Catherine Black: An Electric Dialectic with an Eclectic Cellist

NOTE: This is an extended version of an interview originally published in the March issue of Viva Lewes magazine.

When asked if I would interview a woman for the upcoming Viva Lewes issue the first person I thought of was Catherine Black. Catherine is a Lewes-based cellist who has had a wildly varied and eclectic career. She’s played with orchestras and toured with The Orb, a 90s ambient group, and her own group, String Theory Cello Ensemble, attracted the attention of an American management. She is in demand as a teacher and compiles books of music and technical studies for cellists.

PK: Catherine, what are you currently busy with?

CB: Right now it’s preparing for the Unsung Heroes workshops. That’s an ensemble course that I run, mostly as one-day workshops. I take up to twenty cellists and we work on learning to play together as well as find our individual musical voices.

PK: Do you have a particular method?

CB: I’ve written several volumes of song transcriptions for cello and I use these as my starting point. I give them bowings and phrasings and fingerings but also the texts for the songs. This way they know what the singer would have sung and they can give it the right kind of energy.

PK: Does it change the way they play?

CB: It does. For the 2012 season I’m actually going to hire a singer to work with the players and help them really get inside the music.

PK: Do you use your own publishing company?

CB: I do, and I think it’s the way a lot of people are going these days. Red Priest is doing it–they have their own record label. You’re doing it. You do it yourself because that’s the way to retain complete artistic control. And it’s not that I think I necessarily know better but I do know where I’m coming from.

PK: How long have you been running these workshops?

CB: We did the first Unsung Heroes in 2005.

PK: All cellists?

CB: All cellists. It’s interesting because cellists are used to working with others but in orchestras they’re often being told to play down. These workshops are a cello-only zone. The bass end of any group is the soil on which everything else is planted. And in this group I tell them, “Look, you’ve all got a valid voice. You’ve each got an important role.” And I find it does push people’s boundaries out. I think a lot of them really get that.

PK: When I teach voice, cello is the instrument that I always use as an example to teach singers how to phrase. You know, long phrases, across the bar and so on. I’m always telling them to think of being a cello.

CB: It’s funny. As a musician I’m always thinking in terms of how someone would sing a piece. And how to find space in the music––because a singer’s breath creates a natural space in the music.

I’m just writing a new page for my website––it’s called Look & Listen. I’m taking some really amazing performances and writing about them, getting inside them, figuring out what makes them great. One that springs to mind is mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená singing Scherza infida (Handel’s Ariodante), a live performance from Brussels, I think. In that performance she’s surrounded by standing musicians and that performance just goes right inside the character’s heart! I think we string players can learn so much from the voice. Also, I want each of my students to sound like themselves, like individuals. I want to be able to record them and listen back without seeing them and say, “That’s Julie!”

PK: It’s a strange thing––we tell singers to emulate a good string player who in turn is emulating a good singer.

CB: I first went to Christopher Bunting to study when I was about 17. And then I studied with him at the Royal College. At my first lesson he told me to go away and come back next week with 3 arias––one old, one romantic and one modern. He told me to transcribe each of them and learn them.

PK: What were they? Do you remember?

CB: Oh, yeah. King Philip’s aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo [sings a few bars] and Finzi’s Come Away, Death (from Let Us Garlands Bring, Op. 18) and Bach’s Agnus Dei from the B minor mass.

And he would invariably have just been listening to a recording of one of the old Italian singers before I arrived––often just taking it off the player when I walked in––and he’d want me to play those arias the way a singer would sing them.

PK: There aren’t many teachers who teach that way anymore, are there? Listening and trying to emulate, just as a way of understanding the mechanism.

CB: Well, it’s a bit like the way I love to fool around with speaking in different accents. It’s a listening and training exercise––how do I get that sound? What muscles do I need to use, what shape do I need to create with my mouth and throat, and so on. And the cadence of speech, too––the way a Newcastle accent goes up at the end of a line, whereas we go down. I just love all that kind of stuff.

PK: When are your workshops being held?

CB: I’m doing one in February and another one in March and April and so on throughout the year. The number of us varies but I find it works best with about 20 people. No auditions. People just come and play. From France, Switzerland and all over the UK, too. 10:30 till 4. Then I go home and fall into bed! [laughs]

PK: Where are they held?

CB: Here in Lewes. The summer course is at All Saints church and then the one-day courses are at St Thomas. It’s great having them here because I dreaded the idea of going to London to do these.

PK: Why is that?

