Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

The latest brilliant release from cellist-composer Jo Quail is an album that speaks of mirrors, doubles and opposites. Always an artist that convinces equally whether one views her music as avant-garde classical or underground electronica, ‘Exsolve’ is Jo’s most perfect expression yet of how to create pieces that somehow inhabit, yet defy genre at the same time.

I’m sure this is also what makes her music such a pleasure to write about – as I have done frequently, including CD liner notes. Jo builds her compositions around electric cello, fed into a loop station that she simultaneously operates like a second instrument – allowing her to play almost all her material live, solo, standing (her feet dancing across the pedals as she creates layer upon layer of rhythm and melody).

But from first note to last, ‘Exsolve’ thrives on creative tension, looking inward and examining head-on this marriage of ancient/acoustic and modern/electronic. As instrumentals so often do, Jo’s music always becomes ‘visual’ for me, provoking images, memories even, in my mind. Water is a recurring motif in earlier JQ track titles, and here I inescapably thought of Turner’s ship caught in the Snow Storm. Throughout, it felt like something was breaking through, a kind of sonic or atmospheric disruption – depending on your personal tastes, this could be as menacing as Cthulhu or as exhilarating as a cloudburst.

New tunings and new sounds help to make this a classic ‘headphones’ record, as Jo explores distortion and percussive techniques to conjure a military drum tattoo or a doom-laden bass riff from her cello. When listening, you really are surrounded: the music closes in, each of the three lengthy tracks building not necessarily in volume, but in presence, intensity (‘Exsolve’ was produced by Chris Fielding and mastered by James Griffith: plaudits to them for the album’s fearsome clarity).

Another creative pair of ‘opposites’ the album reflects is the personal with the collaborative. For such a self-sufficient performer, Jo has always featured guests on her albums and sought to programme live events with full bands or classical performers. ‘Exsolve’ welcomes three visitors, who play a crucial role on one piece each. Dan Capp and Nik Sampson both contribute heroically exciting guitar parts, while Lucie Dehli adds her supernaturally fluid vocalese in an unforgettable cameo. But while these guest appearances gesture towards extreme metal and even jazz, they blend perfectly into the array of unearthly sounds already coming from the cello.

Classical and metal really are ‘twinned’ here, in a way quite distinct from, say, hard rock bands using orchestras or string sections for added bombast (not that there’s a problem with that!). Album by album, Jo has been assembling tracks more like parts of suites or sequences, and ‘Exsolve’ – with its three ‘movements’ that are both coherent stand-alone pieces, but which all contribute and develop towards a key central idea – can almost feel like a concerto for cello and studio. In this respect, it’s a genuinely avant-garde classical achievement. Yet, at the same time, it reaches a powerful heaviness borne of thunderous riffs and insistent hooks. In other words, it rocks.

If ‘Exsolve’ tells me a story, it’s of these two genres almost struggling for supremacy within Jo’s music. The balance shifts this way and that. The insistent, cyclic guitar that takes control of ‘Forge’ gives way to the acoustic ‘Of Two Forms’ section. The dancing pizzicato of ‘Mandrel Cantus’ breaks into atonal soloing, distorted cello riffs and a final guitar explosion – but then its steady comedown progression dissolves into the chiming, Pärt-like coda. Finally, however, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ brings matters to a head, its keening melody and agitated reel leading to a seismic shift and temporary sonic limbo, before the finale crashes through. No guitars this time: the cello supplies the heaviness, the electricity, and ultimately the full force of the wordless vocal is unleashed, resolving the conflict and bringing equilibrium with a triumphant, euphoric female battle cry.

A fascinating and beautiful listen, as always. And especially here, addictive, cathartic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZHZl2ARMfI

(Video edit of ‘Mandrel Cantus’, filmed by Simon Kallas and Michael Fletcher.)

Jo releases her music independently, so you can buy physical and/or digital versions of ‘Exsolve’ – along with all her earlier work – directly from Bandcamp. Dive in here. [link: https://joquail.bandcamp.com/]


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Who or what inspired you to take up the ‘cello and pursue a career in music? 

