Red Priest Interview: "A classical music concert is often very dull to watch, even though it may be wonder"
Jill Arcaro Gordon
Red Priest is a baroque quartet with a difference: they present a very visual performance in addition to a lively musical impact. The Old Music Festival in Barcelona, close to its 30th birthday, is commencing a two-fold recreation of itself by including this, so called, crossover quartet in its program which hopes to attract new fans in its new location, the Barcelona Auditorium. In this way, according to the traditional festival organizer, Maricarmen Palma from La Caixa savings bank the festival will not only be rejuvenated but also “have a little fun” with the Red Priest production which “comes close to rock”. At the risk of inciting the critics fury Mrs. Palma feels that such a “specialized festival” with “so many years of history”, needs to bet on the “new and little known” in an effort to “revitalize” what was only getting “older and older”.
What is Classical Crossover music? Although name labels are very useful for categorizing what type of music we are talking about, as soon as you go in a little deeper, boundaries immediately start to blur. What do we call a gypsy flamenco singer singing a famous traditional 'bolero' with latin jazz legend Bebo Valdés? That is exactly what Diego el Cigala did in his Grammy-awarded CD Lagrimas Negras. 'Crossover' is a term used to describe artists whose style 'crosses' the borders of where the music of that style or genre is normally found. It is a term whose origin can be found in marketing referring to an adaptation of a musical style, as by blending elements of two or more genres, to appeal to a wider audience.
According to musician and author, Luis Díez, classical crossover musicians have been 'crossing over' almost from the moment music was invented. “Mozart's famous Rondo 'Alla Turca' was already using a popular style of Turkish music that was famous at the time. Later on Tchaikovsky would be inspired by gypsy violinists playing in cafés and Bach had already written music for the Zimmermann café he used to play in.”
The classical crossover 'genre' has produced results virtually unheard of in the classical world such as Red Priest selling out their Japanese concerts for June, 2006 within two hours of going on sale and the subsequent flooding of their website with requests for tickets from eager Japanese fans. In a world where there exists some doubt about the future and viability of classical music, these events in the words of Piers Adams, Red Priest’s musical director and virtuoso recorder player “totally bowled them over”.
So who are all these people that seem to be revolutionizing the classical music world? Through this interview with the four musicians we try to cast light on some of the chief issues, and arguments, which arise with their performance and their ideas about the way classical music can and should be presented, to reach a wider audience.
Jill Arcaro: Mr. Adams, do you mind being called 'crossover'?
Piers Adams: It’s not, I would say, our intention to become a crossover group. We want to keep some integrity, we want to be ourselves. We don’t want to be categorised as one thing or another. So I think it would be more in that kind of direction: doing our own thing, but hopefully, being very successful at it.
Jill Arcaro: In a globalized world where it is more and more difficult to find your own voice, Red Priest is managing recognition as a group with their own identity. I have heard Red Priest described as being “sui generis”, “a highly creative curiosity” and difficult to compare to anything else.
Piers Adams: My feeling is that a number of the acts that have appeared recently, I certainly wouldn’t say all of them and I certainly wouldn’t say any names, but a number of them have very much been manufactured. It’s the same in the pop music industry nowadays, classical music have taken on the same ideas. They’d maybe taken a group that either already exist or doesn’t exist at all, and they’ve turned it into something. And at the end of the day they spit it out. We’re coming from a slightly different direction; we actually were an already working early-music group, with a quite large number of concerts every year.
Jill Arcaro: What does all this have to do with classical music?
Piers Adams: Well that is precisely the point; funnily enough classical music has somehow managed to grow apart from popular music in a way that had (almost) never happened before. What this genre tries to do is take elements from different types of music (popular music, Indian music... you name it) and introduce them into classical music to visit new, exciting places.
Jill Arcaro: Could you tell us how you got started?
Julia Bishop: Red Priest was formed by Piers and I. We were already a couple; we had been going out for about four years and we were getting more and more fed up basically with steering ships in the night, going different directions. And also we had very similar ideas about how we wanted to play baroque music, and so we started talking about trying to form a group.
Now, we’ve been together nine years, we are all quite individual characters; we are all quite rebellious. We have got the same basic goal in mind, which is to bring out the theatre in the eccentricity of baroque music. So that keeps Red Priest bound together. I mean the fact that we all got together because we wanted to create a new sound and we feel that we found each other over the years.
