On Thursday 12 July, SOLO is heading to the historic surroundings of Handel & Hendrix in London for an intimate gig with cellist Gabriella Swallow. Ahead of the show, we caught up with her to chat about how she came to play the cello, her incredibly diverse career, and the songs she’ll be listening to all summer long.
First up, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to play the cello and what it was that drew you to the instrument in particular?
I was a whizz recorder player till the age of 8, absolutely obessed with Michala Petri and all things baroque which had a strong return in the 1980’s. My mother is an amateur harpsichord player and would accompany me. She was a very busy dentist, as was my father, so making music was one of the ways we would spend time together. Our practice room was directly opposite the surgery so sometimes we would compete with the sound of the drill…
My parents had a friend they spoke to about my musical education as he advised I should also learn a string instrument. All I cared about was it being the biggest, my parents lied as their car was too small for a double bass so I became a cellist on the spot. I was introduced pretty early on to the recordings of Jacqueline Du Pre like most young cellists of our generation and was sold. In fact, I started the year she died, so 31 years ago. I auditioned to Chetham’s School of Music as a recorder player as I had only had a year or so of cello lessons and they basically said you’re a cellist and that was that. Other than helping my children with their recorder practice, I’ve never played it properly since.
The cello is such a versatile and expressive instrument and you’re pretty spoiled for choice in terms of solo repertoire. What classical pieces do you enjoy playing most and why?
I’ve always been drawn to Russian music, the Prokofiev and Rachmaninov sonatas have meant a lot to me as I learnt parts of them young as an angst ridden teenager. It was the perfect kind of therapy at the time!
We are so lucky as cellists as we do have these wonderful sonatas, obviously the Bach suites and then all the glorious chamber music. I was in a piano trio for many years and a quartet before that. Ravel, Brahms and Haydn and their chamber music have especially meant a lot to me.
Your work takes in a huge variety of different musical contexts from contemporary classical premières to grand operas, US pop and rock tours to your own Urban Family gigs. How does this variety feed in to your playing and what do you find most exciting about performing such a wide range of music?
In my career, I have been fortunate to have so much variety. This isn’t every professional musician’s dream by far. For me, it’s what feeds me in every context. I learn so much from working with singer-songwriters about everything from phrasing, audience rapport, every kind of performance practice really and it all goes straight into my next performance who ever I’m with. In the same breath, I learn so much from being in the cello section at English National Opera in a pit!
For me, it’s the music that’s the important thing first, genre is irrelevant to me. My personal taste is very eclectic so I feel I can learn something from every situation. Obviously, there are times I’m in a position where I have to play music with an artist or music I’m not sure I would be listening to at home in bed but then I see what else I can take from the experience – such as learning from the other band members, etc.
Touring itself helps develop lots of general life skills, how to live with a small group of people for long stretches – it’s a challenge for anyone, even when the people are lovely! Then, when you come home and do a small patch of work and a colleague is difficult you feel positive and think – well it’s only three days with this person! That’s nothing!
You’re going to be doing some improvisations on your electric cello as part of SOLO 05. Could you tell us about how you approach your improvisations and what you’ve got in store for us in July?
It’s a very experimental thing for me which I’m enjoying. My electric cello is less than a year old and I’m enjoying the potential and new tricks it can do. I have a pedal board and have been trying to see what is possible and for it to become natural in my music making.
I like the challenge of learning, as an adult it’s way harder than as a child but you are doing it on your terms which brings a new kind of dynamic. I’ve been a cellist for so many years and have always enjoyed improvising so to be on a new instrument with millions of more possibilities makes me feel like a kid in a sweet shop!
I’ve been trying to incorportate the famous past residents of Brook street in to my piece but so far that’s all I can say!
Finally, which tracks are you listening to at the moment and what’s got you hooked on them?
‘Shelter’ by Olivia Chaney – Olivia is an old school friend from Chetham’s days so have always had an interest in her career. I especially like the track ‘Long Time Gone’.
‘Everybody Here Wants You’ and ‘Satisfied Minds’ by Jeff Buckley – I listen to him on repeat, his music always feels very fresh and relevant to me. I always wonder which direction his music would have gone in had he survived.
‘Hot Cheetos’ by MonoNeon – I’m really getting into MonoNeon’s music and playing, my dear friend the American bassist Cody Wright has just been on tour with him and the band Ghost Note. Both Cody and MonoNeon push the boundaries with the bass and I learn so much from them.
Join Gabriella for music from Kaija Saariaho, Anna Meredith, Alex Groves & more in Handel’s music room on Thursday 12 July – more information & tickets are available at www.thisissolo.co.uk.