Mercury Quartet
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Mercury Quartet

London, England, United Kingdom | MAJOR

London, England, United Kingdom | MAJOR
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"Mercury Quartet Interview in MUSO"

1. The quartet focuses on improvised or ‘live composed’ music, how did this technique become such a large part of your identity?

Harry Cameron-Penny: To say that our focus is on improvisation, suggests a neglect of anything else. It is an important part of our output but for me 20th and 21st century scores, especially commissions, are of equal consequence and always will be. We begun experimenting with 'free composition' during and after rehearsals but it wasn't until we won NonClassical's 'Battle of the Bands' in the December of 2008 that we decided to explore improvisation as a serious creative outlet.

Vlad Maistorovici: Live composition is just one of our three facets, along with our performances of written music and our workshop activity (our radar for talented young composers). We focus just as much on rendering written scores. When we started with live composition, the encouragement we recieved from Nonclassical and Gabriel Prokofiev gave us a lot of confidence to continue. They have been very supportive ever since. When they offered the recording contract, I was keen to do it on our first CD because it is unusual and because I thought it was nice to immortalise some of our pieces, which are always one-offs.

Corentin Chassard: 'Live composed' is perfect: that's the way we do this music, live. After a year of playing together, you start to know the people you are working with, to understand the way they are communicating, the way the quartet is working. You become more confident, comfortable, and as we received an amazing feedback from the public, we just wanted to do it more and more!

Antoine Francoise: Improvisation is showing your identity in the most brutal way. There is no purer way to simply be yourself and share it with others. The Mercury Quartet is 4 very different identities linked by a very strong friendship, it is through improvisation that we can share this amongst us and with any audience. The term live composition comes from the fact that we know each other so well now, both musically and personally, and the music created on the spot really becomes ours. As for how we came to it, i don't really know… it seems now like it just happened, it was there from the beginning and we just decided to enjoy it. Thankfully, audience enjoyed it too so here we are with our first album, and there'll be more to come.


2. What is it about classical improvisation that appeals to you? Why do you think that so many other classical musicians shy away from it?

H.C.-P.: I enjoy the freedom from musical and performing conventions one experiences whilst improvising. Also the challenge and excitement of walking on stage without a plan. Most chamber groups are visually seperated by the music stands but with a quartet of improvisers sitting together it feels like a particularly organic effort. To answer the second part of the question, I think rather than shying away from improvisation, many performers are unaware or disinterested in the idea of doing it. It can appear to be an unaccesible artform - this is counter intuitive as there are no boundaries or guidelines. Perhaps this betrays an indelible compulsion for direction and instruction that is ingrained in many classical musicians from an early age?

C.C.: Harry was saying something actually true: contemporary art, contemporary architecture, contemporary dance, etc... are well received and appreciated by the public. And somehow, contemporary classical music is not.
I think that now, we have a different approach, a different way to communicate, more easily, to the crowd. And I think our live composed music brings a particular relation with the public, especially in performance, because our music is created with them in the same room..

A. F.: Improvisation was always part of a musician baggage until the 20th century! Perfectionism of performance and also megalomaniac wishes to control everything from some composers killed it! However, there are examples everywhere of improvisation and freedom of performance throughout classical music from composers and performers. A bit of courage, a good dose of stupidity and a great friendship was what threw us four into it!

V.M.: To play an instrument well you need to have a lot of discipline. When I started composing as a child, I loved it because I loved the freedom which violin could not offer in the first years of study. I still enjoy this duality (although with time I learned the kind of freedom you need to respect a score and the kind of discipline you need to compose a piece), but in our live composed pieces, I combine the two. However, improvisation is not so foreign to classical music. I can name a lot of legendary violinists, such as Vivaldi, Tartini, Paganini, Ysaye, Kreisler, Enescu, Menuhin and
today Nigel Kennedy or Giles Apap, who are all improvisers.


3. Each member of the group hails from a different country (England, France, Romania and Switzerland). How does this affect your musical interpretations?

H. C.-P.: Ostensibly it doesn't. I'm sure there are many subtle and underlying geographical factors that influence how we play; however they are probably best left subtle and underlying. However, the multicultural aspect exhibits itself when we rehearse. It is a very efficient enviroment with no love lost in the pursuit of perfection in a short space of time. There is no place for what I'm told is an English trait of politeness in rehearsals. This is helped by the fact that we rehearse in English and just one of us has that as a first language...

