The Synthesiser. An electronic device containing filters, oscillators, and voltage-control amplifiers. Synthesisers are used to produce sounds unobtainable from ordinary musical instruments or to imitate instruments and voices.
Synthesisers hit the charts in the 1960’s with tracks from The Monkees album, Pisces, Aquarius created with the new device. Soon enough, they were a regular entity in the pop and rock charts but have since moved in and out of music trends.
In recent years, synthesisers have become part of the modern composer’s toolbox. But how do you get the balance of integrating the tool into classical music effectively?
Peter Gregson achieves this balance effortlessly. Cellist, composer, and all round nice guy, Peter’s marriage of strings and synths is something previously unseen. And something we can’t stop listening to!
We sat down with him to talk all things synthesisers, music, and his inspiration for the union of the two.
How did you get into music?
When I was four, I wanted the cello case from the Bond film, The Living Daylights. He skis down a mountain side in a cello case and I decided I wanted one for my (sadly non existent) skiing career. My mum was a clarinettist and took me to a children’s concert in Edinburgh and I thought “I really like this”. And that was how it all started.
And what about electronic music?
I started learning the cello classically when I was four. I loved playing, but it’s not the coolest thing to do in an all boys’ school. My brother played the guitar and he had all these pedals and things. I got into to playing my cello with all the electronics when I was around 13. I was learning about electronic music in the “real world”, and all these cello skills in the classical world. But there wasn’t a lot of music for cello and electronics, as you can imagine, so I wanted to start merging them!
Is that where you started composing?
The control you learn in classical music is all about varying shades of sound and how to control it. When I played cello with pedals and computers, I’d use very primitive editing software to do essentially the same. It wasn’t composing as much, more just fiddling with different levels and exploring the sound so I could learn to control it.
As a classical performer, you get credit for performing, say Britten’s work perfectly – which is a huge achievement it itself. But I wasn’t as interested in that in and of itself, I wanted to achieve something new and different.
So, at 14 I took a course at the oxford Cello School and met this guy called Philip Sheppard who was doing all this work with electric cellos and extended techniques and scary noises. I thought it was incredible, and we kept in touch over the years and moved to London to study with him at the Royal Academy after I finished school. I just wanted to make scary noises with cellos!
Did you work with any inspirational composers there?
I got to work with a lot of terrific composers, like Joby Talbot – he treated the cello like a synthesiser. As well as Benjamin Britten, who does a lot of cello suites where you have to imitate a flute or a choir. It really peaked my interest and I ended up with this very niche skill set. And I loved it!
There were tons of composers that inspired me, really. Thomas Adès, I love. Tavener, Tallis (I was a little treble when I was younger so sang the Motets). Then there’s Herbert Howells too; I loved all that big colourful organ and choral music.
And how did that skillset help with starting out in the working world?
You’d be surprised how useful it is to be able to create weird sounds and imitate noises! I had friends who were assistants for bigger film composers and they’d call in the middle of the night to say, “we need noises for this bit”, or “it needs to sound like a dying tortoise”. I got to work on a lot of films; largely unpaid and uncredited; but I learnt skills that were valuable at the time. And it all sort of went from there.
I developed my first album from playing around with sounds themselves. I went to a beautiful studio in Wiltshire, where Real World Records were based, and spent a week making weird acoustic– and electronic cello music. From cellos running into tape machines and bouncing it out of rooms to trying to imitate a sound from a Rihanna track… it was an amazing week!
From there a choreographer who had heard some of my work asked me to do the music for their ballet. Alan Rickman was in the audience one night and he came over during the drinks reception and said, “I’m doing a movie, do you want to do the music?”. And it just continued to snowball like that.
The Classical world has traditionally been structured around acoustic cello. But your music, especially the Quartets, have merged the two worlds together. How have you managed to push through those barriers?
I think it’s just realising that they’re not actually that different. When you work with synths you can make sounds that are all over the place, just from twiddling a few knobs. And then it goes away. It has no digital recall, it’s all about the harmonics in the room on the track, creating something that hopefully means something to someone.
Playing the cello has that same type of harmonic resonance. On any string instrument, in fact! If you play an open C string and put your finger on an E (a tenth above); the whole instrument changes colour. It opens up and you hear the sympathetic vibration. And, once you realise how similar the two are, it’s easy to work the two together.
Is that how you came to work on the Quartets?
I love the way sound changes depending on where you play, it comes to life when you interact with a space. And that’s been the main inspiration.
For the first EP, Quartets: One, we focused on the acoustic string quartet. Then, the second EP is a little different. I played the synth parts from inside the control room for The Hall at Air Studios, but they were amped into the hall where we were recording through big big speakers. The string quartet played alongside these huge speakers that were playing the synths. The synthesiser lines start influencing the harmonics on the string instruments and they balance together; it absolutely is “chamber music”.
When you start to think of an analogue synthesiser as an acoustic synthesiser, it makes sense to keep all these elements together. To commit to your decisions and ideas. The EP is basically a live stereo recording – everything is happening together, all at once. We had microphones on the violins and cellos and everywhere around the room, but we also had the direct signal of the synth. For the most part, what your hearing is called a Decca Tree – three microphones high up in the room, capturing the centre, the left, and the right sounds of the room.
What’s the next project you have lined up?
There’s always something interesting to get involved in! I’ve actually just finished composing for a computer game, which blows all film and traditional composition out of the water in quantity. I had to create 12 ½ hours of music to potential actions!
The challenge with game music is that it has to be dynamic. It doesn’t work like soundtrack to a movie. You have to be able to go from one flavour to the next without the player noticing. So if the player turns left, one thing happens, and if they turn right, something changes. The game isn’t meant to feel like a film; in that respect it’s more like 12 ½ hours of abstract music. It’s taken about three months just to mix it.
How do you go about composing something like that?
I found a sound that was interesting and used it as a kick-off point. You’d go from there and end up with a piece. Whatever I couldn’t finish I’d put away for a day or so and come back to it later. I kept every idea and ended up using all of it. Some ideas got combined, others tweaked – you just have to find the right launching point.
And finally, what advice would you give someone who’s interested in starting a new instrument?
I would say to pick up something that peaks your interest. Something, anything that you’re curious about. Listen to anything and everything. There are no bad ideas and there’s no right way to learn something. You don’t have to like the right music, or what your friends or teacher say you should like.
I have a friend who wanted to play the Cello like Bob Marley’s albums sound, and he made that his goal. Now he’s a concert cellist and tours the world doing what he loves, but he got there by being curious and excited.
There is no right entry point, just as long as you are interested in where you’re starting.
And advice for new composers?
I’m a firm believer in being able to read and write music, but I understand it’s not for everyone. All you really need is a basic editing software to get started nowadays. But, again, it’s just doing what works for you. Some might say to carry manuscript paper everywhere. Or that they’re inspired when sitting at the piano. But with the greatest respect, that doesn’t work for me.
For me it’s the voice memo on my phone. If I have an idea, a piano motif or a theme idea, I’ll hum it or whistle it into the phone. I’ll even pretend I’m making a phone call, whatever it takes, just to get that idea down. I have horrendous handwriting so it’s easier for me to write music straight into a computer, that’s just how it works for me.
Most of all, it’s just getting on with it and not waiting for that divine inspired moment. I think people would have a lot of good ideas if they weren’t so afraid of having bad ones. Don’t hide in a garage or a mountain retreat for the perfect Bb to appear. Just start writing.
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