Interview: Benjamin Appl

Of the many fine young singers coming through in classical music currently, few have a voice quite as memorable as Benjamin Appl (above). The German baritone, a BBC New Generation Artists performer, has been making quite an impact on audiences worldwide, and more recently wowed the Gramophone awards with a rendition of Carl Millöcker’s aria Dunkelrote Rosen from Gasparone. In this chat with Arcana, which took place a few months back, he talked about his first album for Sony Classical, Heimat, and the influence of legendary singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on his work. But first…

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I grew up in Regensburg in Bavaria. I don’t remember my very first encounters but my mum is musical, and played guitar. I grew up with folk music, lullabies, classical music and the church. My older brother, six years older than me, was banned from attending the boys’ choir in our home town (the Regensburger Domspatzen). My parents were against it completely but he won the battle after six or seven years. My second brother followed, then as a natural process it was me. I sang a lot of church music and choral music – some of it in German but a lot of Latin.

When did you start to take singing lessons, and realise that singing was going to be a career?

The system is a bit different to that in England. When your voice breaks, you continue as part of a boys’ choir, and start as a young male voice. At the age of 15-16 I started as a young baritone, and had a very supportive teacher who introduced me to a lot of new repertoire. I worked in a bank for two years, then in business administration, and while I was doing that I started studying singing for fun. More and more I changed my direction, and around the beginning of 2009 I did my business administration diploma. Then I moved to London to study at the Guildhall. It was not an overnight decision but was a shift in my thinking.

What have you learned from working with someone as well established as Graham Johnson?

It’s a wonderful collaboration. When I met him he was on the panel of a singing competition in Germany. He was the professor of song at the Guildhall when I was there. He had a wonderful ability to change the student-teacher dynamic to an equal partnership of colleagues on the stage. For songs he is definitely ‘Mr Lied’, and his knowledge of this is like nobody else. He knows where the texts are and has been incredibly helpful in putting texts together for this release.

The idea for Heimat was one that had been in my mind for some time, and generally before I worked with Graham Johnson I was working with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He taught me that song recitals should be either for one composer or in groups so the audience could get into one composer. I saw that Graham Johnson had created a concept of recital programmes with the Songmaker’s Almanac, and I was inspired by him and his art of putting songs together for this album.

I took this as a topic so I went to the library and made a list of songs that were related to Heimat or speaking about it, then others that were not so related but related to my personal Heimat or experiences. I had a huge list, so it was challenging to cut it down to 65 minutes or so of music. It is always difficult to translate or explain Heimat, to get a sense of what it means in the UK, so some sections take in the place I was born, children’s songs I relate to, and then the idea of space or locations where people belong to – the country or a house. It also looks at the people I connect to, and feel comfortable with. There are a lot of different aspects to the program, so I wanted to explain it in a personal sense.

I also thought it should be in both German and English, so it might look like a complete mess but when you listen it works rather nicely. That said, the world of song is such a bubble within the bubble of classical music, but it is a small bubble that people will hopefully discover. I hope one or the other person will be attracted to it. Songs will always belong to a smaller audience, as they are such an intimate art form, but I am hoping there are people who will react and get an audience for song.

Who do you particularly admire in the form of song?

As a German baritone I think Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will always be the first, but I also admire Felicity Lott, who I found to be so kind and modest after such a wonderful career. I would also say Thomas Allen, and Thomas Hampson too. These are all people who have done all the three genres so well – song, solo singing with orchestra and opera.

What have you learned from working with someone as fresh and talented as James Baillieu?

I find working with both Graham Johnson and James very different of course. With James it is more like a journey of exploring things and trying things out, starting from a sheet of white paper from where you can write things out. With Graham Johnson, with his experience, you have a discussion but always realise he is absolutely right! In every part of life you explore these things and they bring you a greater learning experience. I really like the mixture of both collaborations; it’s inspirational to work with different people, like playing tennis with someone who has a different style. It brings out different sides of your character.

I first saw you sing in the Wigmore Hall. Do you think it is the ideal venue for singers – and what other venues have you enjoyed singing in?

Absolutely. There is no place in the world that compares to it. It also helps greatly that the chairman John Gilhooly is supporting song as an art form so much, with people who believe in it. It’s the perfect venue, the acoustic and the audience, like a temple for the form. In Germany people go to the string quartet, and it is often difficult to get them to go to a song recital as people think they’re old fashioned. They think that because the songs use words we don’t use anymore, or they think all the songs are about death! Yet even when we don’t know all the words the emotions of love, losing someone, rejection, pain, are all feelings we belong to. I would like to explore and show this art form should not always be given on an intellectual platform. The texts are so important we often lose the emotional connection. That’s how we can belong and relate to the song.

Did Sony give you confidence for promoting song as an art form?

