Name: Peter Gregson
Occupation: Cellist, composer
Current release: Peter Gregson's new album Patina will be published via Deutsche Grammophon on September 10th 2021. In the meantime, listen to his new single "Over" below, which gives you a first indication of the direction that Patina will take. You can also listen to it on Spotify.
Recommendations: I love Richard Avedon’s photography - have a beautiful coffee table book of portraits of his, there’s a texture and density and luminance to them which is just magical - really shows the expressive power of Black and White photography… wanting to reach out and touch the page!
I recently heard Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen by Kjartan Sveinsson which was totally wonderful and haunting, so I ordered the vinyl and have been telling everyone about it ever since!
If you enjoyed this Peter Gregson interview, visit his official website for more information. Or pay him a visit on his socials at Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
We also have a conversation with Peter Gregson about his Mirror, Pause, Breathe EP, out via Deutsche Grammophon, which deals with the topic of sleep and the power of the subconscious.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing the cello when I was 4. I was drawn to the physicality of the cello, and the rich, deeper tones it could produce. I always enjoyed the sound of pizzicato, I remember that …
I was largely a “classical music” fiend until I was about 13, when I met Philip Sheppard (who would go on to be my teacher at The Royal Academy of Music in London). I was getting into electronics and augmenting the sounds my cello could make with guitar pedals and so on. He did that stuff too - I asked him who wrote music for that sort of thing, and he told me that not many people did. So if I wanted more of it, I should go off and write it. So, ever the diligent / curious student, I did! And I was hooked! I didn’t realise you could create your own thing and it was legitimate! Growing up learning the cello in a very classical way, I think it’s easy to forget that all music was new once upon a time, so why not have that moment be now?
I began a dialogue with David Harrison of the Kronos Quartet by email when I was probably 14, maybe 15, and he told me to listen to “Black Angels” by George Crumb, as that was the piece that really changed his life - he even sent me the CD - so that was a big ear opening moment.
I was always drawn to the darker side of music, Shostakovich slow movements, Late Beethoven Quartets, Dido’s Lament … that sort of thing … then I discovered Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams - and that pushed me further into minimalism, which led me into electronic music as a discipline, not just guitar pedals.
I think if I were to sum it up, I just love music. I love listening to music, I love writing music, I love playing music, and I’m very interested in learning and discovering things. My best advice (if anyone ever asks) is to listen to as much as possible and judge as little as possible. Have opinions, sure, but don’t judge. Everyone is trying to do something, and it takes a lot to put your head above the parapet.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think I touched on this above. I feel that for me, as a composer, my writing is ultimately inextricably linked to my performance career and experience of collaborating with so many other composers right across the spectrum, from the far left field of Contemporary Music, to film composers, pop stars, ballet companies, actors … music is communication, it’s listening, it’s sharing.
I’m always baffled when meeting people who just talk about themselves (the irony of that isn’t lost on me, given I’m talking about myself here). Music is a listening art. We need to listen. As a performer, you need to listen, as a composer, you need to listen more than you say. Sounds like one of those ridiculous zen posters. But I think it makes sense after you’ve had to write music to someone else’s brief and deadline!
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
As time goes on, I feel more and more fortunate to have had access to the sorts of opportunities that allowed me to experience so much at an early age which fuelled my creative curiosity. So whilst I may not consider my work to be rooted in my “identity”, I suppose it isn’t possible to distance the two.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I have always loved a deadline. Even where there isn’t one, I make one. I book recording sessions and then have to make sure the music is ready in time. Otherwise, when?! The focus helps me focus.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Sound is incredibly important to me, and is the foundation of my composition work I believe. I’m a big studio nerd, I love the process and even when I have nothing to do with a recording session would often just sit quietly at the back and listen to how different people achieve different things (my studio is on the top floor of AIR Studios in London, so am 3 flights of stairs from two of the finest recording rooms in the world … which is very nice!)
