"It's all about the approach" – Peter Gregson interview

As Deutsche Grammophon starts releasing Peter Gregson's back catalogue, Hugo Shirley talks to the composer and cellist about recomposing Bach and how he started to record for the Yellow Label.

Photo © York Christoph Riccius

There can't be many musicians working today as versatile as Scottish cellist and composer Peter Gregson. His CV bursts at the seams with credits across an impressively broad spectrum: there are film soundtracks (most recently Adolescence, 2019), music for TV and computer games, ballet, and work with such diverse figures as Ed Sheeran and Hans Zimmer, not to mention half a dozen albums. 

A look through Peter Gregson's biography suggests that here's a musician who's got a knack for being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people and – perhaps most importantly – creating work that people, well, just really like. That certainly seems to be the case with the series of events that led to him landing a contract with one of the biggest labels in classical music, Deutsche Grammophon. I'm half joking when I ask how it came about: did they just call him up one day? "Well yes," he says with a laugh. "I basically just got a phone call from Deutsche Grammophon!" 

It turns out, though, that it wasn't quite that out of the blue. "I'd known Christian Badzura, DG's head of new repertoire, for a number of years through overlapping mutual friends," he admits. "And I'd released two EPs of string quartets in 2016. The first batch have no electronics on them – they're just straight – but the second lot use synthesizers. They sold very well, which was a bit of a surprise really!" The string quartets themselves came out of a desire for a certain artistic independence, he explains. "I finished scoring a computer game and wanted to do something where I didn't have to get approvals from anybody." 

Photo © York Christoph Riccius

The string quartets also take advantage of the fact that Gregson has his studio in one of London's Air Studios. "It's a fabulous, famous recording studio, where there's a big room that's normally used for an 80-piece orchestra, where Hans Zimmer does all of his big scores. And I wondered: what if you put a string quartet in there, rather than putting them in a little room, what would that sound like?" He proffers a colourful analogy. "It's like having goldfish. Just because you've got a tank that's a certain size, it doesn't mean you have to put a certain number of goldfish in there. They still need oxygen and they still need to move." 

Gregson learnt several new techniques from the experiment, not least in embedding synthesizer within the acoustic sounds. "We actually recorded the synthesizer sound at the same time as the quartet," he explains, "so that the synthetic vibrations were coming out of the cello and the violins at the same time as we recorded these drones and arpeggiations." And not only that. "They were released, did well, and Christian sent me a message: 'I really like these. Let's chat!'"

The initial conversation included talk of more string quartets, but also the observation that it had been five years since Deutsche Grammophon's previous "recomposed" album – Max Richter's take on Vivaldi's Four Seasons – had been released. "And if you're going to go down the route of recomposing anything as a cellist," he remembers thinking, "there's nothing more fundamental to the cello repertoire than the Bach Cello Suites. So you think, well maybe…" 

Gregson's Quartets: One and Quartets: Two are now being reissued by Deutsche Grammophon, along with an extensive further selection of his back catalogue, joining Recomposed by Peter Gregson – Bach: The Cello Suites, which was released on the Yellow Label a year ago. "These suites rearranged for a five-personnel cello ensemble, analogue synthesizers and solo cello create a magnificent sound world," wrote BBC Music Magazine at the time. It's clear, talking to Gregson, how much thought and effort went into his "recomposition", worked out on 500 sheets of paper and informed and inspired by his own love and respect for Bach's work. 

Gregson performing at Sonos in Berlin

"There's so much material. They're so iconic, so astonishingly rich and dense," he explains of the six solo suites, composed a little over 300 years ago. "But they're lean at the same time: there's no fat on them. They're ahead of their time. And the biggest problem is that they represent the foundation and the pinnacle of the cellist's repertoire." Indeed, although they languished largely unknown until the last century, they have formed the foundation of any great cellist's repertoire ever since the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals made his famous recording of them in 1936.

The idea of recomposing them for the new album sent Gregson on a trail of research into the various interpretations of the works, looking into ideas as to what they mean and why Bach wrote them. "When I started writing it, I went back to the Anna Magdalena manuscripts and started relearning the suites from the original, from the oldest possible bowing and fingerings. I also restrung my cello with gut. You learn so many fascinating things about bow technique, about speed, about tempo." But that wasn't all: since the majority of each of the suites' movements is based on dance forms, Gregson also consulted a Baroque choreographer about tempos. "You listen to a modern recording and it's fast. It's all fast, it's all very self-indulgent, and it doesn't highlight the phrase shapes that, say, a Courante would have, or an Allemande." 

This musicological detective work was complemented by a more general exploration of how these pieces could be performed. "They're so common in the cellist's repertoire, in the cellist's vocabulary, but I thought: what if you approached this as folk music, or that as a chorale? Or as a plainchant – as something that is so fundamental to the common sound that you then end up with that freedom to move forward with it?" 

Photo © York Christoph Riccius

As with the String Quartets, the sound world of the album itself reflects Gregson's interest in mixing acoustic and electronic instruments in a real place (Air Studios, again). "I wanted to write with synthesizers, and I wanted it to be as organic as possible. So I recorded the synths when I was writing the music and demo-ing it up. But when it came to the recording, we spent the first couple of days recording the synthesizers again inside the great big studio where we were hoping to record the cello stuff as well. So everything is actually interacting in the same physical space."

The album's broad, ever-shifting sonic landscape was created with the help of some clever tricks too, but largely through the placement of a large number of microphones, Gregson explains. "Rather than fading things in our out, we had banks of different microphones so we could shift perspective. We wanted the ensemble cellos far away – they sat in the gallery – and we would use the downstairs microphones to fade into the gallery for greater clarity and then out again. We did something similar with the synthesizers." And those synthesizers, Gregson points out, were always seen as an essential part of the work. "It was about treating them not as a poor relation or an underpinning gimmick, but really as legitimate instruments." 

This, I suggest, is all part of the Gregson musical philosophy – a kind of holistic open-mindedness to all sonic possibilities. He recalls a story of playing on a pop session while still a student. "It was with a moderately successful small British band, and some guy was like, 'yeah, but that's just selling out.' My response was that if you play badly on it then it is selling out, but it you're playing it well and you're adding something to it then it can't be. It's not like one thing is objectively better than the other. It's all about the approach that's going into it."

Explore Peter Gregson's catalogue here.

Hugo Shirley · Published
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