With the simple act of flipping the catches, I open the case. The smell of rosin mixed with oiled wood and the odour of a velvety fabric hits me with memories. It’s been a while, but it’s the same every time.
As a kind of friend, it was the cello who encouraged me to form a string quartet when I was 13 and who I turned my back on aged 18 to form a band
The smells evoke my relationship with the cello, the instrument I studied during my formative teenage years and during my time at both Chetham’s School of Music (Chets) and the University of York.
As a kind of friend, it was the cello who encouraged me to form a string quartet when I was 13 and who I turned my back on aged 18 to form a band. The cello was there at moments of crisis in my life; when stage fright finally forced the issue and I became a composer. It was there when I lovingly abused it with electronics in my search for a way beyond classical music and, since then, as a more sanguine presence it has been at easy arm’s length to bring into my teaching.
Our relationship has waxed and waned and yet the cello has remained an ever-present companion, watching from the corner of the room, a touchstone to my past and potential lightning rod to the future.
Back in 2003 with the formation of my ensemble MooV, the cello played a pivotal role in allowing me to merge the classical, the experimental and the popular. Since then the cello and I have come back together in new and interesting ways.
This year I have composed two significant pieces for the cello: ‘Warp and Weft’ (Concerto for two cellos, strings and percussion) and ‘Roads Shining Like River Up Hill After Rain’ (for choir and solo cello). Both of these, I have pursued with relentless optimism to fruition. I recognise that my relationship with the cello is also central to both. If you’d asked the 12-year-old me what he would have wanted to do most, it may well have been to compose a cello concerto. Similarly, I turned to the cello for the solo element in the choir piece, providing a kind of dopple-ganger role. It was instantly right.
On the long journey that both these pieces took, and when my optimism foundered, I made a pact with myself: if the pieces actually got written, then I would thank my old companion by practicing and playing once more. And so now the smells of the past return again as I am tuning the instrument, tightening the bow and searching for something not too difficult to play.
Gabriella Swallow and Guy Johnston, the soloists in the first performance of Warp and Weft’, are also both former pupils of Chets. Rather fancifully I imagine myself the third cellist of this piece: the silent cellist who has defected to being a composer. The chance to create something for these two wonderful and wonderfully different cellists has been a great opportunity for me. Without realising, I have created a piece which is all about threads, connections and pathways, something I can see has always been important to me.
There are not many double concertos. This might be because the traditional view of a concerto is to pit the virtuosity and flair of a top musical athlete against the might of a large ensemble, and two protagonists is just a bit crowded for them both to shine.
In ‘Warp and Weft’ things are very different. The role of the two cellos is more interlocked. As a combined force they bring to life the musical elements them through the intricate interplay of coaxing and cajoling the orchestra. The piece is built almost exclusively on the mutual support between the two cellos with their close-knit, interwoven lines being generated and explored through dialogue, alternation, juxtaposition, crossover and superimposition. It’s all very much like a double act in a constant interplay.
The music breaks into and away from dance grooves, Bach-like bowing figurations and calm contemplative passages but it is always the cellos in their close relationship which drives the music with constant bumping together, fusing or dispersing.
It is 300 years since Bach began his seminal set of suites for solo cello (written from 1717–1723) and the figurations of that music have also been very much part of the recipe for my piece. Buried inside the music– and a catalyst for lots of the material – is the Prelude from the first solo suite, perhaps the most famous of all cello music. This weaving in of an old masterpiece further adds to the interlacing of musical styles which pervades the whole piece.
I hope that some of these thoughts make a good introduction to listening to ‘Warp and Weft’. The chapters that follow are of lightly edited entries which were originally written for my regular blog ‘Riley Notes’. They are a collection of strands which link to the Cello Concerto, its origins, its making and to things connected with the cello and Manchester.
My first book, called ‘Composing A Concerto For Two Cellos’ (Pulling The Threads Together for ‘Warp and Weft’) was launched at the premiere of the piece at Manchester Cathedral on 8thJune. The book as a collection of blogs taken from ‘Riley Notes’ around the themes of the piece, the cello, and the city of Manchester.
Book available to buy on Amazon