Nic Pendlebury, electric violist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was lucky to grow up in a musical environment. My Mum was a piano teacher and my Dad a very keen amateur violinist so music was part of my life from the very beginning. I remember as a child making dens under the baby grand piano and being allowed to stay there whilst my Mum taught ….“as long as I didn’t make a sound” and although I don’t really remember it, once going for a walk in the local park perched on my Dad’s shoulders and coming across an amateur brass band giving a lunchtime performance in the bandstand. The story goes that I made a huge fuss to get down and when lowered to the floor ran through the crowd to stand behind the conductor beating perfectly in time to the great amusement of the audience.

So certainly, the initial influence on my musical life came from both my parents and the day to day activity going on in the house, which slightly later on included a family string quartet with my younger siblings. At the age eight I was accepted as a violinist to Chethams School of Music in Manchester and from that point onwards the course was somewhat set and it was pretty clear that this was what I was going to do. At Chethams I was surrounded by likeminded peers and benefited from the very best musical education which naturally had a huge influence on me and was the best possible start to a life in music I could have wished for. I was also a chorister at the Cathedral and the training we received from the organist and choir master Derek Cantrell was superb, learning the invaluable skills of sight-singing, pitching and ensemble. I think the professional environment choristers perform within, (several rehearsals and services during each week), is an amazing start on the road to becoming a professional musician and in my case was perhaps an early taster of what a career in music might be like.

Growing up, both at school and at the Royal Northern College of Music I was always very proactive forming and conducting orchestras and putting on concerts whenever I could. It taught me all sorts of useful skills for the future. After changing from violin to viola and studying with Hariolf Schlichtig in Germany for a couple of years, I moved back to London and almost immediately formed the Smith Quartet which, as a new music ensemble, really allowed my creativity to flow. The process of commissioning and collaborating really excited me and the creation of new work became a bit of a “raison d’être”. With the quartet I was incredibly fortunate to collaborate with an impressive and diverse range of artists including composers, jazz and pop musicians and dance companies, all of whom had a huge impact on my musical life and career.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think one of the biggest challenges has been juggling careers. Alongside my work with the Smith Quartet I have also been Head of Strings at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in London where I am responsible for the training of the new generation of creative artists. The position comes with huge responsibilities and keeps me incredibly busy so finding the necessary time to practice is sometimes extremely challenging. Preparing programmes of new music can require hours and hours of practice and I would often arrive home after a long day at Trinity Laban and have to find the energy to spend another two to three hours learning new works.

When the quartet first started it was quite a challenge (in a good way) to bring our new repertoire to our audiences – contemporary classical music doesn’t always attract the largest of crowds – but I believe the quartet’s enthusiasm for commissioning and our ability to create stimulating and interesting concert programmes and over the years 30 CDs has brought a new repertoire to new audiences all over the world. In fact after one of our more recent performances the Independent commented ….“More evenings like this and having spare tickets for an evening of modern pieces might become a social asset.”

I have always enjoyed the challenge of doing something for the first time and my latest venture creating a new repertoire for the electric viola, has also been very interesting. First of all, there isn’t an existing repertoire, and I quickly realised that if I wanted to perform as an electric classical violist the first thing I would have to do is create one. Where to start! Well actually that was the easy bit as I had always wanted to transcribe Steve Reich’s seminal work Electric Counterpoint. Originally written for electric guitarist Pat Matheny. I had originally got to know it when the Smith Quartet performed Different Trains and thought I would arrange it for string quartet but never found the time. The challenge of having to build a repertoire was a good excuse and so I set to work arranging and recording all the parts and a year later sent the finished recording to Steve Reich. Thankfully he loved it which encouraged me to find other material I could transcribe and composers I could commission.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I have been extremely fortunate to have performed all around the world as a member of the Smith Quartet, often in many of the world’s leading music festivals, including the Venice Biennale, the Vancouver, Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Huddersfield festivals to name a few. One of my proudest moments however was our performance in the BBC Documentary Holocaust; A music memorial film from Auschwitz which went on to win and International Emmy and a BAFTA. The film (click here) was a mix of wonderful performances by some of the world’s leading artists and incredibly moving and poignant interviews from survivors of the camp. Much more recently I gave a performance of my transcription for electric viola of Electric Counterpoint to Steve Reich upon the occasion of his awarding of an honorary fellowship at Trinity Laban. Thankfully he enjoyed my performance and more importantly my transcription!

