THE CUSP: PROFILE | Robert Ames | Interview with the conductor of the London Contemporary Orchestra
By Kate Romano for The Cusp
‘I hate the label contemporary-classical’ says Robert Ames, approximately 30 seconds into our interview; ‘It makes no sense’. To be fair, I’m not keen on labels either, so we wriggle through a pleasant chat about collaborations, programming and the phenomenon that is the London Contemporary Orchestra trying not to reference musical genres which might be suggested by the names Xenakis, Jonny Greenwood, Messiaen, Actress, Ed Finnis, Radiohead and Shiva Feshareki. It feels a little bit PC, but testimony to how damn hard it still is today to remove the tags from the music of our time.
The LCO was founded in 2008 by Ames and his friend and colleague Hugh Brunt. Co-directors and co-principal conductors, they nailed their colours to the mast straightaway with the name; the London Contemporary Orchestra did what it said on the tin and embraced the breadth of the sonic spectrum that the term ‘contemporary’ suggests. ‘We brought together some great young players and programmed what we loved, what excited us,’ recounts Ames. The early forays were perhaps more in line with what one might expect from a new music orchestra run by two enterprising musicians who trained at the Royal Academy of Music (Ames is also an accomplished violist). They programmed music by Thomas Ades, Mark Anthony Turnage, Emily Hall, Colin Alexander. Then a collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood shifted things a little. ‘He creates wonderful music’ says Ames; ‘his string writing is superb’. The collaboration has been a rich and fertile one, driving forwards the LCO’s ambition to perform ‘quality new music….R&B, electronic, rock, pop, hip hop….anything, as long as it has quality’.
How do they decide what quality music to programme from such a wide field? Are they driven by what they think audiences might like? ‘Not so much in the selection of the music itself’, Ames says. ‘I think LCO audiences want something fresh, original, an experience.’ Ames is passionate about exploring new venues to create such experiences; LCO events often take place in industrial or utilitarian sites such as Oval Space or the loading bay of the Royal Albert Hall. Ames is rightly proud of their underground excursions into Aldwych and South Kensington Tube stations. They seem to be edging gradually closer to theatrical, site-specific work. In an East London dance venue audiences made their way down a passage to the space and were locked in a darkened room to experience Henri Pousseur. ‘I think we like to challenge our audiences’ Ames reflects. ‘Its liberating. We don’t have rules and we also don’t want to make it too easy for them’. He pauses and adds; ‘But sometimes we just want to create Zen, beautiful experiences with lush harmonies’.
Today, there is no shortage of classical music moving out of concert halls and into car parks, dance venues, pubs and utilitarian spaces, where ‘youth’ and ‘collaboration’ are often gateways to diversity, larger audiences and funding sources. But it’s easy to get it wrong and naively releasing a mix of artists and art forms onto a stage is no way to guarantee that the magical synergy will happen. Ames and Brunt have been careful and with a mix of intuition, instinct, trust and ‘keeping our finger on the pulse’ they have engineered collaborations with some of the most highly respected musical artists. Darren J Cunningham (aka Actress) is a stand-out class act in dance music. His sonic world – intelligent, distorted, queasy, melodic, murky – is constantly innovating and looks to the future. Actress is often quoted as admitting to a long term desire to make ‘classical stuff for a modern generation’. What that ‘classical stuff’ may be is perhaps up for grabs, but his motives for working with the LCO are clear enough; both share genre-irrespective attitudes to music and the collaborative process. ‘He’s from a very different place to Jonny Greenwood in terms of musical training,’ says Ames. ‘But there is absolute clarity of intent in the sound. His music is just as refined as anything we programme’.
Whilst Actress and Ames have the genre-irrespective attitude down to a tee, I’m struggling a little more to frame my questions in a way that avoids weak simile in lieu of labels. When I catch myself saying ‘Music That Is Like Messiaen or ‘Music That Is Like Actress’ I’m only reminding myself how deeply ingrained it is in our psyche to put things into boxes, no matter how much we would like to consider all new musics equally. But its also difficult to appreciate the success and achievements of LCO without acknowledging some fundamental differences between music genres. To fully admire the savvy, smart and seamless bringing together of these musical types it is perhaps important to be able to distinguish between them in the first place, to apprehend how they can blend in a manipulation of electronic and acoustic sound to become a new hybrid ‘instrument’. Last week I went to a late-night site-specific performance that brought together theatre and dance music in a warehouse. Edgy, bold, well-produced, sophisticated, provocative, utterly memorable. ‘It was a bit like the London Contemporary Orchestra’, said a colleague. That’s a label that Ames should be proud of.