This was one of the reasons I signed. They gave me complete freedom in what I wanted and helped me to be brave to do a song disc. It is a challenge, and it gives me the chance to present myself in an art form like song. It’s great to have this level of support from a major label, one that looks after singers like Christian Gerhaher and Jonas Kaufmann, who are two of the major players.

Are you also working with bigger forces than piano?

Absolutely, I love to sing in the oratorio tradition, and also in orchestral songs. I have sung Schubert orchestrated by Brahms, Mahler songs, and in the Bach oratorios. I’m doing a lot and the next album I do will be with an orchestra. When I was a New Generations Artist I did a lot of that. It is important to do two or three genres of singing – and for me the main three are opera, concert and lied. They enrich each other vocally and mentally.

Some of our Arcana readers will not be very familiar with Lieder. Would you recommend Schubert as the best way in, or a mixture of composers perhaps?

It is always difficult as taste is a very individual thing, but generally it depends on your background. There is some wonderful English song on the Heimat disc, like Vaughan Williams songs or Britten folksong arrangements. It’s very individual how you connect to music, so even if there is just one piece from that moment you can discover more. There is more Schubert, but then he is the father of song so hopefully you can find one song you like!

Interview: I Speak Machine – Tara Busch talks soundtracks

I Speak Machine are an electronic duo described as a ‘vocalist and synth nerd’ (Tara Busch, above) with filmmaker Maf Lewis. They are preoccupied with soundtracks, and specifically the working practices of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, who would write scores while the film itself was still under construction. The music of I Speak Machine, however, is centred on the golden age of analogue synths, and for new score Zombies 1985 they have restricted themselves only to instruments from that year, conceiving a zombie movie for them to soundtrack.

The apocalyptic music comes highly recommended, produced with fellow synth geek Benge but also receiving the enthusiastic advocacy of John Foxx and Black Swan / Moon composer Clint Mansell. Mansell’s blessing is perhaps an indication that on occasion Busch moves towards classical territory, a link Arcana wanted to explore in interview. With such a strong body of recommendation, as Tara talks generously we begin by asking her…

How did I Speak Machine begin?

Maf & I had been working together for several years before with our band Dynamo Dresden, and after that, collaborating on my solo work (my debut Pilfershire Lane on Tummy Touch). He did all the visuals; the videos, artwork, photography and creative direction for that album. We decided after that to pursue something that felt a bit ‘next level’ for us personally – we didnt want to repeat ourselves and do another album in the ‘traditional’ sense.

At that time I also wanted to explore the avenue of film scoring, but I wanted to do films that were more music driven and leftfield, and also keep the live component as a crucial part of what we would do as well. Meanwhile Maf had several film ideas in the works, that he was either writing or conceiving, and I began to write with these ideas in mind. So – it all meshed together pretty organically – we decided to pursue making our own films and screening them with me playing the score live. Then, in 2014, Lex Records stepped in and released our sountracks – the Silence and Zombies 1985.

How did you form the idea of composing a soundtrack for a Zombie movie set in 1985, and was it stimulating working within the restrictions that created?

Making it a period film actually happened by accident, really. We were looking for a place to film Zombies, and at that time we went to visit Benge in his new house in Cornwall. It was literally an 70s/80s time capsule, as he had just bought it – I dont think it had been touched in 30 years! We pretty much decided immediately to film it at Benge’s and shift it into a 1980s piece. We then invited Benge to collaborate on the score – he’s an absolute master of 1980s-style electronic music production as well. So again, it just fell into place.

I love working within a framework, or ‘limitations’. I am someone that can get lost in a sea of possibilities and have a hard time making final creative decisions if I have no sort of framework or focus; so having a protocol like this was fun and actually made me feel more creative, but never ‘comfortable’. I love it when you can find that sweet spot of feeling juicy and creative, but not safe or comfortable. Limitations help with that a lot, not to mention it saving me a lot of time and mental anguish, so to speak.

What did you take from working with Maf Lewis and Benge?

Well, part of I Speak Machine’s ‘manifesto’, so to speak, is that we work side by side on the music and the film – so that each component is given equal importance. So, to work with Maf is pretty intense as we’re very much entrenched in each other’s worlds to make sure we’re totally in sync with what the other is doing. There’s lots of encouragement from him, but also no bullshit – if something isn’t working for the other, we don’t use it. That’s not to say we micro-manage each other, but we like to have the film and music components to where they truly inform and feed off of each other. We have to know when the film needs to back off and give the music more of a voice and vice versa – a lot of this is due to the live element as well – it has to go down well as a live show. We’ve been working together for so long that I think we know what the other needs to push themselves and never compromise. I think he’s taught me to really be true to the work I’m doing, and try to do the best work we can, always. And he keeps me focused – I’m a bit like a child in kindergarten class that needs rules, schedules and guidelines at all times, or else it becomes the wild west. Sad but true!

