An interview with cellist Louise McMonagle to coincide with the release of her recording of Round by the Ness by Trish Clowes, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2022
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My parents sent my sisters and I along to the local music centre on Saturday mornings – it was called Bannerman Music School at the time, now called East Glasgow Music School. I am certain they had no idea how this would shape the rest of my life! It was here that I had my first cello lesson aged 6 and was lucky to have a very special teacher. Pamela Duffy had studied at Guildhall in London before returning to Glasgow. She was a buzz of inspiration and impossibly exciting stories from the big smoke, and she made lessons incredibly fun! Without this early influence I’m sure it would never have crossed my mind that I could end up a cellist in London!
After that there are so many influences and inspirations we would be here all day. But I want to mention a couple that stand out. When I was 12 I joined the Music School of Douglas Academy, a state funded centre for excellence in Glasgow. I can’t speak highly enough of my education there, where every music teacher made a huge impact on me. In our first term I remember the composition teacher William Sweeney playing us Alban Berg Violin Concerto. I heard only a random confusion of notes and remember us 12 year olds sneaking glances at each other – what is this! A few years later we listened to the piece again in music history and I was so shocked to discover it now sounded beautiful and was a piece of music that made sense to me. I remember having a little moment where I saw how much I must have learned without realising it.
Another really warm memory of my formative musical years was my time in Glasgow Schools Symphony Orchestra, who met once a year for a summer residency at Castle Toward on the Argyll peninsula. It can’t be overstated how magical it was for a bunch of city kids to spend a week by the sea in a remote castle! The conductor of the orchestra was composer John Maxwell Geddes, an extraordinary man and an inspiration to a whole generation of musicians from Glasgow. We often played pieces that he wrote specially for us, his Castle Suite for example, which I instantly loved. I remember being fascinated by the way the time signature kept changing!
When I look back at these experiences, and then look at the path I have taken it hammers home to me how important working with young people is, and the impact it can have.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Finding an instrument! This is a huge issue for string players in particular. I moved to London when I was 18 to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and I couldn’t believe my luck when they loaned me their stunning Testore cello for a number of years. It was a gorgeous instrument with incredible depth of sound. I’d never had an old cello before and enjoyed imagining how the cello had probably played my repertoire countless times before me! The experience will stay with me forever. But of course eventually it had to be returned, and on my budget searching for a cello to follow it was an impossible task!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
During the pandemic I took a very unexpected turn and decided to develop a YouTube channel. The idea came from my love for performing cello repertoire that steps outside the mainstream. Over the last 10 years I have worked on so many wonderful contemporary cello pieces directly with composers, but it struck me as sad that I had no record of most of these live performances. In lockdown I suddenly found myself with lots of time on my hands so I decided to challenge myself to start recording.
Live music has thankfully now returned, but I enjoyed my lockdown project so much that I’ve decided to continue on my mission. Today, on International Women’s Day, I have added a new piece written specially for me by composer and jazz saxophonist Trish Clowes. Although her background is jazz, Trish listens widely and her compositions have many influences. Trish has always held a particular fascination with a cello piece she heard me perform years ago, Heinz Holliger Chaconne from the Sacher Variations. It’s a piece that showcases many extended techniques and timbres that the cello can offer. Inspired by this, Trish decided to write Round By The Ness for me and I was intrigued to see how she took some of these techniques and translated them into her own musical language. You can watch the performance here:
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
These days I’m most known for performing music by living composers, and playing in contemporary music group the Riot Ensemble.
I joined the group 5 years ago and have given around 200 world and UK premieres by composers from more than 30 countries in that time! I’ve learned so much through this experience – unique notation, extended techniques, prepared cello… I honestly think nothing could surprise me anymore! What I love about this genre of music is the huge contrast of styles and sounds I’m exposed to. And the beauty of it is, there is so much variety in the music of the last 50 years that I think you can find something to suit every taste.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Listening to other performers is the most inspiring thing for me. Any genre, style instrument. Dancers, gymnasts, actors. Watching performers who communicate and who make you forget about everything else – that is the most inspiring thing to me.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
When I’m listening to music a lot of the time I want to hear something new. Most of my repertoire choices come from listening journeys online where one discovery leads to another in an endless chain.
