Carya Gish, novelist and founder of independent publishing imprint Arcane Publishing, speaks to cellist and composer Jo Quail ahead of the launch of her new album Five Incantations at St John on Bethnal Green on 19th March.
Jo Quail has just come back from yet another successful and eventful tour of Australia, a country which keeps providing her with inspiration. Indeed, it is whilst on tour there in the spring of 2015 that her new album Five Incantations began its life. I had the privilege to be in the audience for the launch of Jo’s previous album Caldera in June 2014 and again in February last year for the stunning Nocturnes, Jo’s most ambitious show to date. Every single one of Jo’s concerts is different and has its very own atmosphere, set list and guest artists. The launch of Five Incantations, organised by Jo and Oil54 in association with Chaos Theory, promises to be yet another unmissable event, full of beauty, passion and love of music…
Photo by Hans Van Hoof
The launch of your new album, Five Incantations, will take place at St John on Bethnal Green in East London, a venue you keep coming back to. What is so special about this particular venue for you?
It’s not only a great and respected concert venue but also a working place of worship, a community centre, literally, and Father Alan and Sabine are welcoming, enthusiastic and so accommodating; it’s a pleasure to be here again.
You have invited Poppy Ackroyd to perform at the launch. Could you tell us how long you have been aware of Poppy’s work? You seem to have quite a few things in common; what makes Poppy the perfect guest for this particular evening?
I’d been ‘aware’ of Poppy for some time, in fact I included one of her albums in my top three for Heathen Harvest periodical a couple of years ago, but I didn’t think we would actually ever cross paths. I was beyond delighted when Poppy said yes to my invitation!
Yes, we have much in common, but what makes it a great pairing is that we come from completely different directions in composition and delivery, yet we both create meditative and also soaring musical space from just our instruments and us, as soloists. We both use elements of looping, in totally different ways: Poppy’s an Ableton genius which is something far beyond my reach, whereas I’m a literally foot-to-the-floor looper; yet we create sonic images that audiences can drift through and find their own space within. Poppy’s music has such depth and integrity, poise and grace.
Film by Simon Kallas
How do you work on the set list for this kind of performance? Do you have the audience and the venue in mind whilst working on a show?
Well, that’s easy for me in this instance as it’s the launch of the new album so the set list is exactly that! However, this set is a bit different insofar as I play the whole thing from start to finish in one go, no chatting between tracks which makes a change for me. It’s been working well on the Australian tour, it will be interesting to see how it’s received here back home.
In general terms, I do give thought to the location, venue and audience when I plan my set lists, but not overwhelmingly so. I have learned never ever to prejudge an audience, so I generally play the set I feel most comfortable with, and that seems to be very well received.
There are times when I play at club venues so I might go for the high octane tracks like Laurus more than the fragility of, say, Eila’s Song, but even then I might not; sometimes a very quiet spider thread moment is what brings an audience so close to you.
Usually I play seated venues these days so it’s not too much of an issue, but it’s still something I consider, the shape and breadth of the music within the set, the build, the climax, the whole thing.
What would you like the audience to take away from the launch concert on March 19th? What will make this evening particularly special?
An album? That would be nice! It’s a beautiful CD with download code included in a triptych case that I designed and went through hell to get made, so I hope people will like it! For me, it’s a special event because it’s a launch concert that is a solo performance, no ensemble this time, so I’m quietly excited but also aware of the change in direction as far as my most loyal audience members will notice. It’s also a privilege to be sharing a stage and a space with another female musician, and one of Poppy’s calibre too. I sense (hope?) it will be a profound musical journey for all of us on many levels. I can’t wait.
You are a classically trained musician and composer. Classical training is (in)famously rigorous and requires enormous amounts of practice and discipline, but might not always be very conducive to self-expression. What has inspired you to/made you take a different direction, a more experimental and personal one, in which you use technology to compose resolutely original contemporary music which transcends genres?
Yes, I am classically trained, insofar as I’ve been playing cello since the dawn of time. I’ve always had an instinctive and fairly detailed grasp of harmony and that’s been more than handy in my writing and collaboration work too, honed and developed through studies of harmony, compositional techniques and systems and analysis, and also through trial and error and experimentation.
I think it’s very possible to express yourself eloquently and decidedly through our traditional or standard repertoire, from Baroque all the way through to Very Contemporary (which is my own terminology!), and indeed that’s where the really outstanding performances and recordings of our time shine the brightest. The manuscript is a map, the composer must give as much direction as she or he feels appropriate but the delivery of the journey, the choice of route is down to the performer.
Of course, we run into murky waters in this respect when we’re dealing with authenticity in performance, and we’re faced with the rather odd-looking manuscripts of JS Bach that are not in his hand anyway, that kind of thing, but then I view these, these suites particularly, as oral tradition, fairy stories, passed down through generations. It’s likely to have a slightly different slant by the end, but the parable is the same, in all languages and in all traditions.
I’m a big fan of rock and metal, and this in no small way contributes to the music I write. Unfortunately it took me several years away from my cello before I began to have the confidence to experiment with this juxtaposition musically speaking, and I will add that it’s a personal hold up and journey, as there are plenty of people, cellists especially, who grasped this thing far before I did, and perform it with verve and aplomb!
Basically what inspires me is the fact that I love playing the cello, whether it’s Piatti and Boccherini or detailed and nerd-like work making a gigantic sub-bass for one of my own compositions. It’s all the same. I love it.