CB: Because I’m really not comfortable with the snobbery that so often goes along with classical music. Like real music can only happen in London, or something. I hate that thought.

PK: I find that sometimes, too. “Oh, it’s only local. How good could it be?” I mean the reality is that the talent here is tremendous.

CB: We’re stuffed with talented people!

PK: What about other women that you’ve worked with?

CB: Well, my group, String Theory was all women but that fell by the wayside, unfortunately. That happened in September of 2009. We had started out with an idea of just doing upscale background music for really posh places. Then we realized it was bigger than that and that’s where the problems began. I got in touch with an amazing manager in America just to ask for some advice and when she looked at the group’s website and heard us she said she wanted to represent us. So suddenly we’re on her roster––to sell us in America.  And that’s when the shit hit the fan.  The reality settled in for all of us––traveling, picking up stakes, families––well, you know how hard it is as well as anyone.

PK: I think it’s often underestimated––the travel and the way that kind of great opportunity can start to seem really threatening. It can turn your life completely upside down. I still feel that way. It’s scary and it can be very lonely. But you can’t have that kind of success without leaving home and often going far away.  Tell me about some of your recordings.

CB: I did some recording in the 90s with a really interesting group called Instrumental. We were 6 strings––3 violins, viola, cello and double bass. We got some free time at Abbey Road studios and recorded 2 Bob Marley tracks with three African drummers. It was amazing! The drummers went off to record with Quincy Jones after that session.

We found after that that people were saying, “Oh, that’s an interesting sound. You’re classical but you want to swing your pants.” We soon moved on from Reggae to Brian Eno’s ambient music after that and eventually got a gig playing with The Orb. We did a remix of one of their singles and ended up playing with them for the English portion of their ’96 tour.[audio:|titles=Oxbow Lakes (Evensong String Arrangement)|artists=Instrumental] Oxbow Lakes (by Instrumental)

So, we had a wide range. We did quite a bit of jazz funk stuff for people like Matt Cooper of Outside, and Jhelisa––they recorded for Dorado Records. We got this rep for doing alternative music and then Mixing It did a programme on us. That’s not around any more––it was a Radio 3 show. I remember we played some Brian Eno, then The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, Oxbow Lakes and some others.

PK: Renaissance to Brian Eno. That’s quite an amazing range.

CB: It’s true. You know, during the 90s I did quite a bit of TV work and I met quite a few string players who were also very eclectic. I think the 90s were a bit of a melting pot. There was such a lot of experimentation going on musically and good string players were really in demand for recording and live playing.

PK: What’s your take on the digital revolution? What’s the best, what’s the worst?

CB: One of the problems that came with digital recording is people seem hysterical about having it all note perfect. I hear about people doing 36 edits on a single page of music. All of a sudden you’re wondering where the music went. Listen to any old Motown record––things are grooving along and suddenly there’s a horn that comes in and it’s a bit out of tune and you feel like screaming, “Oh, that’s wonderful! Play that again!” [laughter]

I’ve been doing a lot of YouTubing recently and there are just some wonderful performances there with no edits at all. Real performing, real music, magic moments––no edits. I was watching recently Philippe Jaroussky singing Si, dolce by Monteverdi. Have you seen it? In one take they do this extraordinarily beautiful song, and the space they find and the connection between them is just exquisite.

And it’s perfect. You’d be really lucky to get a performance like that in a studio.

PK: I’ve often felt that a well engineered live album can be so much more satisfying than a studio one.

CB: When we did The Orb’s Evensong remix for Oxbow Lakes, the piece was written a week before we were going to record it. We rehearsed it every night that week at the opera house and we had Divine Comedy’s producer Darren [Darren Allison] and he was brilliant. He didn’t want to edit it. He made us rehearse it in full takes because he wanted it to be real. We did 6 full takes of that piece on the day of recording and I think we cracked it on the fourth. It was just really well rehearsed.

You know I met a number of really fine producers in the 90s. Funnily enough, I ended up marrying one of them. [laughs]

PK: Has the snobbery of the classical world been a problem for you?

CB: I don’t pay attention to people who put on their pince-nez and look down their noses. I’m not the kind of musician who can be happy just playing Beethoven sonatas. I mean, I love Beethoven but that’s just not what I’m about. I play music that I find interesting and challenging and people who need to experience what I have find me because they want what I have to offer. We need a classical music world that welcomes in musicians from all backgrounds.

PK: Any regrets?

CB: Instrumental nearly did a rave just off the M25 but the police got wind of it so it was aborted! That was a shame. [laughter]

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