From Classical to Avant-Pop, Cellist Oliver Coates Teases Out Sound

The experimental composer speaks to Lauren Martin about working with Mica Levi and more

Gaelle Beri

When the young cellist Oliver Coates graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Music, he did so with the highest grades in the institution’s history. Since then, he’s immersed himself in challenging the traditions of classical composition, recording and performance. He’s worked with multiple national orchestras and held a residency at London’s Southbank Centre, but his rise to prominence is largely being guided by his divergent musical tastes and use of an acoustic, stringed instrument to take on radical forms of classical and electronic music.

Most visibly, Coates has worked with Radiohead on their most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool; with guitarist Johnny Greenwood, on the scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master; and Mica Levi, on her award-winning score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin.

In 2016, Coates has taken on two album projects: a solo album, Upstepping, on Moshi Moshi offshoot PRAH, and a collaborative album, Remain Calm, with Mica Levi; both blending skittering techno beats and avant-pop structures with digitally processed cello. In conversation with Lauren Martin, Coates discusses his practise, influences and close working relationship with Mica Levi.

Are you familiar with Mark Leckey’s BigBoxStatueAction?

No, I’m not. I think about Mark Leckey a lot – I love Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore and GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction – but I don’t know that one.

He said that he didn’t understand the appeal of Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel, so in a bid to do so, he built a custom soundsystem to the dimensions of the piece and played loud music directly at it. By the end, he said that he understood the sculpture better than he ever had because the music was his way of speaking to the object and the object within the space. What do you make of that?

He’s using the thing that he knows well, which is music, to animate something inanimate which isn’t giving him any emotions. He’s not “feeling anything,” he “doesn’t get it” – and there’s a lot out there to do that to you. It’s meant to have great value but it doesn’t for him, so he’s physically made a relationship between himself and the sculpture with sound. I like that very much.

I have a friend called Netia Jones who made a show called Everlasting Light. She projected huge atomic images onto the Sizewell nuclear reactors, while live choral music was sung on the beach and the voice of Arthur C. Clarke boomed over the sand dunes. It’s still one of the best things I’ve ever seen, and I think that’s because we want to believe that a building has properties akin to a soul. Putting sound into it makes it feel like it’s singing to you – which it does, of course. It’s physics, not just metaphysics.

Do you feel this way about buildings specifically designed for auditory purposes, like a concert hall, and for less traditional spaces which are used for sound?

Once I get my cello out of the case and pluck the strings, be it a grimy little club or what’s meant to be “the ultimate acoustic space,” it’s the building that tells you how the tones glow and what will and will not work that night. I’m not a fan of the idea of spending millions of pounds on a new concert hall because I don’t believe it works like that. I believe that listening is a covenant and that there are no perfect conditions for it.

Rhodri Davies plays Éliane Radigue - OCCAM I (excerpt)

You programmed a weekend of minimalist classical music in summer 2016 called Deep ∞ Minimalism, at St John’s Smith Square in London. Tell me about programming and playing this music in that church.

I work closely with the Southbank Centre, and I attended one of a series of meetings called Women in Classical Music. I was the only bloke in the room – which was strange, seeing as they weren’t prohibiting men, but no men came. I went to hear the conversation and… It’s difficult to listen to a conversation when you don’t agree with the thrust of it.

What were they talking about?

It was generally about getting more women conductors onto the podium, but always skewing it towards conducting Mozart and Beethoven, and when they were talking about female composers, it was very much focused on the academic composers who have worked their way up the institutional rungs. There are worlds of sound and listening that come from autonomous musicians outside of the traditional apparatus, largely because the apparatus didn’t know how to conceive of and receive them.

