What is it about the cello that acts as a gateway to electronic music composition? There are a number of examples of musicians where the rich baritone register of the instrument has been their first discipline – Ken Ishii, Peter Gregson and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud spring to mind – but where electronic music has formed their natural next step.
To that canon you can add the name of Oliver Coates, London Contemporary Orchestra cellist and a soloist in his own right. So inventive are his methods and processes with the cello on his second album that you would not often be able to determine its dominance.
Instead, if you were listening blind, you might think Upstepping was the work of a close relative of Four Tet or Floating Points. This is because Coates uses the more conventional modern classical music he plays on his cello, with its rigorous construction and relatively clean, minimalist lines, and blends it with underground urban music, using a rich variety of beats and textures.
Coates uses his cello for the vast majority of Upstepping, and with it creates direct, primal music. Perfect Love, like Innocent Love inspired by an Agnes Martin painting, uses the instrument to provide all its sounds. It is an approach an artist such as Matthew Herbert might take and the effect is similar to Herbert’s own brand of house music, with jerky movements complemented by deeper, more sonorous sounds in the background. These take place over the reassurance of a steady kick drum, presumably achieved through knocking on the instrument’s sound board.
Closer listening reveals more of the methods used to get these highly unusual sounds from the body and strings of the cello and bow. Innocent Love has a distant, winding bassline and some fractured thoughts that flit in and out of the picture, its sweet vocal hovering just above the music. Harmonics and different bow techniques are employed to get some strikingly original sounds, cleverly manipulated in the studio, while the shuffling beat supplies a surprising amount of energy. Then a glorious wall of chords implies the presence of a whole string section – which presumably once again originates solely from the one instrument. The chords recall Benjamin Britten in their piercing clarity and the unusual light they evoke.
On the flipside energetically are Memorial To Hitchens and Rise And Fall. The former, from the Unreal Estate soundtrack, has a murky texture examining the mid to lower range of the cello. It is sparse but somehow retains its warmth, and is intensely moving. The latter looks at the similar range and indulges it with weird effects such as portamento. Stash, meanwhile, is the jewel in the crown, an extended composition with sonorous vocals and a development from darkness to light.
At times the textures can be a little overcrowded, and there are moments in Bambi 2046 where the listener may want to stop the bus and get off. But in that sense Coates has caught the essence of inner city living, the overexposure to stimulants that prey on all five senses.
Clearly the cello is an extension of Coates’ personality, and it reveals him to be a thoughtful, inventive and humourous man, constantly thinking outside the wooden box that he plays but never employing his chosen sounds for anything other than the emotional effect they have on the listener.
Because of the ebb and flow, that movement between frenetic and calm, Upstepping makes a strong and lasting impact. Coates has such an active musical mind that no doubt he has already moved on from this – but it is up to us to hang to his coat tails and see where he and his cello lead us next.