Talking Heads: Jess Gillam

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Jess Gillam’s bright tones will be familiar to many a BBC Radio 3 listener, both as a saxophonist and a regular broadcaster with her program This Classical Life. Often (rightly!) referred to as a breath of fresh air, the Cumbrian-born musician has recently moved to London and is on to the second chapter of her album-making career with Decca. When we talk Kentish Town, where she lives, has just emerged from lockdown. As she confesses, “It’s all a bit weird!”

Gillam’s progression from the wide open, wild spaces of Cumbria to the cramped streets of North London is a striking one. “I lived in Manchester for three years, and then moved to London,” she says. “It was a big shock, a completely different atmosphere. London never stops and that is quite difficult to adapt to sometimes. Culturally the difference is unbelievable. Cumbria has incredible landscapes and scenery, really lovely people, and a really strong sense of community, but there is nowhere near as much culture and things going on as London.”

She had to be careful not to over commit her diary. “I found as soon as I was in London that I was really busy, but also that I wasn’t in London so much as I thought as I was touring and playing in different places. I remember moving on the Monday, I had a rehearsal in the afternoon and a concert the next day. It was a mixture as before I couldn’t commit to too much, but now I love the different challenges. I would love to go to more theatres and watch more concerts though – that’s something I plan to do much more of when they reopen.”

We move on to talk about TIME, that second album for Decca, due for release at the end of September. It was recorded with the Jess Gillam Ensemble, a chamber-sized group of accomplished session musicians and percussionists. Several teasers for the album have appeared, in the exciting form of new and specially commissioned pieces by Luke Howard (Dappled Light) and Will Gregory (Orbit). The tracklisting is pleasingly adventurous, with new interpretations of tracks by James Blake, RadioheadPhilip Glass and Michael Nyman.

Gillam was already aware of Gregory’s pop music. “I’ve been a fan of Goldfrapp since I was quite young”, she explains, “and have listened to their albums. I knew that Will was a sax player and have played various pieces by him – so I just approached him and asked if he could write a piece. Goldfrapp have blossomed as they have gone on, and that’s one of the things I find really inspiring about Will, is that he can write in a classical style, with a score for orchestra, but he can write in so many areas and have a distinctive voice still. For me it makes his music more authentic, and it’s one of the reasons I love it.”

On Dappled Light, I comment that the colours of the cover and match up to Luke Howard’s music rather nicely. “I think he wrote beautifully for the forces that we had”, says Gillam, “and the way he used the percussion was really interesting with the piano. It really paints a picture and a scene I think. The cover art wasn’t planned but we ended up with it because of lockdown. I think it went together really well!”

Jess has a number of new commissions under her belt already. Does she feel it is important for a new composer to capture her personality as well as writing well for the saxophone itself? “I think for me music is all about people, about telling people stories and communication”, she says. “It is a deep level of communication and conveying a story, an emotion or a feeling. I think with whatever piece it is – a Mahler symphony or a Shostakovich string quartet for instance – each one has a history that is linked to a particular person. I find the interpersonal relationships interesting, to find out that music a lot of the time is about people, for people or with somebody in mind. It is really nice to have that human interaction and quality to a new piece, but it’s not essential. I think it’s really nice when a composer listens to your sound and captures that, but I think it’s nice and not essential.”

While listening through the album, the big surprise for this particular listener was Gillam’s cover of James Blake’s Retrograde, in an arrangement by Benjamin Rimmer. The surprise in this case was the vocal qualities of the instrument. “I think it’s an underrated element of the saxophone, it’s almost insane the vocal quality that it has! The way a sound is produced is quite akin to how you would sing, and quite similar to how you would produce the sound if you were a singer, and the things you would think about where the sound is being made are similar through your vocal chords. Whatever you put through the saxophone is a direct representation of how sound comes out. If you’re shouting or whispering, it would be totally different. You get that to some extent on a piano, but it is so connected to our bodies and the physicality of it is just like singing. When I was recording Retrograde it was about looking at how James Blake had got that sound, and replicating some of it on the saxophone.”

