Art and Music      


Sophie Harris interview

SIMON DUFF:  On January 24 this year celebrated cellist Sophie Harris performed at London’s Kings Place. Bringing together an eclectic mix of concert and film music written for her. Harris creates new territory for the solo cello, working with some of today's most eminent composers and ensembles (The Duke Quartet, The Hilliard Ensemble, The Brodsky Quartet, Django Bates and Kevin Volans). For the Kings Place event composer Graham Fitkin collaborated with her to perform “Edging,” his cello piece written especially for Harris. The programme also included works by Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars and Errollyn Wallen. Harris was joined on stage by two musicians - singer Melanie Pappenheim and pianist Ian Belton. The trio have also recently released an album called “Out of the Darkness” written by Julian Marshall. The inspiration for the work is based on the poem “Aus dem Dunkel” (Out of the Darkness), by Gertrud Kolmar. Kolmar lived in Berlin for much of her life, but was transported to Auschwitz in 1943, where she perished. Her poetry is strikingly full of life – colour, vibrancy, deep sensation - and “Aus dem Dunkel”, is surely one of the most beautiful. Written in 1937 the poem evokes powerful dream like images of crumbling and decay - serving as an eerie foretelling of the imminent tidal wave of horror about to hit the world. Also featured on the recording is another world première – a new piece by Gavin Bryars for mezzo-soprano, cello and keyboard. The Island Chapel was commissioned by the Tate Gallery St. Ives. The album is full of beautiful, touching and compelling moments and likewise so was the Kings Place concert. A deep focus and concentration runs through the work.


I interviewed Sophie Harris after the Kings Place concert.

SD: What are you looking for in modern cello composition and what challenges are you hoping for?

SH: One of the things I am looking for is a desire for a living language - to feel that music has not become Latin for contemporary ears. And the hope that this is still possible on classical instruments. With regard to "themes," I am always drawn to the universal rather than the political.

SD: How did you go about selecting the pieces for your Kings Place concert in January?

SH: Initially it was seemingly haphazard, until the organizers asked me for a theme or intro to the gig. Then I recognised that there was an East/West dialogue within the repertoire I had chosen. I had wanted to ask more composers to come and play pieces, which they have written for me but the cost was prohibitive given the fee!

SD: You had some interesting recording improvisations, done with Rick Koster, played during the concert. How did this come about and what was your approach to creating it? 

SH: Rick and I play together in the Duke Quartet. He is a dear friend and esteemed colleague. We like to get together over a cup of herbal tea and discuss philosophy and somehow this journey has now extended in to Rick offering me an amazing opportunity to improvise and record. My approach was totally without form or intention. In fact the first time I sat down to play there was a synthetic tiger striped rug on the wall - as a sound muffler - and I found myself playing in a trance like state interpreting / reading the rug......I suppose my " approach " is one of a meditation, letting go of the formalities of my extensive studying to allow the subtext to be visible. Composition and improvisation is something I want to explore more of.

SD: Is all music improvised?

SH: I think it is difficult to answer pejoratively. Some composers resist the performers desire to "improvise" their music and interestingly, performers become quite obsessive when playing dead composers music, about passing on what was correct "echt ". Hmmm contentious I think… 

SD: You have a very strong presence on stage. What is your approach to performing? Are you aware of a connection with your audience when you are performing or is it more with the music itself?  The way you play looks completely natural and effortless. Is it?

SH: For me, performing is a safe haven from other realities. A place to be. A channel for a musical energy which connects us all. So, when I find that place, it is stilling and freeing and I feel at once connected to the audience and the music (as a channel), but also able to express that i.e. not in a passive way. And I think that performing in a mindful way makes "visible" what people keep hidden in their everyday realities, but perhaps could not tolerate on a daily basis?

SD: Can you tell me what the intention Julian Marshall had when he wrote “Out of the Darkness?”