I loved working with Benge, I always do. We met in 2011 when he & I were working on a track in his studio with John Foxx. Since then, we’ve done quite a few projects together. He’s a great producer and musician, and an amazing synthesist – he’s very capible of making quick decisions as he is very very knowledgeable, such as narrowing down which machines to use and not overthinking anything. He cuts right to the chase and I love that, as I can be quite the opposite – experimental to a fault if I lose focus. Its also refreshing to work with a guy that isnt patronizing and just treats you like an artist & an equal in the studio.…I certainly had enough of the opposite for one lifetime.

Are there any zombie movies and / or associated soundtracks that you particularly enjoy?

To be honest, I’m not massively into or knowledgeable about zombie films, though Dawn of the Dead & Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (though actually not a film) are two that really are fantastic. I find I prefer ‘infected’ films; 28 Days Later or The Girl With All the Gifts. That said, making a zombie film was great fun – there’s always a huge metaphorical / social commentary element with those films, ours included, and it’s interesting & actually pretty disturbing to watch them amidst the current backdrop in the USA.

If we’re just talking horror / thriller / sci-fi soundtracks, there’s tons that I adore that are hugely influential…the biggest ones to me are probably Susperia, Andromeda Strain, Berberian Sound Studio, Rosemary’s Baby, Klute, Ex Machina, The Girl With All the Gifts, Halloween…all brilliant and mind bending.

Casting the net wider, what soundtrack scores would you say you respect – from the last few years and then from the period in which the movie is set?

Well, my taste is always a bit more on the darker side – I like scores that are brave and unique and have a strong ‘voice’ in the film. I always found just about everything Ennio Morricone does to be brave and moving to the point of tears. All of the ones mentioned in the last question mean the world to me as far as influence and ‘respect’, they’re all astonishing. Most recently the score to Good Time by Oneohtrix Point Never was very cool, and it was refreshing to see the music take such an upfront space in the film…I’ve been obsessed with Cristobal Tapia De Veer for the past few years, ever since seeing the TV series Utopia that he did – just incredible. Clint Mansell’s score to Black Mirror’s San Junipero also is beautiful and heartbreaking…great storytelling through music.

From the 1980s – John Carpenter’s Halloween is probably my favorite, but I also loved Halloween III – best opening titles ever. Again my taste isnt terribly obscure, but I loved: Bladerunner, The Thing, Alien, To Live & Die in LA, Cat People, The Dark Crystal, Terminator, The Last Unicorn (yep, seriously), Purple Rain, Tron, Manhunter, Thief & Videodrome… and Benge got me into Harold Faltermeyer, too. And Stu PhillipsKnight Rider theme is just as perfect now as when I watched the show as a kid (I know – not a film, but still deserves mention!)….I’m sure a bunch will come to me when I’m falling asleep tonight!

You’ve had a lot of love for this project from John Foxx and Clint Mansell among others – are they also artists that you mutually respect?

Absolutely. I learned a lot working with John – speaking of limitations, he is also one that knows how to employ a very efficient process in the studio while gving everyone space to express themselves & have fun. He is proper artist through & through, unpretentious and kind, yet totally confident..& I would die to be able to write lyrics like Just for a Moment or My Sex.

Clint is musically so unique, and in a league of his own (sorry for the cliche) – it was his score to Pi that first switched the bulb on in my head as to how powerful & important music can be when given proper space in a film. And Moon stands as one of those untouchable favorites – perfection, really. I think he has a gift of being able to convey huge amounts of emotion & storytelling without having to resort to wildly complex arrangements – that type of simplicity is incredibly difficult to pull off. His High Rise score was awesome too – surreal, bleak & bone chilling, reminded me a bit of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Do you ever cast your mind towards classical music when you are writing music for film?

Yes – I love to envision how my work would be if ‘translated’ by an orchestra, especially with vocal arrangements & strings in the style of Henry Mancini (one can dream!). But currently the music takes form using machines and vocals. I’d love to merge the two!

Has classical music played a part in your life, and if so what pieces are you particularly drawn to? (if this is the case, it would be great if you’re able to expand on it a bit!)

I did study classical music up until I graduated from high school (playing woodwinds and also in choir) but it has been many years since I have picked up a piece of sheet music! I was part of a competitive chamber choir in high school, and we did quite a few dark, dismal pieces that I loved. Sadly the only one I can remember was a suite called Prayers from the Arc, and I had a self-indulgent solo ( I was a cocky first soprano) that I loved to sing. I think classical music had a big impact on me growing up – once I realized that I could sing and had an aptitude for music, I loved to mimic opera singers… for a short time, I was able to pull off Queen of the Night, which must have been really annoying for my family…doubt I still have that high ‘E’ though.

Some of your music for synthesizer has the feeling that you are composing for an orchestra. Is that an important part of your writing for keyboards?