The London Contemporary Orchestra performs at the Tanks at Tate Modern on September 6 as part of the BBC PROMS.
Interview: London Contemporary Orchestra – reinventing music for film and television
Co-Artistic Directors of the LCO Hugh Brunt and Robert Ames talk about how the orchestra’s new sample library, LCO Strings, is giving composers new worlds of sound to explore
The London Contemporary Orchestra have recently collaborated with Spitfire Audio to create a bold new sample library. I spoke to Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt, the co-Artistic Directors of the LCO, about the project and asked what new vistas of sound are opened up for today’s composers by LCO Strings?
The number and quality of orchestral sample libraries has greatly increased in the last decade, could you tell me what helps the LCO Strings library stand out from the crowd?
HUGH: Firstly, for us Spitfire Audio are the leaders in that field – their libraries have a huge amount of character and authenticity; they never sound too pristine or clinical. And secondly, an interesting feature of the LCO Strings library – besides the range of its more unusual, contemporary techniques and articulations – is that it was recorded on Spitfire’s dry stage (as opposed to a room like AIR Lyndhurst), so that allows for a more direct, intimate sound, whilst giving the user a good amount of control to add their own reverbs and blend with other libraries.
How did the project come about with Spitfire Audio?
HUGH: We’d heard that Spitfire were the guys to go to, so we approached them about two years back and developed the project together from there. In terms of the idea itself, it was borne partly out of frustration that there weren’t the tools already out there for us, and many of the artists we work with, to draw on. It can be challenging when, for example, a film composer is trying to get a cue signed off by the director/producer and they’re not able to clearly communicate in demo/audible form how some of those integral, more ‘experimental’ sounds are going to live with the scene. Hopefully something like this kind of sample library eases that process a little.
Do you think there is a danger that sample libraries could replace ‘real’ musicians?
ROBERT: There isn’t really a chance of that happening. You can never beat real players in a great room. The techniques on the LCO library are really the tip of the iceberg. In session we can play with them and find hundreds of variations on each. LCO sessions are very collaborative, the players are always wanting to give more than what is on the page.
What are the special technical challenges of recording a sample library as opposed to recording a complete work?
ROBERT: Its pretty intense work and happens over a period of days. For the musicians its difficult because they never get an overall sense of what the finished product is like. Its very bitty and for the library to be successful the energy has to be high at all times. The LCO library is really pushing at the boundaries of accoustic sound, its not something you can relax into when recording.
This sample library has extended instrumental techniques at its core, were these techniques drawn from the works of any particular composers?
ROBERT: The techniques really represent a sound world that the LCO has been inhabiting for the last 10 years. Many sounds were curated by me and Hugh from live music we have performed and past film scores. A lot of the sounds were developed as part of our collaborative, semi-improvisational recording work and put forward by our musicians.
Techniques previously associated with the classical avant-garde have been heard far more frequently in film and television productions in recent years, for instance, in the scores of Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi. Could you tell me about the LCO’s work with these composers?
HUGH: Yeah, it’s exciting that there seems to be this new wave of film composers – particularly coming out of the UK – whose music just stands on its own, arguably with or without the picture. We’ve been performing Jonny Greenwood’s music since our first season, in 2008, and subsequently recorded his score for The Master, leading to a touring project with Jonny playing with, and writing for, a chamber ensemble of LCO Soloists. Mica has been composing concert works for us over the past couple of years. Most recently we performed some of her film scores at a support set for The xx at O2 Brixton Academy, and in August we’ll be taking Under the Skin: Live to Kazakhstan.
Which TV or film soundtracks would you recommend for listeners wanting to explore the kinds of sound worlds that can be created using the LCO Strings library?
ROBERT: We are really proud of Alien Covenant and Macbeth by Jed Kurzel. Also our work on The Master and You Were Never Really Here by Jonny Greenwood. Listening to the music of Xenaxis, Vivier, Edmund Finnis and Grisey is also a good place to start.