Éliane Radigue’s music does not fit moneyed structures like the BBC Proms or the Royal Festival Hall, but anyone can be humbled by her music with the right time and settings, and so I observed that there was a big gap in the Southbank’s programming. It turned out that they were closing down the Queen Elizabeth Hall and building a relationship with St John’s in Westminster, and I thought it would be quite funny to host Deep ∞ Minimalism there. St John’s in Hackney would be an expected choice, perhaps, but this is in Zone 1 and with Nigel Farage in the pub down the road. In all honesty, though, I just wanted to have works by Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others played in a church. There were no more politics to Deep ∞ Minimalism than that.

How did you feel playing there?

I’ve been playing there since I was little, actually. I can still see myself: 15 years old, wearing a bow tie. In classical music, they leave the chandeliers on, bright, and you walk down the side of the room in this “walk of shame” way that takes about half an hour to do and is mortifying. I love overcoming these challenges and I love the sound once it gets going, but it’s theatre. Being the concerto soloist is – I’ve learned, slowly – about the responsibility of giving everyone a good time even if you make 100 mistakes in the first bar.

There is a lot of pretentious music out there and people put a lot of verbal baggage in front of access to simple pleasures and sounds.

Do you like Oneohtrix Point Never?

Yes, very much so.

He described himself to me once as “a non-musician who practices and produces music” and who thinks of sounds materially. When he composes and performs, he “creates an environment that consists of different objects that are moving and shifting over time.” How does that chime with you?

That’s very nice. He’s being honest about the phenomenology of music. One way of describing music is conceptual – he says he’s a “non-musician,” but what is a musician? Someone who pretends to know what the hell they’re doing, that there’s a coherent line of thought running through their work? And for you – how do you feel about the person you’re watching? What are their body movements like? You’re left with quite abstract stuff, actually – concepts fall away in the heat of the moment to leave sounds flying around a room. Oneohtrix Point Never is sculptural, editing things together. It’s almost the opposite of Aphex Twin, where he chisels and works sounds until they absolutely obey his will.

When someone calls something pretentious, what are they annoyed about?

That they don’t feel involved. That people aren’t being simple and honest with them. There’s a passive aggression to it, too. There is a lot of pretentious music out there and people put a lot of verbal baggage in front of access to simple pleasures and sounds.

Part of it, perhaps, is that I see there being a quite aggressive aversion to anything remotely sophisticated in the general British cultural language – an obsession with ordinariness, partly to not be accused of pretentiousness. You cross between concert halls, club nights and DIY gigs – what do you make of these ideas and audiences?

I truly believe that sound should be transformative and magical, particularly in our opinion-cluttered world. With that being said, Southbank Centre wants to trace the production of art to its social and political roots, and music is a material fact. Someone is born in a place, has x amount of money and time and their background points in a direction, but ultimately, for and in a moment, music is about all of those things and none of those things. I’ve been asked to do talks, panels and speeches – more atomizing, answering why Radigue is such a good composer – but there’s nothing I can say. Agnes Martin talks about this, too – how all of these magazines come out every month trying to explain it to us when ultimately it’s about emotion.

I’ve been thinking about the “purpose of music” in difficult political times recently, with the US elections. Some say, “The next four years will be terrible, but at least we’ll have some great art come out of it!” I’m inclined to think that if you need systemic collapse to make art then you’re a terrible person with no ideas, but what about you? Do artists have to engage in a social contract to explain or give a reverberation of these things to us?

If I were to write you a symphony and call it The 9/11 Symphony, it would probably be quite bad and disappointing – even if the music was sublime, there would be a banality to it. In Kafka novels, conversely, you rarely know what decade or country the story is set in, but through the mad bureaucratic systems and labyrinthine structures that the characters wander amongst, the story can mean all things to all people.

I subscribe to that old fashioned idea that if art is any good then you’re going to make these connections yourself. And that can exist in the mundane, too. I was in a hotel a while ago and I saw a sign on the lift shaft for disabled guests that said, “In the case of fire, meet here, remain calm and we will come and get you.” I took a picture of this sign and sent it to Mica Levi. How would you feel if you were told to “remain calm” in that situation and what would that feel and sound like? It’s quite a strange idea.

How did you meet and start working with Mica Levi?