Jess has shown through her concerts how adaptable the saxophone can be, showing in an hour-long recital at Wigmore Hall how composers from the last 400 years can find their music in a new dimension. “It is unbelievably versatile, and I have been saying for a while how it’s like a chameleon of instruments. I was reading the famous David Bowie quote where he says people describe him as a chameleon but he’s not a chameleon of styles, because a chameleon puts a lot of effort into changing its colour! It’s the same with the saxophone, you don’t really have to change that much. Of course there is a whole different set of equipment and techniques to play jazz and classical, and you can learn to do it very well, but on a very basic level you don’t need to change anything to be able to play baroque music or Motown or classical, whatever it might be. It has the versatility of sitting right in that hole.”

She may be two albums in, but Jess is still at a very early point in her career – which is something of a double-edged sword. “It’s amazing but also terrifying!” she exclaims. “There is so much to explore with the instruments. The way we consume music now means that people have such eclectic tastes, because you can listen to whatever you like whenever you like on a streaming platform, and you don’t have to sit down and listen to a whole album before getting up and changing the gramophone. It’s a lot easier listening to music now, so the styles we like and are listening to I find are much more based on mood and what we feed our emotions, to inspire or to concentrate. I think people are using music in quite a different way now. The saxophone feels like an instrument that has the potential to sit in so many different places and to explore so many new possibilities. There is so much music still to be made for it I think, because it’s such a young instrument and has so many places to go.”

These new ways of experiencing music, primarily through digital platforms, are at the heart of This Classical Life, her successful weekly show on BBC Radio 3. It appeals to a wide range of listeners, and not just the new technology recruits – from experience, much older gramophone lovers are enjoying her open and diverse approach to music, casting off the genre stereotypes. “There has been a big range in the response I have had, with all age groups from primary school children to 90-year-olds. I think the most magical thing about music is the sense of discovery, and knowing that you can never listen to all the music in the world. There is always something to discover. Regardless of what age you are, that never leaves you, the idea of hearing new sounds, stories and different people!”

These principles are at the heart of her approach, both as a performer and a presenter. “I think listening to new music and finding new artists that they love brings people so much joy. When you find somebody new you can listen to all their music and find out who they are, and what they’re like. It’s one of the greatest things to discover.”

Has the lockdown period given her a greater appreciation of music? “It’s been such a strange time, but it has made me realise even more that I don’t go a single day without putting on some kind of music. It can completely change the surroundings, it can transform your mood, it can make you think a different way, and it can really transform a day. You can be locked down like we have been inside our houses, but listen to music and suddenly you’re in a completely different country, thinking completely different thoughts, and you’re with someone else. It’s an amazing thing.”

Gillam has done a good deal of work over Zoom in the last few months, setting up the hugely successful Virtual Scratch Orchestra during lockdown. It brought musicians of all abilities together for the closest experience to live performance they could achieve in isolated conditions – and in total 900 people were assembled online for a distanced account of Let It Be.

Although Zoom has to an extent saved live music during the Coronavirus pandemic, there are still keen limitations, as Gillam freely admits. “Technology is amazing, and it’s incredible that we can still be a part of something bigger and still connect via the internet in the way we can, but nothing will be able to replicate the feeling of playing with other people in a room, or playing to other people. I’ve been taking part in the Royal Albert At Home concert, and practising playing to a screen is the most bizarre feeling. There is no clapping, no communication with the audience, no way of judging how it’s going! It’s the most inhuman experience in a way but at the same time you know people will watch it and you hope they will enjoy it. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Her set for the Royal Albert Hall was typically varied, including music from Marcello to David Bowie – which puts me in mind of how important the saxophone was through his music. Gillam emphatically agrees. “He played the saxophone himself, and often in his music it acts as a catalyst for the next section, or the next drop, or the next rise in emotion and intensity. The way he would use it, he deployed it as an instrument to take things to the next level.”

She has also used Zoom for lessons with her teacher, renowned British saxophonist John Harle. “I’m just finishing my Masters year at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and I submitted my recital only yesterday. We’ve been having video lessons leading up to that. It’s great to be able to keep studying, but again it isn’t quite the same, it’s quite a strange method over the internet!”

Now the recital is submitted, TIME is of the essence. We’re getting everything together for the September release – the cover and booklet notes, the track order. The whole album was mixed in lockdown, which was quite a technological feat! The producer Jonathan Allen was incredible, he was giving a live feed over to me and we could comment in real time, using WhatsApp. It’s amazing to see what’s actually possible when you need it to be!”