Once a composer has created a composition using these samples, how easy is it for them to then write the music down in a form that it can be played by a real orchestra?
HUGH: With a switched-on orchestrator and talented group of players, it’s pretty straight-forward to understand what’s going on with the sounds in the library. In terms of the LCO’s working method, it’s about getting the composer and our musicians in a room together to workshop material as early on as possible in the process, and then arranging/orchestrating in-house ahead of the recording sessions or rehearsals/performance.
Do you have plans to record further sample libraries with Spitfire Audio?
HUGH: We’d love to, but we’d want to come up with something really special. Watch this space…!
Where can we hear the LCO play live this year?
ROBERT: We have a massive show coming up at Printworks in East London. For the first time in its history Printworks will feature acoustic instrumentation, including four orchestras playing simultaneously with electronic sampling, all in its unique 30,000 sq ft main space.
Watch the London Contemporary Orchestra rehearse the soundtrack to ‘There Will Be Blood’
The orchestra behind Frank Ocean and Radiohead hits perform ‘Smear’ from the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood.’
Last week we introduced you to the coolest orchestra in the world. Today, we bring you a special clip of its members rehearsing “Smear” from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Yup, ahead of the orchestra’s show at the Southbank Centre this evening, here’s footage of the London Contemporary Orchestra rehearsing Jonny Greenwood’s award-winning soundtrack, complete with an appearance by the Radiohead guitarist himself. Just sit back, relax and remember: they might look pretty sharp, but we’re sure they’ll tune a bit later on.
LCO perform Jonny Greenwood’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ soundtrack live to the film, at London’s Southbank Centre on January 30, in Birmingham (Symphony Hall) on February 5, Brighton Dome on February 6, and Bristol (Colston Hall) on February 7.
Frank Ocean’s orchestra reveals studio secrets
Ahead of a Southbank performance of Jonny Greenwood’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ soundtrack, the London Contemporary Orchestra take us inside the studio with Frank Ocean, Radiohead, and more.
When someone got in touch the other day and asked if we’d like to have a chat with the coolest orchestra in the world, we had a little think and decided, “Yes, we would like to have a chat with the coolest orchestra in the world, thank you very much for checking.” And how could we not? The London Contemporary Orchestra has, since its formation by Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt in 2008, been the creative force behind some of the most amazing classical compositions and avant-garde pop music this side of the century. Frequent collaborators with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, the orchestra has worked on his band’s last record A Moon Shaped Pool, as well as with Justice, Mica Levi, Actress and the ever-reliable Boiler Room (told you they were cool). Lending psychedelic flourishes to both Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Endless LPs, we asked Robert and Hugh to spill their studio secrets and guess what? They didn’t disappoint. Check it out, with no strings attached, below.
Radiohead, “Burn the Witch” (from A Moon Shaped Pool)
Hugh: “Jonny Greenwood’s arrangement asks the players to strike the strings with plectrums to create this brittle texture — the first thing heard on A Moon Shaped Pool. He uses a similar effect in his score for There Will Be Blood on the track ‘Proven Lands.'”
Justice, “Randy” (from Woman)
Robert: “We included this because — apart from being a great tune — it really shows the flexibility of the orchestra in terms of playing different genres. The disco strings on this album are super tight.”
Foals, “Spanish Sahara” (from Total Life Forever)
Hugh: “For the radio edit release, the band asked us to layer in some strings to add even more sweep to the slow-build of the song and amplify the climax that kicks off the instrumental section.”
Frank Ocean, “Seigfried” (from Blonde)
Robert: “Another collaboration with Jonny Greenwood, but this time without Radiohead. The strings section for this was big and Frank decided to use them in a super subtle way. They add a lot of depth to the track.”
Jed Kurzel – “The Child: Part II” (from Macbeth OST)
Hugh: “This marked our second collaboration with Jed Kurzel following his score for Slow West. The cue comes as one of the opening shots pulls up on Macbeth’s army — it’s an arresting sound world using the strings almost as something of a monster hurdy-gurdy layered with heavy percussion.
The London Contemporary Orchestra perform Johnny Greenwood’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ soundtrack at London’s Southbank centre on Monday, January 30.
