. Perfection in so many ways. And I am very fond of Debussy, especially the piano Preludes (book 1) that I sort of hack through now and then feeling rather pleased if I get to the end minus a few notes. Actually that’s one of my favourites to perform come to think of it, the Debussy cello and piano sonata. It’s unbridled, so dark in places, so resigned at the end. Again, powerful stuff. And Pink Floyd ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is an album I’ll return to over and over again. I fall in love with music, and it forever belongs to that moment or time in my life, so I have strong associations built with both classical and contemporary works, which means I chose what I listen to very carefully.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I listen to all sorts of cellists regularly, the well known greats and the lesser known equally great ones that YouTube flags up, it’s such a superb way to hear performance interpretations and watch too. I learn lots by watching cellists. Then there’s Matt Howden, a looping violinist. He’s a great friend of mine, a colleague I’ve worked with often, and a real inspiration. He’s on fire live, you have to see him. Actually, everyone I work with is a favourite! I am lucky to do a lot of session gigs too, and I work with artists from opera singers to rock and metal musicians, and they are all fantastic. I learn so much from each of them. Quite recently I played a concert with a rap artist who was phenomenal. I’ve never ever seen anyone on stage like that before, in any field of music, classical or otherwise. It was probably only 5 seconds of performance in the middle of one track but it felt like an hour to me, where he was clearly channelling something unseen, it was a pivotal moment for me to witness that kind of power on stage, and also the way he surrendered to and controlled it too.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
To date it has to be in March last year, where I was invited by orchestra Cappella Gedanensis (from Gdansk, Poland) to come and play a concert of my music with them. Jos Pijnappel arranged several of my pieces for me on solo electric cello and the orchestra and choir, and we also played Tavener’s ‘Svyati’ (on electric cello, it worked really well weirdly!). I was playing my music to a packed church full of Baroque music enthusiasts and I am honoured to say they gave me such a rapturous, warm reception and went beserk at the end, and I was in tears. I’ve never done anything like that before, and we have plans for a re-run next year in Poland, I’m very excited. It was always my secret ambition to one day play my music with an orchestra and I just feel so lucky to have met Cappella Gedanensis, they are unparalleled musicians and really really nice people too.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
From a performance point of view? Believe in what you do, and do it with verve and aplomb. Even if you have no monitors! In all seriousness, I think it’s critical to be focused, to work hard, to study, learn, practice etc but there’s also a big factor in stage craft, and that side of being a musician is not teachable, you just have to get on stage, on platform or on floor and play your music, from start to finish, come what may, without stopping, and with conviction, irrespective of what happened in your dress rehearsal or sound check, good or bad, and then you start to learn the shape of things. I think this is true whether you’re a composing performer or repertoire performer. Well, it is true for me anyway.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the arrangements of several short pieces for my amazing cello quartet that we will be performing as part of my next concert on 7th February. I’m doing a real mixed bag, held together only by the common thread that it’s music I like, that means something to me, so stuff by Schein and Bartok as well as something from the Fame soundtrack and some Nine Inch Nails etc. I’ve almost finished the arrangements, and at the same time I’m doing arrangements of some of my pieces for an ensemble in Tasmania that I’ll be playing with in March, so in short lots of dots is what I’m working on! I’ve begun sketching ideas for my next album too, and once ‘This Path With Grace’ is out I’ll feel more able to focus I think. I tend to feel more able to write once the previous project has been released, in whatever capacity. ‘Caldera’ is presented as a beautiful 10 page card book (inspired by the literature I was reading to Eila at the time!) with CD insert, so that took a lot of work, and in contrast ‘This Path’ will be a download only, though there is a stunning 20 minute film attached to it. I usually have a few projects on the go at once, and true to this I’ve two session collaborations sitting in Logic at the moment waiting to get out of the starting block. Things are busy, and I feel very thankful!
What is your most treasured possession?
Outside of the normal things like Eila’s first babygrow it would be my cellos, and my copy of ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves’. My mum gave it to me on my 21st birthday, and it’s been both a gift and a blessing.
What is your present state of mind?
Serene, I’ve got three children sleeping peacefully upstairs (I borrowed two of them from my sister!) and I’ve had a glass of wine whilst answering these questions, so the world looks good to me. And I found a fantastic luthier called Colin last week who swiftly sorted out a ‘string height feels funny all of a sudden’ situation I was having, so double serenity. Triple serenity! They are worth their weight in gold eh.
Many thanks for your participation in this project.
Frances Wilson LTCL