While writing, I’m not conciously composing for that purpose, but speaking just stylistically, what I write could easily be reimagned for an orchestra. I would also love to classically recreate the more stark, electronic pieces I’ve done just to hear the contrast…that said, I have written lots of vocal and string arrangements in recent years that I have either wound up recording on synth or mellotron, or pieces intended for strings that wind up becoming a ‘Tara choir’…

I remember reviewing – and really enjoying – your ‘Pilfershire Lane’ album, where I sensed Kate Bush and early Peter Gabriel might be two of your musical loves. Has that been the case?

Thanks for the kind words – that was a beast of an album! It was a difficult record to make as it was my first venture into learning to engineer and produce on my own, and bring in other people to play my parts, and learn about synthesis – I was a newbie with everything but I loved it. That is actually one that I wanted to use a large string section on, but it never came to pass.

I get the Kate Bush comparison all the time, especially on this album… and as much as I admire her work, she isn’t an influence on my own work & I’m not a massive fan – not sure why, but I never quite fell under her spell as I did with David Bowie, for example. I was obsessed with The Beach BoysPet Sounds, Smile, Friends & 20/20 and also Dark Side fo the Moon & Hunky Dory at the time… to me, those influences are pretty obvious, but I hear it from a very different perspective than the audience does.

Peter Gabriel! Interesting, but he wasn’t an influence either. I find it really interesting how other people interpret your influences.

What two soundtracks would you recommend for Arcana readers – one with beats and one without – and why?

It depends on my mood, of course! I have two classics, already mentioned them, but I’ve been revisiting them a lot lately:

The Andromeda Strain – it’s brave, totally bizarre and abstract, yet meaty enough for you to sink your teeth in & take you away. Gil Mellé also built all of the machines he used on that soundtrack! I listen to this alot when I want to incorperate more sound design aspects into my work, or to just get into a more surreal headspace for writing.

Then I would say Legend of Hell House by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. It’s beautiful, brave & gloriously bleak…the marriage of orchestration and electronics is totally unique, and has that wonderful 1960s BBC/ Radiophonic Workshop vibe to it. It’s all fog, screams & prowling black cats. Perfect.

I Speak Machine’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Lex Records. For more information, head to the duo’s website

Roger Vignoles – A Strauss Odyssey

Roger Vignoles is one of Britain’s best-established accompanists. Respected for his technical ability, experience, breadth of repertoire and the work he does nurturing singers old and new, he is regularly seen at the illustrious venues worldwide.

More recently at the Wigmore Hall he has plotted a course through the daunting output of songs by Richard Strauss, a lesser known corner of the composer’s output. This has been complemented on disc courtesy of Hyperion, their series recently completed by an eighth and final disc with tenor Nicky Spence and soprano Rebecca Evans.

In a fascinating interview he talks with Arcana about his own introduction to classical music, the technical and psychological challenges in performing Strauss, his highlights from the series and the principles of accompanying a singer.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I have an early memory of a concert at Cheltenham Town Hall when Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was performed – it was one of my father’s favourite pieces, hence one of his first LPs, together with Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony and Franck’s Symphonic Variations. But he also loved Gilbert & Sullivan, so my brothers and I who were all choristers were basically brought up on a diet of English Cathedral Music and HMS Pinafore.

I also remember Peter and the Wolf loomed quite large (my favourite bit was the appearance of the wolf out of the forest), as well as the audience songs from Let’s Make an Opera. And I treasured a 78 single of Sousa’s Stars & Stripes played by the Coldstream Guards Band: nowadays my favourite version is Vladimir Horovitz’s – he gives it such an aristocratic swagger, like a Grande Polonaise in 4/4 time.

What was it about Gerald Moore that made you want to follow in his footsteps?

It was when my elder brother Charles (on whom I really learnt the basics of accompanying when we were both in our teens) gave me the first LP of Winterreise, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. I was fascinated by the piano parts, but especially by Gerald’s beautifully judged piano sound and his wonderful sense of rhythm and pace, and I just thought: “I’d love to be able to do that.”

When did you first discover the songs of Richard Strauss?

It was probably when I went to the RCM in 1966. Hubert Dawkes, to whom I’d been assigned for accompaniment, plunged me in at the deep end with the Four Last Songs.  But I also thrilled to songs like Allerseelen, Die Nacht, Ständchen, etc.

Listen to Rebecca Evans singing September, the second of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with Roger Vignoles. This is part of the eighth and final volume of Strauss songs released by Hyperion and available here

Are the piano parts particularly challenging? When I have seen you play at the Wigmore Hall before they often feel orchestral in concept, as though you are having to voice a whole ensemble.