Jess Gillam‘s album TIME will be released by Decca on 25 September. It will include the singles Dappled Light, Suspirium, Orbit, Truman Sleeps and Joby Talbot‘s Transit of Venus. You can read more about the album on her website, and keep up with new audio releases via her Spotify and YouTube pages

Talking Heads: Miloš

When Arcana sits down to talk with classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, we find him at the end of a busy day’s interviewing. For some artists this would be a real chore, but the sense here is very much a positive one. Having returned from a career-threatening injury, this is the sort of day Miloš dreamed of having to deal with.

The reasons for our chat are many, but are headed by his striking new album Sound of Silence. On first glance this appears to be a relatively standard crossover piece, equal parts classical and pop. Closer inspection, however, reveals a carefully studied and assembled set of original pieces and arrangements with the 12 Ensemble that hang together beautifully, each of them carrying personal significance for Miloš himself.

As is customary for Arcana interviews, however, we approach the new album from the very beginning, and his first encounter with classical music. “I believe my first proper encounter with classical guitar was when my father played me an old LP of Andrés Segovia”, he recalls, “and it was at a time when I had started to play the guitar. I was completely discouraged by how particular and tricky it was, with using the nails and reading music, and knowing where each note is. I imagined that playing a guitar meant to strum a chord really loud and sing a song! It was a time when I really didn’t want to go back to the score, and when my father played me that Segovia record – Asturias was the title of the track, by Albéniz – I really was mesmerised by the sound world of it, and because of that experience I think I am a classical musician today. I think I would not have continued had that not happened, so it was a defining moment very early on.”

“I remember thinking, how is it possible one person and six strings, with their bare hands, can create so much magic? That prompted me to really practice and one day to be able to do that myself. When I recorded my very first album for Deutsche Grammophon in 2010 I knew that had to be the very first track, because that is where it all began.”

Segovia was one of several guitarists to leave their mark. “Because of that he will always be very important to me, but my absolute hero in my teenage years was John Williams, and his incredibly peerless sound projection and the quality of musicianship. He is still very inspirational to me. David Russell is an incredible musician, Julian Bream too – it is very hard to just think of one.”

Sound of Silence is a poignant album, and an important point for Miloš to reach, given the recovery he has made. “I hope that my journey will inspire others”, he proclaims, “because I think no matter what you do we all face these sorts of problems. The only way out of it is to accept it as part of life, to re-evaluate and re-think, and then start again.”

With this in mind, he used his time away from the guitar productively. “Even though at the time I thought I wasn’t, I did use that time to really open myself up to a wider world. I was always flirting with the mainstream, and I took pride that as a guitarist you can so comfortably sit between those two worlds. After going through something like that you just do what feels right, and for me it felt right to apply all those influences and bring them into my world.”

His cover of the Portishead song Sour Times is an embodiment of the dark periods he navigated while removed from practise and performance, and was a natural choice for the album. “I just guided myself with what felt like the right piece, because most of them have such an important personal meaning”, he explains. “Some of them are surprises but they just felt right, and I thought why not? You only live once, and now is the time to explore the world. Maybe there will be surprises along the way!”

One such surprise is a sensitive and moving arrangement of the Dido song Life For Rent, transformed from daytime radio to a deeper utterance. “I remember hearing that song a lot when I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music”, says Miloš, “and I remember walking down Oxford Street to hear that song blasting everywhere. I think everyone could relate to the emotion of that song, but it’s so blatantly pop that I wondered if it could work, because I love the song. I think it does work because it doesn’t matter about the genre, whether it’s Bach or The Beatles, Schubert or Paul Simon, or Dido. It’s all music, and it’s all there to be felt and enjoyed and explored. It is such a gift to be a musician and to really bring it inside your world. It is the essence of what we do.”

This inclusive approach has opened up collaborations with the likes of Manu Delago, who plays the hang as part of an arrangement of Nights In White Satin. “After this period of not playing, I realise that collaborating with artists that I like as musicians and love as people is more and more important”, he says, “making music together with someone is so wonderful and it brings so much quality and variety to your own artistry.

With The Beatles album I was also very collaborative, and that’s where the whole direction started. On that album I had Gregory Porter, Tori Amos, Steven Isserlis and a wide range of artists. On this album as well I had Manu, Jess Gillam, the 12 Ensemble. It has been really fun to create music, not just any music but music that hasn’t been played 100 times already, giving it a unique sound.”

