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TMV Interview: Peter Gregson

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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 focussing on different aspects of music and technology:

thebluecello: June 2005, this featured three premieres (from Howard Goodall, Richard Sisson and the first synthesising electric cello concerto, written by Thomas Hewitt Jones). The concert was recorded and that recording was then sold at the end of the concert. The only way to do it was to pre-print the CD/sleeves and set the levels during the rehearsal, then have a bank of laptops ready to duplicate as soon as the applause started! The CD was sold during a wine reception at the back of the venue.

Hyperbow: September 2005 – January 2008. I didn’t instigate this project, but I was drafted in by my teacher at college, Philip Sheppard, and ended up performing and recording new works by six composers for cello, Hyperbow and ensemble.

SPEM: April 2008. I was at the Banff Center in Canada, and multitracked Spem in Alium for the cello, which went with six more pieces I commissioned to go with it! This was my first foray into live surround sound performance, and the first concert of this with Eclipse Speakers led to a tour to the US in early 2009.

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. It was a terrific project, and was launched at The Hospital and then followed up with a tour to the US, visiting Washington, Boston, New York, San Francisco and LA.

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, linking to media they liked and disliked – 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. People have pride in their Flickr stream, Vimeo channel, etc and they don’t just upload any old photo or video – they self-critique their visual “understanding” of the experience, and create their own narrative.

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. Other than being fabulously jetset and interesting, 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.

I’ve done these concerts now in Edinburgh, London, New York, LA, Washington and San Francisco (from the Twitter offices, actually!) and the example above isn’t isolated. Between tapping into the behavior of the platform and genuinely asking people what they think, there is an incredible wealth of opinion and curiosity that absolutely spills over to the real world, with people coming and asking me why I programmed Peter Sculthorpe, how I know Max Richter, or asking whether they should listen to more classical music. It started out as a slightly pre-emptive technology installation, but the result has been I’ve shortened intervals (and got rid of them on occasion), changed the programming order during a concert and, to use the buzzword of the moment, really joined the conversation around the music that I’m playing.

In your opinion, should live performances of classical music invite more audience participation?

Not necessarily. As I said above, I think it hinges on relevance and really asking whether it adds anything overall, or whether it’s just being done because it’s possible.

In her article, ‘The School of Rock and Other Musical Contradictions’, Juliana Farha states, “…a decent life, as a performer, is more readily available to classical musicians, thanks to the size and number of orchestras and the primacy of the ‘live experience’.” Do you agree with that statement, and do you think classical musicians are less likely to push boundaries musically because there is more work available to them?

I actually disagree with that – I don’t think having the safety net of potential work is going to stop people creating something new. Look at Juliana’s own business. She saw a gap in the market and set about closing it in the way she thought it had to be done, and that meant setting up herself rather than joining an existing publication and editing their web presence.

There are plenty of faceless multinational companies, but entrepreneurs are all over the place, making new things, innovating and adding value to our lives. Who ever said musicians shouldn’t be entrepreneurs, too?

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). Like with the web applications, it isn’t designed to be backwardly compatible, and nor should it be. You only need to look at the The Well Tempered Clavier to know this isn’t a new approach. 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.

Have you received any feedback from classical ‘purists’ in terms of the direction you are taking your music?

Yes and no. I’ve been reviewed by classical reviewers who gloss over the music and try to be trendy and talk about technology and I’ve been reviewed by culture/technology writers who gloss over the tech and focus on the interesting music I play. Ultimately, I wouldn’t do a weird, crazy interactive event and play Brahms or Beethoven – it wouldn’t be relevant, and it wouldn’t add anything to either the music or the experience, and I’ve been very clear about that, so I don’t know that there’s too much for “purists” to get upset about. I know a number of people I would class as “purists” who are really excited by what I’m doing and similarly there are those that would like to see me do the more conventional recital circuit, but I find myself at my most creative when I’m pushing boundaries and working with people who inspire me to go further!

What are your thoughts on the interactive principle – i.e exploiting digital technology and social media to reach online listeners?

I’m part of the dubiously named “born digital” generation – I absolutely take it all for granted that I can reach anyone, and they can reach me. It’s the same with my music; people can hear it anywhere, anytime, in any format. There’s immense power to all of this, but the problem with it is that by its very nature, it’s a string of 1s and 0s – and as with any binary information, it’s either on or it’s off. You can’t put it out there and then try to limit its distribution: there will always be a way around DRM whether you like it or not. What it has done is really question the notion of ownership, and whether people want to own music if they can’t do with it as they please, or if they’d rather just consume it and have sharing rights… I remember reading “I’d buy my music if I could stream my Nike’s”.

It’s a key point in time, and only the other day, Imogen Heap told the world that due to shaky economics, she can’t really afford to tour for a while. So where does that leave someone like me? It’s one thing to have an army of fans listening to your music on Spotify, but if that isn’t converting into base level cash through referral sales (and it doesn’t look like it is), then there’s very little money to put into touring, where we’re always being told the real money is, which in turn slows people down in having the real connection with their favorite artists.

Perhaps we’re going to have to finally acknowledge that the 25 year golden period of the music industry having seemingly endless resources is well and truly over, and we’re back to focussing on lots of smaller audiences, like Bach and Mozart were used to. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays to my “born digital” generation, which was brought up with an unlimited, international audience for everything.

Will you be working with or exploring any other technologies in the near future?

Yes, absolutely – I’m really into the location properties that are being built into the back end of the APIs for a bunch of apps at the moment, and will be launching a really big project in October at Kings Place with an exciting technology partner. The details are quiet for now, so you’ll just have to wait!

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a lot on with The Hospital Club (where I’m Creative in Residence) and have to plan the next few months of alt_classical, the series I curate there, and have a couple of interesting festivals in July – I’m performing at The Courvoisier Revolutionary Spirit Festival and doing the music for The Secret Garden Party, but am currently in a manic phase preparing for a big concert at The Queens Hall in Edinburgh, then am off to An Tobar in Mull, The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen, Le Poisson Rouge in New York, then after a little break in September to regroup, I’m full on in October, co-producing/curating New Music:New Directions across London, my Kings Place concert for their “Out:Hear” series, performing again at MIT, and then speaking and playing in Turin… I’m not thinking much beyond October at the moment, but have plenty in the pipeline!

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