Gramophone guest blog

Kosmos - mavericks still, ‘rebels’ no more

Harriet MackenzieFri 26th July 2019

Having Nimbus sign her multi-genre ensemble feels, finally, like acceptance, writes violinist Harriet Mackenzie

Being signed to a leading recording label is an exciting moment in any artist’s career. I know, having been fortunate enough to have had releases on several excellent labels as a solo violinist. For the Kosmos Ensemble however - in which I am joined by my partners in creativity, the violist Meg Hamilton and accordionist Milos Milivojevic - being signed to Nimbus a decade after Kosmos was formed, is more than exciting. It is acceptance, a validation, it is a sign that the industry is changing.

Ten years ago, trying to convince classical concert promoters to engage us was, well, a challenge. Multi-genre work was pretty rare, albeit people like the Kronos Quartet were doing some highly interesting contemporary collaborations and bringing in great guest artists. However, the  idea that an ensemble could play classical, folk music, jazz and a whole range of genres, with integrity, was considered inconceivable or even subversive. We hadn’t even thought that this might be an issue, because we saw such incredible complexity and detail and depth to these traditions. Yet we came to observe how folk traditions, for instance, were not being recognised by classical institutions, despite the number of composers who have been deeply influenced by this same genre. One concert series promoter said to me, 'We will never put on music like yours' - and they already had Kodály and Bartók on their programme for that season! There was no recognition that the kind of traditions we delight in exploring are exactly the same that Bartók and others were using as a framework and inspiration.

We embraced the unexpected challenges. Our concerts were, thankfully, huge successes everywhere we played and more and more invitations started flooding in. We were getting incredible audience reactions - once, during one of our concerts, someone with special needs who had never communicated before with those around her even started signing in response to the music, to make herself understood. Her carer wept. It was a seminal moment for me as a musician. All of this was deeply moving and encouraging, because we really felt that we were breaking down boundaries and changing perceptions with our multi-genre takes on great pieces of music. Yet, because of those early establishment reactions, it never even crossed our minds to approach a recording label. So we decided to make a CD ourselves.

Our first album was as basic as could be; recorded for next to no money in a wooden studio. We wore our inexperience with false bravado. One track was in a slow nine - not divided 3, 3, 3 as is more common in classical music, but in more of a 4/4, 5/4. To the engineers it sounded like it was out of time, uneven. They just couldn’t get their heads around it. In those days we barely had the confidence to stick to our guns! However, we made 1000 CDs and sold them after concerts, and they sold out very quickly, so we had to reprint, and reprint and reprint…

That gave us the funds to record another album, and we put that money into doing it properly, so we hired Potton Hall and a really great producer, Jeremy Hayes. That too was a learning experience - it was challenging for Jeremy and his engineer Peter Newble because we had no notated music whatsoever and it was different each take, we were improvising all over the place. We tried to write things down for them, but we didn’t make it easy - 'This is section A, then section B which might repeat and then go to C, or not…'! They were very professional and the result, Pomegranate was something we’re very proud of.

Pomegranate was widely ignored by the classical establishment - one classical reviewer in Italy reviewed it, but basically nobody else. We didn’t push it, we sold it at our performances and it sold in the thousands. But because it was being sold at concerts, it felt somehow like people were viewing it as ‘the CD of the concert’, which is different from being a recording entity unto itself.

And now that has all changed. Some of the change has been gradual - we were recently awarded ‘Selected Artists’ by the Making Music organisation (an umbrella organisation for music societies in the UK) for a record third time. We have had support from eminent critics such as Richard Morrison in The Times and, after suspending his initial horror, from Michael White in The Telegraph. The distinguished composer Errollyn Wallen wrote us a Triple Concerto which we have performed at the Jersey Royal Opera House and Chichester Cathedral.

And, crucially, we have ‘our’ label. Nimbus (with whom I already had a relationship as a solo artist) recently gave Pomegranate its first official label release. We have, furthermore, just recorded a new album for them, Pinnacle Ridge, to be released in September. And even though the experience of recording at Nimbus’s beautiful Wyastone estate with their wonderful team and Grammy-winning producer Raphael Mouterde was tempered slightly for me by being at the tail-end of a severe kidney infection and on strong antibiotics (who says recordings should be easy?) there is no underestimating the psychological effect of all of this for the members of Kosmos.

Because to have a label like Nimbus sign us is a validation, a cognition that our exploration of cultural identities and their places alongside the classical tradition is taken seriously today. That the industry is open to us and others following this path, that we fit in. And we should fit in - because to create music, utilising our classical training both in terms of technique on our instruments, but also contemporary compositional techniques - marrying this with the fine detail, interesting time signatures, improvisation, complexity and fire of traditional and world music, and to play these multiple genres as they deserve to be played takes work. It takes discipline, it takes technical prowess and love. All of which are in the finest traditions of classical music.

Pomegranate is available now on Nimbus, Pinnacle Ridge will be released on 6th September 

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