A.F.: Being from different cultures is always a bonus but can also be a big source of conflicts, misunderstandings and learning experiences… I happen to absolutely love this. I could never play this music if i didn't have something to learn from the other members of the quartet every day.

V.M.: We have very different backgrounds. I come from the Russian School of violin and as composer I owe a lot to the Romanian tradition, even though I only studied formally only in the UK. Antoine is the most experienced improviser out of all of us, with a huge knowledge of modern music. Coco has baroque and pop music in his background. Harry collaborates with pop musicians as well as with symphony orchestras. When we perform a score, these things probably come out and it seems to me that we are not trying to blend, but to react to each other.

C.C.: Very strongly; Vlad sounds like a Romanian violinist, Harry sounds like an English clarinetist, Antoine like a Swiss pianist, and me, like a french cellist...


4. The ensemble comprises clarinet, violin, piano and cello; how did such unusual instrumentation come to be?

C.C.: ...sometimes, rather than a quartet, Harry describes it as Bass Clarinet and Ensemble... (laughs)

V.M.: This is our line-up when we perform written music. In live composition, we add our so called “second instruments”: Antoine plays soprano sax, Harry plays the whole family of clarinets and I play viola. Of course, we stick only to what we studied formally, so that we maintain the quality of playing.

A.F.: Messiaen's Quartet for the end of Time was the first piece to enter our repertoire and still is the work we perform most often. Composed in jail for his fellow inmates musicians and himself. Once again, this was a situation where friendship is a central point of music making.

H.C.-P.: I met Antoine whilst on a River Thames boat cruise during my first week at the Royal College of Music. Our mutual enjoyment of the occasion inspired him to offer an invitation to play Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and me to lie and pretend I'd heard of it. This seminal work became fundamental to us as a group of musicians performing together, and still is. Indeed in the album booklet of 'Mercury Acousitc' we have photographs of the haunting soldier sculptures used in our first ever performance at the RCM. We enjoyed working together and thus kept performing the Messiaen, searched for new repertoire, started to commission through workshops and directly before eventually discovering improvisation as well.


5. The quartet was the ensemble-in-residence at Dartington International Summer School in 2010; tell us about this appointment and your experiences at Dartington.

V.M.: Dartington is a magical place. The setting and the athmosphere of the Festival are so inspiring ! We made many friends among the teachers and the students and to perform with Linda Hirst is one of the most intense stage experiences I have ever had.

C.C.: We had a fabulous week with the mezzo-soprano Linda Hirst, with whom we performed Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. This collaboration went further: she accepted our invitation to come and perform improvised music for our album release in November 2010. I think I learnt a lot from her charisma, the way she behaved on stage..
Working with Julian Anderson and his students gave us a different point of view, from a composer rather than an interpreter, and we now are sure that Workshop should be a strong point in our musical career. We have an unusual instrumentation, but that's make everything being even more interesting and challenging for a composer!

H.C.-P.: To work, dine and party with musicians of such a high calibre was a motivating and progressive experience for the Mercury Quartet. To perform before such an incredibly receptive and intelligent audience was a privilege. The rapport we struck up with Linda Hirst, head of vocal faculty at Trinity College of Music, was invaluable and I learned a lot whilst working and teaching alongside her.


6. It’s an obvious question, but why ‘Mercury’?

H.C.-P.: That was an obvious question...

A.F.: I don't know, why MUSO?

V.M.: The idea was born out of our admiration for a great performer: Freddie Mercury. Now I find that the association with the metal of the alchemists is also very fitting (I think of our improvs as a kind of musical alchemy). The other association is the Roman god of commerce, so I hope this is a good omen and we will sell many copies !...

C.C.: Humm...


7. Your latest record, Mercury Acoustic, contains remixes of the original compositions by the likes of Yesking and Gabriel Prokofiev. What was it like to hear your music reproduced in this way?

V.M.: I think it's brilliant...

A.F.: It's groovy. What a compliment for us to know that other people are actually inspired by our soundworld and want to build there own music upon it!

C.C.: It's amazing how those remixes give an other perspective, an other view, opening our music. If you listen to those remixes before listening to our tracks, you completely hear our music differently. This is the reason, I think, why out of 14 tracks, 5 (more than a third) are remixes.

H.C.-P.: I love hearing our music like this. It's refreshing and fun. If those that would avoid a record that had anything to do with the word 'classical' can enjoy these remixes, then I am filled with hope for the path we are creating.