British Council Profile: London Contemporary Orchestra
If we told you that our guests had collaborated with the likes of Radiohead, Beck, Jimmy Page, Foals and Goldfrapp then you might think we were talking about some globe-trotting super-producer. In fact, we’ve been talking to the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) who have enjoyed working with all of the above and many more, including the minimalist composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich, in recent times. Their live performances of Jonny Greenwood’s score from There Will Be Blood to packed audiences – with Jonny Greenwood in the orchestra on ondes Martenot – and their integral contribution to Radiohead’s Mercury-nominated A Moon Shaped Pool, are testament to an orchestra at the forefront of contemporary music making, defying genres and any preconceived ideas about what an orchestra can be.
We spoke with co-Artistic Directors Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt to find out more …
Can you describe the LCO’s approach to music making in five words?
Hugh: Our aims, at least: to be inquisitive, bold, curious, focused, free.
Where do you find your instrumentalists and what do you look for?
Rob: When LCO started in 2008, we worked with friends and colleagues who we met at music college in London and who were doing exciting things on the London scene at the time. We are always looking out for new musicians and are extremely lucky to work with such a great bunch of open minded people. Many LCO players are soloists, chamber musicians, improvisers, producers, promoters and composers, as well as being instrumentalists, which creates a really interesting atmosphere at rehearsals.
You performed for us at our Selector PRO event in Moscow earlier this year, continuing your collaboration with Actress. This was a standing, talking audience. How did you find the performance?
Hugh: It was great to play in Moscow again, one of our favourite cities to tour to. Last year we performed with Jonny Greenwood at YOTASPACE and that show had a similar feel to this one with Actress; amazing, direct energy from the audience, and the players really feed off of that.
Is a more relaxed setting for classical music important to nurture a new audience?
Hugh: The aim for us is to set up an atmosphere that allows the listener to engage as directly as possible with the music. Of course, it depends on the nature of the content and the space. For our recent performance of Feldman’s ‘Rothko Chapel’ at the Roundhouse we thought about the room almost as a secular cathedral and looked to set up something very fragile and intense. And then our performances with Actress or Jonny Greenwood take a slightly different shape.
Do you think the classical music audience is changing or are their tastes or expectations changing?
Rob: I don’t know anything about a “classical music audience”. I’m not a big fan of labelling music. We perform great music that’s being written now in an interesting and exciting way. We have a young audience and tend to sell out shows. It seems there are a lot of people that are excited by the kind of music we play and are generally inquisitive.
Do you make a conscious attempt to attract new followers, or is the music you want to perform and the people you want to collaborate with the first and foremost considerations?
Rob: Me and Hugh spend loads of time listening and dreaming up concert ideas and collaborations. Attracting new followers is never a consideration. We genuinely just try to present music we believe is good in a way that it can be most effective.
Hugh: For us it’s really about the quality of the music and the strength of the collaboration, and we feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with Terry Riley and Steve Reich in recent months; composers whose music has had such a profound effect on the development of western music. Often we’ll look to be deliberately eclectic in the way we build a programme – we get excited by the idea that some of the audience will be drawn to a specific part of that programme but then come away having experienced something very different they might not otherwise have come across. An example would be our touring shows with Jonny Greenwood where we drew from a pool of works, old and new, by Messiaen, Xenakis, Michael Gordon, Edmund Finnis, Purcell, Schnittke, Mica Levi, J.S. Bach and Steve Reich.
Which of your other recent collaborations have inspired you, and why?
Rob: Actress and Jed Kurzel. With Actress we worked on building up new material from the ground up which involved a lot of interpreting Darren’s vision and working out how to make electronic sounds work on acoustic instruments. Jed Kurzel is a film composer who we have worked with on a few film projects now. He’s really pushing the boundaries of what a film score can be on a blockbuster movie and its great helping him achieve that.
Where do you see the LCO heading in the future?
Rob: Outside of London a lot more and we’re really keen to share what we are doing live outside of the UK.
Hugh: In January we’re performing the UK premiere of Arthur Russell’s ‘Tower of Meaning’ with two of Russell’s long-term collaborators, Bill Ruyle and Peter Zummo – that should be quite a special experience. And then later that month we’re at the Royal Festival Hall for a live screening of There Will Be Blood.
Can you suggest a few tracks that you’ve performed in recent times that resonate with you?