Having had a brief and disastrous career on the piano aged five (6 lessons and the teacher sacked me for being ‘totally unmusical’), when I was seven I heard a cellist, loved the sound, and announced I would be a professional one day with my own helicopter. I’m still saving up.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I have been influenced by many things around me in my life – famous cellists of course (Yo-Yo Ma, Rostropovich, Casals etc), but also by Russians and their approach, by my wife, Viktoria Mullova and her uncompromisingly pure and selfless approach to music-making. But there are two influences that are not so obvious. I grew up on the Beatles and the aspect of their output I find most fascinating is that they did everything with love – at least until the last year or two – and this really shows in their music. George Harrison remarked that whenever any of them had an idea the response would always be ‘yes’ from the rest of the band, and that philosophy I aspire to – the positivity, inclusivity and humanity at the centre of the music. Also, I was profoundly influenced by watching the film The Thin Red Line. I was in a hotel room in Sydney and watched this brilliantly made war film and it completely destroyed me – I was a weeping wreck by the end, and the thing that exercised me most was, ‘what can I do to respond to this’? It just felt so impossible to do nothing, but what can a cellist do in the face of the inhumanity of our world? The only thing I could come up with was that I must practice and play with more heart, more dedication, and challenge myself every day to do better – in short to do my utmost every day to become the best I possibly can and help to add a happy and fulfilled grain of sand to the beach of the world. It is a lifelong task and one I take seriously, although I’m aware of how small one man’s contribution is, but that film was a deep inspiration.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Working with my physiotherapist to overcome a skiing injury, and a hypnotherapist to overcome stage nerves were big mountains to climb.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m probably most proud of the last concerto performances before a short sabbatical I took this year. The cello concerto by HK Gruber is one of the hardest every written and I played it with the BBC Phil and Gruber conducting at Bridgewater Hall. I had such a good time playing. The orchestra were just awesome, Bridgewater Hall is very kind to cellos and I was very happy. Then a few weeks later I had 3 performances of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil in Mexico in beautiful halls where I felt totally free and comfortable onstage – Stephen Layton conducted like a dream so that I was absolutely liberated to make music without having to worry about anything. Heaven.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

The Protecting Veil is a special one for me (see above), because I don’t approach it as a piece of classical music, but more from my experience of Indian classical music and improvisation – it was the music of India that inspired John Tavener as he was writing it. I enjoy playing it SO much!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

Pretty random really – sometimes just because people ask me, and sometimes I decide what I want to play on a whim.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Dartington Great Hall, Wigmore Hall, St George’s Brandon Hill Bristol, Beethovenhaus in Bonn, the new hall in Cremona…well, quite a few – places where the cello can really sing.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Right now it’s all about gorgeous Brazilian music – Egberto Gismonti, Jobim, Danilo Caymmi, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Chico Buarque. And of course Bach is always there in the centre, recently inspired by reading John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant book, Music in the Castle of Heaven.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Carlos Kleiber, The Beatles, Beethoven, Bach, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Lennox, Glenn Gould, Bernstein, Casals, Stevie Wonder – well, hundreds of them really…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Mahler 9 with the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado at the Proms in 1991. I would have laughed if you had told me that one day I would raise his wonderful son, Misha. Life is beautifully unpredictable.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

So long as it is done with with true sincerity from the heart, you are on the right track.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is making the sound that comes out of the cello the same as the one in my head.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Anywhere with family and friends.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being anywhere with family and friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My cello, of course.

What do you enjoy doing most? Breathing.

What is your present state of mind? 

Sitting on a train, passing a beautiful river, ducks flying overhead in formation. All is good.


Matthew Barley is internationally known as cellist, improviser, arranger, music animateur, and Artistic Director of Between The Notes. His musical world is focused on projects that connect people in different ways, blurring the boundaries that never really existed between genres and people.