8. Do you think ideas such as remixing music will have a positive influence upon contemporary classical music?

A.F.: I really wouldn't give a name and an etiquette like contemporary classical music to what we do. All these cross-overs and ideas are simply one way music will always evolve and if we can open people's minds through these, then i see only benefits for everybody.

H.C.P.: No. If we attach the label 'contemporary classical music' to something it can only go so far. I don't think anything that is remixed by artists in this manner should be labelled as such.

V.M.: Why not. As long as it's done with an artistic reason and with taste.

C.C.: For sure. Remixing music is becoming a link between contemporary classical music and music from different range, universe...electro, funk, drum&bass, etc..as long as there is quality.


9. Where do you derive your biggest influences from?

A.F.: If i answer now, i'll realise in 2 days i forgot loads of names. Anybody who once made a sound that meant something to himself/herself and had people to listen to it. That includes all the great musicians that lived and especially those still alive.

C.C.: I would proudly say Vlad, Antoine and Harry, in no particular order.

V.M.: The way I approach live-composing with the Mercury Quartet is very related to the ideas that can be found in Stokhausen's writings on intuitive music-making.

H.C.-P.: I've always been influenced by those that I learn from, whether they be teachers or peers. However, I derive a lot of my inspiration from literature; the artistry employed to create a stimulating bit of prose or poetry is something that resounds with me. There are many parallels between music and literature that work on a sub conscious level. At least I hope so, or I've been wasting my time reading books... When we were recording 'Mercury Acoustic' I was rereading 'The Wasteland' by T.S. Elliot.


10. Describe your style in three words.

H.C.-P.: Not a chance.

V.M.: Hot and steamy !

C.C.: Grab the moment

A.F.: You'll love it! (mmmh, that's actually 4 words isn't it?) - MUSO Magazine


"Testimonial from Julian Anderson on Mercury Quartet"

The Mercury Quartet strike me as an exceptionally, gifted marvellously lively and strongly committed group of young players who are a real force for good in music today. I have heard them perform extremely well in a wide range of music: expert and passionate performances of contemporary classics such as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; very fluent and characterful performances of more recent music, including music by composition students at Dartington 2010; and wonderfully imaginative improvisation sessions.
The personality and musicality of these four remarkable young players blends very well in both rehearsals and performance. They quickly establish a co-operative atmosphere in which all have their say but a firm overall purpose remains. The resultant interpretations are full-blooded, seemingly spontaneous and flow naturally. They each have a really wide range of tone and instrumental colour which is deployed with taste and sophistication in performance. They also show a lot of discernment in choosing apt collaborators such as brilliant young flautist Hannah Grayson and the expert Linda Hirst – with both of whom they have given numerous beautiful performances of Pierrot Lunaire.
As mentioned above, the Mercury Quartet were ensemble in residence at Dartington International Summer School 2010 where they gave fine concerts and also collaborated closely with the Advanced Composition Course (which I was running that year). I was astonished and delighted with the smooth collaborations they established with each of the course composers, the expert atmosphere in rehearsals and the extremely high interpretative level of the course concert at the end of Dartington. Having supervised quite a lot of such workshops and concerts, I can affirm that the Mercury Quartet are one of the very best ensembles at handling the unpredictabilities of composition workshops and were a constant pleasure to work with in this regard.
Finally I have a high regard for their innovative and challenging work in the field of free improvisation. Their level of improvisation is much more compelling to observe and listen to than much other work in this area, which can drift so easily into aimlessness and sheer arbitrariness. With the Mercury, on the other hand, improvised music retains a strong sense of directed energy, which is bolstered by their strong aural capabilities. They each have such a secure sense of pitch that they are easily able to catch onto each other’s harmonic or melodic figures, even when the pitch content is complex and unpredictable. Furthermore they do not commit the all too common error in all playing all the time within an improvisation – they know how to listen and allow each other time and space within an improvisation set. The results are inventive and startling.
In short I have no hesitation in commending very warmly this exciting and vital young group of players who I am convinced will continue to contribute richly to musical life in the UK and internationally.