One of the defining moments on Sound of Silence is Cancion de cuna (Berceuse), by celebrated Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer, which feels like a light in the darkness of Miloš’s injury. “I put it strategically in that place on the album, because I think it needs it to bring you to the core. It is such an iconic piece of part writing, and Leo Brouwer and his sound world are so unique. With something as simple as that, I had to have it there because it just felt right.”

It is the culmination of Miloš’s album construction, on which he elaborates. “You start off with a huge variety of things and along the way you build, take and remove until it feels right and is ready to be printed, if you like. It’s a long process; it’s not like going into the studio with pre-prepared recital repertoire. It’s actually all new. You don’t know what it’s going to happen or how it’s going to sound until you go in to the studio, and even then you think of new things you can do or things you need to take out. It’s an endless process almost, until it feels right.”

Alongside the album Miloš attaches great importance to his work with contemporary composers. In the last year he has given two world premieres – a Guitar Concerto by Howard Shore and Ink Dark Moon, a concerto by Joby Talbot given for the first time at the 2018 BBC Proms. “It’s some of the most important work I do”, he says. “I really believe that classical guitar needs new repertoire, and in order to open it up even further we need to encourage and inspire important composers to write for the guitar. I’m in a unique position as an artist, because through my work and travels I get to meet really amazing composers.”

“Whenever I get the chance I try to get them to write something important for me, but with Joby and Howard it was very natural. They heard me play, we talked and that was it. Both premieres had to be rescheduled because of my injury, and as soon as I felt better I was ready to do it and the moment of me returning onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, for Joby’s piece, was exactly a year ago today! The premiere at the Proms was like a rebirth. Howard’s was a couple of months ago. He wrote me a very beautiful piece and we premiered it in Ottawa, and the reception was amazing. He is such a legend in his world, and it’s a privilege to play a piece by a composer of that stature, to have a chance to play his work, I am excited to take those pieces on tour and make them live beyond their premiere. This is almost for me my most important work. The pieces are already recorded, so you should expect them in the not too distant future!”

Miloš’ reassurance is important here, for too many new commissions and pieces get one or two performances before fading from the spotlight, with little chance to appraise them over time “It is very important to keep them alive, and that they become my whole library of commissioned pieces. I want to premiere the Concierto de Aranjuez of the 21st century, and that’s very important to me.”

To that end, further projects are afoot. “I’m working on a new piece with David Bruce, who is a fantastic composer based here in the UK. He is writing me a piece to give with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in February 2021, and I am working for some other composers because I think it is very important to keep that going, to give things new life.”

He recognises the opportunity to give more repertoire to an instrument still in its relative infancy, when compared to its string ‘rivals’ the violin and the cello. “Absolutely. When you are lucky enough to be the artist that people perceive to be a flag carrier for that instrument, that’s a role you have to take really seriously because it’s up to you to commission new repertoire for future generations, and that’s a privilege. It’s a very important part of what you do.”

With this approach, is he looking to continue the work begun by two of his heroes, John Williams and Julian Bream? “Exactly, especially Bream who did so much collaboratively, and who did so much to create what is now the core repertoire of the instrument.” Miloš’ position, balanced between pop and classical, would seem ideal for future developments. “I hope so. For me that’s very important because I feel the guitar is one of the world’s most loved instruments, and it speaks to everyone. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at some point strummed a chord on the guitar and tried to play a song. It’s an instrument of people, and in the times when we are struggling with new audiences in the classical world, it’s the perfect instrument to invite new audiences into the concert hall.”

It also works on social media – a fact not lost on Miloš. “It works so well on playlists too. The whole world is changing, and when I see the world of recorded music today and compare it to a couple of years ago when I had my last album, it’s a completely different ball game. That also creates opportunities, and I’m very excited about that! There really is an audience out there, and we’ve just changed the ways we are thinking about reaching them. The guitar is loved, and I think it’s loved because it doesn’t scare anyone. You don’t need to be a connoisseur or a classical musician to understand it. I love that in my concerts I get teenagers, young professionals, people from all walks of life.”