As a soloist and chamber musician he has performed in over 50 countries, including appearances with the BBC Scottish (Volkov) and Philharmonic (Hazlewood), the Melbourne Symphony (Tortelier), New Zealand Symphony (Tan Dun), Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Netherland Radio Symphony (Stenz), Czech Philharmonic, Vienna Radio Symphony, Kremerata Baltica, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National (Alsop), and London Chamber Orchestra. He has performed at festivals in Lucerne, Schleswig-Holstein, Bonn-Beethovenfest, Hong Kong, Lanaudiere, Abu Dhabi, Krakow, City of London and in recent seasons has performed at some of the world’s great concert halls: London’s Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Kumho Hall in Korea, Pablo Casals Hall in Tokyo, The Rudolfinium In Prague, and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. A key aspect of his recitals is mixing repertoire in unusual ways, pairing Bach suites with jazz and improvisation. He is particularly interested in music with electronics, having commissioned works from many composers including Dai Fujikura, Peter Wiegold, DJ Bee, John Metcalfe and Jan Bang. He has given other premieres of pieces written for him by James MacMillan, Thomas Larcher, Detlev Glanert, John Woolrich, and Fraser Trainer.

Read more here

(artist photo © Nick White)

Julian Lloyd Webber, acclaimed cellist and Principal of the newly rebuilt Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, on inspiration, passion and the importance of music education

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Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?

I always loved the sound of the cello and I found it a very natural instrument to play – unlike the piano which my mother attempted to teach me. Therein lies a lesson: never learn an instrument from your parents!

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I wanted to play the cello professionally after I heard the great Russian cellist Rostropovich in concert.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

Every performance is a challenge.

You are a passionate advocate of music education? Why do you feel we need proper provision for music education in our schools?

Children deserve a wider education than just a few narrow subjects. They should leave school knowing a lot about the world – and that includes its culture.

As Principal of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, how do you see this institution’s role in the context of music education in the UK and beyond, and the wider society of the city of Birmingham and the UK in general?

Birmingham is a fantastic city with a great future – soon Londoners will realise that they can have a far better lifestyle for much less cost in Birmingham. Unfortunately that will be the end of the city’s comparatively low property prices. The Royal Conservatoire will be at the heart of the city. We have five performance spaces and we will be running an extensive programme of concerts of every kind of music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Keep thinking for yourself and never lose your passion for what you do.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Bringing music to as many people as possible.
Professor Julian Lloyd Webber is the Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire. Widely regarded as one of the finest musicians of his generation and described by Strad magazine as ‘the doyen of British cellists’, Julian Lloyd Webber has enjoyed one of the most creative and successful careers in classical music today. As founder of the British Government’s In Harmony programme and the Chair of Sistema England, he continues to promote personal and community development in some of England’s most deprived areas. He was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1994 and – in recognition of his lifelong devotion to the music of Elgar – he was elected President of the Elgar Society in 2009.

At the age of sixteen Julian Lloyd Webber won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and he completed his studies in Geneva with the renowned cellist, Pierre Fournier. Since then he has collaborated with an extraordinary array of musicians from Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Lorin Maazel and Sir Georg Solti to Elton John and Stephane Grappelli.

Julian Lloyd Webber has premiered more than sixty works for cello and he has inspired new compositions from composers as diverse as Joaquin Rodrigo and Malcolm Arnold to Philip Glass, James MacMillan and – most recently – Eric Whitacre. His many recordings have received worldwide acclaim: his Brit-award winning Elgar Concerto conducted by Lord Menuhin was chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine and his coupling of Britten’s Cello Symphony and Walton’s Concerto with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner was described by Gramophone magazine as being “beyond any rival”. He has also recorded several highly successful CDs of shorter pieces including Cello Song, Unexpected Songs and – together with Jiaxin Lloyd Webber – A Tale of Two Cellos: “It would be difficult to find better performances of this kind of repertoire anywhere on records of today or yesterday” – Gramophone.

Julian is married to fellow cellist Jiaxin Cheng. He was the London Underground’s first official busker and he was the only classical musician chosen to perform at the Closing Ceremony of Olympics 2012. In April 2014 Julian received the Incorporated Society of Musician’s annual Distinguished Musician Award.

www.julianlloydwebber.com

jo-quail-five-incantationsAdrian Ainsworth nominates Jo Quail: ‘Five Incantations’

In recent years, my listening has evolved and expanded from rock/folk/electronica more and more towards the labyrinth of listening options that is ‘classical music’… So perhaps it’s no wonder that one of my favourite artists is someone who is continually developing along those lines as a musician.

