Oliver Coates on playing cello in unlikely places

A concert hall isn’t the preferred performance space of Oliver Coates – he’d rather be on a diving board, writes Ken Walton

Cellist Oliver Coates. Picture: Contributed
Cellist Oliver Coates. Picture: Contributed

Oliver Coates knows what it’s like to look down on a watching crowd from the high diving board. He didn’t actually jump. He’s a cellist who performs in the most unlikely places. A few weeks ago he played his own ambient brand of electro-acoustic music in a disused swimming pool in Norway.

“They put me on the top diving board on the opening night of the Borealis Festival in Bergen,” Coates explains. “In the weeks running up to it I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking I was falling. When it came to the performance, though, what I witnessed was a bunch of excited young Norwegians celebrating functionless space.”

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Coates is not your typical cellist. Yes, he loves to play all the standard classical cello repertoire, which he learnt as a matter of course as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, from where he graduated 12 years ago. But even then, he says, the urge to explore the unexplored, particularly in connection with computer technology and in venues that challenge both performer and listener, was compulsive.

“Even as a 15-year-old, I would divide an evening up into listening to electronic music, figuring out how Radiohead made this or that album or how such artists created their own distinctive sounds, then dedicating the rest of the evening to practising Bach or Shostakovich on the cello, just trying to play the instrument as best I could.”

Bringing these two worlds together became a natural obsession, and as anyone familiar with his 2013 debut album Towards a Blessed Island (the title taken from Norman MacCaig’s poem, brought to Coates’ notice by his Scots-born wife, performance artist Chrysanthemum Bear) or his collaboration with composer Mica Levi on the soundtrack to Michael Glazer’s film Under the Skin, filmed in Scotland and featuring Scarlett Johansson, will know, he now functions in a medium more accurately described as collaborative performance art than pure music.

Key to that is the importance of acoustical space, particularly the way music reacts to a particular building’s architecture or historical function. “Civic spaces, like the former Norwegian swimming pool, prescribe how you would normally be expected to behave in them; it’s obvious what you’re meant to be doing,” Coates says.

“If you take that function away, it just becomes space and architecture. I love playing in these sorts of places, where music is a kind of excuse, or a structure, to celebrate buildings.”

This Wednesday, the building to be celebrated is Glasgow Art School, where Coates’ solo cello programme will be the focal point in a multimedia collaboration with Cathie Boyd’s production company, Cryptic. It’s a more conventional space: “A kind of black box”, says Coates, whose own arrangements of Messiaen, Levi and Squarepusher’s Tommib Help Buss go head-to-head with original music by Edmund Finnis, Larry Goves and Michael Gordon, as well as new compositions by Coates written during his recent British Council/ PRS for Music sponsored residency in Hong Kong.

It opens with Edmund Finnis’ Across White Air, Coates’ description of which seems typical of the fundamentally minimalist music he tends to perform or write himself. “The material’s very simple and repetitive, dealing with fragile kinds of harmonics that gradually build up in a sort of cathedral of synthesised sound,” he says.

Coates’ own arrangement of Messiaen’s Oraison is, in effect, a synthesis of two different versions of the same piece: Messiaen’s original 1937 work for four electronic Ondes Martenots, and his later reworking of it as Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus from his visionary Quartet for the End of Time, where the continuous rhythmic tread of the piano supplants the floating, disembodied harmonies of the original.

“I’ve taken the harmony part and created each individual chord as an electronic sample,” Coates explains. “So I play the infinitely long melody line on cello against drone harmonies, which I control with my feet. It’s wonderful, because you liberate yourself from the infinitely slow quality that the metronomically marked-out piano version has, recasting it in the same floating, ethereal vein as the earlier version.”

Boyd has also commissioned a visual element from Columbian filmmaker Laura Colmenares Guerra to amplify the acoustical experience. “I’ve seen the research she’s done and she’s responded beautifully to about half of the programme,” says Coates. That includes a grand finale in the form of Michael Gordon’s Industry, a 15-minute piece that unfolds slowly from its opening chromatic chorale to a climax saturated in harmonic distortion which Coates reckons “will kind of blow the roof off”.

Some of Coates’ newest music originated from his recent stay in Hong Kong, a residency that coincided with last year’s anti-Chinese student protests. “I really didn’t anticipate I’d be there at this momentous time in the country’s history,” he says. “It was amazing being among sound artists and other musicians during this unease, who were experiencing such personal struggles in making their work relevant to this time, how to make it speak to the social upheaval.

“One 19-year-old had made a cello piece that combined field recordings from the motorway where students had barricaded the road. I also found myself going back to my flat and staying up all hours to write music.”

Coates returned from Hong Kong with 90 minutes of music which will form the core of a new album. But it’s the live experience that really drives him. “I’ve never really subscribed to being any particular type of musician, and I’m certainly not at the point yet where I’d specifically label myself a composer,” he says. “I just love the discipline of walking on stage and performing.”

But never in the conventional sense. “After music college you tend to get inducted into some semblance of an industry that seems to coagulate and call itself classical music. I never accepted that.”

Cryptic presents Oliver Coates at The Art School, Glasgow on 15 April and as part of Minimalism Unwrapped at King’s Place London, on 19 April, www.cryptic.org.uk