Piers Adams: I started playing recorder at the age of approximately nine, in my primary school. Then I went to secondary school, where the head of music just happened to be a big early-music fan and we had a really thriving early-music group running in this secondary school near Reading. And obviously he spotted that I had a talent for the recorder, so he took me on after everyone finished doing school recorder and encouraged me to carry on.
Meanwhile I showed a little bit of an aptitude for science and maths, and that was the direction I went academically and I ended up going to university and doing a degree in astrophysics. Following this, I decided it was time I gave music a proper go, so I went on doing a postgraduate year in London in one of the music colleges. My feeling is, if I had gone to music college at the tender age of seventeen or eighteen, I probably wouldn’t be a professional musician today. I think because I was able to develop myself, my own playing in my own time, listening to recordings, working out what I wanted to do, what I liked, that by the time I actually got in the hands of teachers telling me how to do things, I was sufficiently mature to pick and choose what I wanted.
I’ve always had an open mind about different ways of performing. As a musician you need to keep generating work, an income and that means by necessity you need to keep having new ideas. If look at a performers or composers from the past, they’ve always had to think of new ways to keep their audiences coming back for more.
Jill Arcaro: There have been some exciting events for Red Priest on both professional and personal fronts recently. Dominating Piers' and Julia's winter has been the birth of their daughter, Sylvie, (who is destined to attain frequent flyer 'gold status' within her first year...). A recent return visit to Moscow (where you were last fall) to present the Red Hot Baroque Show and after Barcelona, five concerts for the Hong Kong Arts Festival and a two week tour of Japan in June. How does the Red Hot Baroque Show differ from your other programs?
Piers Adams: After almost a decade of performing to chamber music audiences, we decided to push the boundaries of what’s possible a bit further by developing a new show to be performed in the theatre, the Red Hot Baroque Show. This was a bold move but there’s a noble tradition of maverick classical music makers who have been dissatisfied with the concert form. You can go from Berlioz, Stockhausen, and especially I think Leopold Stokowski would be the most notable example, the most famous one, because he was constantly tampering with electronics, lighting, colour, bizarre sound walls, moving musicians around, having different settings for his audience. He then launched one of the most famous audio visual imagery in the world when Disney collaborated with him to make Fantasia.
One of the things that have happened in the last fifty years is that every other form of entertainment has become very visual. In a classical concert hall, there is a fundamental design problem. We as a modern people are very turned on by what we see, and often a classical music concert is very dull to watch, even though it may be wonderful to listen to. Seeing sixty people just sitting around on a stage is a dull visual experience.
With the Red Hot Baroque Show Red Priest tackles the business of trying to communicate with their audience by means of state-of-the-art lighting, props and costume elements on stage. We create an atmosphere that I think is more suited to a modern audience.
Jill Arcaro: When did you cross the line between earning a good living and just surviving with Red Priest?
Piers Adams: I’d been searching for the last fifteen years for that illusive record deal, that thing that was going to make it all happen for me. And it hasn’t happened. I’ve had to work very hard, as have we all, to kind of claw a living. To be honest, the vast majority of musicians do have to do that, there’s only very, very few who get that “leg up”. So it would have been very helpful to have the record deal, there’s no question. Having said which, I think that the whole classical record market is changing very rapidly at the moment and it’s becoming a lot harder to become millionaires, playing classical music.
To earn a good living, you have got to take a long hard look at yourself and see if you have got the ability, to present yourself in a way that’s appealing to the general public.
I wish all musicians would rethink the way that they present music. Classical music has on the whole been complacent for two generations and it really must shake itself out of its complacency. It must question everything that it’s doing. The musicians who will survive, the musicians who will excite us and will continue to excite us are the ones who innovate.
Jill Arcaro: The audience for classical music has been in decline for years. What we are witnessing now is not so much a shrinking of the audience as an aging of the audience. Why do you think that the audience has conspicuously failed to renew itself?
Piers Adams: That’s in part because the art has failed to renew itself. Red Priest is a baroque music convert, a baroque music line-up of recorder -that’s myself, violin Julia Bishop, cello Angela East and harpsichord Howard Beach. But we are an irregular baroque line-up and we like to do things very much in our own way. One of the first things we wanted to do is to memorise the vast majority of our act. This allows us to interact more with each other on stage. Certain phrases in Baroque music are like playing rock music; you really can throw them between the band. You can have a lot of fun on stage doing that, and this is really trying to bring it to life.
