INTERVIEW by LOUIS LUCERO II |PHOTOGRAPHY by ATHERTON-CHIIELLINO
Peter Gregson’s music is regularly deemed experimental, and with good reason. The virtuoso cellist’s performances boast a one-of-a-kind marriage of music and technology, and his collaborations with institutions like the MIT Media Lab have led him to projects not commonly taken on by his peers in contemporary music. But for all the apparent innovation, Peter believes his work merely represents the latest link in a long line of musical evolution.
[soundcloud url=”http://soundcloud.com/petergregson/sets/whats-new/s-VKnLq” height=”200″]
How did you get your start in music?
I started playing the cello when I was four — I was at a children’s concert, and apparently announced I wanted a cello case like the one I saw there. Logically, my parents sorted out a cello. (I eventually found the cello case I had seen back then, complete with the metal bits on it — it’s the same as the one in the James Bond film, custom-made by a guy called Alan Stevenson. They’re beautiful, in a weird way.) From there, it was a combination of private lessons and the usual competitions and orchestra things. Then, when I was 14, I met Philip Sheppard, who opened my eyes and ears to contemporary music. He later went on to be my teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and we’re great friends and collaborators now, which is a lovely position to be in!
What’s it like being a young cellist in Edinburgh?
I was fortunate to have incredible teachers, really supportive parents, and an understanding school, so I traveled around for lessons and wider opportunities. Edinburgh also gets the world’s finest musicians traveling in year-round, so there was always loads going on.
I expect you have some facility with musical instruments besides the cello; what are they?
I can move around a piano enough to play some Mozart and most Coldplay, and I play the musical saw. Professionally, I only play the cello, but spend most of my time trying to augment it and push its boundaries — that’s the satisfying stuff, the iterations and developments. It’s mentally, creatively, and musically challenging.
You’ve been a part of quite a few innovative projects involving the marriage of contemporary music and contemporary technology. What do you consider yourself first and foremost: a performance artist, a musician, or something else altogether?
I consider myself a musician. I think we forget that music and technology have been inextricably linked forever. Like, do you know how advanced a violin really is? It’s literally 300 years of innovation in a cute little box. And with that, music has developed with every new advance. Today, I feel that the work I’m doing is an extension of that. Of course, it often comes across as “shiny and novel” because computers are involved, but really, it’s just using the culturally-evolving tools of today.
You make a very good point that people generally forget how very closely music is tied with technology, but I still think some of your past projects suggest that you’re not one to shy away from the unconventional and the experimental. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think your involvement in the recent Stratford Rising Festival (SoundSHED) fits that description; can you describe what exactly you did for the festival?
Well, I got local residents to record sounds from their local environment. I mean, we hear so much stuff in our daily lives but don’t listen. There are rhythms and pitches in everything. So the goal was to get people listening differently. And the uptake was great — we had a bunch of people record buses, footsteps, Starbucks noises; it was awesome fun but a lot of work for one day!
I expect that there are a lot of people who associate the cello with the classical music tradition, but there’s no question that capturing “found sounds” on mobile phones represents a very new trend in music. Do you find that what you’re doing seems somewhat contradictory?
I accept that it is experimental, a lot of my work, but my position is that that isn’t a new mentality. You know, there was a time when all performers were their own composers, their own agents, their own business managers; Chopin, Liszt, Paganini, Mozart, Bach, the lot — they all wrote and played themselves. It kind of canonized itself at the turn of the century, early 1900s, and now we’re trying to write new music with old tools.
Earlier this year you ended a yearlong stint at London’s The Hospital Club, where you were the Creative in Residence, and you’ve also collaborated with the MIT Media Lab on something called Spheres & Splinters. What were those experiences like, and what did you take away from working so closely with institutions such as The Hospital Club and MIT?
I’ve worked with Tod Machover and the MIT Media Lab on and off since 2005 when I was an undergrad in London. It’s just the most incredible privilege to work with world-class people in any field, let alone the one you love! Spheres & Splinters was a collaboration with UnitedVisualArtists and was so much work, but totally worth it: We created this responsive, interactive environment for the music, which is a thing I’m obsessed with right now.
Tonight you’re performing at the Manderley Bar in New York’s Mckittrick Hotel; can you tell me what a live performance from Peter Gregson usually involves?
A “Peter Gregson” performance traditionally involves lots of computers and stuff, but lately, I’m working on removing them from the front end — I’m finding that people see them and listen for them rather than just listening to a piece of music. It’s a bit like magic, in that I don’t want to show my process for everything; I don’t think it helps.
What’s on your iPod right now?
Bach, Coldplay, Rihanna, Biebs and Glee. And Steve Reich! That’s my iPod.
Eclectic to say the least!
I’m into music that pays attention to details. It isn’t always about the performance. Sometimes the best work happens in the studio, sometimes on mic. I just think it’s shortsighted to dismiss things too quickly. Anyways, I’ll get told off if I spend too long talking about Glee. [laughs]
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
They can start listening to more music. And it doesn’t need to be mine, either. If it is, great, but I want people to have an opinion. If you hate my music, I want you to know that it’s okay so long as you give it a chance. Likewise Katy Perry, Brahms, or Kanye. It’s all valid, and you’re the only person who can judge for yourself.