My good friend and collaborator, violinist Daniel Pioro, and I talk about sound a lot. Even more than pitch or harmony, we will find the right sound on which to base the music. Maybe that’s like the tail wagging the dog, but it’s often my “in” to the compositional process. That and reverb. I’ve got a rather extensive collection of hardware reverbs …
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Again, my approach is to listen. Even if I’ve brought everyone together, the collective input is still greater than my edict, so it always seems churlish to overrule. The best “producing” is gently riding the waves, not trying to change the tide. Otherwise, just do it yourself!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Well, I have two young children so my day begins around 5am at the moment … I enjoy the ritual of making coffee: in the winter, it’s espresso based and made when I get up. In the summer, I like making cold brew the night before. If I’m working, I like to work in the morning. I’ve never been good in the evenings - my brain shuts down around 9pm, always has done! I wrote my new album, Patina, exclusively in the mornings when my daughter was at the park, then I’d play with her in the afternoon!
If I’m recording, then all that changes and I can stay there until we’re thrown out. I find it’s a very different energy, and one I adore.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I’m very proud of my Quartet EPs. I wanted to produce them in a different way than you’d usually record a string quartet (something I have done a lot - as a cellist, especially when I was younger, I played on ever so many artist EPs that composer friends would put together). I had just completed a video game score and wanted to write music for myself, entirely my own thing - having come off two films just before the game, it was the first time in a while that I’d had that “space”, and it was refreshing. I now do them time and time about, one for me, one for you sort of thing, and it works really nicely I think.
In terms of performance, that would either be when doing Bach Recomposed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It fell in the middle of touring so the preparation was many concerts running up to it, and it was about 8 months after the record came out so I have been performing it for about 10 months - RAH was such a moment because I live in London, it’s like a home crowd sort of thing I suppose, quite aside from being a legendary space! All feels quite surreal thinking about it now, during COVID times.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
As Einstein once said “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”. When I’m writing, I don’t lock myself away from external influences, I have friends who cannot listen to other music when they’re writing, but I just sort of embrace the chaos I think. I love being in the thick of it trying to find my way through the haze and confusion until suddenly it becomes clear.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the best state of mind, but I can’t say enough just how much I love a deadline, so I probably find my ideal state of mind to be a little stressed …!
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I don’t have any experience of music hurting (other than listening too loud…!) but I recently read about the amazing power music can have with dementia care, and other music related therapies. It’s certainly a field I’d love to know more about but don’t know enough about it!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
There is no Immaculate Art. We all see, hear, experience things which inspire us, absorb us, consume us … how that manifests itself is down to our own unique neural pathways, itself a fascinating thing to consider during a sleepless night!
I think our job is to be relevant to the world, not the world be relevant to us - and in so doing, we can only use the expressions we have around us, whether they’re cultural, commercial, musical … I don’t know!
If I said I had been inspired by a Warhol painting and wrote a piece of music which I believed was that painting but portrayed in sound, have I stolen it? Appropriated it?
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
A lot of my music is used by choreographers, and I absolutely love that. I know “movement” isn’t a sense, but Touch is, and I love the tactile interplay with sound.
I often wonder what it is in a piece of music that provokes movement, inspires physicality - it’s something far beyond rhythm (or, explicit rhythm) but I can’t ever quite put my finger on it!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I love Art that challenges, provokes, questions … In my own work, I want to create an escape, a space where we can exist in that space in this time and just “be”. That isn’t to say my work isn’t created with a sense of purpose, or message, but I think that the time in which it is created imbues it with a sense of “now”, the political, social, emotional situations and challenges of the day, and I don’t feel the need or pull to explain what they specifically are, much in the same way I don’t title my pieces in a way to tell people how to feel, or interpret my music. I think that is one of the truest joys of instrumental music - that it doesn’t hang on a lyric telling you what the music is about.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
It allows for the possibility for a true universality, whilst lacking the blunt objectiveness that words can carry.