I met Mica in 2008 when she was studying at the Guildhall. I was no longer a student there, but I would book a string quartet for a day and meet with six or seven pupils to work with them on their compositions. In that world, workshops are often quite insulting. So-called experts come in and rip you to shreds – “You don’t know how write for the viola, you’re a 19 year old fool!” – but I think that the strange ideas of “19 year old fools” can teach me a lot or even challenge everything I think I know.

Oliver Coates performs “Love” (Sala Vanni, Florence, 2016)

Mica wrote this great piece called Bored, of tiny little movements that you could play fast and quiet, or slow and low. She was playful with it – punk gestures in the notation, monosyllabic titles like Fags and Brain – and we rattled through in no time because everything worked straight away. I could tell that she was someone who knew exactly what her music was going to sound like.

The next thing we did was Chopped and Screwed, which I set up between Micachu and The Shapes and the London Sinfonietta. That was quite an ambitious show – to have a band and orchestra compose and perform an original piece together, relatively quickly – but it was brilliant and Rough Trade released it as an album.

Mica wanted these proficient string players to sound like amateurs: scraping the viola, fazing the double bass out of tune, not this coiffured perfection; everything smeared with slow beats and mumbling lyrics. The music supervisor for Under The Skin heard Chopped and Screwed and felt it had an eeriness that was right for the film. I did two or three days of tracking as a session musician on that score, with nine other string players and with “Love” being one of those works.

What kind of conversations do you have with Mica about music?

I sometimes text her long strings of ideas, but she’s got this old phone where you have to delete old texts to have the inbox space to receive new ones. Her phone is constantly beeping with fragments of my essays. We send each other bad music that we’ve made – I sent her a really bad footwork track recently, and she sent me the most simple drum & bass track ever that she’d made while working on the film score for Jackie. There’s a cathartic quality between us.

What made you both decide to work on Remain Calm?

We got asked to release a NTS show that we did together in 2014 as a record, but we couldn’t do that because it had other people’s work in it, so Mica suggested that we recreate that improvisation between her beats and my cello. We took a break of about six months, met up at a friend’s flat in Peckham, improvised for a day and then spent about six months editing it down to the best bits. We barely spoke about that at all, though.

Who leads who or what in these scenarios?

I trust Mica a lot. I think that she has a tremendous sense of when something will be interesting, and a lot of the things that we opted to go for with Remain Calm were the more ticking, nihilistic things that sucked out what people might have expected from us, AKA crazy cello strings and big electronic beats. We siphoned it all down to a few noises and a cello pizzicato, rocking backwards and forwards with the emptiness. A few have melodic elements with synth patterns and me on cello, wandering around inside or above these patterns, but physically I don’t know. You just acknowledge each other.

Mica has this way of having a strong musical idea but sometimes finding it hard to convey that to other people because they think largely in notation. I like looking over and seeing if it’s working for her, and if it’s not, what is it about us so-and-sos with our fancy training that we can’t convey? We have habits and inject things into music that aren’t there. Mica wants a flat note? Don’t show off that you’re a consummate musician with polished dynamics. Give her a flat note.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a conflict, but there’s a jauntiness to the idea that someone can make electronic beats with an acoustic stringed instrument, diving into a complex history of machine music with an instrument born outside of that, while somehow also having to engage with the history of the stringed instrument itself.

Oh, it’s worse than history – it’s baggage.

What of it is history and what of it is baggage to you when you’re making electronic music with a cello?

I think you can hear cynicism in a piece of music straight away. You can hear calculation – pushing sounds around because they believe that will lead to greater success for them personally – and I try to avoid that. You should listen to the tones and not push them around too much – the tones tell you what to do. Upstepping feels a lot more optimistic and danceable than I had envisioned it, with over-the-top washes of sentimentality, but I let that happen because it just sounds better for it.

Language and music have these oblique angles to each other – they need each other so badly, but when you set one up, the other wants to run in the opposite direction.