Strauss’s early songs sound much like Schumann: pianistic in quality and perfect for a domestic soirée. But with Zueignung, the first of his Opus 10 group (his first published songs), there is an unmistakable sea change. It’s as though the Vienna Philharmonic has entered the drawing room, and from then on Strauss never looked back. Challenging?  Indeed, but Strauss also has a wonderful feel for the piano, and with very few exceptions his accompaniments are very grateful to play. Of course there can be a lot of notes to deal with and every now and then he does go completely over the top: Lied an meinem Sohn for instance, which sounds like a cross between Die Walküre and a Tchaikovsky piano concerto and was declared unplayable by Alfred Brendel, no less. It’s wonderfully sung by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

As it happens thinking orchestrally has always come naturally to me, ever since my time studying with Paul Hamburger, for whom it was axiomatic that all song composers from Schubert onwards have a miniature orchestra in their heads. A couple of years playing Wagner and Strauss at Covent Garden helped cement this approach: many pianists make the mistake with Strauss of learning all the little notes first, but a stint in the opera house teaches you to see the wood for the trees, and as Paul Hamburger would often say, “If you get the gesture right, the little notes will fall into place”.

I should like to add that I owe an enormous amount to Paul, who taught me not only more about piano technique than any “real” pianist I ever worked with, but also about vocal coaching, style, language and poetry (even down to explaining Thomas Hardy to me in his thick Viennes accent).  Quite coincidentally the first song I ever took to him was by Strauss – Schlagende Herzen.

The Strauss series on Hyperion has had a really nice blend of singers new and slightly older, English and European. Was that a deliberate aim?

It wasn’t a deliberate aim, so much as the result of the series having taken twelve years to record, and at each stage looking for artists with the appropriate vocal and musical character for the volume in hand. It also very much reflects the singers whom I already was enjoying working with at any given time.

Do you think that in the Strauss songs we get a different view of him as a composer?

Strauss was naturally a composer of the large gesture, the panoramic sweep, with a distinct tendency to overblown romanticism of the kind that can turn some listeners off.  And of course the opera composer often shines through – there can be no doubt that the 25 years of song-writing that preceded his first operas were the laboratory in which he developed his gift for vocal characterisation.

But in the song format he is obliged to distil his musical ideas to their simplest essence. Just occasionally he doesn’t succeed, but on the many occasions when he does the result can be pure magic.  If I had to give just one example it might be Nachtgang, a tiny love-song of breathtaking tenderness – and unfathomable poignancy (listen below):

‘Accompanist’ feels like a slightly derogatory term for a role that requires such control and artistry. Is it your view that both performers have equal billing in a vocal recital?

It’s not often realised that the Lied or Mélodie is as much a piano art as a vocal one – it’s no accident that Schubert’s Lieder evolved with the early years of the piano – so of course singer and pianist should have equal billing. It is indeed a truly symbiotic partnership. But as for the A-word, I am proud to follow Gerald Moore as an “Unashamed Accompanist”. To me it’s the only term that naturally describes what I and my colleagues do. Nevertheless I can understand those who baulk at its negative associations and prefer the American coinage “collaborative pianist”. Just for the record the billing should of course always read “So-and-So, piano”, never “So-and-so, accompanist”.

What is the most common piece of advice you give to your students on accompanying a singer?

This from Geoffrey Parsons, another mentor: “Always have your own idea of how the song goes, rather than just be a blank canvas for the singer to draw on”.

But two other rules of thumb are useful: “It’s the singer’s job to slow down, the pianist’s to speed up again” and “Balance is as much a function of texture (ie transparency and clarity) as of decibels (as in am I too loud?)”

Is it important to have a personal affinity with the singer you are performing with, as well as a musical one?

It helps of course, especially if you are going on tour together. But I have had many experiences of wonderful music-making on minimal rehearsal, when there was no time at all to find out whether you got on personally offstage.

Are there any composers you have not yet recorded that you are keen to explore?

I love playing Rachmaninov songs (probably for the same reason that I love playing Strauss). And one day I might get round to Schoenberg’s Buch der hängenden Gärten.

If you could recommend a Strauss song to Arcana readers listening for the first time, which one would it be?

So many to choose from…  But for a real out-of-body experience, try Am Ufer, sung exquisitely by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

Or for a remarkable stream of consciousness, Anne Schwanewilms singing O wärst du mein! on Volume 2 (listen below):

You are a painter as well, looking at Twitter…does music inspire your paintings at any point?

Not precisely: but a friend once told me they thought I painted with the same part of the brain that I play with.  Which is probably true. It is a fact that I have a very visual conception of the music that I play, especially in song where so much of the verbal imagery is itself visual. So in either medium I am playing with light and shade, with colour and texture, and with contrast – perhaps the most important tool in both.

You can read more about Roger Vignoles on his artist page, or click here for his Hyperion discography. With grateful thanks to Hyperion for the provision of highlights from their Strauss series, which are of course (c) Hyperion Records Ltd.