In terms of recordings I am incredibly proud of Multiple my first solo album for the electric viola. All of the works (Reich, Tallis, Ashton Thomas, Kendall) are for multiple violas and because of the sheer scale of the project has taken over four years to record. The Tallis, Spem in Alium, was first performed as an installation at the Sounds Festival in Aberdeen. The forty parts, all recorded by myself, were disseminated through a circle of forty loudspeakers which surround the audience. Variations on the Fourth Tune was written for me by John Ashton Thomas and was sadly one of his last works, as he passed away shortly after I had finished recording it. I’m so thankful he got to hear it. The other works on the album are Terry Riley’s Dorian Reeds, scored for a single viola, the multiple aspect of the work coming from looping delays which accumulate and fade throughout the piece and Ell Kendall’s (a Trinity Laban alum) memorising Bloom.

The Smith Quartet has made over thirty recordings. I am really proud of our four albums on the Signum Label and in particular our two albums featuring the complete quartets of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. A lesser known set of albums that I’m incredibly proud of are our recordings of all the works for Piano and Strings by the composer Morten Feldman featuring the sumptuous piano playing of John Tilbury. Spanning three audio DVDs the collection features some 15 hours of Feldman’s music. We also feature on the jazz musician Django Bates’ Album You live and learn….apparently and had a number one hit with Sir Karl Jenkins’ Album Palladio.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I have made a career from performing the works of living composers and it’s been an extraordinarily rich and rewarding way to make a living as a musician. One of the great things about performing contemporary music is the fact that you get the chance to speak to the composer about their work and occasionally work with them on it. I remember occasions in the past (before the advent of the speaker phone) having conversations about the feasibility of a certain passage holding a phone under one ear whilst trying to play the viola under the other. Often it was the holding of the phone that was problematic not the music!! There is something very special about being the first person to play a piece of music, a privilege I’ve had a few hundred times now. It’s an incredible feeling when you sit down with a composer to discuss ideas for a piece and then a few months later a new work comes through the letterbox…. (that ages me) …. comes attached to an email….. and you get to play it for the very first time. It’s often quite a moment for the composer too as they get to hear their work interpreted and played on the actual instrument(s) it was written for.

Occasionally there is time before the first performance to sit down with an almost finished score and have time to workshop the piece together with the composer. As a performer it’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to be part of the creative process and to realise that as a performer you can sometimes be quite influential in the final stages of the completion of a piece. In my experience it’s not unknown for a composer to change final drafts when perhaps a performance suggestion that hadn’t been thought of is taken on board.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Trinity Laban, where I am Head of Strings, is based in the stunning buildings of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. I live about eight miles away so quite often cycle to work. It usually takes me about 30 to 40 minutes but I find it’s a great time to clear my mind and think through ideas for new commissions or ideas for performances, it’s a bit of “me” space. It surprises me how many ideas have come to me whilst cycling and I remember vividly coming up with the idea to present my performance of Tallis’ Spem in Alium as an installation as I made my way to work. I guess it also provides some daily exercise, being a musician can be a very sedentary occupation if you let it.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As I am in the process of building a repertoire for the electric viola that’s an easy question as it’s pretty much led by what new works I’ve commissioned. I love the fact that some of what I’ll be playing next year is in the process of being written now and I haven’t even heard it yet! However, I do have several newly finished works ready for next year and I’m hoping my next album will feature them. They include Colin Riley’s amazing work Fallen Angel for e.viola and electronics which tells the story of Lucifer’s fall from grace, Dominic Murcott’s Black Earth, an imaginary tale of what lies beneath the earth of London’s Blackheath, reputed to be the burial site for the victims of the Plague in the 1340’s and Hollie Harding’s Melting, Shifting, Liquid World for e.viola, electronics, bone conduction headphones and string ensemble, an immersive work which focuses on the melting ice caps and ocean pollution.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

As a member of the Smith Quartet we played in some of the most spectacular concert halls around the world but some of the most memorable performances were in spaces not associated with performance at all.