Jill Arcaro: In the notes to your CD Vivaldi’s Four Seasons there is reference to your attempt to recreate what an original performance might have sounded like. Could you comment on this?
Piers Adams: Yes. Many of these attempts have often run the risk of turning the music from living art into a museum-piece, and it sometimes takes a radical new view to re-appreciate the soul of a work. This – rather than shock appeal – is the principle purpose of our recording. When you watch, say performances of Hungarian gypsy bands, they play with such incredible passion and verve. I mean you felt, surely that was what was being done at the time in the 18th century.
Jill Arcaro: One intuits a fair amount of artistic consensus among the four of you. Am I right?
Howard Beach: I don’t think any of us would settle for anything less than everything that we can get out of our instruments, we are all trying to push the boundaries in what it can do.
Julia Bishop: We realised that doing things from memory, you would be able to engage with an audience much more quickly. If I went to a play, and they were reading from the script, I would find that a barrier. And I realised that it’s just the same with music and reading off the music. So that was the first thing we realised that we had to do to in order to get the audience to enjoy it more.
Angela East: In Red Priest we wanted to get more into the improvisation, the freedom of spirit, the rhetorical rhythm. So we don’t always have to play dead in time, because in normal circles there is a fear that if you do something that isn’t in the music, then everybody will stamp on you and say “you don’t know what you are doing!”
Piers Adams: With our free approach to tempo we are actually applying 18th century rules of tempo variation, as written about copiously by musicians and commentators of the time. The idea of a fixed tempo was alien in all except dance music, and a good musician was expected to change the mood –in the words of Quantz– at each and every bar line; or to vary the tempo to a speed sometimes half, and sometimes as much as twice the starting pace. For many examples on this you can see the philosophy section of the Red Priest website
Jill Arcaro: Could you give us an example?
Piers Adams: Yes. Vivaldi's Four Seasons: Concerto No.1 'Spring', that was supposed to be a May dance! We felt we wanted to make the piece very literally that. I think that a lot of performers would take the decision that they are going to let the music have a hint of something, we thought “no” we are actually going to turn it into that thing as literarily as we possibly can. We are always trying to lift it out of just a baroque, and sort of bring other dimensions into it. 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.
Julia Bishop: Imagine you’re on a village green, when everybody’s had a few beers and you all have had a great Saturday all together. You’re not going to be worrying about the nuances: should we do a little echo here, and should we do a little crescendo there. It was just blatant-outside-rustic music which we had to dance to. We felt like we wanted to get that sort of crude approach to it.
Piers Adams: Recording such a very well known work certainly presents its own challenges - but I can say that we’ve had a lot of fun…
Jill Arcaro: You must have a wardrobe full of armour against the critics!
Piers Adams: Yes. The critics and my colleagues in the early music scene seemed to find my approach a little, well, over the top. One critic described us as "a parody of the baroque style", which I actually find rather a pleasing description. Well, the definition of baroque music is really everything written between about 1600 and about 1750. And it was a time of great experimentation. And as a result of this people really began to experiment with all kinds of different musical styles, ways of playing their instruments, new instruments as well. And this idea of musical entertainment in this way, which was very theatrical, it had a story, really caught on. What was so exciting at the time was the very innovation. The composers themselves were also the performers, they had that spirit of creativity, they were making it up as they went along. They were making the rules up as they went along. And that’s something we felt we wanted to do now, at least to a small extent, to start to rewrite the rules ourselves. And in doing so, we hope to recapture something of the spirit of the original.
Julia Bishop: We are living in a world, where you have got so many more musical influences, than they would have had in the baroque period, because of the media. You hear things, from every country now and it’s impossible to ignore them.
Piers Adams: We now rely heavily on our own arrangements and transcriptions to lift things away from the typical (and over-exposed) trio-sonata genre. The art of rearrangement has been practised for hundreds of years. Would critics’ comments on this point also apply to the rearrangements of the Four Seasons which were published in the 18th century (such as those by Chedeville and Rousseau)? Or to Bach's very free adaptations of Vivaldi's concerti? Are these, somehow, alright because they were made in the past?
We all felt there were a lot of opportunities being missed. It’s just such fantastic music, and yet it had this reputation of being very, very serious, very earnest. And to be honest I’m left cold by the vast majority by classical and early music performances. I can’t help that, that’s just how I feel.
Jill Arcaro: You say “the vast majority”. What about the odd exception?
Piers Adams: In fact at a point where I had pretty much given up on pursuing this direction, 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 Red Priest – 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.