BY KIERAN WELCH
“The cello needs to play many roles,” Campbell Banks says.
The musician is commenting on Zoltan Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8. But to this piece, Campbell has added even more roles – and we can see the results in his new video project Kodály Remixed. The original work is respected and extended with new electronic elements presented by Campbell himself.
Campbell, a cellist and writer, spent his earliest years across Alice Springs and Hobart, and is now based in Melbourne. He has studied at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and the Zürich University of the Arts. The cellist received the Australian Music Foundation Prize and has performed in leading global venues from Wigmore Hall to Amsterdam Concertgebouw – and now, we can see him perform his own project behind the lens. Watch Campbell’s video Kodály Remixed below, and read on to learn how this project came to life.
Congratulations on the release of Kodály Remixed — it’s quite a momentous creation! What inspired the project? And why focus on Kodály’s solo sonata in particular?
It all started after listening to a recording of the sonata by Roel Dieltiens, my teacher at the time in Zürich. I’d heard the sonata before, but apart from being wowed by the unusual technical demands, I didn’t love or understand it. Dieltiens’ recording was very different to others I’d heard, the kind of playing where you don’t notice that a difficult piece is difficult, and the music made sense to me all of a sudden. I figured if I was ever going to play it, I should study it with him.
One of my subjects at the time was a music production course, where I was learning about sampling and live electronics. I was in need of an idea for my final Masters project, and at some point the concept of sampling — taking small chunks of audio and building a new musical context out of it — started to resonate with what Kodály had done through his ethnomusicology: recording thousands of folk melodies and building them into his compositional language. That was enough of a green light to pursue the idea, and the further I progressed, the more it made sense.
The sonata isn’t an easy play by any standards. What was it like preparing and recording the piece?
It took about six months to learn when I was a student with plenty of practice time on my hands. A lot of the most difficult passages utilise techniques that are rarely found anywhere else, like the fast double-stops in the third movement, or the self-accompanying pizzicato of the second movement, so it was quite an effort. At one point in the third movement, three fingers of the left hand are playing a chord across four strings, the right hand is accenting the lowest string with the bow, and the little finger on the left hand is strumming the other three strings. I’d never had to do that before! In addition, the piece has the lowest two strings of the cello tuned down a semitone, to B and F#, which changes the resonance and tension of the cello, and definitely takes getting used to.
Those study days are some time ago now, so preparing it around my professional life (teaching children the complexities of open strings and first position, mostly, plus coffee) was very challenging. As was the recording itself, because we (myself and the brilliant Agatha Yim, who filmed and edited the video) only had a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. With so many difficulties on every page, it wasn’t possible to get a perfect take of every note, and there are certainly mistakes in the final video. We’re all used to perfection in recordings nowadays, so this caused me a lot of trouble once the video was completed. I sat on the finished product for quite some time before sharing it, because I couldn’t come to terms with the imperfections. Finally, a wise friend said the right thing at the right time, and I got over it enough to share it.
Unlike some other classical ‘remix’ projects, Kodály Remixed includes the original piece in its entirety, but then intersperses each movement with your own remixes. How would you describe the relationship between the electronic and acoustic elements in your project?
I think they complement each other quite well. My aim was to end up with the feeling of a five-movement sonata, and not have the audience feel like they were being jolted out of the classical world into an electronic one and back again. I tried hard for the transitions to be quite gentle, sonically speaking, and I think making all the electronic elements out of samples of Dieltiens’ recording helped with that too.
The sonata by itself can be pretty heavy going for anyone who isn’t a cellist, and a lot of the audience feedback from the initial performance was that the remixes made Kodály’s music more digestible, diverting the ears for a few minutes in between the movements.
I use the term ‘remix’ fairly loosely. [My new movement] Foreshadows takes some harmonies and one melodic cell from the original sonata’s third movement, and then just builds from there. Shadows uses a couple of motives from the first movement — quite recognisably so, hopefully — but is otherwise its own piece; they’re not commentaries or re-interpretations of Kodály’s music.
In your Behind the Remix video, you discuss an interest in the intersection of different musical genres, such as classical, folk and electronic music. As someone who has a significant amount of training in classical performance and pedagogy, what led you to explore these less-classical areas?
That interest goes all the way back to my teenage years when I played drums in a band, which was still some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing chamber music. Growing up, I always listened to more non-classical than classical music — Radiohead moves me much more than Mozart, for example — so this project isn’t unusual in terms of my taste in music.
The concept of remixing a classical work has been catching on over the past few years, from Max Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed to Bach Unwound by Sleeping Giant and Ashley Bathgate. What significance do you see these remix projects having on classical music today?
I’m not sure about the significance of those remix projects specifically, but I see them as being a part of the burgeoning ‘indie-classical’ or ‘post-genre’ style (or whatever Pitchforkian name you want to give it) that has seemed to grow very quickly over the last few years, and that is certainly significant. Perhaps it’s only a niche at the moment, but within that is a broad audience that skews young, I think, and it’s curious. The Australian Chamber Orchestra are already catering to it with their Underground series; hopefully the symphony orchestras start programming more of it too.
What’s your advice to other classical musicians looking to combine their craft with other musical genres?
Seek out people who have expertise in the fields you don’t know so well, but without necessarily divulging your bigger idea to them. You can get lukewarm responses from people initially and that can be very dispiriting, but it’s often because explaining an idea before it’s been realised is usually a poor reflection of what the idea could be. People are protective of the things they love, so their natural reaction can be defensive, if not actively dissuading. That might affect your belief that it’s worthwhile to pursue your interest, so avoid it altogether. Don’t wait for permission to combine whatever it is you want to combine — no-one can give it to you anyway.
As much as I agree that we should respect a composer’s intentions — and certainly shouldn’t use recordings as guidelines to interpretation — a downside to being educated with this doctrine is that the fear of getting things wrong can be a straitjacket to creativity. Learn what you need to learn in order to be standing on solid ground, but after that, well…stuff ’em.
Watch Behind the Remix with Campbell Banks below, and read more about the cellist on his website.