I remember giving a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains suspended 60 feet up above the tracks of Cologne Hauptbahnhof. Our sound engineers were comfortably located somewhere on platform 9 but we had to scramble up with our instruments to a makeshift platform the promoters had constructed.

Though there was very little space to manoeuvre, the impact our rush hour performances had was memorable, people missing their trains to listen whilst others arriving at the station had the surprise of looking up to see a string quartet above their heads. I’ve always felt that “bringing” music to an audience is incredibly important, particularly music that they might not necessarily chose to listen to and for some in this particular instance it might have been the trigger to go and explore more contemporary writing – who knows!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

It’s a hugely hot topic which has to start with education and awareness. Getting music fully embedded in the school curriculum will of course help no end but as I said in the last question bringing classical music to an audience that might not otherwise get the chance to hear it is incredibly important. You can’t force the general public to like classical music but it’s often that people are frightened of something they are not familiar with. Having had a long career in contemporary music I am well placed to have experienced the phrase “if I’d have known it was going to be like that I would have been coming to your concerts for years”! It is deeply frustrating when you hear that but of course it’s just a question of exposure and getting classical music and contemporary classical music heard in as many quarters as possible. I remember years ago taking a friend who had no previous experience of listening to classical music to hear Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Royal Festival Hall in London, After the concert he was visibly moved and said to me “I had no idea classical music was like that”. He’s been hooked ever since.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It’s got to be the first time the Smith Quartet performed Morton Feldman’s 2nd String Quartet. It’s five hours long without a break! Funnily enough it happened the day after we performed in Cologne Hauptbahnhof, so quite a memorable weekend. Playing a quartet non-stop for five hours is quite a feat, there’s nowhere to hide, and as well as the musical preparation it required considerable mental and physical preparation too. I remember phoning David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet to ask for performance tips, as I knew they had played it a few times, and distinctly remember him saying that we would discover muscles we didn’t realise we had and that we would go through an almost out of body hypnotic state. He also reminded us not to eat or drink too near to the start of the performance as there is no stopping! Rehearsing for the performance was interesting as there are pages and pages of duck eggs (white long notes) which really don’t require any pre-rehearsal but every now and again Feldman writes passages of the most complicated music, often requiring each musician to play in a different system of time signatures to each other, the patterns coinciding every 13 bars or so. Of course, he leaves the most complicated set of systems to about 4.5 hours in! So you have to keep your wits about you. These passages require a lot of rehearsing but we decided to leave the “sight-readable” sections to the gig. Because of the complexity of some of the music each member of the quartet plays from a score. That also meant we needed page turners, and they too had to have their wits about them…. for five hours! David Harrington was right, it was an incredible experience to play. Some of the pages we hadn’t looked at were astonishingly beautiful and not knowing what was on the next page felt somewhat akin to going on an unfamiliar hike, climbing a mountain to reveal the most beautiful view on the other side or in our case and extraordinary sequence of beautiful chords we didn’t know were there. He was also right about the pain, I did discover at least three muscle I wasn’t aware of as well as emotional feelings for the other members of the quartet I hadn’t quite banked on! I remember the last page being turned at about 03.10 the next morning (the concert had started at 22.00) the sense of euphoria we all experienced must have been similar to that of a marathon runner on the final straight home. It was also an incredible experience for the audience too, many of whom actually staying from start to finish – although there were some who apparently went for a meal in between! And then there was the post-concert reception. All we wanted to do was have a cold beer, we’d been looking forward to it for at least 50 pages but of course there are all the required niceties of talking to sponsors, agents, Feldman enthusiast and of course there is always the odd composer who has just completed their 10-hour quartet and is wondering whether you’d be interested in playing it……!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Getting through Morton Feldman’s second string quartet!