Given his recovery from injury, I confess to being worried for Miloš when looking at his intensive tour schedule. Presumably he is fully in control of the demands made on him physically? “Absolutely, although I do enjoy the intensity of touring. When you are touring and going from one place to another you are really finding a different way of performing, and everything flows. I never had an issue with the number of concerts I played, that’s not why I injured myself. I had to develop a steel core in order to be able to take the experience of performing in a very secure and connected way. This stability is what I’ve been looking for, and the reason why I had to stop and regroup. I’m excited by my tour, there are a lot of concerts in the UK – 20 in all – which is a lot in two months, and I can’t wait! There are some very famous and important venues in the bigger cities and then some smaller ones, which just feels right.”

Miloš is refreshingly open when talking about his experiences of injury, and the effect that have had on others. “In the musician’s world it is a taboo, and that’s not right. In the world of sport or ballet, if you injure your leg or your arm everyone is so supportive and understands that it is part of the job. In the world of classical music it almost means that you have done something wrong, and that you hurt yourself because you are not good enough or haven’t practiced enough! There are all these prejudices about a musician’s injury, and I would really like to change that by opening it up. That’s why I talk about it, because to me it is very important to show we are not some sort of fantasy creatures that are able to create the music of the angels – we are real people that suffer real things, have real emotions and can also suffer injuries. Openly talking about it I think can create a much more inclusive environment.”

He recounts meetings with artists who have not been so fortunate. “It broke my heart so many times when I was on this recovering journey how many people I have met who never recovered, just because the way it’s all set up is in my opinion completely wrong. A musician’s injury is not a black and white thing, it is not one diagnosis. It is a number of very complicated relationships which are physical and psychological at the same time. To untie that knot takes so much understanding, and that’s why it is very hard to recover. I was really lucky I think, because I had it in me to not give up, but that should not be the case.”

Sound of Silence, Miloš’ fourth studio album, will be released on Decca on Friday 13 September. You can pre-order the album by clicking here

The guitarist also heads out on an eleven-date UK tour ‘The Voice of the Guitar’ the following week, beginning at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall on Saturday 21 September and ending in The Lighthouse, Poole, on Friday 11 October. There will be a further chance to catch him when performing Rodrigo at a further nine days around the country. All tour details can be found on his website

Finally, you can listen to MILOŠ – The Complete Playlist on Spotify below:

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)


Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius


Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify:

On record: Janine Jansen plays Brahms and Bartók Violin Concertos

Featured recording: Janine Jansen pairs the Brahms Violin Concerto with Bartók’s First

Leading violinist Janine Jansen explores violin concertos by Brahms and Bartók, bringing out the Hungarian connections between them. The accompaniment is from Antonio Pappano and orchestras from the Santa Cecilia Academy and London.

What’s the music like?

This is an unusual pairing that has not been tried on disc before, but it makes perfect sense. Brahms’ Violin Concerto has a finale that makes much of Hungarian gypsy music, so the leap from that to the thoughts of the young Bartók is not as big as you might think.

The Brahms is a big piece, heavily weighted towards its first movement, which at 21 minutes is more than half the length of the work. In this recording Janine Jansen uses cadenzas (the display parts for violin alone) written by Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s friend and the dedicatee of the concerto. Joachim was a long-fingered virtuoso, and because of that the violin part is technically very demanding.

Bartók’s Violin Concerto no.1 is the first of two such published works, and was completed when the composer was in his mid-20s. It also includes traditional Hungarian music but now the language is noticeably more modern, with crunchy harmonies, swaggering cross rhythms and a solo part that sounds more like a duel with the orchestra. In the Brahms the two forces are very much ‘on side’.

Does it all work?

This is an inspired pairing. Jansen plays with a beautiful tone in the Brahms but just as much credit should be levelled at conductor Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia orchestra, for their singing accompaniment that makes the listener want to hum along with the tunes. The Brahms has been recorded a lot of late but in this recording there is a fresh approach, as though the melodies have just been written. The oboe solo in the slow movement is gorgeously played, while the rustic finale is joyous and uninhibited.

The Bartók is similarly fresh, and again the orchestra – this time the London Symphony – cut through all the different textures and crossrhythms to make sense of this occasionally complex music. The rhythmic profile is strong once again, while technically Jansen is right at the top of her game, graceful in the first movement and gritty in the second but without losing any poise.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The two works complement each other in a highly original and brilliantly played pairing.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: