Resulting from a lifetime of ’messing around’ on the cello, Colin Alexander outlines how improvisation provides the foundation for his new album of four solo cello suites

Colin image - credit_ Emma Werner

Photo: Emma Werner

Cellist Colin Alexander

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I’ve always messed around on the cello. When I was young, my parents, upon hearing strange twiddles from the room next door, would say something like ‘shouldn’t you be practising your scales?’ When I was a bit older it was my very patient teachers who would wonder ‘if you haven’t learnt what I asked then what have you been playing all week?’ As I got a little older still, my chamber music coaches would politely ask if I could stop making squeaky noises and perhaps focus on the classical quartet in front of me. As I sat in youth orchestra, other cellists in the section would turn their heads slightly as I doodled musically and look at each other with a kind of ‘why won’t he shut up’ expression. 

It was only when I got to music school, at the age of 16, that my questionable brand of cello graffiti started to attract any sort of positive attention. The wonderful head of composition there, Alison Cox, would encourage me to play in absolutely whatever way I liked and, with all the amazing young composers around me, I was now asked to make all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds when performing their pieces. Music college years were saturated with a mix of technical practice and composing densely notated and rather overly ambitious new works, but away from all of that I kept improvising on my own with sounds that I never thought possible to notate. I was surrounded by composers who were always looking to push the boundaries of the instrument and so I loved to get involved in playing all sorts of contemporary pieces alongside increasingly experimental group improvs in many bizarre and often derelict venues. 

I eventually got round to composing more single-mindedly for my own instrument when the 2020 pandemic enforced a break in many of our schedules and I used the time to start developing a series of more formalised solo cello pieces. While admittedly still full of strange twiddles, squeaky noises and musical doodles, these intuitive new studies became a joyous creative outlet as a combination of compositional thought, improvisational adventure and technical ambition. Perhaps such a direct correlation between inspiration and the subsequent sound itself brought about a very personal touch to the music. I seemed to find little snippets of melody that made total sense to me and used motifs that I mindlessly hummed to myself when out and about. Organically, these little ideas developed and became linked through their similarity until I started to bury them within each piece, like the tags of a graffiti artist perhaps. 

These standalone solos had various outings as concerts begun again over the next year or two but, only being stored in my head, were still very flexible in many ways and would often go on a lot longer than necessary. Things began to take a more structured shape when two brilliant cellists asked me to write new pieces for them. I must admit that both of them asked for just a small work but I was now in ‘full solo cello mode’. Turns out, I’ve ended up writing and recording four suites! 

There were obvious challenges to notating these freely-realised pieces in a way that didn’t just leave it way too open for another performer, such as ‘how do you choose a time signature for a work in which you’ve never counted time?’ Or ‘how to specify the amount of repetitions of a circular cell of material when I’ve always judged it depending on the acoustic, the way the cello has reacted to the harmonics I’m playing or the atmosphere in the performance?’ I found, thankfully, that dealing with these questions actually removed the excess fat from the works and made them more effective and coherent. Given time and space, a rural little cottage in France for a month, I found ways to implement time signatures that didn’t stifle the music but instead gave it momentum or poise, notated open repeats at particular spots in the structures that allowed for those moments of greater freedom and used dynamic ranges (e.g., p - mf ) for whole passages or even movements. I also gave specific details of how I might explore overtones at a particular point (that could then be interpreted by another player throughout the rest of the movement) or described certain techniques in way that implied that many timbres could be explored, e.g., spiccato flautando. 

The first suite ‘Towards the Flame’ is dedicated to Ben Michaels, who has since 2022 commissioned a new series of solo works from six composers. Ben was looking for five minutes of music, he got nearly 20. I chose to tune the cello in the same way that the Kodály Sonata for Solo Cello is tuned (A/D/F#/B) - it’s such a nice scordatura that I couldn’t stop myself. I decided to make it a suite so that he could still include it as just a movement or two when the whole series of six new works is performed - and so that the other composers wouldn’t hate me. Ben, very generously, did actually premiere the entire four movements with amazing skill at The Duke’s Hall for a London Cello Society event in 2023. But then I realised I had lots of little pieces so how about fitting them together as movements in larger works. Plus, they employed different scordaturas so it makes a lot of sense and is much less disruptive to stay at a particular tuning for a few pieces at a time! 

The second suite ‘Ripplegleam’ is dedicated to my partner Héloïse Werner and the last movement is a flowing little étude I had written for her 30th birthday.  It uses a naturally light and uplifting scordatura of two 4ths and a 6th (G/D/A/C) which I had spent a lot of time improvising and composing on back in 2020. And so I wrote out one of those lockdown pieces that was stored in my head, reworked another (already called ‘Ripplegleam’) that I had previously performed and recorded with Héloïse and Max Baillie, before composing one more movement that complemented the other three. 

Back in 2021, when we were recording his debut album, Abel Selaocoe asked me when I’d get round to writing him a piece. I decided to write a short work, ‘Out of the Mist’, to celebrate the album launch in 2022 and gave it to him as a present at the concert on the day. I wrote it for standard tuning (he’s a busy man), and then when I started thinking about writing these suites I thought I should write one that doesn’t use the pegs. I already had two pieces written for the usual A/D/G/C tuning and fitted with the positive and inspired vibe I was going for in his piece. I just had to compose another movement that completed the structure nicely. I also reworked a simple little idea into a small interlude and so Abel now has a five movement suite dedicated to him - job done!

The fourth suite ‘Lightship at Night’ uses material that I’ve worked on in the past with my old friend Beni Giles, who expertly produced my new album of these suites ‘Solo Cello Music’, and it is dedicated to him. The three movements use a tuning (A/C/Ab/Bb) full of timbral colour and strange resonances which seems to have resulted in the most mediative of the four suites. Two older works have been reimagined here and are tied together by a simple middle movement to round off this collection of solo cello pieces in a peaceful way that I hope reflects the contentment I have found in writing for my own instrument.

Colin Alexander’s album launch concert of all four solo cello suites will be held on 3 June, 7:30pm at St Ethelburga’s.

Solo Cello Music will be released on October House Records on 7 June.

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