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

I think the obvious answer is to enjoy what you do but also to practice well. Knowing how to practice is probably one of the most important skills an aspiring musician can learn and it can take time to develop a regime which keeps you stimulated and inspired whilst moving forward. It is important to have a solid technical foundation in order to allow your musical voice to speak as you would wish, so don’t neglect the fundamentals. As we develop so does the skill to teach ourselves. It is important to develop a healthy balance self-motivation, self-criticism, honesty and an ability to solve technical issues. I often remind my students that “they” are their main teacher and have the opportunity to have a lesson every day as long as the teacher within them is awake and listening.

Watch and listen to as many performances as you can. Be curious about your art. Try to tell musical stories and have something to say. Be creative! There is absolutely more than one way to play a piece of music… fire up your imagination and enjoy the journey of really getting inside a piece of music and finding something new to say. If you haven’t heard it before listen to Pekka Kuusisto’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the 2016 Proms here – that’s what I’m talking about!

As we advance and approach a professional level, excellence is of course at the forefront of any young aspiring musician’s training, but I believe it is important to recognise that the profession to which all our young people aspire has, or is, certainly changing, and although the opportunities within it remain plentiful and stimulating the necessary skill-set requirements have broadened. I very much believe that as well as being excellent on one’s own instrument, a musician in the 21st century needs to be creative, collaborative, entrepreneurial and generative. As Head of Strings at Trinity Laban my ethos is to cultivate the next generation of independent-thinking artists who have something to contribute to the creative arts.

What is your most treasured possession?

As I’m getting older I realise that being healthy is probably the most important thing we all possess. Somebody once told me the when you have health you don’t really think about it but when you don’t it’s the only thing you can think about! So, for me eating well and regular exercise has become more and more important the older I have become.

Nic Pendlebury’s album Multiple is out now on the Orchid Classics label

Nic Pendlebury is a classical electric violist. For over thirty years he was the violist of the internationally acclaimed contemporary music ensemble the Smith Quartet. The group collaborated with many of the world’s leading artists including composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and Stephen Montague, jazz musicians Django Bates, Andy Sheppard, and Azimuth, popular artists Jarvis Cocker, Pulp and Rokia Traore and dance companies Siobhan Davies and Shobana Jeyasingh. They performed in many of the world’s most prestigious festivals and recorded albums for BMG, Sony, Decca and Signum with whom they released bestselling albums of music by Steve Reich and Philip Glass the latter being describe by Gramophone Magazine as “one of the ten most important CDs of contemporary music”. They were also featured in two BBC documentaries, Classic Quartets at the BBC and Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz performing Steve Reich’s Different Trains which won a Grammy and a BAFTA.

In more recent years Nic’s pioneering and creative spirit has seen him create a new repertoire for the electric viola an instrument he believes has an exciting future in the ever-developing world of classical music. His stunning transcriptions of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and Terry Riley’s Dorian Reeds, featured on his new album Multiple, have not only received critical acclaim from audiences around the world but from the composers themselves “the idea that Electric Counterpoint would be bowed had never occurred to me. I want to thank Nic for a beautiful surprise. I was moved to tears.” Steve Reich, “I listened to your recording and it sounds so beautiful! It is a really satisfying version of the piece. Congratulations!” Terry Riley.

Other transcriptions include Thomas Tallis’ forty part motet Spem in Alium, presented for performance as an interactive Installation of forty loud-speakers within which the audience travels. The installation was developed and realised in collaboration with sound designer John-Marc Gowans and was premiered at the 2018 Sounds Festival in Aberdeen.

Nic is also Head of Strings at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance where he leads one of the most dynamic faculties in Europe.