Julian Anderson, 15th November 2010.
Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama since September 2007.
Artistic Director, ‘Music of Today’ concerts, Philharmonia Orchestra, 2002-2011.
Composer in Residence, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 2010-2013. - N/A


"Testimonial from Andrew Zolinsky on Mercury Quartet"

At the end of August 2010, I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing the Mercury Quartet at the Dartington International Summer School. They are the most exciting group of this kind I think I have ever heard...I really do feel this very strongly. When you hear and see them play, you are witnessing four top-class solo artists not only with huge respect for each other, but above all for the music they are playing. But it is more than mere respect that comes across to the listener, it is music making of the highest calibre presenting a whole range of emotions from sensitive introspection to white-hot excitement! Their concert in Dartington included performances of two major works, Pierrot Lunaire of Schoenberg, and the Messiaen Quartet for the end of time. It has been a long time since I can remember being so moved by performances of both works. During their week in Dartington, they also worked with and performed new works by composition students on the advanced composition course. They gave their time to this in a completely selfless way and performed the pieces with the same level of commitment as they had in Schoenberg and Messiaen.
I look forward to working with them at the Royal College of Music, and to following them in what I know will be a long and distinguished career.

Andrew Zolinsky (Pianist/Professor of piano, RCM) - 17th September 2010. - N/A


"Testimonial from Linda Hirst on Mercury Quartet"

I met the Mercury quartet for the first time in July at our first rehearsal for Pierrot Lunaire, which we performed together at Dartington International Summer School, and on which we gave a week’s course together there.

They are immensely talented, and play wonderfully well individually. Their listening as a quartet is remarkably fresh and clear, no compromises are made, and the result is an ensemble of astonishing musicality and sensitivity. Each of them has his instrument at the very heart of his personality, and an openness which makes rehearsing really lead somewhere. They don’t talk too much, but communicate directly and simply through their playing. I know they improvise, and look forward very much to improvising with them in November. This too means their ears work full time, and that they are creative musicians as well as meticulous interpreters.

Having been a member of a quartet (Electric Phoenix) for ten years, and having worked with several others (Kronos; Arditii; Hilliard Ensemble), the Mercury are right up there and will have an exciting future.


Linda Hirst



Linda Hirst
Head of Vocal Faculty,
Trinity College of Music,
Old Royal Naval college,
Greenwich SE10 9JF - N/A


"Messiaen, Adès, Campbell, Berg; Mercury Quartet"

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a deeply moving work, with strong religious and spiritual connotations. The piece deals with the plight of humanity, the nature of eternity and forces the listener to consider their own beliefs in these matters. One can only imagine the emotional involvement required to give a convincing performance. The profound nature of the work is such that the great performances are often associated with established players, who have a wealth of both musical and personal experience to draw on. It was interesting, then, to have the opportunity to hear a performance by the Mercury Quartet, a group of young men who are still students at the Royal College of Music, and have been playing together for just over a year.

In a short time, this ensemble has already made its mark on the contemporary music scene. Recent winners of Non-Classical’s Battle of the Bands, the group has also performed in venues such as St Martin in the Fields and at the Chelsea Schubert Festival.
The first half of the concert comprised three works; Adès’ Court Studies, a new work by Kings College student Ewan Campbell and Berg’s arrangement of the second movement of Kammerkonzert for clarinet, violin and piano. It took some time for my ears to adjust to the boomy acoustic of St Michael’s church, which was highly resonant and seemed to favour the middle and bass range. However, this was a good performance, with some wonderful quiet moments and a well blended sound. One would imagine these fine musicians had had a lifetime of playing together, such was the quality of their ensemble playing. The melodies were passed between the instruments in a considerate dialogue, with each player taking his turn to shine before handing over to another. Some tiny intonational errors did nothing to mar this expressive performance which demonstrated Adès’ rich harmonies and considered instrumental colours.

Ewan Campbell’s work, Patterned Echo Patterns was an enjoyable work, with repeated coruscating note patterns creating a poetic and lilting movement. Sudden bursts of energy broke the reverie, gradually diminishing back to the level of the opening. The composer made imaginative use of light, shade and colour, almost like a painting on canvas. There were some wonderfully haunting moments, and some particularly beautiful playing from Antoine Francoise on piano and Corentin Chassard on cello.

The first half ended with the trio arrangement of the second movement of Berg’s Kammerkonzert, which provided violinist Vlad Maistorovici with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his musicianship. His tone was rich and elegant, and was complemented by some beautifully sensitive piano and clarinet playing. Berg creates some stunning colours from this instrumental combination, and the work has a clarity of texture which came through well in this performance.

And so to the Messiaen, a performance which has so much to praise that it was disappointing that more of the residents of Croydon chose not to hear it. For me, the most impressive factor was the sense of ensemble; this performance had a very definite feeling of four people creating one sound, which varied in colour from the solo movements to the quartet tuttis. Even in the solos, the other players seemed to be involved, feeling every single note along with their colleagues. The group maintained the emotional level of the work well, and one has the sense that it will develop further over the next few years. A few minor intonation niggles soon settled, and the balance between instruments was generally very well judged. Harry Cameron-Penny delivered a highly convincing solo clarinet movement, with some dramatic dynamic contrasts (including some particularly breathtaking quiet high notes) and at times a sense of peaceful stillness. I would perhaps have liked a little more sparkle in the birdsong sections, but that may well have been a result of the acoustic. The dramatic ensemble movements, such as the Intermède and the Danse de la fureur were impeccably played, with charm and a wonderful youthful energy. The technical demands seemed effortless to these players, but they still managed to create the necessary tension to make the performance come alive. My two favourite movements, the Louanges for cello and violin were both excellent. The cello movement took the musical expression to a different level, raising the expressive stakes in the beautifully phrased lines. The accompanying piano chords were well placed and served as the driving force in the musical direction, although had a tendency to overpower slightly in the crescendos. The final crescendo was played with such passion that one had the sense of being taken to the very limit, before suddenly changing in dynamic and intensity for the tranquility of the ending. The final movement, Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus was superbly played, with Maistorovici creating a stunning tone, full of rich expression. This was rapturous performance, raising to the heights in both pitch and passion.

The Mercury Quartet is certainly a group to watch. To achieve standards this high in such a short space of time is impressive, and one can only imagine how spectacular a performance of the Messiaen by the same players in ten years time might be. This was an enjoyable concert by some accomplished musicians. Hats off to the staff at St Michael’s for enabling this to happen in Croydon, where contemporary repertoire is scarcely performed. - Music Web International


Discography

Mercury Acoustic - NonClassical Records.

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Bio

(written by Gabriel Prokofiev)

Uniquely charting the fine-line between improvisation and composed music, the Mercury Quartet comprises four rising stars of the UK's contemporary music scene.

The Mercury Quartet represent a very exciting new direction in contemporary music. All their compositions are purely improvised (or perhaps we should say live-composed) and yet do not fall into any of the clichés normally associated with free-improv, or improvised Jazz and Classical, in doing so, firmly buckling erstwhile prejudices against free-improvisation as amateurish self-indulgence.

Their work is stunningly musical and imaginative, frequently giving the impression of being carefully composed scores; yet it also has an energy and spirit, which all too often contemporary classical scores are never able to achieve.

The incredible talent of this Quartet along with their deep understanding and knowledge of classical repertoire (from Romantic through to avant-garde and beyond) is at the root of their success. Each member is a rising star in their own countries (the Mercury Quartet members hail from Romania, England, France and Switzerland), and the world of contemporary music is very fortunate that this dream team came together back in 2007 when they were initially formed to perform Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time', (which explains their unusual line-up of clarinet, violin, piano and cello).

Somehow they are able to follow or anticipate, each other's every musical movement; following the harmonic or rhythmic impulses of each other instinctively they create some of the most enthralling new music of this new century.

Like many emerging young composers they are not afraid to move between tonal and atonal harmonic spaces; from warm to cold, or complex to simplistic; motivated above anything else by an ability to create inspiring and often very beautiful music.

The broad range of influences that can be traced in their music give the album a fantastic breadth of mood and energy, but do not take it into the realms of messy eclecticism. Echoes of Messiaen, Mahler, Buxtehude, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Bartok, Brahms, even Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor can all be heard in the work of the Mercury Quartet, and they manage to bring these disparate styles together effortlessly. The repertoire the Mercury Quartet have grown up on and play every day in their careers as performing musicians has informed their rich vocabulary, and they sing out a music that points a very positive direction for contemporary music in the next decade.

Recent projects have included the recording of their Debut CD on the Non-Classical label, and performances of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with Julian Jacobson (London/Oxford) and Linda Hirst (Dartington) and Elliot Carter's Triple Duo in London, Dartington, Oxford and France. Recently they worked with Israeli composer Nimrod Katzir; premiering his recent composition 'AZZA' in Switzerland. They have also recorded for and broadcast on the Swiss station 'Radio de la Suisse Romande' and were invited to appear and perform on BBC Radio 3's 'In Tune' show.