Silver Swan

This disc is the fulfilment of a dream that had been lying around in my head for years – a dream that had something to do with a multi-tracked cello sound, but was without repertoire. Since playing cello ensemble pieces as a teenager I had been in love with the sensual choral quality of many cellos playing together and when Black Box asked me for recording ideas, I started to think of concrete ways to work with this sound. The repertoire is a mixture of pieces I have loved for years and wanted to hear in cello arrangement, and ideas from friends as to what they thought might work. The Bach chorales, Silver Swan, Allegri Miserere, Ubi Caritas and the Arvo Pärt were all suggestions from others, and pieces I would never have thought of – thank you! One of my favourite songs, Benjamin Brittenís Corpus Christi Carol, I came to via the inspired recording by American rock singer Jeff Buckley who tragically drowned in his twenties. (Unintentionally, a theme of death and dying crept into this CD. The Purcell, Britten, Stravinsky, Gibbons, and some of the Bach chorales all share this theme.) The words to this song felt important, and I wanted them represented in sound rather than just reprinted in the booklet, which is how I came to ask Dame Judi Dench to read. Judi’s voice could not be more perfectly suitable for the unadorned beauty of the poem, and I am deeply grateful for her agreeing to read.

One of the great things about the cello choir sound, is the sheer range of notes. I have tuned the C string even lower than usual in a few pieces, and in the Stravinsky, it sounds like a double bass at the bottom, while at the top it would be high even for a violin – a range of over five octaves!

Many people have asked me why I didn’t just hire a bunch of cellists. Several reasons. Firstly, I have been a serial collaborator for years – chamber music, projects with jazz musicians, Indian, African and other ‘world’ musicians, work with my group Between The Notes, and the thought of doing a completely solo project seemed like a breath of musical fresh air. Secondly, I have tried to match the sounds as closely as possible – speed of vibrato, bow pressure, sound colours and so on – in a way that is much easier with exactly the same instrument and player. It could have taken weeks of rehearsal to achieve this with an ensemble, in the way that good string quartets work together for years to achieve unanimity of sound. Thirdly, I was able to follow any musical idea that struck me – for instance, I ended up using a baroque bow for most of the bass lines, as the lighter weight and smaller amount of bow hair achieved a more transparent sound that didnít muddy the texture. Fourthly, the simple logistics of getting together such a group of really good cellists, who all wanted to do it, were available, all got on well, could make the touring dates afterwards … forget it!

The disc was recorded without edits, like in the old days. I decided it would have become too complicated with all the different tracks to be contending with lots of alternative takes as well, so the disc is pretty much ‘live’. The process of recording presented many challenges – in the world of pop music where most songs are layered, or multi-tracked, the musicians would wear headphones and play along to a click-track. I did this for three pieces on the recording, (Pärt, Stravinsky and most of the Purcell), but all of the rest required a much more flexible approach to rhythm than was possible with the metronome. I experimented with several ideas before settling on ìvoice countî tracks. The first track I would lay down would involve counting out the beats, then I might slow down for a pause (for instance in the Bach chorales), saying ‘pause … and … four, and … one, two, three, four’ and so on. Then I would hear that voice in the headphones while I recorded all the other tracks, matching the timing exactly, and finally took away the voice count to leave the music standing on its own, rubato and all.

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