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The Recorder Magazine

December 2002

Andrew Mayes interviews Piers Adams

AM: It is now several years since “Red Priest” was formed. It is certainly a baroque ensemble with a difference and a very visual in addition to a lively musical impact. Did you have particular intentions on these lines when the ensemble was formed and has it developed in the way you anticipated?

PA: Yes and no. When I formed the group I didn’t really consider where it might end up – I only knew that there was a particular sound and approach I was after, but I had never previously found the musicians who were prepared to go there with me. My colleagues in the English early music scene seemed to find my approach a little, well, over the top (one described it as ‘a parody of the baroque style’, which I actually find rather a pleasing description) and in fact I’d pretty much given up the idea of pursuing this direction when I chanced upon a recording by the Italian group, Il Giardino Armonico. Not only was this ensemble producing the sounds I had dreamt of for years – percussive, emotive and thrillingly rhetorical – but it was doing so with a high degree of commercial success overseas. So that was the trigger for trying again with renewed energy.

The development of the group – beyond that initial sound-concept into something more theatrical and creative – has happened organically, and in a way has taken on a life of its own. For a start I didn’t originally imagine a 4-piece ensemble – our debut concert featured 10 players, and centred on the concerto repertoire – but it quickly became apparent that a smaller core of committed musicians had a greater chance of producing something potent and original. One result of this reduction of forces is that we now rely heavily on our own arrangements and transcriptions to lift things away from the typical (and over-exposed) trio-sonata genre.

The great thing about working with such a fantastic, open minded bunch of musicians is that there is no ‘style-policing’, no holds barred in our quest for the most vivid musical result. It’s very liberating and gives one a sense of the real spirit of the baroque, even if we quite consciously stray from the letter.

AM: The ensemble has a new CD to be released shortly. How do you set about recreating the impact of your live performances in the recording studio?

PA: Received wisdom from the recording industry – particularly where early music is concerned – tells us that anything too idiosyncratic won’t bear repeated listening on disc. In other words one is encouraged by certain producers and reviewers to smooth things over in the studio and accept that recording is a different art form from live performance. I contest this attitude strongly, and insist that nothing is held back for the microphones. If anything one should go even further over the top in the studio in terms of musical gesture, attack, colour and effects to make up for the lack of visual spectacle. Having said that, the recording process can provide a stark mirror at times, and forces one to realise the importance of precision of ensemble and intonation even when working at the outer limits of possibility – that’s a tightrope we’re learning to walk disc by disc!

Our second CD, ‘Nightmare in Venice’, has just been released in the UK – a programme of ghoulish and fantastical music inspired by Vivaldi’s ‘La Notte’ – and we’re about to lay down our version of the ubiquitous Four Seasons (along with the Corelli Christmas Concerto), which is the result of several months of rehearsing, arranging and concertizing, and many re-visits to the drawing board along the way. Recording such a very well known work certainly presents its own challenges – but I can say that we’ve had a lot of fun…

AM: Thinking back to your “Shine and Shade” CD in which you explored some of the pieces originally premiered by Carl Dolmetsch, there were among his Wigmore Hall first performances some fine pieces scored for the same forces as “Red Priest”. Although there are clearly some practical problems, would you consider venturing into this repertoire with the ensemble?

No. One thing I’ve learnt from experience is the necessity of creating focussed and clearly recognisable ‘products’ for the musical market place. In a sense Red Priest is such a product – its focus is baroque music and its unique selling point (a business term drummed into me by my father) is our particular, uncompromising approach to it. It works, and the group virtually sells itself to promoters! My feeling is that the Dolmetsch repertoire – and indeed any contemporary music – just wouldn’t fit into the brief, so I prefer to place those aspects of my work into separate boxes (such as my recorder/piano duo with Howard Beach). This way of thinking, by the way, is something they don’t teach you at music college, and I’ve seen many a promising player underachieve or fall by the wayside through woolly marketing.

AM: During the Great Malvern Recorder Festival I came to a performance of the Recorder Roadshow. It was certainly very lively and clearly engaged the young people who took part. Involving young people with the recorder is clearly of great importance to you. How do you approach this, especially in the light of the recent debate about the recorder actually putting children off music?

PA: I don’t think the recent debate has made the slightest difference to the recorder’s status in schools – it’s just a typical example of an overblown news story, stemming from a report whose objectivity (and probably, accuracy) is questionable to say the least. It’s clear to me, however, that the recorder is long overdue for an image overhaul, especially amongst children – and that has been the purpose of the Roadshow programme (plus, of course, a purely cynical realisation that children represent my future audience…). The basic format, developed through trial and error over 6 or 7 years, is that of the interactive concert – a recital containing a number items for massed participation, which are prepared in advance workshops. Most recently and successfully these have included David Pugsley’s ‘Recorder Rave’, a riotous 10-minute blast which gives me a virtuoso workout, the children riffs and dance movements in a variety of pop and rock styles, and Howard the opportunity (rare amongst classical pianists) to hone his skills as a rap artist…

AM: Your recent CD “Dances with Gods” features the music of Chris Gander and certainly breaks considerable new ground making use of the recorder with the idioms of Indian music and a soundscape backing. You mentioned “Kama Deva” (that forms the third of the five sections of the complete work) in our interview back in 1994 and this has clearly been a project evolved over a long period of time. Is this an area of music involving recorder that you would like to explore and develop further?