Jo Quail is a cellist and composer who produces work primarily (but not exclusively) for performance on her own electric cello, plus loop station. This electronic aspect allows her to write pieces that develop layer upon layer into something genuinely, and at times overwhelmingly, orchestral. Part of the exhilaration of seeing her live is to watch how the tracks build: the total absence of trickery, the obvious presence of melodic/harmonic invention, and rhythmic precision.

Because she emerged from, broadly speaking, the avant-garde ‘underground rock’ world, it’s still perhaps most common to encounter JQ supporting a heavy instrumental guitar band, or quietly wowing a festival crowd on the continent. But when she stages a concert of her own, she gives her ‘classical’ side equal weight – as with her recent composition for electric and acoustic cellos, percussion and choir, ‘This Path with Grace’. (To me, it’s a mystery why a label like NMC or ECM aren’t paying more attention – perhaps it’s a side-effect of JQ building her fanbase in all corners of the music-going public?)

However, her latest recording ‘Five Incantations’ is, in its own way, her most ambitious and fully-realised project yet. The ‘incantations’ are related movements that form a kind of suite, or single-player concerto, for cello and electronics. As we’re guided through the elements, the mood shifts between driving, stately anthems and near-ambient, gliding pauses for reflection. Overall, the work is designed for listening in one sitting – and JQ plays it live, entirely solo, in an unbroken, 40-minute sequence.

That said, ‘Gold’ is perhaps the section that can most readily stand alone. Before the album’s release, JQ issued an alternative mix of this particular track, and I’m very fond of it – I return to it often, especially if I don’t have time to play the whole CD. It encapsulates the attractions of her music beautifully. The unhurried patience of the tune as it nestles in your brain; the heartbeat rhythm (created by striking the cello) dovetailing with the harsher, bowed punctuation points that kick in after around five minutes; the way the loops allow various parts to ‘slot’ in and out until finally fitting together like a musical jigsaw.

If you like this, please investigate further on JQ’s Bandcamp page (https://joquail.bandcamp.com/album/five-incantations), where you can listen to – and buy – her music.

(To give an idea of the ‘live’ experience with something a little more pacy than ‘Gold’, here is a performance of ‘Laurus’ from the previous album ‘Caldera’ – the video allows you to see the quickfire use of loop pedals, all managed in a near-balletic style while playing an absolute blinder with the hands!)

Meet the Artist……Jo Quail

Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

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Photo credit: Philip Gatward
Photo credit: Philip Gatward

Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?

My parents were both dentists, but my mother was a keen amateur harpsichord player. I started as a very good recorder player and gradually ran out of music as I devoured everything!! My parents had friends who were Dutch baroque musicians who recommended I start learning a string instrument. I said I wanted to play the biggest – as they didn’t have an estate car at the time they lied, so I am a cellist not a bass player!

I went to Chethams’ School of Music at 9 years old but had only really been playing cello for a year.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Early on I would say Jacqueline du Pré, like many cellists of my generation. I became obsessed with new music after hearing Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’ for my 10th birthday at the Royal Opera House, so I suppose this experience changed my musical direction. 

I met my former husband, the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, at 22 years old. His music always meant a huge amount to me and I was lucky he wrote for me a lot. We also both shared a huge passion for jazz and as he worked with musicians such as John Scofield and Peter Erskine this had a huge influence in the music and players I was interested in playing and collaborating with.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

There have been many challenges but for me it has been building the self-belief and confidence which has very much effected the timing of my career. I was all set up and ready to launch into the profession in my early 20’s, but it felt much more natural to support someone else, especially someone whose work I really believed in.  Once I had the children I began the usual work/family life struggle everyone has. I have been a single mother now for three years so I have been trying to rebuild my life as well as restart my career on top of bringing up two very young children – to be honest every day is a struggle! Their father has moved down the road which has helped hugely and we organise diaries so the children are generally with one of us whilst the other works. Mark is a very hands on Dad and I am also lucky to have some incredibly supportive friends, mainly musicians, who have stood beside me during the challenging times.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of a chamber music disc I did for Toccata Classics of all of Hugh Wood’s chamber music with the London Archduke trio, Paul Silverthorne and Roger Heaton. We recorded it at Champs Hill a few years ago.  I adore Hugh’s music and chose to perform his Cello Concerto with the Royal College of Music Sinfonietta when I won the concerto trials in my last year of college.