Interview: James Heather

Stories From Far Away is James Heather’s debut album, a set of piano pieces documenting his emotional and musical response to contemporary news stories. It brings out the pianist’s more ‘classical’ side, a complement to the work he does heading up the communications team at Ninja Tune, where for the last 15 years he has supported the label’s output of pioneering electronic and experimental music. In this chat with Arcana he talks about how the two strands unite for powerful musical impact, and his hopes for the future as a performer. But first…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

The most powerful memory is of a subscription we had to a magazine called The Great Composers Of Our Lives. It was a monthly, with 40 or 50 issues in a binder, and they were different colours for different composers. It started off with the big hitters, like Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but it was aimed at kids really. It was quite thin and picture-heavy, but it had as much about the academic aspects of the music as it had about their life story. It added a more emotional side, and that seeped in at an early age. It showed me that behind these complicated pieces of work there is a human story. I collected each one in a binder and became obsessed with it!

On top of that my grandparents were very in to classical music. When they came round my dad would like to choose a piece and put it on at just the right level, and sometimes my role was to get the ambience just right with the classical music in the background. My granddad was into classical – personally I am more into the romantic era. My granny was also into Schubert and Schumann, and both of them used to come round and jump on the piano in our house. My granddad was good; he played in the Second World War when he and his colleagues had an off moment – playing in a hotel in Italy. That’s where he met my granny, who I think was a nurse out there. He was playing the piano and she fell in love with him!

My other granny played piano and had a tendency to go off on a mad one, which sounded like Debussy on drugs – quite wayward but had a very distinctive style, quite madcap. I think you can hear that somewhere in my style of piano playing. I used to love listening to them play, and my dad also sent me to blues piano lessons. We had a honky-tonk piano initially, and I learnt the boogie-woogie scales. I can still play them, though they are not what I’ve chosen to put on record so far!

A year or two later I did the classical grades, and got to about Grade Six before going on my own path. That was really good because I learnt some key skills, the scales and theory around it all. What I was most passionate about from 11 or 12 was playing my latest compositions. My teacher was patient with me, and I used to play my new songs for five or ten minutes before the standard lesson.

Even at that age I was composing. I learned to play Beethoven’s Für elise, the Moonlight Sonata, the more simple Rachmaninov stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. Once a week I would go to my granddad’s house, and he taught me the simple rules of composition – how to change key into another key, the chord sequences – and I was faithful to the rules he taught me but then later on in life I bent them a bit. I always thought he was a stickler for some composition rules. He used to detune his piano so that it was equal temperament; we used to spend hours doing that, and it was really interesting.

How has your style evolved in that time?

Initially I was just improvising, so I would sit down and play for two or three hours, just going off on one, and just play. I loved getting totally immersed, and subconsciously I was training, going off on different tangents of scales and learning what was working. I think I have become more refined, as before I hadn’t worked out introductions and endings. This came later when I started to listen to popular music, and learnt tricks about recurring motifs / hooks, and having a proper end! My early stuff as a young teenager was too repetitive and loop-heavy. The loud bits got loud without a progression to the loud, it wasn’t subtle enough. Now I think I’ve found my style and a way to deliver it in a way that people might appreciate more. I think when playing live it’s good to have a good moment where you improvise, and show that side of you. As you mature as a person your sound evolves of course.

Do you find playing the piano cathartic?

In the early times it was primal; I would just get up and do it. Some people use yoga and meditation but for me if I’m going home and I know I’ve got time to step on to the keyboard I’m excited, because I know I’m going to be relaxed. It calms my centre, and for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to share, and I never assumed that anybody would like it. That’s great, but I’m also sensitive that you should remember the struggle, that for many years nobody seemed to care. Just because people care now, you’ve got to keep it on a level plain.

Given your family history, that must bring an extra personal edge to what you do?

Yes. I do think of my family, and certain chord sequences my grandparents played that seeped into me, and my late Dad’s unparalleled enthusiasm for music. It’s a shame they never saw me have any sort of proper success, but I wanted to protect myself in my teenage years. Everyone heard me play at family gatherings, but I never opened myself up to a wider audience. I didn’t want to be criticised, but you get over that!

Was that partly because your work at Ninja Tune deals with the reception of records and music?

I did become acutely aware of that one, and maybe I was overanalysing what people might think of my stuff – but also I don’t think it was quite ready. I was so busy doing my job that I knew I would get round to it. Who knows why we do things in certain orders?! In the ‘electronic’ and ‘hip hop’ networks I was in a 23-year old classical pianist was slightly odd, but as you get older you find people becoming more responsive to it. I love a rave as much as the next person, but I also have this other side. People knew about it but I do believe in organic stuff, and don’t want to push things down people’s throats. If they want to hear it, then great!

I think it’s good I’ve left it late to let myself ‘out’, because there are intricacies in all composition, and I hope that mine sounds like ‘me’ now. I would hate to just be adding to things. As a solo instrumentalist it’s harder, because if you’re a producer you’re working with hundreds of different sounds. I think I had to find my ‘person’, what made me ‘me’, and sometimes you don’t know that until you’re older.

One angle I would like to potentially go down eventually is that I’d like to do a piano album with a grime MC. I listen to classical music, new classical musicians – maybe 10% – but I listen to all of Wiley and Skepta’s catalogue. Stormzy at Glastonbury was amazing! I don’t just want to put on a bow tie and play a classical gig. I would like to do that as well but it’s all about the flexibility.

There is a certain element of classical music that is very upper class and perhaps more elitist, but then you’ve got all the new people coming through like Nils Frahm, and earlier on artists like Amon Tobin and Cinematic Orchestra opening things up more from the indie world. Now you look at 6Music with the Proms, and people like A Winged Victory for The Sullen, it’s inspiring. There’s not really an obvious place for my current sound as a solo pianist whose brain is more in the electronic world, so I’m going to try and find that. Where I have to add other instruments, why not do more young facing, risky things? I don’t want it to be seen as elevator music!
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Have the artists you work with at Ninja influence you musically at all?

Before I was at Ninja I had a keyboard in my room at university I was very passionate about what I did, but I had no idea how I could make it successful – a few friends liked some songs. Before that I tried to be in a band,  and also make electronic music with friends, but it was hard to get off the ground for various reasons. Then at Ninja I started to get a feel for how the industry worked. I think I’m a very loyal and hard working person, and I was surprised to get the job with no experience – but was in the right place at the right time. For many years I was very focused on not fucking it up, doing well in my position, and became very passionate about promoting the artists and was blown away by their music. Piano remained a hobby, and in London I was in small flats so had a keyboard, which wasn’t the real deal. I kept it going, and what it did for me was realising I had to up my game. Hearing Bonobo and Cinematic Orchestra, and then hearing one of my piano tracks, I was thinking that I need to up it somehow.

That’s how it influenced me, and I guess Ninja has given me a knowledge of how the industry works. I got signed kind of by accident, but had this network of people and could lean on a few for help. I never particularly sent it to the artists, I didn’t want to be the person who had a self-agenda. It made me more ambitious, because I see the ambition in our office. For the foreseeable I think I can put both hats on. Solo piano music is pretty different to what I’m doing at Ninja Tune. I’m going with the flow really, and I don’t pr myself, i got the great Duncan Clark @ 9PR for that – that would be slightly strange and not particularly healthy for me to promote me!

You played at Glastonbury this year – how was that?

It was a random one, because it was a connection through Greenpeace. I know the booker there, and he asked me to play – but there was no piano there, so I had to take my USB keyboard. It’s not my perfect performing situation, but I’m a believer in Greenpeace, so I wanted to help them. It’s also pretty cool to have said that’s my first ever gig! I’ve done Sofar Sounds and random singer-songwriter nights on the piano as a teenager, but it was my first real gig. The scheduling wasn’t perfect for my music, because the act before was a vocal-techno set, and before that there was a very upbeat brass band! Then I was playing my style of piano music, which is on one level very chilled but there are things going on in it. It was a small stage with 30-40 people but then lots on the perimeter. It was Sunday, around 5pm, the sun had just come out – and Shaggy was on the other stage, there was a skateboarding competition – lots of distractions. I had to keep going, and couldn’t hear myself properly, but did a 45-minute set and didn’t bugger it up. Some people zoned into it and contacted me afterwards. It’s not something I would rush into again but it’s an early sign of me not doing what’s expected.

I have a Solidarity of Arts Festival gig coming up in Gdansk, with Johann Johannsson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Penguin Café. It’s like a Barbican vibe, I’m playing a 400 capacity room on a grand piano. I’m also playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, not in the main room but the equivalent of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m going to be the first gig in that room, and I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully that will open up a new world. After 25 years of composing I’ll believe it when I see it, but hopefully those gigs will be the true James Heather experience!

Does the classical music you listened to growing up still resonate now?

Of course, yes. I grew up with Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the whole grandiosity of it – but then it gets so quiet. Debussy, I have his ‘best of’ – and I just love it. The other day I was listening to the John Cage piece Landscapes, one of the first example of classical music and turntables, and loops. Then I put on a Gangstarr record – which shows how anything goes!

Finally, what does classical music mean to you?

It’s very hard to articulate in words. When classical music hits me in the right way it’s very profound, a transcendent experience. I think it means independence. In indie music you have bands, and in electronic music you often have duos, if you have an orchestra a lot of the time it’s coming from one composer, and it feels like a staunchly independent thing. This is the vision of one composer, and it’s like a big statement, and here are 50 musicians playing it. I think you possibly get less ‘bands’ or ‘duos’ in classical music so for me classical music means Independence. That’s a random on the spot theory!

James Heather’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. For more information on James Heather, head to his artist website

Proms interview – David Lang (Bang On A Can)

This year the pioneering ensemble Bang On A Can reaches the grand old age of 30. Directed by three composer-performers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang (above) – the ensemble are to celebrate the occasion with a late night Prom. In it they will pay tribute to Philip Glass, but typically the concert will include a world premiere in Gordon’s Big Space, a London premiere in Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, an established work by Louis Andriessen (Workers Union) and Lang’s own Sunray, written for his father. In this interview he tells Arcana about the challenges and rewards of running an ensemble regarded as one of the very best in contemporary music making.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

My parents weren’t music people and there was no classical music in my house growing up.  My first real spark of interest came from seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich‘s 1st Symphony – it was raining in my school when I was 9 years old and they played this movie during lunch, to keep us quiet.  Everyone was throwing food and making noise, but I was mesmerized, and after that, hooked.

You’ve described yourself as a ‘deep classical music nerd’. Does that mean you need to study classical music a lot more closely to get maximum enjoyment from it?

I wouldn’t say that what I get from the study of classical music is maximum enjoyment.  Music is a means of communicating things between people and many of the things people need to communicate aren’t enjoyable!  But I am really interested in the messages that underlie classical music and getting deeper into the music lets me find out more about what the music can mean.

If you could somehow sum up what you learnt from studying with Andriessen, what would you say has left a lasting impact?

I never studied directly with Louis, although when I was a young composer I spent many many hours talking to him about music.  I learned many things just from watching him – about how to be an active musical citizen, how to be generous to other musicians, how to be supportive of young composers, how to be engaged with the larger culture that surrounds us.  Those are all very important.  In his music he always has tried to push his curiosity as far as it will go, in the most honest and direct way possible.  Those are also very useful lessons.

Congratulations on 30 years of Bang On A Can. What has been the biggest challenge to the ensemble in that time?

Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I started Bang on a Can 30 years ago, because we were passionate about ways we thought the world needed to change, in order for experimental music to take its rightful place in our culture.  The biggest challenge for me personally has been setting aside the time to make sure I keep my focus on all the things I am passionate about.

Is the ensemble all about ensuring there are no boundaries between classical music and all the forms around it?

The ensemble was built to be flexible – just the instrumentation itself is hybridized between musical genres, and the players have backgrounds in different kinds of music as well.  We didn’t start the All-Stars so that the band could have no boundaries between it and the world, but so that it would be maximally useful to the widest assortment of composers who might want to work with it.

How do you keep Bang On A Can fresh and innovative?

Again, Bang on a Can exists to do the things we are all passionate about – playing new music, building new audiences, educating young composers and performers, commissioning new and stranger musics.  It is the kind of challenge for ourselves that keeps us going.

Do yourself, Michael and Julia have specific skills to bring to Bang On A Can, and what is the dynamic between the three of you?

The three of us have different strengths and weaknesses, and we complement each other pretty well.  Most of all we are close friends, which made it all possible.  I think in the first years of Bang on a Can we would sometimes get exhausted and might have quit if we were doing this alone, but because we were friends we didn’t want to let the others down, and so we persevered.

The Proms program looks to be a very personal one for you. Could you offer a short description of each piece and how or why you chose it?

I don’t know what Michael’s piece is about, so I can’t say how personal that is, but Julia’s piece is an intense examination of an inner terror, mine is a birthday present for my dad, in which I try to made solid a wispy ray of sunlight, and we have pieces by two of our mentors, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen.  So I guess it is personal!

Does the program reflect how the ensemble has progressed in its 30 years?

I am not sure this program reflects any kind of progression – just challenging music by living composers, played fiercely and really well.  We have been doing that for a long while…

You are performing music by Philip Glass. Do you think minimalism is now a very established part of the classical music canon?

Philip Glass is one of the most successful and influential composers, ever.  And when the question asks if he is now an ‘established part of the classical music canon’ it reveals how odd the idea of that canon really is.  Philip Glass was already the most performed composer on the planet before the classical music world felt comfortable inviting him in.  Isn’t that backwards from the way the world should work?  Shouldn’t classical music be actively refreshing itself, all the time?

Do people look to you to set standards with performances of new music?

I hope so!  The idea of creating an amplified group that is part classical ensemble and part rock band, and that can play lots of kinds of music, including music that is technically really difficult, has been influential in New York and we are starting to see more musicians with a wider range of experiences and abilities.  I wouldn’t claim that we started that trend but we certainly have been a big part of it.

Is it difficult to say ‘no’ to things when new music is involved?

Why would you ever want to say no to anything?  Not just in music, but in life?

What piece of music have you heard recently that you would encourage others to hear?

Me personally, Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi.  I know it is a few years old already but I listen to it all the time.  Layer upon layer of mind-blowing polyrhythms, all played live, built up inexorably over time.  Check it out.