PA: Yes – there are three aspects in particular to this piece which have excited me, and kept my interest over its many years of gestation. The first is the use of recorder with synthesised backings – in a largely tonal idiom, more ‘new-age’ or ‘crossover’ than the hard-core avant-garde electroacoustics which are popular on the Continent. To me the haunting tone of the recorder blends perfectly with those synthesised ‘pads’, and I can see great potential in working with these sounds in other musical genres too. The second aspect is the blending of western and ‘world’ music – not a new concept for the recorder of course, but one with plenty of room for development still. Indian music has been relatively unexplored by recorder players, and I’m particularly looking forward to a new concerto which is being written for me at present by the celebrated Indian composer John Mayer. And thirdly, the use of the recorder in philosophical/spiritual music, especially when that is directed towards a holistic worldview. Dances with Gods embodies an important spiritual concept in much the same way as its Japanese counterpart, Maki Ishii’s Zen-Buddhist masterpiece, Black Intention.

AM: The use of soundscape accompaniments for “Dances with Gods” I found particularly effective. Could you say something about how they are constructed and were there any influences that decided Chris Gander and you to work with them?

PA: Chris composed the work using Sibelius software and a Roland JV1080 sound module – an industry standard combination, to which he added a specialist world music sound-card, necessary for the ethnic percussion sounds. In essence it is quite a simple process – you simply compose your score on-screen and type a code to direct each voice to a particular sound in the module – that way you can experiment quite easily (and waste very many hours playing around with different sounds!) However the refining process took some months after the basic soundscape was in place, and took us on a pretty steep learning curve!

AM: In a recent conversation you described a live performance of “Dances with Gods” with dancers also taking part. The difficulty of funding such a project is clearly a consideration, but do you think that enhancing the dance element and bringing a visual dimension to the music gives it greater impact? Indeed, is music as part of multimedia performance an area in which the recorder has particular benefits?

PA: Working with dancers was an interesting experience… It certainly brought a new dimension to this piece in performance, but as you suggest, also threw up a number of practical issues to do with funding, which in effect rendered it impossible to take on one-off bookings. If these problems can be overcome I think it would be a worthwhile area for further exploration – but for the moment it’s sitting on the back burner. I would be hard-pushed to argue the recorder’s merits over other instruments for multimedia performance – except to say that we tend by necessity to be quite a forward thinking lot, and perhaps have more incentive than others to find new platforms for our instrument!

AM: Among your ambitions noted in our 1994 interview was what you described as a “James Galway” type album of virtuoso music and your CD “Recorder Bravura” was clearly the fulfilment of this. Although you are much involved with “Red Priest” and the Recorder Roadshow, are there other projects (like “Dances with Gods”) for which you have ideas or plans? You recently mentioned a couple of new concertos.

PA: There are always plans! The trick is making at least a few of them actually happen – and unfortunately commercial considerations often get in the way of what one might ideally like to do. Although it’s generally possible to get things recorded and released in some shape or form, getting the world to sit up and listen to it is quite another matter, and if you’re not careful you can end up recording purely for your own vanity.

That said, I am (of course) working on some ideas now. I now have enough new concertos to make a CD – following on from my own David Bedford disc and CDs by Michala Petri (Moonchild’s Dream) and Dan Laurin (Swedish Recorder Concertos). I’m planning something quite international, with works by Vladislav Shoot (Russia), Gerald Plain (USA), John Mayer (India), David Pugsley and Chris Gander (UK). I’m also involved in a new eclectic trio with Howard Beach and the multi-faceted guitarist Richard Durrant, which will be recording over the coming months and doing a number of live shows under the title ‘Electric Troubadour’ – complete with PA and lighting.

My new contract with Dorian Recordings (USA) will initially focus on baroque repertoire, but I hope to introduce a disc of czakan repertoire fairly early on, and some more romantic transcriptions (a follow up to ‘Bravura’) a little later. Red Priest will follow up the Seasons recording with an all-Bach disc during a busy 2003 (so far we have four major tours scheduled – three to America and one to Australia.)

AM: Although music for recorder is developing in many idioms and forms, I know from the talk you gave at the 2000 ERTA conference that you have definite views about the directions in which you feel it is best served. To an extent these reflected the thoughts expressed in our previous interview, but have continuing developments changed your views in any way and are there new areas that are particularly stimulating?

PA: I stand by much of what I said in that talk: modern music is in a confused state, and I think composers are in a rather difficult position nowadays, caught between the quest for originality at all costs and the universal laws of harmony and balance which dictate whether a piece has a good or a bad effect on its listener. One of my favourite anecdotes (which I relayed in my talk) is that of the VIP guest at a orchestral concert who, when asked for an opinion on the evening’s new commission, thought for a moment and then said “Well, I’m sure it’s better than it sounds!” Of course there is no such thing as music which is better than it sounds, and that’s why much of serious recorder music from the past four decades is – to me – decidedly poor, however ‘clever’ it may be. The solution doesn’t lie either in pleasant but insipid, middle-of-the-road muzak, but I do think that there is still plenty to be explored in intelligent crossovers with jazz and pop, world music, minimalism, new-age and romantic idioms. Real composers, with something important to express and a musical language to convey it effectively to a wide public (rather than a small cult) are few and far between – but I’m always keen to hear from them!

AM: Future recitals by “Red Priest” include a charity event at Poole Arts Centre for the benefit of Amnesty International UK and the Rights of the International Child. In addition to the practical way such concerts can assist in raising funds, do you think music has the power to raise awareness and unite people at a time when there seems to be much division in the World?

PA: I’m actually becoming increasingly interested in global matters, and, like many people, increasingly horrified by the directions things seem to be taking internationally. Politicians - East or West, it makes no difference – seem to me to be so deeply untrustworthy that the role of the artist, in the broadest sense, becomes crucial to give soceity a different perspective, above and away from the divisions produced by political or religious systems, towards a state of holism and harmony. The subject of how music specifically can help with this is a complex one (and can lead to many a false ego trip along the way) but for me the bottom line is a simple awareness of music’s power to affect people – and a willingness to give myself fully to each and every performance.

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