I’m also proud of jazz  recordings I have done as those sessions have always been a massive musical learning experience for me. Ian Shaw, Judith Owen and Barb Jungr’s albums, on which I have featured, I still enjoy listening to as their artistry is so wonderful! Most of the time I find it almost painful hearing old recordings.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

The two things I really enjoy doing and suppose feel comfortable  with now are the polar opposites musically. I have always loved working with classical contemporary composers – the stranger the music and the more demanding the better. I play lots of Lachenmann and Xenaxis when I can choose my own programmes. This is the music which I have always felt very natural  interpreting, probably more so than anything else.

On the other end of the spectrum, I love my work as a session ‘cellist. I like making the switch between styles and improvising does not fill me with dread. I relish the speed needed in interpreting something fast that has normally just been printed off and placed in front of me. Working closely with the artist and great producers in the moment can be very thrilling.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I tend to try and programme the same group for a run of concerts or festivals as it’s always nice working with the same players and programmes for more than a one-off performance. I work in so many different capacities as a ‘cellist the kind of booking I get will determine the repertoire. I feel quite passionately that if people are kept ‘safe’ from new music and not exposed to it because of their demographic/concert venue, then how will people ever get a chance to make a judgment themselves? I have been known to present a programme of Vivaldi, Stravinsky, Bach, Earth Wind and Fire and Kaija Sarriaho as I believe in every piece as good music. The musicians I work with on these programmes play each piece with the same passion and integrity which is crucial.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favourite venue would have to be The Forge in Camden, north London, with whose owners I have had a close relationship with since they opened. I love the fact it’s run by musicians and is down the road from me as I am a north London girl now. I have launched both my duo ‘G Project’ with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins and my show ‘Gabriella Swallow and her Urban Family’ there, and both have been happy occasions.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love playing Helmet Lachenmann’s Solo cello piece Pression. I was fortunate enough to work with Helmut intensively  on the piece and was invited to perform it for his 75th birthday in the Konzerthaus, Berlin. He essentially made me grow new ears: he hears music in the most intense way and transcribes and describes what he wants so perfectly.

I always get a wonderful musical lift from playing Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances with my Quintet – Lizzie ball on violin, Pedro Segundo on drums, Bartek Glowacki on accordion and Dave Maric on piano. Every time we play it it’s slightly different. The tunes are so strong they keep going round my head for days after a show.

I tend to listen to music I don’t get a chance to play much – recently I’ve got obsessed with Ry Cooder after I returned from a trip to make an album in LA. Harry Shearer and a number of the artists featuring on the album are big fans and spent one evening playing me all their favourite songs. I’m also a big D’Angelo fan and recently saw him live for the first time at Hammersmith Apollo.

Who are your favourite musicians?

A very tough question as I’m meeting them all the time and I could list many. 

The musicians with who I am in groups with I have a huge amount of respect for: Genevieve Wilkins from G project, Judith Owen and her band, all my Urban Family collaborators, cellist Guy Johnston, Lizzie Ball-we share similar values and musical tastes and all stand out as people I like to work with and spend time with too. The two classical singers (although they do so much more!) I admire are Ruby Hughes and Lucy Schaufer. 

I became a member of the Gwilym Simcock Quintet over two years ago now and I would say without a doubt Gwilym is one of the greatest musicians I have worked with – the whole quintet actually (Thomas Gould, Yuri Goloubev and Martin France) are amazing and I always look forward to our concerts. 

Recently I have probably learnt the most from Leland Sklar, probably the most famous session bass player on the planet. When I have worked with him in sessions or gigs it’s pretty much been a masterclass every time.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been so many it’s almost impossible to say but for very personal reasons I would say my Urban Family Concerts both at the Forge and at Wilderness Festival last summer. I am musician who has spent most of my career playing for different artists’ projects and groups so it felt incredible that so many colleagues wanted to support me at these events.  Also seeing classical musicians let their hair down at Wilderness Festival because I brought them there to make music was one of those life-affirming moments!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Follow your own path – don’t look over your shoulder as everyone’s journey both musically and in life is different.

There is work out there – you have to be inventive sometimes and even create your own work. The profession changes constantly so it’s wise to be diverse and say yes to everything when you start out, especially during this financial climate.

Obviously everyone is different but I would strongly advise anyone who went through both the music school and music college system like I did (17 years in one unbroken stretch) to take some time out to experience life and truly find out what YOU want to do. This is one thing I really wish I had done differently – even though in my case I would still have probably ended up being a musician. I only started really mixing with non-musicians when I went to antenatal classes!

The damage psychologically of being institutionalised is almost the hardest thing to overcome; I think it took me til 31 to really make the decision for myself to be a ‘cellist and then work on having the confidence and belief to go for it and enjoy it fully.

What is your most treasured possession?

Letters my father wrote to me before I was born. He died nearly 5 years ago and I miss him terribly. I was very lucky to be given a collection of letters he wrote to me as a 49-year-old, half a year before I was born. He told me what kind of person he was, his fears and the love he already felt for me. He didn’t want me to read them whilst he was alive so I was given them for my 30th birthday just after he died, but I could only bring myself to read them two years later when they then gave me so much strength: it was almost like he was speaking to me.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from the obvious things like spending time with my kids and playing great music, it has to be boxing. I have always loved to box since I was a teenager but for the past year I’ve been training with a professional boxer, Tony Milch. It keeps me fit both physically and mentally and I love watching him in his matches – it’s a real buzz even if I can barely look! 

Gabriella Swallow has emerged as one of the most versatile and exciting cellists of her generation. She studied at The Royal College of Music with Jerome Pernoo. She was awarded the coveted Tagore Gold Medal and performed the Hugh Wood Cello Concerto in her final year. As a soloist Gabriella went on to make her South Bank debut with the London Sinfonietta in the world premiere of ‘About Water’ by Mark-Anthony Turnage. In the same year she performed Paul Max Edlin’s Cello Concerto with the South Bank Sinfonia, which firmly launched her place as a leading performer of contemporary music. This has led her to commission and work with many of the major living composers of today.

In 2013 she made her Wigmore Hall debut with the soprano Ruby Hughes and in the same season performed at the La Jolla SummerFest in San Diego, the Aldeburgh Festival with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Cambridge Jazz Festival as a member of the Gwilym Simcock Quintet.

Gabriella is the string curator of Music Orbit’s string night ‘Strung Out’ and performs frequently at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club ‘Classical Kicks’ night curated by violinist Lizzie Ball and at Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical club nights.

As a recording artist she has recorded all the chamber music of Hugh Wood for Toccata Classics with the London Archduke Piano Trio, which was released to critical acclaim in 2009. 2012 saw the release of ‘Ivr d’amour’, a disc of Massenet Songs where she appeared with soprano Sally Silver and celebrated pianist Richard Bonynge for the Guild label and also soprano Lucy Shaufer’s debut disc ‘Carpentersville’ for ABC Classics where Gabriella features as soloist. This CD was launched with a concert at The Aldeburgh Festival 2013.

In 2010 she co founded the duo ‘G Project’ with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins. They made their debut with a sellout concert at The Forge in Camden and continue to perform regularly in the UK and Europe. Alongside her classical career she regularly crosses over in the fields of jazz and pop and is a sought after session musician appearing on many movie and television scores. She has recorded with many of the leading Jazz musicians on the UK scene including Ian Shaw, Barb Jungr, Liane Carroll, Guy Barker, Laurence Cottle, Pedro Segundo, Graeme Flowers, Jannette Mason and Claire Martin OBE. She has performed and recorded with Skunk Anansie, Sade, Dionne Warwick, Charlotte Church and has been a member of Judith Owen’s band since 2007. This year she continues her collaboration with Gwilym Simcock’s Quintet, whose members include the violinist Thomas Gould.

Gabriella is also a passionate broadcaster and arts commentator and has been a regular guest on BBC 4’s coverage of The Proms, Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’ and ‘Music Matters’. She has been a guest speaker at the Bath Literary Festival and ‘The Battle of Ideas’. 

Gabriella plays a cello by Charles Harris Senior built in 1820 and an electric cello by Starfish Designs.

gabriellaswallow.com

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.

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