Filmed and edited by Michael Fletcher
Could you introduce us to your music? Which instruments do you play and which techniques and technology do you use? Could you explain how all this combines to create your pieces?
I play cello, both acoustic (or ‘wooden’ as it was once termed) and electric. I write and perform instrumental music. Sometimes I am labelled neo-classical, other times post-rock or dark ambient – once it was ‘post-genre’. I use Boss technology to write and perform, specifically the RC300 loop station and GT100 effects board.
I employ both traditional and extended techniques when I perform and write, and I can generate a wide range of sounds and effects from using these non-standard techniques when playing my cello – simple examples are bowing behind the left hand, hitting the tail piece, general percussive techniques, etc. These techniques are unbelievable on an acoustic cello, so once you add a bit of reverb and overdrive or something into the mix you can get some otherworldly sounds when on an electric cello.
I also play piano, though never in public unless it’s a roll out the barrel kind of night, or carol singing… However, the ability to play piano is critical for me in my work – I’ll often use it to test out harmonic ideas swiftly before I have begun writing with the loops in mind.
You have always been incredibly busy, constantly creating and performing over the past few years. Back in November, you supported American band Caspian on their European tour, and I think this was quite a special experience indeed, both personally and musically. If you had to pick two or three stand out moments on this tour, what would they be?
Yeah, I had a blast! The Paris Divan du Monde concert will always remain in my mind, especially because of the events the following week. Paris was a beautiful, attentive and loving crowd. They made a magic concert for me. Caspian are very generous in their support of other musicians and did a lot to promote me as it were, for which I’m truly thankful. It goes a long way in this industry.
I think my highlight moments would be the concerts when Phil played South West Night with me, and the end of each concert, when Joe and Jani absolutely shredded Adder Stone with me! It was insane. I miss these boys! It was a great tour.
I also greatly enjoyed playing some unaccompanied Bach during one of my sets when there was a technical meltdown, whilst the sound man sorted it all out. The audience loved it! I am lucky to be able to change direction if necessary in these situations and still keep a ‘gig’ going, even if it’s not quite what was advertised on the poster! I’ll often play Bach as an encore actually, it’s a mark of respect really to where this all began for me. Aside from the beauty, precision and grace of the music, solo Bach is the ultimate in implied harmony, which is the basis in my opinion for looping.
You have just come back from an Australian tour. I think this is something you do every year around February, and you already have plans for next year’s tour! You seem to have a special relationship with the country. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
Perseverance! I love Australia and I keep returning, and the concerts (I am blessed to say) get bigger and more ‘successful’ in industry terms each year. Needless to say, I had a year off when I had my daughter Eila, but yes, I return each year at roughly the same time. I have great and true friends there, friends who have become family, and a real support network that I cherish. It’s a special time for me to exist just as a musician, nothing else at all in practical terms, for two or three weeks, and I find that undiluted state to be very inspirational.
I find the landscape of this great country very rich and evocative too. It’s inspired many works of mine including The Pilbara, South West Night and Amberay among others. I work with the country’s top landscape photographers and filmmakers Michael and Christian Fletcher, and the imagery they capture is stunning. Mike’s film work adds a real dimension to what I do live, and he is also making a film with me for Gold (from Five Incantations) so it will be exciting to see how that comes out. We shot in some very abstract locations, areas decimated by bush fires, really stark and striking landscapes.
My music is often used in films and documentaries over there too, so it would seem that Australia senses a synergy as do I. It’s really lucky, and I’m very, very privileged indeed.
Filmed and edited by Michael Fletcher
You constantly collaborate with other musicians, sometimes even improvising on the spot during live shows, or even writing whole albums from scratch in front of a live audience (your RASP project with Sieben’s Matt Howden). What do you think these collaborations bring to your own work and practice? What makes a collaboration successful?
I learn so much each time I collaborate with another artist, and it’s very special to be invited in to the inner mechanisms if you like of their writing process, and contribute to this. I love improvised concerts (and recordings!) and Rasp was probably the pinnacle of that particular aspect of performance, writing and recording an album in front of an audience.
I recently played an improvised concert with two amazing dancers in Abbotsford, Melbourne, and I found this immensely moving, and magical too. There’s nothing that can top the sensation that comes when there is true synchronicity in the performance between individual artists, dancers, videographers, painters, musicians, whatever… It’s magic.
A collaboration is successful when you both do something that the other person hoped you might, but could not envisage themselves. Kind of minimum direction but maximum expectation – I feel that collaborations work well when you invite the artist to put their stamp on it, not your imagined expectation of their stamp. However improvisation is successful when you work with people who have the performance at their heart, nothing else.
It’s about listening, watching and actually not playing, funnily enough, just being in that created space and being aware of the dialogue between you, and listening carefully on a conscious and subconscious level to contribute your supporting statement or directional signpost with grace.
Your new album is called Five Incantations. Could you tell us a little bit more about the inspiration behind the album, and each of the five pieces of music within it? What are those five incantations, to whom or what are they addressed?
The programme notes I have written for the launch concert probably sum it up the best: “Five Incantations is a suite of interlinked movements, each individual yet essentially drawn from one theme. Each movement describes a personal reflection on one of the four cardinal points (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), with the fifth aspect being Spirit. […]”
Broadly, I am continuously fascinated and inspired by archetypal imagery, and the journey of the Self, on a subconscious dimension. I wanted to explore what this means to me; loosely I guess, it’s the elemental nature of magic and energy within and around us all.
Interview by Carya Gish