In these more experimental projects, are you becoming deliberately pulled apart from the training and see the cello as having a different function or shape to it?

With the training, there is a deep, Catholic-style guilt. You have these voices and teachers and other pedagogical things that are the opposite of death, I imagine. I always had “should” and “ought” running through my brain about etiquette: “You wouldn’t do a harmonic or that fingering there, that would be tasteless;” certain mantras about depth, clarity and honouring the composer’s intentions. These intentions are heavily conditioned and constructed with a particular worldview of the historical march of music that is teleological – that each decade rolls by and therefore progresses – that I find is just not true. It’s actually chaos, running in every direction at once. Because you’ve been through the teaching you have some strength, skills and knowledge, but undoing the knowledge is the thing that keeps you listening.

Often, when someone in a field of music is hoisted up as a vital or of interest, it’s because people often like people who cleverly invert or dismiss what their predecessors taught them. “Oh, he’s really breaking boundaries! Fantastic stuff!” Is that even a necessary thing to do?

I could easily have stayed a virtuosic orchestral player. That’s a way to stay safe economically if you keep it up.

Why not do that, then?

I’m not interested in a fossilized version of music. I play a lot of music by Bach and other dead people because some of that music is shit-hot. But that shit-hot music often comes with the values from a previous time that you don’t like – the fact that there were no female voices, or that they were largely voices of imperialism or conquest, since a lot of 19th century music is about vanquishing The Other. It is possible to strip shit-hot music of its contemporary repulsiveness, sometimes, but sometimes the music itself can be repulsive. You don’t need to know anything about Wagner and the connection to fascism and Hitler specifically, say, to not like Wagner. You can just be put off because there’s too much smugness or emoting in the music.

I like Mark Fell for this. He said to someone that their music was interesting “until they started expressing himself.” What we’re joined by is a network of fascination about abstract details in sound and if one smarmy violinist shows you what they’ve got, you can be impressed but not invited in. Some people love that, of course. Some people want to be impressed for a night, and buy a CD of the performance they just paid to see on the way out, but that’s the world of accoutrements and values in which you surround yourself with Nice Things. The other world is one in which the tones themselves invite an egalitarian platform for listener and performer alike, which I find is quite a sophisticated and elemental thing. It’s like John Cage said, “I don’t want this note to be a King or an Emperor. I want it to be a C sharp.”

In preparing for Deep ∞ Minimalism, Laurie Spiegel emailed me about what she and Radigue were trying to do while they were in New York together in 1970. They had one synthesizer and were trying to do one note, slow change music, which was opposite to what Spiegel’s training was. The synthesizer was the best way to create a tone that would slowly modulate as you sat and listened to it. It was genius of them. These instruments are there to do a billion things and can make sounds that you cannot even fathom, so the temptation (if you’re brainy) is to scroll through all of these sounds and make a piece with everything, but Spiegel and Radigue thought that to make a piece with one sound would be the real art.

In that sense, perhaps my festival was a very old fashioned one: a ’70s American one, a kind of “land art” or “process art” festival where we’re thinking about great sculptures in the desert, slowly decaying. Maybe what would have been more appropriate would have been a festival about accelerationism, in which we try to destroy capitalism by producing too much art with too many ideas.

I’m glad you didn’t do that. 2016 is not a time for revelling in chaos or selfish nihilism.

Ha. Well, in this Janus-faced way, music can stubbornly refuse to have an answer no matter what the question is. Language and music have these oblique angles to each other – they need each other so badly, but when you set one up, the other wants to run in the opposite direction. In that, for me, part of the classical thing is that you’re always channeling and listening to someone else. You’re trying to empathise and get into the head of someone else, which takes you away from yourself, but that’s one of the healthiest things that you can do because you don’t end up so self-oriented. I want to be aware of myself but spend my time obsessing over everything but myself, in a sense.

You can listen to Oliver Coates’ Choice Mix on RBMA Radio here.

By Lauren Martin on November 29, 2016

On a different note