SH: In a horrible paraphrased way, I think he wished or maybe felt compelled to bear witness to what Kolmar's "Out of the Darkness" speaks of. And I love the diverse musical language which he employed to do so - having initially written something dark and augur fuelled, he scrapped it in favour of Jazz, R & B, you name it. Which to me echoes a contemporary idea of the schaden freude of Kurt Weil or the mania of the Weimar Republic. I feel that Kolmar's poem is inspired by Plato's " Simile of the Cave" - an extraordinarily concise piece about the importance of taking responsibility in the world. Kolmar used it to bear witness to what was happening in her anti-Semitic Germany. Her choice to stay there and die in the camps rather than join her family in Switzerland. Julian's intention had a powerful impact on the whole OOTD project and informed my choice to play Ligeti and Part as an accompaniment to the piece ( in our performances). If you look at the histories of these two composers , you will understand why.

SD:  Can you tell me your approach to recording the “Out of the Darkness” CD. How was it recorded and how do you work with producers and engineers when you record?

SH: As you can imagine, it was not an easy process. The cellos were in a closed box and the singers could only hear us through their headphones and were also trying to pitch quite complex harmonies together. Not ideal for a piece of chamber music. But as with a lot of recording now (the emphasis being on some machine generated idea of perfection), the journey of the piece is to me less apparent than when we perform it.

Although I like the CD a lot!

Regarding your general question, I am torn between a longing for the lost age of the "real" as opposed to the "virtual" or modified and all that it entailed i.e. humility, individual expression - all quirks embraced, celebrated rather than our seeming desire to emulate the machine, devoid of human frailty....what do we want to say?

SD: How did you approach the Arvo Part  “Spiegel IM Spiegel” piece and how did you rehearse then record with Ian Belton? Can you tell me a bit about why you like the piece and a bit about it’s background?

SH: Well...we only had a bit of time left at the end of the session and the Part was taken from two straight play throughs. Ian Belton is my husband and by trade a fine violinist (he plays in the Brodsky Quartet). He - many decades ago - was an equally good pianist and in the last year we have started to perform as a duo. I sometimes perform the Schubert Quintet or other repertoire with an additional cello with the Brodsky Quartet but the recording of the Part was the first thing we did together and the first time that Ian had played the piano for years, remarkable!

Julian Marshall refers to our musical connection as " tantric music making " which is both hilarious and true.

"Spiegel im Spiegel" is an exquisite piece. It triggers such an emotional response and yet it is empty ,  in the manner of reading Primo Levi - without pathos. For me it is a meditation.

SD:  You work with The Duke String Quartet. What are you working on at the moment and how has your work as a quartet player impacted on your solo playing? 

SH: The Duke Quartet are working with the Belgian Dance Company - Rosas. Doing shows in Brussels then at Sadler’s Wells. We have had the good fortune to work with them over the last few years on some great quartet repertoire ...Berg "Lyric Suite", Schoenberg "Verklarte Nacht", Bartok 4th Quartet, Beethoven Grosse Fugue. Their choreographer, Anne Teresa de Keersmaker previously worked with the Arditti Quartet and I love her uncompromising musical choices !

I have always played chamber particularly quartet music since I was a young girl - partly due to having studied with the great William Pleeth from aged 10. For a string player the quartet repertoire is the apex of a composer’s utterance. And it is often their late work - whilst staring into the abyss - that is written for 4 or so players. Britten's 3rd Quartet, Schubert's cello Quintet, Berg "Lyric Suite", Beethoven's late quartets....Having the privilege to study and embody these expressions of humanity has been a great gift and has informed my life and music making profoundly.

I have also always been drawn to contemporary music, from when I first came to London and joined the Smith Quartet.

SD: What are your next challenges?

SH: I am compiling material for an "improvised" CD with Rick Koster at the moment. I also have a long held desire to record the pieces that composers have written for me with the composers. Any input (financial or otherwise) would be gratefully received!





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