When I hear something new that I love, I’m instantly thinking where and when would be the perfect situation to programme it. I always loved making mixtapes back in the day, and I like to think of programming in the same way, handpicked for each audience.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I’ve played in some wonderful halls around the world – Bucharest, Berlin, Shanghai, a stage built off the side of a cliff in Italy, Alhambra in Granada, but my favourite performances tend to be in smaller intimate venues where you feel more connection to the audience. I enjoy playing in settings where people don’t normally hear cello, where you feel you can surprise them and maybe even make them think differently about classical music. I have worked a lot with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who regularly tour the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and playing in those community halls have been some of my favourite performances.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
Music is for everyone. A lot of people tell me they don’t listen to classical music yet they experience it in films and tv and find that they love it! Some people feel classical music isn’t for them because they never had the chance to learn an instrument. The number one way to reach more people is to invest in music education, and tackle the notion that classical music is just for the privileged. Schemes like Big Noise in Scotland, and Every Child A Musician in Newham east London are visionary, where every child in a whole year group is given an instrument and regular lessons completely free. I wish every child in the country could have this experience as part of their school education.
Classical music can also be associated with a lot of pomp and circumstance – evening dresses, tailcoats and bow ties, knowing when to clap, grand buildings. This might be glamour and showbiz to some, but can seem old fashioned, too formal, or alienating to others. “Why does that violinist get to bow on their own?” someone once asked me after an orchestral concert. I think we forget that concerts are a string of traditions and rituals that can be baffling to the uninitiated. While I hope there will always be space for traditions and a bit of showbiz in our presentation, I think classical music also needs to exist outside of concert halls – in schools as I’ve said, but also in less formal spaces, and at different times of day. There is a thriving music series in London called Daylight Music. Concerts take place on Saturday afternoons, and tea and cake is served. The curator lines up three sets with performers from different genres, and what draws the audience is the chance to experience something new, to hear styles of music they might not normally hear, all in a comfortable friendly setting. Time and time again this series has come up when I chat to people who have never attended a ‘classical concert’ but tell me they enjoyed watching an instrumentalist at one of these events. Their new season will be announced soon so do check it out!
Growing audiences is a big and complex topic, but certainly investing in music education, rethinking the formal concert paradigm, and more risk taking and imaginative curation have important roles to play.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
In January 2019 Riot Ensemble travelled to Reykjavik to play at Dark Music Days festival. The snow was deeper than my boots and daylight came only for a few hours in the middle of the day. We were giving the world premiere of a piece written for us by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas called Solstices. It’s a 70 minute ensemble piece to be performed in pitch black darkness. We’ve played it in a few venues now and the challenge is always getting the hall dark enough… covering every crack and even emergency exit signs has not always been possible. But at this venue, the darkness was perfect and so intense that I could not see my own hand when I held it in front of my face! The ensemble had a central position in the hall and the audience were seated all around us. I think it’s true that we listen differently in the dark. The atmosphere was like no other concert I’ve ever experienced and I’m not sure anything could ever quite compare to my memory of it!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Having concerts that excite me. Playing with other musicians who inspire me. Reaching the end of a concert and feeling I did a good job, that I gave everything I had.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
Listen listen listen to music and artists you love, admire and who inspire you! Practice! And know that it happens in small steps, so have the courage to put yourself forward for the summer school/audition/performance opportunity that you have been mulling over, and incrementally one thing will lead to another!
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
Cuts to music and instrumental lessons in schools. Classical music won’t have a future if it is only for the privileged.
Scottish cellist in London, Louise McMonagle is a versatile performer who enjoys making music in many environments.
Highlights include winning the Ernst Von Siemens Ensemble prize (2020), performing at Wigmore Hall (London), playing as soloist in Boulez Messagesquisse at the VIVA Cello Festival (Switzerland), recording Berio Sequenza XIV with Four Ten Media, and performing with eminent jazz musicians such as Trish Clowes (BBC NGA), Kit Downes (Mercury prize nominee), Evan Parker etc.