Classical Musicians and Modern Technology – Part I


Peter Gregson is a 23-year-old award-winning cellist who is renowned for his pioneering work in combining his instrument with modern technologies. His interest in exploring music and technology has led him to work with the MIT media lab where composers, sound engineers and technologists examined the control of a cello bow with the Hyperbow and created an electric sensor ‘cello shirt’.

He also organised the interactive concert ‘The Words on the Wall’. Using software and visualizers especially developed for the occasion, the audience could tweet, text or email their thoughts and feelings about the music. The messages were displayed on the wall behind the performer.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you provide our readers with a brief overview of your career so far?

I’m really fascinated by branding; it’s the acceptable way to pigeonhole a project without patronising it. I try to have a really strong identity for each project I develop, whether that’s in the name, or the consistency of the work it produces, or just whether I can get people talking about it in the designated “exclusive language”, similar to how you would order a Venti Triple Latte, when all you want is a big milky coffee. So, over the last few years, I’ve developed a few projects all focusing on different aspects of music and technology. My most recent projects have been:

The Words on The Wall: January 2009. Interactive concert; more details below. Led to invitations to speak/perform at conferences in the UK and US, including Future of Web Apps, #140conf LA, NYC and London, getambITion and others.

Factory: Commissioned by New Media Scotland, I produced 8 tracks for their 10th anniversary to coincide with 8 “code poems” they had also commissioned for release through Twitter. I decided to keep the music within the same guidelines, so made each track 2’20, or 140 seconds long.

altclassical/The Hospital: I am the 2010-11 music Creative in Residence at The Hospital Club, London. I curate a year-long contemporary music series, “altclassical”, and have a number of really fun projects planned for the rest of the year, including another recording.

Terminal: I was commissioned by Bowers & Wilkins and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records to write and record an album of new acoustic and electric cello music for their Society of Sound label. It included a binaural recording of Cello Counterpoint by Steve Reich, and 6 new works by myself and Milton Mermikides.

Describe the Words on the Wall performance. What were you setting out to achieve?

By October 2008, when I started developing The Words on The Wall, I had been webcasting my concerts for a little bit. I was increasingly interested in how the online audience were sharing the same content, but not the same experience, and whether this was a problem or merely how it was.

At the same time, I had been on Twitter for a while, and it was gradually entering the mainstream. As this happened, people were comfortably discussing weighty topics in public online – putting their taste and opinions on display. I started wondering what people would say if there was no stigma attached to voicing an opinion; too often, it’s easier to simply say “I liked it” rather than to take a moment and articulate why you did, or didn’t enjoy something.

So, I thought this could be interesting to explore: ask the audience to tell you what they were thinking as they were thinking it. It’s open to anyone in the room and anyone online – we worked hard to remove all the barriers to entry, down to setting up blank Twitter accounts which we forwarded SMS shortcodes to so that you didn’t even need an account to get involved, you only needed a text-enabled phone to have your voice heard.

It was immediately clear to me that this couldn’t happen in a concert hall as there were too many formalities to break through in order for people to get involved, so I got hold of a trendy art gallery in Edinburgh and made the venue my own: the whole event was open for the audience to film, photograph, blog, record… whatever. Cynically, it’s a terrific PR stunt: get the audience to tell their friends about what they’re up to, but actually, it turns a concert into a content bed.

The programme for the concert was quite “out there”, and the most accessible piece was Britten’s 2nd Cello Suite. During one movement, someone put a message up saying “I don’t get this”. Ten seconds later, a reply came in: “think of it like a chamber organ”, followed promptly with “it’s a conversation”. The person who didn’t “get it” was in Edinburgh, the first response was from New York and the second from Tokyo. It was really exciting to see the audience help each other to understand the music, to share their thoughts about it and how they were interpreting it.

How can classical music benefit from digital technologies, if at all?

I do use a number of really high end interactive controllers for certain performance requirements, but my day-to-day tech list is actually really simple: I use a mixture of Logic, Mainstage and Ableton Live for my software and an Apogee GiO and Ensemble for hardware – this carries all my audio playback and live multi-tracking needs, whether I have two speakers or twelve.

I think it’s important to say that I only set about finding/developing the tech solutions to musical questions – these tools increase with sophistication to accommodate the increasing technical and performable complexity of the music being produced by the composers with whom I work; it’s an evolution, not a revolution. Sustain pedals were added to keyboards, steel strings were added to violins. The Hyperbow from MIT is a logical extension of the cello bow: it lets me control sounds and effects that the composer wants, and the most natural mapping is through acceleration of the bow. The exception to that was the stretch sensor shirt, which did start life as a technical achievement (integrating stretch sensors into a wearable fabric), but we re-appropriated it in what I felt was a pretty natural musical way; my left arm controlled a pitch shifter and my right arm was doing filter effects.

Again, this kind of thing wouldn’t add anything to Bach, but then, a baroque cello wouldn’t be appropriate for the music of Milton Mermikides (with whom I work a lot).  So, to answer your question, I don’t think this can do anything to benefit classical music, but I think it’s absolutely vital for contemporary music.

Part II  will be posted on, 8th June 2010.

Related Posts:

The School of Rock and Other Musical Contradictions – Juliana Farha

Classical Music Part I – Chris McLellan

Classical Music Part II – Chris McLellan

Classical Music Part III – Chris McLellan

Exclusive Interview – Juliana Farha, Managing Director, Dilettante

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jeffery D. Vanderveen, Managing Director – Universal Classical Management & Production

Event Report: Liverpool Sound City 2010

Event Report: “Music As Culture” @ OpenMusicMedia (London, UK)


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